The Roman Military in the New Testament
Rome and her empire had a profound effect on New Testament. That effect was far more than most people realize. Much of the very nature of the society in which the events take place is because of the presence and governance of Rome. Paul and his ministry were profoundly affected by Rome and the Roman military.
This article is designed to help preachers and teachers understand the Roman military as it relates to Judea. To that end the material is organized in the same order as it is presented in the Gospels and Acts. There are a few places where there are references to military people without anything of interest. They are common terms used in the usual and obvious ways. I will skip these. When the same event is discussed in more than one gospel, it will be discussed in connection with the first one. Subsequent ones will refer back to that. I include the reference there so that any time you are dealing with Rome you can go to that reference in this article. One exception to that will be the arrest of Jesus, because only John refers to the participation of Roman forces. Sometimes a piece of information will be repeated. This is to see that it is not missed by a person reading only part of the piece.
Paul made strong and detailed use of the Roman soldier in his Epistle to the Ephesians. We will have looked at much of what Paul will cite as example by the time we reach it.
We tend to view Rome and her military in a negative light, but the writers of the New Testament saw them in a surprisingly different light. The gospel writers report brutal and violent behavior on the part of the Romans (and others), but they do so in a matter of fact fashion.
They lived in a brutal time. Infant mortality was high. The frequency of mothers dying in childbirth was high. Both of these hard things had always been true. Since ancient times, some plants had been known for antibiotic qualities; but they were never much of a factor. World War I was fought essentially without antibiotics. Penicillin was not isolated until 1928. It would not be until the early days of World War II that Penicillin was available in practical quantities. Up until that time a significant cut or puncture into the body was likely to be fatal. In a world of bladed weapons, and agriculture with bladed tools, such wounds were commonplace. Life was cheap. Violent corporal and capital punishment had been a reality for the Jewish people for centuries before the arrival of Rome. It would be more centuries before prison, as a means of punishment, was introduced into society.
We tend to see past times, including New Testament times, through the lens of our own time. That is human nature. Similarly, the New Testament writers saw the New Testament world through the lens of their own time. The ultimate author of the New Testament was the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, He chose to write through human agents. This works out well since His audience is human.
Matt. 2:1 - Herod the Great
Herod the Great was a creature of Rome. His presence on the Judean throne ultimately stems from the choice of Ahaz in Isaiah’s time to stake the security of Judah on human allies rather than on God. Syria and Egypt were pressing Ahaz to join with them in revolt against Assyria. They threatened to attack Judea if Ahaz did not join them. God told Ahaz, via Isaiah, to trust Him rather than Assyria. That was the meaning of the challenge by God.
The Lord again spoke to Ahaz:
“Ask for a confirming sign from the Lord your God. You can even ask for something miraculous.” But Ahaz responded, “I don’t want to ask; I don’t want to put the Lord to a test.” So Isaiah replied, “Pay attention, family of David. Do you consider it too insignificant to try the patience of men? Is that why you are also trying the patience of my God? For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:10-14 Net Bible
Ultimately, Ahaz did not trust God. He trusted Assyria to defend Judea and himself. In the process Judea lost her identity and became a vassal of Assyria. Assyria fell to Babylon, Babylon to the Persians, the Persians to Alexander and his Macedonians. When Alexander died His empire was divided among four of his generals. One of these was Seleucus I. Antiochus IV was a successor of his.
The presence of Roman forces in Judea was brought about by a treaty between Judas Maccabaeus (the Jewish head of state) and Rome about 160 BC and a more formal one in 139 BC. Antiochus IV also known as Antiochus Epiphanies (“the illustrious”) caused a statue of the Olympian Zeus to be placed in the Holy of Holies in 168 B.C. This had led to rebellion. In the end, the Seleucids were driven out and the temple reconsecrated in the winter of 165-164. Hanukkah memorializes this event. Antiochus did not take defeat lightly and was determined to regain control. Rome could be a powerful ally in dealing with him and with his forces.
