Of Centurions, Love and Kipling

The twenty-first in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here.  Kipling throughout his literary career had two great loves:  his love for England and his love for the British Army that guarded England.  A variant on these two themes is displayed in The Roman Centurion’s Song which Kipling wrote for A Child’s History of England in 1911.  This is the lament of a Roman Centurion who has served forty years in Britannia.  His cohort, circa 300 AD, has been ordered back to Rome and the Centurion does not want to go.  After forty years Britannia has become his home and he wishes to stay.

Kipling once famously wrote in his poem The ‘Eathen, that the backbone of an army is the non-commissioned man.  That was certainly the case with the Roman Legions.  The centurions were an interesting combination of sergeant major and captain.  They were long service men, almost all risen from the ranks.  They normally commanded 60-80 men, although senior centurions, at the discretion of the Legate in charge of the Legion, could command up to a cohort, 500-1,000 men.  Each centurion had a place in the chain of command  with the primus pilus being the head centurion of a legion.  The military tribunes and legates who led the legions were Roman aristocrats, most of whose military experience was much less than the centurions under them.  If they were wise, they left the day to day management of their legion up to the centurions and paid heed to their advice in combat situations.  In the contemporary histories that have come down to us, the centurions are normally treated with great respect.  This is reflected in the movie Spartacus where Senator Gracchus notes that if the Senate punished every commander who ever made a fool of himself, there would be no one left in the Legions above the rank of centurion. (more…)

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