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What do we know about a centurion named Longinus?

On this occasion, we share an article sent by our partner Antonio Petit Gancedo, medical analyst, on the figure of the centurion who crosses the side of the dead Christ. Very interesting and rigorous, it helps us to deepen in questions of military history of the Roman Empire that we often forget.

The decision to write these lines arose from the questions that, sometimes after a conference, are asked by the public, in this particular case, interested in the spear thrown from the side, and who we generally take for granted that he practiced it, piercing the side of Jesus of Nazareth, already dead on the cross. It is inevitable that they cite "Longinus", his mount, his sight injury and miraculous healing, his spear, etc.; referring to all these details as evident realities. In the following lines we will try to illustrate the basis of this belief, leaving for another occasion to expand on other related issues.

We will delve here into the organization of the Roman legions in the first half of the first century A.D., the name of Longinus and its origin, as well as the documentary sources that mention him.

In classical Rome, in the face of a war situation, all citizens who were owners and between 17 and 46 years of age were obliged to take up arms.

Primitively Rome was subdivided into tribes (three), these in curiae (ten for each tribe), and each curia by a certain number of families ("Gens"). Each curia had to provide the Roman legion (from the Latin "legio", derived from "legere", to collect, to gather, to select; the current equivalent would be "leva"), one hundred infantrymen and ten horsemen.

The Senate (from the Latin senex, elder), appointed two consuls, assigning the command of a legion to each of them.

In the course of the centuries during which Rome maintained its power, the organization, as well as the tactics, or the armament of the legionaries, were modified, although some primitive denominations remained in the legions, as the concept of tribune, or that of centurion.

The term of centurion comes therefore in origin, from the "administrative" term of centuria, and from the levy in this one of one hundred "milites" and ten "equites" as minimum.

Gathered the useful men for the service of arms before the consuls elected by the Senate, two tribunes, one for each consul, were selecting in turn the fittest, so that the men selected for each legion were selected equally.

In Jesus' time, a legion was organized following the reforms adopted by Gaius Marius (c. 157 B.C.-86 B.C.) during the second century B.C., consisting of ten cohorts of about four hundred and eighty to five hundred men, identified numerically from the first to the tenth, each cohort consisting of three maniples (of one hundred and sixty legionaries), and each maniples of two centuries (with eighty men each). The centurions were commanded by centurions that in combat formation, were located on the right in the first row of the centuria, being denominated "centurion prior" the one of the first centuria, and "centurion posterior" the one of the second, both were assisted by an "optio" that was located on the right in the last row of each centuria, being their task to maintain the discipline; There was a denomination not linked to the military organization, the contubernium (from the Latin "contubernium"), which alluded to the legionaries that in number of eight, occupied the same tent or barracks and shared a common impedimenta and the beasts of burden for their transport.

From the "posterior centurion" of the second centurion of the third manipule of the tenth cohort, to the "centurion prior" of the first centurion of the first manipule of the first cohort, called "primus pilus", a "military career" of promotions by merits took place.

During the second half of the first century A.D., for which we do not currently know the reason, the first cohort increased its numbers to eight hundred men integrated in five centuries of one hundred and sixty legionaries each; the remaining nine cohorts remained with the same organization and number of legionaries as before.

It is not the purpose of these lines to describe the evolution of the legions as a military organization, but to illustrate the tradition of the centurion Longinus.

In the synoptic gospels the chief of the soldiers who guarded the crucified on Golgotha is called centurion or "the chief of a hundred", however, St. John who witnessed the events, does not mention any centurion, he only relates that "one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and immediately blood and water came out" (Jn 19.34).

None of the other three evangelists cites the name of the soldier, nor that of any centurion, whom they refer to as "the chief of a hundred" (death of Jesus: Mt 27.45-56; Mk 15.33-41; Lk 23.44-49).

The appearance in the Christian tradition of a centurion named Longinus is late, as we will explain later.

This name appears in the apocryphon of Nicodemus or "Acts of Pilate" ("Acta Pilati"). It is in this text that the names of Longinus, the thieves Dismas and Gestas, or Veronica appear for the first time.

In a miniature present in the Gospels illuminated by Rabula in 586, preserved in the Laurentian Library in Florence, one can read the name "Longinus" in Greek on a soldier directing a spear at the right side of the crucified Jesus.

The name of Longinus has been associated with that of "spearman", perhaps because of the phonetic similarity with the rank leaders ("lochagos") of the Macedonian phalanx; whose basic tactical unit was called "syntagma". Organized by Philip II of Macedon (c. 359 BC-317 BC), the phalanx acted as a combat unit from the second half of the 4th century BC until about the 2nd century BC.

The organization within the phalanx of what today we would call troops, non-commissioned officers, officers and chiefs, is complex and prolix, a "syntagma" was formed by smaller units, and at the same time they were grouped together forming larger units, until they constituted the complete phalanx. Not being the purpose of these lines to describe it, we are not going to detail it; although it forces us to obviate many details with respect to its commands and structure.

Each syntagma was commanded by a syntagarch, and was constituted by 256 men formed in sixteen rows ("lochoi" or "lochos"); each one with sixteen men in column. The warriors located in the first row were the chiefs of each column, being denominated "lochagos"; the main weapon of the phalangites was the "sarissa", the spear used by all the members of the syntagma, spears that came to measure between 5'5 to 6'5 m. forming the first five rows with them a front bristling with moharras that prevented to approach the enemy; maintaining the eleven later rows the "sarissas" in vertical position.

