Now for the legions’ real authority– The Centurion
No one messed with these men-the Centurions. They were the experienced strength of Rome’s legions. While the officers were politically appointed by the Senate, these men- these centuirions-had THE EXPERIENCE. They had earned it by climbing through the ranks of the legion and were elected to their position by their unit. Every officer with the sense of two denarii knew to listen to these men. However some didn’t and came to wish they had.
Each legion had about 5,500 men. (The Roman Army, Peter Connolly) This mass was broken down into ten ‘cohorts’ or units of men, each with a centurion in charge. The senior centurion or primus pilus-‘first spear’ of the largest and First cohort was the most senior of all the centurions. Each cohorts were made up of ‘centuries’ of approximately 80 men, and each century had its own centurion–thus the namesake of this position.
All centurions moved the might of the legion especially when in battle. Just imagine a consul seeing a breach open up between the Forth and the Fifth cohorts. This situation made me question how an officer would know and how could he remedy it?
It was then I realized the value of centurions wearing their crests across their helmets–transverse or from ear to ear. Wearing crests this way, the officer could easily see where the cohorts were moving. But how would he be able to distinguish which cohort, I asked. Now, if each of the ten cohorts had a distinctive crest, the officer would easily know. Thus I assigned the following crest colors to my ten cohorts.
Let’s break this down. Each cohort had one senior centurion and ten or so remaining centurions wearing identical crests. When they were lined up on a battlefield, it was according to the number of their cohort. Meaning…All the centurions of the First cohort would wear a white crest. All the Second cohorts’ centurions had two black sections in their crests. The Third had three black sections. and so on until the Tenth centurions wore completely black crests. Thus, when viewing the field, the officers would know exactly where each cohort was and how it was moving…forward or backward.
So how could the consul use this visual on a battle field? Suetonius Paulinus watched his legions confront Boudica’s horde of 200,000 warrios charge his 80,000 soldiers. His battle line stretched before him according to his white crests of his First cohort, shifting per unit to the black crests of his Tenth cohort. Now, as long as this arrangement remained in this gradation of white to black, all was proceeding perfectly.
However, if this gradation did not remain in tact, as it didn’t for Petillius Cerealis when Boudica’s warriors attacked his Ninth Legion, then there was trouble.This legate could easily see this crest gradation of centurions shift into a blend of ‘salt and pepper’ with no distinction. Then, when his soldiers moved into a circle formation, Cerealis knew that he’d best get the ‘hell outta Dodge,’ and he did. He fled with his guard while his legion was almost destroyed.
These crest distinctions not only showed the consul or legate how his line was moving, he could also note the weaknesses in the ranks. For example, he would know if a cohort was moving ahead too quickly or not quick enough or where a breach was forming and where the line held solid.
In Red Fury Revolt, during the assault on Angesely, Julius Agricola faced a breach situation
between the Eighth cohort and his Ninth cohort. He knew exactly where this was occurring by the obvious crest designation. But how did Agricola manage to close this breech without disturbing the other units.
How could Agricola communicate to just his Ninth in all this mayhem? It was a matter of having his musicians sound the order for his Ninth cohort to move left.
Oh sure. How?Think a band.
Stay tuned. This is coming soon.
JF Ridgley, enjoys writing about this fascinating world of ancient Rome and the equally amazing world of ancient Celts. If you have questions or comments, please message her at JfRidgley@jfridgley.com.