The reference to a legion is principally relegated to a Roman legion which was a large division of soldiers in the ancient Roman army. The number of warriors in a legion varied throughout Roman history, from 3,000 to 7,000. In the time of Jesus, a standard Roman legion consisted of about 6,000 men. These legions were the elite soldiers of the Roman army. The reference Jesus made to a legion of Angels would be consistent with 6000 Angels.
The Greek word legiōn meant “army” or “camp.” Originally, to belong to a legion, a soldier had to be a Roman citizen and property owner, but these requirements were relaxed at times when troops were needed. Members of this military unit possessed a variety of skills. The bulk of a Roman legion was made up of foot soldiers or infantrymen. Some served as swordsmen and others as combat specialists and supporting troops. Each legion also contained a unit of 120 cavalry or horsemen.
A legion had about 60 centurions (Matthew 8:5; 27:27; John 18:3; Acts 21:31), one to command each century, a grouping of roughly 100 soldiers. Various centuries were grouped into cohorts, each representing about 500 soldiers. Over the centurions were six tribunes, and leading the entire legion was the legate, a senator appointed by the Emperor.
During the time of the Roman Republic (506 – 27 BC), all male Romans citizens age 17–46 were required by law to be available to serve in the Roman army for a period of up to six years. However, by the start of the Roman Empire (27 BC), Augustus Caesarbrought about changes that created a more professional, long-serving army.
Soldiers in a Roman legion served under respectable conditions. They received regular pay, periodic bonuses, and compensation at the time of release. Living accommodations were often better than what the men experienced outside of the army, with permanent forts that included basic amenities and even bathhouses. Soldiers were well-fed and provided with clothing, equipment, and medical care by the state. Members of Roman legions were considered persons of importance in society and, once discharged from service, were usually able to live comfortably.
In the New Testament, the word legion is never used in a military sense. Because a legion represented a large body of men, the word took on symbolic significance, meaning “a multitude” or “a vast number.” It appears four times in the New Testament.
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