Many people, both historians and commentators, point to the “invasion” by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC as the beginning of the Roman presence in Judea. In fact Israel/Judea had been dependent upon Rome for a century by that time. Michael Grant’s Jews in the Roman World is an excellent resource for understanding Pompey’s presence there.
Judea and her fate wind their way through the Roman Civil war. The appointment of Herod as king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 39 B.C. (though he did not begin to reign until 37) results from the victory of Octavian.
Kings like Herod and their governments were considered ‘members and parts of the empire’ in the words of Suetonius.1 Rome deemed them buffers between the empire and the barbarians outside.
Matt. 5:41 - Walk a Mile…
Jesus was no doubt speaking Aramaic here. When Matthew quotes Him in Greek, the word he chooses is aggareusei. It is very similar to the Latin in the Vulgate, angariaverit. Even there it is of Persian origin. This does not appear to be a matter of settled Roman law, but as recognition of the nature of power. The Romans seem to have retained Persian practice here.
Matt: 8 - The Centurion and his Servant
“For I, too, am a man under authority with soldiers under me…” (from verse 9).
Centurions are mentioned several times in the New Testament; however, the importance of that designation is usually not appreciated, either by expositors or other bible students. This is primarily because there is no equivalent in the modern military to the centurion. Centurion is not a rank, but rather a class within the military structure. Professor of Classical Studies Colin Wells writes of a continuum from the least senior centurion of a legion as being roughly equivalent to a modern major and the most senior to a one star or Brigadier General. 2 The U.S. Department of Defense defines a brigade as “A unit usually smaller than a division to which are attached groups and/or battalions and smaller units tailored to meet anticipated requirements.” 3 A Brigade is typically commanded by a Brigadier General.
The most Senior Centurion of a legion (the primus-Pilus or First Pike) carried Equestrian Rank.4 The closest equivalent to Equestrian rank is knighthood in the British system. They were one level down from the level of Senator. The property qualification for Equestrian status was approximately one half that for Senatorial rank.5 Pontius Pilate was of Equestrian rank.
Historian Michael Grant had this to say about centurions, “These formidable men combined the functions and prestige of a modern company commander and sergeant-major or top sergeant.”6 These men received pay commensurate with that prestige. Grant goes on to say, “That is to say the lowest grade of centurion received nearly seventeen times as much as an ordinary legionary, and the highest grade was paid four times as much again.”7
A Roman soldier did not become a centurion overnight. It took years. Grant describes special cohorts8 within legions made up of veterans of sixteen years or more. He refers to these cohorts as a normal source for men to be promoted to centurions.9
Centurions were also chosen from the best of the best. Augustus formed an elite bodyguard to protect his person and office. The concept of a Praetorian Guard went back long before Augustus. It started as a specialized cavalry unit assigned to protect a commander in the field. After the destruction of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions in Germany in A.D. 9 Augustus dismissed his German bodyguard and formalized the Praetorian Guard as an imperial guard. The Centurion who conducted Paul to Rome in Acts 27 seems to have been a member of this unit. By the time of Paul’s journey they were paid 3 times as much as the common soldier (750 denarii per year as compared to 250 for the common legionary soldier). It also placed a soldier in a good position to catch the right eye toward promotion to centurion.10
The Greek statesman and historian Polybius (c.200-118 BC) wrote: “In choosing their centurions the Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.”11
A man like this looked at Jesus and did not see the soft, almost effeminate Jesus that we see so much in the media, even Christian media. The Centurion looked at Jesus and saw a man’s man. He saw a man of strength, power and authority. For men like Augustus power was a means to an end. Jesus did not strain toward any end. Paul wrote “He himself is before all things and all things are held together in him.” in Colossians 1:17 Net Bible. Jesus is the end and the beginning. Jesus had earned the respect of a man who had earned the respect of Rome. The notion of Jesus earning such respect may seem, in itself, disrespectful. We must remember that the Romans were brutally practical. Intrinsic or transcendent power was meaningless. Only when power was applied was it true power. That is what this man who understood power saw. That is what earned his respect.
