The Roman empire was one of the greatest and most influential civilizations in history and ruled the world for around 500 years. It was founded when Augustus Caesar proclaimed himself the first emperor of Rome and lasted until 476AD. It ranged from Spain to the Middle East, from Britain to North Africa and the Roman soldier was an integral part of the mighty Roman Empire.
To most of us the roman soldier symbolises bravery, strength and power. Some estimate that there were over 1 million soldiers and ancillary staff in the Roman Empire at any time. The soldiers abided by very strict rules. Only un-married men over the age of 20 could join the Roman army and they were forbidden by law to marry during their period of military service.
Roman soldiers had to serve for 25 years and once they had completed their service, as their pension, they were gifted with a plot of land to farm.
Each Roman soldier was tattooed with dots – called the mark of SPQR. The tattooed dots identified the soldier’s membership in a legion. Now the Greek word Stizein meant tattoo and over time became the Latin word Stigma which soon applied a negative meaning to a brand or a mark.
The thousands of foot soldiers in the army were called legionnaires and were fighting machines who were well-equipped with a sword, dagger, javelin and a shield. Now while on a campaign, a soldier would have slept in a tent or a papillo, made of goat skin. If the legion was in a town there were more permanent quarters, they slept a L-shaped barrack block in a fort.
Soldiers in the Roman army were valuable and were often paid with salt, a very important commodity in the empire, instead of money. Their monthly allowance was called “salarium” which comes from the word “sal” being the Latin word for salt. This Latin word sal can be recognized in the French word “salaire” – which eventually made its way into the English language as the word “salary”, a payment for work.
The Roman army had legions, centurions, captains and soldiers who all lived by the code of strength and honour. The New Testament in the Bible mentions the presence of the Roman Legion in Judea and it’s here we meet seven centurions.
The first one is found in Luke 7:1-10 and happened in Capernaum when a centurion sought the help of Jesus to heal his servant who was very sick. When Jesus offered to go and heal him, the centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word.”
The next centurion is in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. He was a man of authority, a man of law, a man of order, a man of discipline and a man of duty. After watching Jesus die on the cross, he said, “Truly this was the Son of God.” Matthew 27:54.
Then, in the book of Acts, chapter 10 verse 1-7, we meet Cornelius, a centurion who was a devout man. He lived in Caesarea and sent his servants to Joppa to invite the apostle Simon Peter, to his home to find out more about Jesus. It is recorded that this centurion is the first Gentile or non-Jew believer to accept Jesus and be baptized.
Then in Acts 22:25-29, when a centurion is placing bonds upon Paul, the centurion seeks the advice of his superior officer when Paul objects to being bound because he is a Roman citizen.
Next in Acts 23:23, Paul is being taken to the governor Felix by two centurions. When the hostile Jewish crowd threatens Paul, the centurions bravely protect Paul.
Finally, we come to the seventh and last centurion mentioned in the Bible. His name was Julius and he was responsible for transporting Paul by ship from Caesarea to his trial in Rome. As Paul’s custodian on this voyage, Julius protected Paul and saved him from death at the hands of the soldiers during the shipwreck. The other Roman soldiers wanted to kill all the prisoners in case they escaped. This story is recorded in Acts 27:1 through to 28:16.
In all these centurions there is something to admire; in some of them much to admire; and in one of them at least everything to admire. It is the centurion at the cross whose words we remember best, speaking of Jesus, he said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
His words are a reminder that God loves us and cares for us and that he gave His son, Jesus for us.