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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
There were originally no standing forces, but the citizens performed military service like any other civic duty when summoned by the magistrates. The gradual development of a military profession and standing army culminated in the admission of the poorest class to the ranks by Marius (about 107 bc). Henceforth the Roman army was made up of a body of men whose character was essentially that of mercenaries, and whose term of continuous service varied in different divisions from 16 to 26 years.
The forces which composed the Roman army under the Empire may be divided into the following five groups: (1) The imperial guard and garrison of the capital, (2) The legions, (3) The auxilia , (4) The numeri , (5) The fleet. We shall discuss their organization in the order mentioned.
1. The Imperial Guard
The imperial guard consisted of the cohortes praetoriae , which together with the cohortes urbanae and vigiles made up the garrison of Rome. In the military system as established by Augustus there were nine cohorts of the praetorian guard, three of the urban troops, and seven of the vigiles. Each cohort numbered 1,000 men, and was commanded by a tribune of equestrian rank. The praetorian prefects ( praefecti praetorii ), of whom there were usually two, were commanders of the entire garrison of the capital, and stood at the highest point of distinction and authority in the equestrian career.
2. The Legions
There were 25 legions in 23 ad (Tacitus Annals 4, 5), which had been increased to 30 at the time of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, 160-180 ad ( CIL , VI, 3492 a-b ) and to 33 under Septimius Severus (Dio Cassius , iv. 23-24). Each legion was made up, ordinarily, of 6,000 men, who were divided into 10 cohorts, each cohort containing 3 maniples, and each maniple in turn 2 centuries.
The legatus Augustus pro praetore , or governor of each imperial province, was chief commander of all the troops within the province. An officer of senatorial rank known as legatus Augusti legionis was entrusted with the command of each legion, together with the bodies of auxilia which were associated with it. Besides, there were six tribuni militum , officers of equestrian rank (usually sons of senators who had not yet held the quaestorship) in each legion. The centurions who commanded the centuries belonged to the plebeian class. Between the rank of common soldier and centurion there were a large number of subalterns, called principales , who correspond roughly to the non-commissioned officers and men detailed from the ranks for special duties in modern armies.
3. The "Auxilia"
The auxilia were organized as infantry in cohortes , as cavalry in alae , or as mixed bodies, cohortes equitatae . Some of these divisions contained approximately 1,000 men (cohortes or alae miliariae ), but the greater number about 500 (cohortes or alae quingenariae ). They were commanded by tribuni and praefecti of equestrian rank. The importance of the auxilia consisted originally in the diversity of their equipment and manner of fighting, since each group adhered to the customs of the nation in whose midst it had been recruited. But with the gradual Romanization of the Empire they were assimilated more and more to the character of the legionaries.
4. The "Numeri"
The numeri developed out of the provincial militia and began to appear in the 2nd century ad. They maintained their local manner of warfare. Some were bodies of infantry, others of cavalry, and they varied in strength from 300 to 90 (Mommsen, Hermes ,
5. The Fleet
The fleet was under the command of prefects ( praefecti classis ), who took rank among the highest officials of the equestrian class. The principal naval stations were at Misenum and Ravenna.
6. Defensive Arrangements
Augustus established the northern boundary of the Empire at the Rhine and at the Danube, throughout the greater part of its course, and bequeathed to his successors the advice that they should not extend their sovereignty beyond the limits which he had set (Tacitus Annals i.11; Agricola 13); and although this policy was departed from in many instances, such as the annexation of Thrace, Cappadocia, Mauretania, Britain, and Dacia, not to mention the more ephemeral acquisitions of Trajan, yet the military system of the Empire was arranged primarily with the view of providing for the defense of the provinces and not for carrying on aggressive warfare on a large scale. Nearly all the forces, with the exception of the imperial guard, were distributed among the provinces on the border of the Empire, and the essential feature of the disposition of the troops in these provinces was the permanent fortress in which each unit was stationed. The combination of large camps for the legions with a series of smaller forts for the alae , cohorts, and numeri is the characteristic arrangement on all the frontiers. The immediate protection of the frontier was regularly entrusted to the auxiliary troops, while the legions were usually stationed some distance to the rear of the actual boundary. Thus the army as a whole was so scattered that it was a difficult undertaking to assemble sufficient forces for carrying out any considerable project of foreign conquest, or even to cope at once with a serious invasion, yet the system was generally satisfactory in view of the conditions which prevailed, and secured for the millions of subjects of the Roman Empire the longest period of undisturbed tranquillity known to European history.
7. Recruiting System
In accordance with the arrangements of Augustus, the cohortes praetoriae and cohortes urbanae were recruited from Latium, Etruria, Umbria, and the older Roman colonies (Tacitus Annals 4, 5), the legions from the remaining portions of Italy, and the auxilia from the subject communities of the Empire (Seeck, Rheinisches Museum ,
But in course of time the natives of Italy disappeared, first from the legions, and later from the garrison of the capital. Antoninus Plus established the rule that each body of troops should draw its recruits from the district where it was stationed. Henceforth the previous possession of Roman citizenship was no longer required for enlistment in the legions. The legionary was granted the privilege of citizenship upon entering the service, the auxiliary soldier upon being discharged (Seeck, Untergang der antiken Welt , I, 250).
II. Allusions in the New Testament to the Roman Military Establishment
Such references relate chiefly to the bodies of troops which were stationed in Judea. Agrippa I left a military establishment of one ala and five cohorts at his death in 44 ad (Josephus, Ant ,
The Ala I gemina Sebastenorum was stationed at Caesarea (Josephus, Ant , XX, 122; BJ , II, xii, 5; CIL , VIII, 9359).
1. Augustan Band
Julius, the centurion to whom Paul and other prisoners were delivered to be escorted to Rome (Acts 27:1 ), belonged to one of the five cohorts which was stationed at or near Caesarea. This
2. Italian Band
There was another cohort in Caesarea, the "Italian band" ( Cohors Italica , Vulgate) of which Cornelius was centurion (Acts 10:1 :
3. Praetorian Guard
One of the five cohorts was stationed in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:27; Mark 15:16 ), the "chief captain" of which was Claudius Lysias. His title,
The King James Version contains the passage in Acts 28:16 : "The centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard" (
Comprehensive discussions of the Roman military system will be found in Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung , II, 319-612, and in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopadie , article "Exercitus."
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Army, Roman'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/a/army-roman.html. 1915.