When he healed the Centurion’s servant Jesus said to him “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” v.13 Net Bible. Jesus never hesitated to require difficult things from those with whom he dealt. He would not have hesitated to require the Centurion to leave the army if He had thought it necessary. He did not require the Centurion to stop being a soldier. This tells us something in itself.
Remember what the Centurion had said: “But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it..’” Matthew 8:8-9 Net Bible
Matt. 14:1-12 Herod the Tetrarch and John the Baptist
The death of Herod the Great did not eliminate Rome’s need for
a government in Judea. Herod’s will left various parts of his territory to successors. This touched off internal squabbles which left Judea directly in the hands of Rome. This would be Pilate’s jurisdiction in A.D. 25.12
Matt. 26:47 The Arrest of Jesus
For the most part this event will be discussed in connection with John 18. I mention it here because it is illustrative that no mention is made of Roman soldiers in the arrest of Jesus. It shares this with Mark 14 and Luke 22.
Matt. 27:11 Jesus stood before the governor…
Christians tend to regard Pontius Pilate negatively, but he does not seem to have been regarded that way by Rome. His ten or eleven year term as governor (AD 25-36) in Judea was relatively long by the standards of the day. He was of the equestrian class. Equestrians were the class just below the Senatorial class. They had been gaining importance for some decades before his birth. Julius Caesar had employed equestrians as his principle advisors.13
The Jewish historian Josephus portrayed him as a harsh administrator who failed to understand the religious convictions and national pride of the Jews. Many Christian commentators take the same view. Commentator Frank Stagg takes it as a given based, primarily, on the Jewish writers. He cites Pilate’s recall in AD 36 as proof of Rome’s displeasure with him.14 Tiberius was dying when Pilate was recalled. He had, in fact, died when Pilate arrived. It had been Tiberius who had appointed Pilate. We may never know for sure why he was recalled.
Some traditions maintain that Pilate became a Christian. He is considered a martyr of the Coptic Church. His feast day is June 25.15
Matt. 27:27 Soldiers of the Governor…Praetorium
“The soldiers of the Governor…” The term here (stratiwtai/stratiotai) is the regular term for soldier. This is the same term used to describe the people who carried out all of the brutal and violent acts attributed to soldiers in the New Testament. It is also the term Paul uses to tell Timothy what he should be with relation to Christ in II Timothy 2:3. Paul had been with, and in the custody of soldiers for years. He knew them. When he wanted a picture of honorable commitment to a sovereign, he chose the soldier. He wrote, “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
The term Praetorium usually referred to the headquarters of a legion. Judea was a praetorian province. As a praetorian prefect Pilate was not of sufficient rank to command a legion. That required senatorial rank. It is almost unfortunate that the term Senator is common in both Roman and American politics. There certainly was a Roman body known as the Senate, but the term was much broader than that. It referred to a ruling class. The senatorial rank was based on such things as wealth land ownership, and former civil service.
During the period described in the Gospels there were four legions stationed just to the North of Judea in the province of Syria. This province included territory which had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Praetorium here probably refers to Pilate’s official residence.
Matthew refers to Jesus being brought before the governor’s troops. He uses the term speira/speira to refer to the size of the body of soldiers involved. The Greek speira meant literally anything round or whatever might be wrapped around a thing. It is usually used to refer to a body of soldiers. The New American Standard Bible and Net Bible translate it as “cohort”, KJV and RSV as “band”, and NIV as “company” Cohort is the Latin term (cohortes) simply brought into English largely untranslated. John describes the unit sent to arrest Jesus in John 18: 3 and 12 as a speira. The term itself is imprecise. A cohort consists six centuries of eighty men each. As the name implies, the century was originally one hundred men each. The organization of the army went through changes about 100 B.C. which included the reduction of the number of troops in a century to eighty. A cohort would then be four hundred eighty soldiers. I do not believe that the entire cohort was sent as it would represent a major portion of Pilate’s force.
