• Imagining History

The Roman Army: Legions & Centuries - A Guide for Kids

Updated: May 4, 2021

The Roman Army was so big it had to be broken down into smaller sections. But what were these sections called and how were they organised?

What is a Roman Legion?

A Legion is a group of around 4000 to 6000 Roman Soldiers. This number varied over the years.

Legions were often led by a Legate (this was a very important bloke – often a Senator or a Governor).

Each legion has its own name, number and banner (carried by a soldier called a Standard Bearer). If a Legion was defeated and the banner lost, the Roman Empire would do whatever it took to get it back. To loose its banner would bring shame to a legion, so much so that they could be disbanded.

The Roman Legions were very powerful and well organised. Their reputation was so fierce that occasionally, when they invaded somewhere new, their enemies would surrender without a fight.

There were 30 Roman Legions around the Roman Empire. Three of these were based in Britain.

What is a Roman Cohort?

A Roman Legion could contain up to 6000 soldiers. This is a lot of soldiers to lead on a march or into battle. It's not like the Legate had a radio, satellite images or radar to keep in touch with and monitor everyone either, so how was order maintained?

This is how; by breaking the legion into smaller sections. Then giving each section their own commander. This commander would follow the overall orders of the Legate.

Each Legion was broken down into 10 smaller sections called Cohorts. The 1st Cohort were the most experienced troops, the best of the best. Whilst the 10th Cohort were a bit rubbish and you'd keep them at the back and out of the way during battle.

What is a Roman Century?

Cohorts were split down further into Centuries.

The man in charge of each Century was called a Centurion. The most experienced Centurion, the Primus Pilus, would often lead all of the Centuries in the Cohort.

Each Century consisted of approximately 80 men. Which is jolly confusing because a "century" can mean 100 years. It can also mean a score of 100 runs in Cricket. But only 80 Legionaries in a Roman Century. Those tricksy Romans ay?

Just to make things even more confusing: the Centuries of the 1st Cohort were double strength and had 160 soldiers in them. I need a sit down in a darkened room, let's move on.

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