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dbaezner

Roman military ranks vs. modern ranks

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Hi. I was wondering if someone could help me map the following modern ranks to Roman equivalents. I'm aware that there were Roman ranks that had no modern equivalent, which is fine, since I have a limited list. This is for a sci-fi story.

 

Ground troops - I've been using legionarii

Marines - I've been using classiarii

Emperor's body guards - using candidatii

Emperor's legions - using Praetorian Guard

Lieutenant

Captain - using centurian

Major

Colonel

General - Wikipedia suggests prefect

Admiral

 

Ideally, the names would be easily recognized by those with a basic understanding of Roman history, to peak the reader's interest enough to learn the Roman ranks in the story. For example, tribune, praetor, prefect, centurian, etc.

 

Also, should the names of the Roman ranks be capitalized? Wikipedia doesn't do so.

 

I appreciate you time.

Edited by dbaezner

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Now we run into an inescapable problem. Many assume that the Romans used a comparable pyramidical system of ranks - it seems obvious to us because modern systems are so similar and prevalent, not to mention easy to understand. But our organisational needs vary somewhat from those the Romans deemed important. Any specific comparison is not recommended. The equivalent ranks mentioned in Wikipedia are nonsense. There was no direct equivalence because ancient and modern use different tactics, organisation, and authority. Nowhere in the Roman sources is there a convenient listing of ranks. Vegetius merely mentions that troops 'rise through the ranks' and rotate among the cohorts.

 

The thing is, our needs evolved from the use of gunpowder on the battlefield and the rapidly increasing need to manage a battlefield rather than lead it in the manner that the Romans used to. Centurions had far more authority to act on initiative than today - necessarily, because the Romans had not developed battlefield management and did not keep their generals at the back directing the battle. They never created a corps of runners, or any sort of overall communication system - messages were always sent ad hoc and it is mentioned that using runners was a risky venture due to casualties or mistakes.

 

These days we need to spread our forces out, to prevent large casualties from single hits, to prevent flanking movements, and to deny territory to the enemy. The weight of fire that firearms development has made a difference too. Whereas in the days of muskets men were massed for maximising the short range inaccurate smoothbore flintlocks, the basic level of soldiering went down to the 'squad' in WW2 and now automatic weapons are making the smaller 'team' more usable.

 

Back two thousand years and the squad is a disaster waiting to happen, easily overwhelmed by numbers, and thus the Romans group together in larger numbers. The only reason that basic units like the century were of around a hundred men (or a bit smaller in imperial times) was that was as many men as a single man could lead in battle conditions. If the Romans had been able to have one man lead the entire army in one go, they would have happily done that. Note how senior legionary officers behave. Caesar recalls how he ranged behind the line, urging men on, forcing them back into line when they wavered, or when he felt confident, picking up a sword and shield to fight alongside his men in the front rank. Try doing that today.

 

There is a case for believing the Romans had a different system of rank - I've written often about this - based on temporary status in the same way a politician gathered offices during his career, but for this answer, avoid direct parallels. There are no NCO's as such, but there are soldiers with better status and some responsibility. Centurions are junior officers with their own hierarchy and social class. The remainder are senior officers, not career military men as such, though some did serve in that manner, but more often politicians or hopeful politicians serving their time to gain military kudos.

 

If you want to create a sci-fi story and don't need precise Roman classifications, then adopt whatever names you need. You might even combine ancient and modern titles for added flavour. If this is a time travel scenario then your travellers are going to find a military system they would see some parallels in, but many nuances they did not expect. Always remember that money made the Roman world go round, and their military was no exception, effectively independent of the state though under the command of its representatives.

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Thank you for the detail reply, Caldrail. After culling together a list of ranks from several sites, I gave up on using Roman ranks. Except for centurion and tribune, the rest are not likely to be known to most readers (e.g., optio)? Can you tell me if I'm using legionarii, classiarii, candidati, and Praetorian Guard correctly? Those I'd like to keep using.

 

Thanks

Dirk

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More or less. The only non-Roman usage is 'Guard'. The Romans would always have referred to them as the Praetorian Cohorts.

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I like this question.  Allow me to stick my oar in.

 

My first comment would revolve around your use of Centurion as Captain.  I always saw the Centurionate as the highest ranking proffessional soldiers - what we would refer to as Non-Commisioned Officers.  Maybe Sergeant-Major or some such.  Camp Prefects, especially auxilliaries tended to be drawn from the Centurionate.

 

I'm interested in how you differentiate Ground Troops from Marines in a sci-fi context.  if you see Marines as similar to ground troops, but they get carried about in boats to support naval operations, how much use is there for actual ground troops who never see the inside of a spaceship (I'm assuming that's where you were going with this.)

 

Generals tended to be people like Julius Ceasar in his invading days, so well above Prefect, and probably one above a 'Legate'.

 

Admiral of the fleet (Pliny was one of these if you want to do research).  Interesting one.  Maybe praefectus classis?

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Thank you for your reply, GhostOfClayton. As mentioned above, I gave up on mapping Roman ranks to modern equivalents because it became too complex for the story. Instead, I use the more well-known ranks (tribune, centurion, consul, and praetor) as classes of warships. In answer to your question about legionarii and classiarii, I use the former for ground troops that attack enemy planets and the latter for "navy" troops (a little like U.S. Marines, except that the classiarii's role is to defend spaceships from being boarded, as well as to board enemy vessels).

Edited by dbaezner

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Interesting how people immediate use terms like 'NCO'. Sorry to add a sour point (I can't resist it) but the Romans had no NCO's by definition. The reason is that while 'not commisioned' as officers, they are in fact holders of military office (hence the name) thus represent a level of authority that is independent of role. The Roman system does not normally separate status and purpose and on no account were the Romans going to give lesser mortals a form of imperium no matter how restricted or humble. They had enough trouble keeping their men in line as it was.

 

For instance, I perused a volume that mentions a role in the late empire legion called campidoctor. No, it doesn't define an effeminate physician, but an instructor of weapons drill. They were said to be masters of the sword and could take anyone on - they were also individual placements and rare. Note however the book refers to this as a 'rank' but surely this was a role with status, since one would not ordinarily be promoted through this job?

 

The same thing happens with Optio, which means 'Chosen Man'. Varro informs us that centurions used to choose who their optio's were, but later the tribunes (presumably post Augustan reforms) allocated them. The point is that a man was not promoted to being a centurions right hand man - he was selected speficially for the role and there is nothing to suggest he could keep that role permanently or even rise higher for having held it.

 

Okay, that's my gripe over with :D

Edited by caldrail

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