A substantial number of troops, but less than a full legion was consistent with the equestrian rank that Pilate held.
Matt. 27:54 “Truly this was the Son of God.”
The importance of this is not technical. The terms are the normal ones used in the normal way. The centurion was a man of strength and power. See the note on Matthew 8 for more on that. He recognized power focused and occasioned by devotion. He saw power in Jesus and on the cross.
Matt. 27:64 “You have a Guard.”
Because Pilate said to the Pharisees “You have a guard.” in some translations or “take a guard” in others, some commentators say that the guard consisted of Temple Police. Matthew uses the term koustwdian here. Translating that term “guard of soldiers” as some translations do is a bit of interpretation. The term itself assumes soldiers. It is a transliteration of the Latin term koust”dia.16 Some commentators suggest that the fact that the guard reports to the Chief Priests rather than the Roman authorities as indication that they were temple police. The guard had been assigned to the Jewish authorities. Their Roman superiors would have executed them on the spot for having failed in its mission. Failure was not tolerated in the Roman military. A cohort that gave way in battle would have every tenth man killed by its own commander. 17 That would be a powerful motivation to report to nominal rather than permanent superiors.
The size of the unit assigned is not specified, but I believe that it was eight men. The next unit smaller than the Century was an eight man unit called a contubunium.18 It would be a natural squad size.
Matt. 28:4 “The guards shook…”
It is interesting to note that Matthew refers to the men by function rather than their identity. He refers to them as `oi thrountes (guards or watchers) rather than as koustwdia (guard of soldiers). It is unclear whether “The guards were shaken and became like dead men because they were so afraid of him.” (Matt. 28:4 Net Bible) refers to an involuntary unconsciousness or not.
Mark 6:14 John the Baptist Beheaded
See the note on Matthew 14:1-12.
Mark 14:43 The Arrest of Jesus
It is interesting to note that, like Matthew, Mark does not mention the Roman soldiers involved in the arrest of Jesus. This again leads me to suspect that the size of the Roman detail was far less than a full cohort.
Mark 15:1 Pilate
See note on Matthew 27:1ff
Luke 1:5ff Herod the Great
See note on Matthew 2:1
Luke 3:1ff Tiberius Caesar
Tiberius was the stepson of Augustus. He was the son of Tiberius Nero and Livia Drusilla. Augustus had divorced his previous wife Julia because she had not borne him any children and “because he was sick of her crabbed character.”19 This whole sordid affair was made all the more bizarre by the fact that Augustus took her away from her husband at a dinner party while she was pregnant.20 The formal divorce would come later, but the deed was done. Augustus formally adopted Tiberius as heir in A.D.4. This allowed Tiberius to be his heir to the throne.
Between A.D.4 and 14 when Tiberius came to the throne, he was a successful military commander. He had secured the German frontier and avenged the slaughter of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Legions at the Teututoburg Forest in AD 9. General Publius Quintilius Varus led the Roman 17th, 18th, and 19th Legions into the Teututoburg Forest in A.D.9. He allowed his forces to be stretched out and vulnerable. Local German forces were able to wipe them out to the last man, including Varus. The loss of those three legions would permanently haunt the empire. For the rest of his life Augustus was known to mumble, “Varus, Give me back my Legions!”
The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius then would be A.D.29.
We have met the others in this verse before.
Luke 3:14 “What shall we do?”
Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” John did not tell them to leave the military. What he told them is translated differently in depending on the translation. The first of two instructions is translated “Rob no one by violence…” RSV, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats…” ESV, “Do not extort money…” NIV, “Do not take money from anyone by force…” NASB. The English phrase renders a single Greek term diaseishte (Strong’s number 1286). Thayer and Smith define it this way.21
1. to shake thoroughly
2. to make to tremble
3. to terrify
4. to agitate
5. to extort from one by intimidation money or other property
Michael Grant quotes Luke 3:14. He does not mention the translation. He is certainly capable of translating the Greek himself. He renders it “No bullying. No blackmail. Make do with your pay.”22 It is not elegant, but I like it.
