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From Stick to Scepter: How the Centurion's Switch Became a Symbol of Roman Power

Graeme Ward

McMaster University

My paper explores how the vitis, the vine-stock that a Roman legionary centurion wielded as a cane with which to punish his soldiers, developed during the Principate from a punitive tool to a positive symbol of military status and imperial authority. As Augustus and his successors transformed the legions into a permanent, standing army, centurions acquired responsibilities beyond combat, including the management of outposts, logistics and supply, policing, and local administration, and they received greater pay and social benefits to match. Despite this increasing professionalization and bureaucratization of centurions, however, the vitis remained their trademark. In fact, it became the most prominent object with which centurions depicted themselves in funerary relief. Ancient authors from Pliny to Eusebius, moreover, refer to it as a symbol of “supreme authority and command” (summam rerum imperiumque) and “honor of the Romans” (Ῥωμαίων ἀξίας). In effect, the vitis transcended its origins as a punitive tool to become a badge of the centurionate and a symbol of the emperor’s military authority that each centurion was to represent and protect.

Historians such as Saller (1994), Aubert (2002) and Phang (2008) have interpreted violence and punishment in ancient Rome as a kind of performance, a social ritual, expressed through a variety of language, ritual and imagery, that communicated and distinguished power between different individuals and groups. Several scholars have also examined some of the “props” of this performance – the weapons themselves – and what they reveal about broader practices and ideologies of Roman warfare and imperialism. James (2011), for example, demonstrated how the sword became not a just a weapon in the hands of Roman legionaries, but an artifact, a metaphor for the martial power of the Roman state. Marshall (1984), Schäfer (1989) and Drogula (2007), moreover, have shown the varied meanings attached to the fasces, from a representation of a magistrate’s power to inflict corporal and capital punishment, to a broader symbol of Roman imperium. The vitis, however, has received no such attention, despite its prominence in both textual and visual evidence. My paper, then, addresses this gap in studies on the symbols of Roman power.

I begin by examining textual evidence, particularly from Polybius, Varro, Livy, and Plutarch, of the vitis’ origins as a punitive tool in the Roman Republic. I next trace its development into the chief symbol of the centurionate during the Principate by surveying its appearance in funerary inscriptions to centurions and in the literature of the period, including Lucan, Pliny and Juvenal. I then argue two points. First, that a closer study of how the vitis was transformed over the course of the Principate illustrates the development of the centurionate itself; the transformation of the vitis from a brutish, punitive tool into a “scepter,” a positive symbol of imperium, reflected the simultaneous development of centurions from combat officers selected among the soldiers, to influential military and imperial administrators with greater pay and prestige, who were supportive of Rome’s ruling class. Second, I argue that a closer examination of the vitis contributes significantly to scholarship about how power in the Roman Empire was articulated through imagery of punishment and violence. Rather that exploring such imagery amid its aristocratic leadership, however, my paper shows the potential for investigating a symbol of power prominent at an “intermediate” level of Roman military life and society, among officers who were prominent representatives of Roman authority at the periphery of the empire.

Session/Panel Title

War and its Cultural Implications

Session/Paper Number

45.1

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