The centurion is an officer issued from the rank in command of a century of about 60 soldiers under the Republic. Polybius says that during the "dilectus" or incorporation of new recruits in preparation for a military campaign, the military tribunes speaking for the consuls chose 60 soldiers among the most deserving, and named them centurions. It is the highest rank to which citizens that were not member of the elite could aspire virtually until the end of the Republic, but there were a few exceptions.
Once appointed, the centurions choose in turn 2 signifers and an optio to assist and eventually succeed them. There was also a hierarchy among the centurions, those who were younger generally commanded the Hastatis first online, and then came those who commanded the Princeps, then the highest in the hierarchy are those who commanded the Triarii, or third line.
The manipular legion used to regroup two centuries per maniple, so the first centurio commending the right century more prestigious was called “prior” and the other commending the left one was called “posterior”. Accordingly, the Prior Centurion of the first century of the first manipule of the Triarii was the highest ranking officer of the centurions. This centurion was called the "Primus pilus", and was a member of the Council of war along with senior officers.
The military tribunes wanted not so bold or risk takers men to this position. They needed men that did not to panic in delicate situations. They have to be an able commander, steady and controlled. They have to hold fast before the enemy and attack when the issue is uncertain. They must be willing to die on the spot if the situation requires it as indicated by Polybius.
Ancient texts tell us that the centurion is placed to the right of his unit in combat, and reenactment allows us to validate this statement. Positioned to the right of the century his field of vision encompasses the whole situation in a single glance. This is crucial once in contact with the enemy. As he fights in the front line, he must at the same time that he fights be able to judge the situation quickly in order to lead, he must be an example to his men, while ensuring for the security of the most exposed right flank, shields being carried on the left side.
In addition his panoply designates him as a primary target in the eyes of the enemy, with all the consequences hereafter!
Officer close to his men, he also carries administrative responsibilities in his century. This implies a daily management work. His tent two times larger and higher than that of soldiers is therefore used as an office. Everything that happens in the century is noted, archived, and a copy is sent to senior officers.
The centurions are immediately distinguished from far away with their particular uniform. The first thing that stands out from the other soldiers is the transverse crest that they wear on their helmets. It allows any soldier to identify them immediately by a mere glance, even in the heart of the melee. The second symbol of his authority is the "vitis" or vine stock used to maintain discipline in the ranks! Finally he wears greaves, distant survival of the hoplite fashion used of the early Roman armies.
He is wearing a helmet of Greek inspiration as shown by number of representations, but it might as well wear a helmet of an Etruscan-italic type. The transverse crest is here in horsehair, as generally associated with this type of helmet, see the illustrations above. Lapidary shows that feathers were quite popular too on other helmet types. For body protection he wears a mail shirt with shoulder pads also inspired by a Greek model. Some Republican representations show that some of them have worn the muscular armor generally associated to higher ranks. A padded garment, commonly known as “subermalis” is worn under the mail shirt. This subermalis is lined at its bottom and at the shoulders by leather straps called "pteruges" to add additional protection. The centurion wears traditionally his gladius on the left side and from the second half of the second century onward, a Spanish type pugio. He wears a cape called paludamentum in a
manner reserved for officers. On his chest he wears a harness of military silver decorations called phaleraes, as well as bracelets of the same material on his wrist. These military decorations were awarded to him for his past brilliant actions and were highly sought after.
He wears also one or more rings decorated with an engraving, they are personal seals used to authenticate his writings. He is finally wearing small boots called perones. They have their origin in the agricultural world, and will remain in more luxurious forms one of the traditional footwear of the Roman officers. It should also be noted that he carries the same shield as its men in combat.
The centurion is the vital link in the chain of command in that they constitute the interface between senior officers from the elite of the Roman society and citizen soldiers. They have formed the backbone of the Legion insuring its cohesion and spirit. Directly in contact with the enemy it has happened more than once that their experience and their vision change the tide during a decisive battle.