John the Baptist did not tell them not to be soldiers. Essentially, he told them to be honest, professional ones.
“…and be content with your wages.”
In John 6:7 Jesus tells the disciples to feed the Five Thousand. Philip points out that two hundred denarii would not buy enough for each to have only a little. Matthew 20:2 suggests that a denarius was a typical daily wage for a laborer.
Augustus standardized the wages of a Legionary at two hundred twenty five denarii per year. “It has been estimated that a soldier could live fairly comfortably on about five sevenths of his pay.” An automatic and compulsory deduction from the soldier’s pay was put aside for retirement. This insured both his retirement and continued service until then.23
Drive down the main drag of any military town and you will see many car dealerships. Soldiers often put most of their pay into powerful flashy cars. Military technology certainly changes through the centuries. The nature of young men does not change much.
Grant quotes a letter from a young soldier to his mother found in the papyri from Egypt. It read:
My Dear Mother,
I hope that this finds you well. When you get this letter I shall be much obliged if you will send me some money. I haven’t got a penny left, because I have bought a donkey-cart and spent all my money on it. Do send me a riding-coat, some oil, and above all my monthly allowance. When I was last home you promised not to leave me penniless, and now you treat me like a dog. Father came to see me the other day and gave me nothing. Everybody laughs at me now, and says ‘his father is a solder, his father gave him nothing’.
Valerius’s mother sent him a pair of pants, a measure of oil, a box of food and some money. Do send me money and don’t leave me like this. Give my love to everyone at home.
Your loving Son.24
Luke 7:1ff The Centurion’s Servant Healed
Most of what can be said here is said in relation to Matthew 8. Luke adds the detail of the local Jewish leaders telling Jesus that the man was worthy and a lover of their people.
Luke 23:1ff Pilate
See note on Matthew 27:1ff
Luke 23:36 The Soldiers Mock Jesus
The term here (stratiwtai) simply indicates a Roman regular Legionary as opposed to provincial auxiliaries. See the note on Acts 23:23.
John 18:3 & 12 The Arrest of Jesus – A Cohort
Of the four accounts of the arrest of Jesus, only John mentions the participation of Roman forces, and he does not specify the number of soldiers involved. He used the generic speira or band. NIV renders it “detachment”. John refers to the Roman commander as a chiliarch ciliarco s , which translates as commander of a thousand. There were no units of a thousand in the Roman Legions. There were units of a thousand found among auxiliary units, but these soldiers were clearly Roman regulars. A.T. Robertson suggests that this man was a Tribune.25 The term chiliarch is translated Tribune in Acts 23:17 in ESV and RSV, however, in the NIV and the NASB it is rendered “Commander”.
A Tribune was a staff officer. They had no role on the battlefield. There were six Tribunes to a legion and were attached to the Legionary headquarters. They also functioned as camp commandants.26 He may have been present at the arrest simply as a political observer, and the soldiers simply a bodyguard for the Tribune.
Acts 10 Cornelius
The permanent headquarters of the Roman Procurator was in Caesarea. Luke refers to Cornelius as a centurion of the Italian Cohort. Commentator T.C. Smith says that “We have evidence of a cohort bearing the name “Italian” in Syria in A.D. 69, but none show the presence of such a cohort in Palestine during the time of this incident.”27 Smith does not specify a source. The Legion X Fretensis was stationed in Syria from A.D. 20-68 when it was transferred to Judea after the Jewish revolution.28. An inscription in the Forum Sempronii in Rome mentions a tribune of the Italian Cohort of the Tenth Legion (X Fretensis)29. Cornelius may have been on detached service from Fretensis.
