The Roman Army in the First Century

The Roman Army in the First Century
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The Roman Army in the First Century

Author William J. Hamblin

At the time of Jesus, the Roman army was at the height of its power and prestige. In the preceding four centuries, Roman legions had raised Rome from a small regional city-state to master of the entire Mediterranean world.

At the time of Jesus, the Roman army was at the height of its power and prestige. In the preceding four centuries, Roman legions had raised Rome from a small regional city-state to master of the entire Mediterranean world. Barring a few notable defeats—such as during the war against Hannibal or the battle of the Teutoberg Forest—Roman arms had proved victorious against Gauls, Germans, Iberians, Britons, Mauritanians, Numidians, Cartheginians, Libyans, Egyptians, Illyrians, Macedonians, Greeks, Thracians, Capadocians, Armenians, Persians, Syrians, Arabs, and Judeans, creating one of the greatest military empires of world history. The overwhelming military power of Rome was the most important political reality in Judea at the time of Christ.

The fundamental organizational unit of the Roman army during the early empire (31 b.c. to a.d. 193) was the legion (legio). In theory the legion consisted of ten cohorts (cohors) of 600 men, each composed of six centuries (centuria, "hundred") of 100 men, giving a theoretical total of 6,000 infantry in a legion. To this was added a small cavalry detachment (ala) of 120 men for scouting and communications. In practice, cohorts were independent administrative units that could be detached from legions. Furthermore, units would have had losses from illness or casualties. Many legions would therefore have been under strength, giving the ten cohorts an average of approximately 480 men each, with 80 men per century. However, the first cohort was sometimes a double-strength unit of perhaps 960 men, giving a practical total of about 5,280 infantry in a legion. Each legion was usually designated by both a number and name, such as the "Second Augustan" or the "Tenth Fretensis" (which participated in the siege of Masada and later garrisoned Jerusalem).

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