The words "lochos" (ranks) and "lochagos", come from the organization of the Spartan army in times of the medical wars (V century B.C.); being in this other context the "lochos" or "lochoi", a unit of one hundred Spartiate hoplites, and "lochagos" its commander. At this time the spear was called "dory" and usually measured between 2.5 to 3 m., similar dimensions to those of an "hasta" of the times of the Republic of Rome until the military reforms attributed to Caius Marius, which was substituted as usual armament for all the legionaries by a throwing weapon with a notable power of penetration, the "pilum" (whose plural is "pila"), the spear ("lancea") somewhat shorter was implanted from the I century onwards.

However, "Longinos" is not a word of Greek etymology, but Roman; and its literal meaning is "distant", although for a tall and slender individual the expression "longus et tenuis" can be used, and also Longinos.

In ancient Rome the denomination for males and females varied, but followed rules that allowed to establish the family line of its possessor.

Males were identified by what was known as "tria nomina"; the preanomen (equivalent to the current first name), a nomen coinciding with their clan (gens), and if they were nobles a cognomen (originally a nickname associated with some characteristic or anecdote linked to an ancestor, and with which the family was known); "Praetextatus", he of the toga pretexta; "Scipio", the staff; "Caecus", blind; "Cicero", wart; "Caligula" which can be translated by sandalita or botita; etc. , or "Caesar" (Caesar) which means "hairy", a remarkable irony given Julius Caesar's well-known concern to disguise his baldness.

The structure as an example, of the name for Caesar, is:

PRAENOMENNOMENCOGNOMOMENGaius (Gaius)Julius (family Julia)Caesar.

If a slave was manumitted and became a freedman, he could take the praenomen and nomen of his master; freedmen also had a "tria nomina"; the praenomen and nomen corresponded to that of his master, and the cognomen to his former slave name.

If the slave's owner was a woman, the slave would take the praenomen and nomen of her owner's father or husband, leaving her former name as cognomen. If the freedom was granted to a woman, she would take the feminine version of her owner's nomen, and the possessive of her former owner's nomen.

The status of freedman was placed between the nomen and cognomen, and was expressed with the praenomen of the patron in genitive followed by the abbreviation libertus (l<ibertus> or l<iberta>). In the cited cases of freed slaves, the identification was applied without using the cognomen of their previous owners when they followed these rules; for from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. they gradually ceased to be applied.

Thus, in the first third of the first century A.D., an individual could be known as "Longinus" because this was the cognomen of his family, or because he had been in the service of his family.

The History of Rome provides us with four characters with the name of Gaius Cassius Longinus (Gaius Cassius Longinus in Latin).

The first is Gaius Cassius Longinus (consul 171 B.C.), a Roman politician and military man who served as consul and censor.

Another is Gaius Cassius Longinus (consul 96 B.C.), son of the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus.

The third, Gaius Cassius Longinus, who being proconsul during the third servile war (73 and 71 B.C.), was defeated in a confrontation with Spartacus when he tried to intercept him when the latter was heading north with his army to escape from Italy, as quoted by Orosius (Histories 5, 24, 4) and Plutarch (Crassus 9).

His son of the same name (87-42 B.C.), was the main conspirator together with Marcus Junius Brutus (85 B.C.- 42 B.C.) in the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar; after being defeated in the battle of Philippi (42 B.C.) fighting against Octavian and Mark Antony, he committed suicide.

After the above, it can be accepted that the name Longinus is attributable to a descendant of the Cassius Longinus, or someone who had the right to use the family cognomen.

To conclude, the source that provides us with the name of the soldier who pierced the side of Christ with a spear is, as has been cited, the apocryphal Nicodemus or "Acts of Pilate" ("Acta Pilati"). Its origin still remains under debate; it is accepted that they were written in the first half of the fourth century, as a reaction to some Acts of Pilate published around 311 or 312 considered slanderous to the Person of Jesus; in its favor it is contemplated that Tertullian in his Apologeticum (written around 200) mentions an account of what happened in the Passion, which Pilate had addressed to Tiberius (Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, 42 B.C. - 37 A.D.), an account of what happened in the Passion, which Pilate had addressed to Tiberius (Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, 42 B.C. - 37 A.D.), an account of what happened in the Passion, which Pilate had addressed to Tiberius. 37 A.D.), an account or report that given the meticulous procedure of archiving documents in the Roman Empire, it is feasible that Tertullian could have had access to it and read it.

As a more founded opinion, several editors and two very different parts can be distinguished in the text:

Part I ("Acta Pilati": Acts of Pilate).

Part II ("Descensus Christi ad inferos": Descent of Christ to hell).

It is accepted that both parts were unified towards the 10th century, being the first known text where both parts appear together the Codex Einsidlensis; and that its influence in the Christian iconography was very early, as it is deduced from the cited of Rábula in the year 586.

Antonio Petit Gancedo


Benoit, P. Boismard, M.E., Malillos, J.L., Sinopsis de los cuatro Evangelios con paralelos de los apócrifos y de los padres, Editorial española de Desclée de Brouwer, Bilbao, España, 1983

Bishop, M.C., Equipamiento militar romano, Desperta Ferro Ediciones SLNE, Madrid, España, 2016

Connolly, P., Greece and Rome at War, Greenhill Books, London, U.K., & Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 1998

D’Amato, R. and Sumner,G., Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier, Frontline Books, London, U.K., 2009

Pacheco López, C. J., La rebelión de Espartaco, sátrapa Ediciones, S.L., España, 2009

Quesada Sanz, F., Armas de Grecia y Roma, La esfera de los libros S.L., Madrid, España, 2008

Santos Otero, A., Los Evangelios apócrifos, Biblioteca de autores cristianos (tercera edición, reimpresión), Madrid, España, 1979

Warry, J., Warfare in the Classical World, Salamander Books Ltd., London, U.K., 1980

We recommend the excellent issues and monographs on Greece and Rome of the series "Ancient and Medieval History" published by Desperta Ferro Ediciones:

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