Acts 12:9 The Soldiers Executed
When Peter escaped the guards were executed. Roman punishments could be severe.
“He dismissed the entire tenth legion in disgrace, because they were insubordinate, and others, too, that demanded their discharge in an insolent fashion, he disbanded without the rewards which would have been due for faithful service. If any cohorts gave way in battle, he decimated them [i.e., executed every tenth man, selected by lot], and fed the rest on barley [instead of the usual rations of wheat]. When centurions left their posts he punished them with death, just as he did the rank and file; for faults of other kinds he imposed various ignominious penalties, such as ordering them to stand all day long before the general's tent, sometimes in their tunics without their sword-belts, or again holding ten-foot poles or even a clod of earth [carrying the pole to measure off the camp, or clods for building the rampart, was the work of the common soldiers; hence degrading for officers]. “
From The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius XXIV30
Note that there are not only punishments which seem barbaric, but others which seem almost silly. This gives us an insight into the Roman concept of honor.
Acts 16:19ff Paul and Silas Arrested
See note on Acts 12:9. This man had been around long enough to know what would happen to him if the prisoners escaped.
The arrest and detention of Paul and Silas are basically a civilian matter, albeit a Roman civilian matter, and therefore well covered in commentaries.
Acts 18:12ff Gallio – No Judge
Luke reports that Gallio was Roman Proconsul of Achaia. In A.D. 51 He refused to hear Jewish complaints against Paul. He said that it simply was not his business as a Roman Proconsul. He was a civilian official rather than a military one. He was promoted to Consul in 55.31
Acts 21-23 Paul Arrested and Held in Jerusalem
Paul had been seized and beaten by a crowd who had mistaken Paul for a another man (so they claimed). Tribune Claudius Lysias arrived with troops and whisked Paul away by force. This is part of a long pattern of Paul being protected by Rome.
Much has been made of Paul’s last second question to the Centurion “Is it lawful for you to flog a Roman citizen who is un-condemned?” Paul had already discussed his citizenship with Claudius and described himself as “… a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city.” He could have easily told him then that he was a citizen of Rome. I wonder why he did not. Could it be that he wanted the drama of revealing it just before the whip fell? He seemed to have wanted some advantage. He got it.
When Paul was before the Sanhedrin he did so with a Roman guard to protect him (cf. 23:10). Note the fact that Luke reports in verse 11 that Jesus tells Paul that he must testify for Him in Rome. Keep that in mind.
It is in Verse 12 that Luke reports the plot of some Jews to kill Paul. More than forty men vowed not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. Paul’s nephew got word of the plot and reported it to Paul.
Here is where it gets interesting. Paul calls one of the Centurions in the manner of one in power. He tells him to have the nephew taken to the Tribune. The Centurion does so without reported comment. Remember how hard it is to impress a centurion.
Claudius takes the report seriously and assigns troops to foil the plot. We don’t know how important it was to Claudius to protect Paul. We do know that it was critical to maintain his credibility. If what he considered criminals could interfere with what he wanted done, his credibility would be damaged. Whatever Claudius’ motivation, the pattern of Paul being protected by Rome continues.
“Get ready two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen…”
Soldiers (stratiwtas) – Heavy infantry.
These are the Legionaries. The Legions were made up entirely of Roman citizens. In New Testament times there were ten cohorts of these men with each cohort made up made up of six centuries of eighty men.32 33
Each of these formidable men carried two javelins. Each javelin (pilus) had a shaft about four and a half feet in length. Attached to the business end, it featured a barbed iron head of same length as the shaft. The lower end of the head was left untempered so that would bend when the pilus stuck into an enemy or the enemy’s shield. This would prevent it from being thrown back at the soldier who had thrown it. Each one was fitted with leather thong held at the point of balance so that it could be caused to spin like a bullet. The pila were lethal up to about ninety feet.
