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A Roman officer commanding a century or company

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Centurion (Lat. Centurio, Gr. kenturion, ekatontarchos, hekatontarch?s), a Roman officer commanding a century or company, the strength of which varied from fifty to one hundred men; but in the Vulg. and the D. V. the term is also applied to an officer of the Hebrew army. In New Testament times there were sixty centurions in a legion, two to the maniple and six to the cohort. They were not all of equal rank. The centurion who commanded the first of the two centuries composing the maniple ranked above the commander of the second; the first centurion of the first maniple (triarii) of the cohort was higher than the first centurion of the second (principes), and he higher than the ranking centurion of the third (hastati), etc. There was also precedence of rank according to the number of the cohort. The chief centurion in the legion was the primipilus or first centurion of the triarii of the first cohort. He had charge of the legion’s eagle, assisted at the councils of war, and in the absence of a superior officer took command of the legion. The auxiliary cohorts had six or ten centurions according as they consisted of 500 (cohortes quingenarue) or 1000 men (cohortes milliarics). These were inferior to the legionary centurions. The centurions carried as insignia of their rank a staff made of a vine-branch, with which, on occasion, they chastised their men; whence vitis (vine) was used to designate the centurionship. Ordinarily they could rise no higher than the rank of primipilus and at the expiration of their term of service they retired into private life. With the grant of land they received and with what they acquired during the wars they were usually well off. The primipili often became wealthy enough to gain entrance into the equestrian order. The post of centurion, it should be noted, was not, as a rule, held by men of family, though occasionally a young man of rank aspiring to a higher military career served first as centurion in a legion.

Of the two centurions mentioned in the Gospels only one was a Roman officer. He who asked Our Savior to cure his servant and whose faith the Savior so highly commended (Matt., viii, 5 sq.; Luke, vii, 2 sq.), though a Gentile, belonged to the army of Herod Antipas, since Capharnaum lay in this prince’s territory. The tetrarch’s army was probably organized after the manner of the Roman auxiliary troops. The other, who commanded the detachment of soldiers at the Crucifixion (Matt., xxvii, 54; Mark, xv, 39, 44, Luke, xxiii, 47), was of course an officer of the imperial cohort stationed at Jerusalem (Acts, xxi, 31). In the Acts two centurions are mentioned by name, Cornelius, centurion of “the Italian band” or cohort, the first Gentile admitted into the Church (Acts, x, 1 sq.), and Julius, centurion of “the band Augusta“, who brought St. Paul to Rome (Acts, xxvii, 1, etc.). Others are spoken of in connection with the Apostle’s arrest and transfer to Caesarea (Acts, xxi, 32, xxii, 25, xxiii, 23). Since no legion was stationed in Palestine before the time of Vespasian, these centurions all belonged to auxiliary cohorts. For this reason it is unlikely that either Cornelius or Julius was a member of the patrician family whose name he bore; both were probably the sons of freedmen. In a number of places in the O. T. centurions stands in the Vulg for SRY MAVT, sare me’oth (“captains of hundreds”), once [I Sam. (I K.), viii, 12] even for SRY CHTSHYM sare hamishshim (“captains of fifty”), though here the agreement of the Sept. with the Vulg. would seem to show that the Hebrew text is defective. In several of these places the D. V. has “centurions”, but in the others “captains”, “captains of” or “over hundreds”; in two cases (Ex., xviii, 21, 25) “rulers of” or “over hundreds”. The centuriones of Ex., xviii, 21, 25, Num., xxxi, 14, etc., Dent., i, 15 were both civil and military officers.


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