The romans were one of the most advanced civilizations of their time. Conquering vast swathes of territory, they were able to maintain a hold on what they conquered due to their efficiency, building vast road networks, and having an incredibly organized system of governance. It may not have been the fanciest, but it definitely worked.
All this organization would have counted for nothing, however, had it not been for the might of the roman army. Ferociously disciplined, roman troops make even todays elite soldiers seem almost soft. Walking up to 16 miles a day in hobnailed boots, they would then spend 4 hours creating a camp with ditches and defensive walls, before retiring for the night. Do spend weeks performing at that level physically required more than strength, not to mention finding the ability to fight and win at the end of their arduous treks.
It was mindset, and a determination to win, that led the Roman Empire to greatness, and it was in their soldiers that they found it. However, even the hardiest of soldiers need direction, and that was supplied by the toughest soldiers of them all. The centurions. Similar in rank to a modern day warrant officer, a centurion commanded roughly 100 men, and was a position that must be earned through surviving years of the most intense fighting, and most grueling campaigns.
When a legatus, commander of a roman legion, needed to achieve a goal, it was his centurions he relied upon to ensure it saw success. When a centurion was told to stand fast, he would not move. Their resolute bravery was legendary, and with the men under his command often willing to die facing the enemy rather than risk his wrath, a centurion standing strong meant the men under his command would also hold.
This incredible discipline is highlighted extraordinarily well in the year 320 AD. At the time, Christianity had been outlawed in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and all roman soldiers who identified as such were being executed if they failed to convert. The incident in 320, which would become known as the martyrdom of the 40, saw a roman prefect order the Christian men under his command, numbering 40, to strip naked, and walk out to the centre of a frozen lake, where they would spend the night. They were then told that any who chose to renounce their faith would be allowed to come back, and join his brothers in arms.
Upon hearing this, one of the men returned to shore, surely saying something along the lines of “this religion is not for me”. One of his guards, who is most likely to have been a centurion, was so angered by this man’s lack of intestinal fortitude, so disgusted by his cowardice when faced with the idea of dying for what he believed in, that he removed his own clothes, and took his spot. He, along with the other 39 men, froze to death overnight.
The disgust this man felt is almost palpable. A rage at what he deemed to be an inferior man led him to demonstrate the ultimate in discipline, simply to show what it truly means to be a man. The idea of what it means to be a man has changed somewhat in modern times, and it is almost certain that if the scenario was repeated with men from today, the number of men freezing to death would have been a hell of a lot closer to zero.
This power and steadfastness on behalf of roman centurions was so admired, even by their enemies, that whoever wrote the new testament spoke with admiration about the discipline and integrity of the centurions. You may be a man. You may act with honor in life. But to give up on your beliefs in times when they are tested, removes you from the ranks of men, in the eyes of all who have a resolve and steadfastness of spirit that will not allow them to be conquered.
Don’t be a man who will walk off the frozen lake.
*writers note: This incident is still celebrated in some parts of the catholic church, but the facts have become distorted due to the passage of time. And while this is obviously an incident that highlights the bravery of some Christians as well, it is a fact of life that the majority of insanely brave things done by men throughout history have been done by men who had a concrete belief in a deity. So for all those who are upset by the highlighting of Christians, fear not. The aim is to highlight the bravery of men, not religion.