When each man had hurled his two pila he would rush in with his sword. This was the gladius. It had a blade about two feet long and two inches wide sharpened on both sides for cutting, though the primary use was stabbing. It was carried on the right side and drawn with the right hand. This was necessary because he held his shield in his left hand.
Each man also carried a dagger on his left side. In good times it functioned as a knife. In the desperate situation that the gladius was lost it served as a last ditch hand to hand weapon.34
One of the things most identified with the Roman Legionary Soldier is the rectangular shield called a scutum. The round shield so many think of was a relic of the past. Polybius was a Greek statesman and historian of the second century B.C.. He saw the transition to the scutum take hold. He wrote:
“The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a long shield (scutum). The surface is convex; it measures two and a half feet in width and four in length, and the thickness at the rim is a palm’s breadth. It consists of two layers of wood fastened together with bull’s hide glue; the outer surface is then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. The upper and lower edges are bound with iron to protect the shield both from the cutting strokes of sword and from wear when resting on the ground. In the center is fixed an iron boss, which turns aside the heavy impact of stones, pikes, and weighty missiles in general.”35
One bit of gear that may be useful to know about is the term that Paul uses in Ephesians 6 for “breastplate”. Paul’s term there is thorax. It is the object of the verb and so is thoraka.
Sometimes a church member or student will object to a picture showing a soldier with segmented armor or chain mail because the English says “breastplate”. The term refers generally to armor covering the area from the neck to the waist.36
Horsemen ( Jippies) – Cavalry (probably Auxiliary)
One innovation of Augustus was to establish an extensive system of Auxiliary. One of the primary uses of Auxiliaries was as cavalry. Roman Legions had long had small specialized cavalry units within the legions. They normally had one hundred twenty cavalry distributed within a legion.
In Judea, with no full legions, the cavalry would have had to be auxiliaries. Such troops would have been provincials who would have become (as would their sons) citizens upon the completion of their enlistments.
They wore leather breeches, and tunic, and a specialized helmet. They carried a lighter and smaller shield, a longer sword and two spears or pila.37 The auxiliary cavalry seems to have worked out rather well for the empire because in centuries to come cavalry would assume a much broader role in the legions.
Spearmen (dexiolabous) -- Spearmen (Auxiliaries)
These would have been light infantry troops. Equipment and dress varied somewhat from place to place and time to time. In general such a man would have worn a short tunic, leather armor, or perhaps metal strips. He would carry a longer, flatter sword and a dagger. He would have carried a much longer spear for use more as a pike than the pilus or throwing spear.
These are the forces Luke reports making up the force ordered to convey and protect Paul on the road to Caesarea. 2 Kings 19:35-37 reports an angel killing 185,000 men in the camp of the Assyrians. Clearly God could have protected Paul in the same way. He appears to have chosen to use Roman troops instead.
Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy remained to be written. The Sovereign God would not allow His will to be frustrated by forty men who would become very hungry (Acts 23:14).
Acts 27-28 – Julius of the Augustan Cohort
It is unclear what “Augustan Cohort” means. Augustus had formed a special cohort made up of nine centuries rather than the typical six. This unit carried out special projects for the emperor and would function as an Imperial Guard. Ray Stedman believes that the Augustan Cohort was that Imperial Guard.38 That he is identified as being a member of a “Cohort” rather than a legion strengthens that view in my mind.
Julius is solidly identified as a Centurion. Luke shows him as a man of honor, decision, and compassion. He is shown to be capable and professional. Overall, Julius comes off very well. For a discussion of what Centurions are like see the notes on Matt. 8. Luke does not seem to share the negative view held by many Christians with regard to Rome and her forces. In the end, Luke reports that Paul preached in Rome for two years without hindrance. Hindrance was a normal part of Paul’s life for the majority of his ministry.
There is a scene which we can picture, though not document historically. A soldier who has spent a lot of time with Paul is chained to him as Paul ministers. A troublemaker attempts to generate a “hindrance”. He wants to create an incident which will allow him to injure Paul. The soldier looks the “hinderer” in the eyes, silently rests his right hand on the handle of his gladius and gently shakes his head. The “hinderer” thinks better the behavior and moves on.
When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he said: “Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” Ephesians 6:11. He goes on to say
“For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand. Stand firm therefore, by fastening the belt of truth around your waist, by putting on the breastplate of righteousness, by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace, and in all of this, by taking up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13-17 NET Bible.
Paul loved Timothy. In some ways Timothy was his successor. Timothy was certainly his “son” in the faith. Writing to him in 2 Timothy 2:2-4 the example of what Timothy is to be is a soldier. He is to be a soldier of Christ rather than of Rome; but he clearly saw the soldier as a clear example of honor and devotion.
In the same epistle he will write “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” Scripture does not report the death of Paul. Tradition says that he was beheaded in Rome. He would have probably been beheaded by a Roman soldier. He undoubtedly knew that was likely when he wrote to Timothy.
The purpose of this piece has been to help you see Roman soldiers, from the common soldier, to the commanders, as real human beings with real lives. They are people for whom Jesus hung on that cross. Another purpose is to help you add to the richness of your understanding of the texts that include references to military personnel.
This link will take you to a site with good photographs of actual Roman weapons and equipment in museums. It is unrelated to me apart from being a source.
1 Wells, Colin, The Roman Empire, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1984, p.76
2 ibid., p. 138
3 Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02
4 Starr, Chester, The Roman Empire, Oxford University Press, 1982 p.114
5 Grant, Michael, The Army of the Caesars, Scribner’s, New York, 1974, p. 21
6 ibid, p. xxxiii
7 ibid. p. 73
8 For a discussion of cohorts see the note on John 18.
9 ibid, p. 81
10 ibid, p. 92
11 Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, p.322
12 Grant, Michael, The Jews in the Roman World, Dorset Press, 1973, p.87
13 Grant, Michael, The Army of the Caesars, Scribners, New York, 1974, pp.21-22
14 Stagg, Frank, The Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1969 p.
15 Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2004. © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Article on Pontius Pilate
16 Robertson, A.T. "Commentary on Matthew 27:65". "Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament". <http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/RobertsonsWordPictures/
rwp.cgi?book=mt&chapter=027&verse=065>. Broadman Press 1932,33, Renewal 1960
17 Grant, Michael, The Army of the Caesars, Scribners, New York, 1974, p.59
18 Grant, Michael, The Army of the Caesars, Scribners, New York, 1974, pxxxii
19 Kiefer, Otto, Sexual Life in Ancient Rome, Abbey Library, London, 1934 p. 299
20 Starr p.14, Kiefer p.300
21 Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Diaseio". "The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon". http://www.biblestudytools.net/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=1286&version=nas>. 1999.
22 Grant p.xxvi
23 Lewis, Naphtali and Rheinhold, Meyer, Ed. Roman Civilization, Sourcebook II, Columbia University Press, 1955, First Harper Torchbooks Edition, 1966 p.512,513
24 Quoted in Grant, p.xxvi
25 Robertson, A.T. , A Harmony of the Gospels, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1922, Note 4 on page 208
26 Grant, p.xxxiii
27 Smith, T.C., The Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 10, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1970 p.66
28 Grant, p.293
29 Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Article on Acts 10 http://www.godrules.net/library/clarke/clarkeact10.htm
31 "Gallio, Junius." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
11 Oct. 2004 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9035915>>.
32 Sumner, Graham, Brassey’s History of Uniforms: The Roman Army, Brassey’s Ltd., London, 1997 p.17
33 Grant, p.xxxii
34 Grant, p.xviii
35 Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI, 23, Penguin Books, London, 1979 Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert
36 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature- A translation and adaptation of the fourth revised and augment edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch zu den Schriftent des Neuen Testaments und ubrigen unchristlichen Litertur by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, the University of Chicago Press 1979, article on Thorax, p. 367
37 Grant, pp.56, 297