Vine staff

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The epitaph of M. Caelius, chief centurion (primus pilus) of the ill-fated 18th Legion. His vine staff breaks the frame and even runs across the inscription.

The vine staff, vine-staff, or centurion's staff[1] (Latin: vitis)[2] was a vinewood rod of about 3 feet (1 m) in length used in the ancient Roman Army[3][4] and Navy.[5] It was the mark and tool of the centurion:[6] both as an implement in the direction of drill and maneuvers[citation needed]; and to beat wayward or laggard soldiers or sailors under his command.[7] It was also borne by evocati who held an equivalent rank.[8]


The vine staff may have derived from the Etruscan lituus and was certainly in use by the Punic Wars.[4] Following the enactment of the Porcian Laws in the early 2nd century BC, it was the only manner by which Roman citizens could be beaten[7] and is mentioned by various classical authors. A line in Ovid notes that "the good general commits the vitis to one to command one hundred."[9] Pliny: "The centurion's vine staff is an excellent medicine for sluggish troops who don't want to advance..."[11] "and when used to chastise offenses makes even the punishment respectable."[13] It carried none of the stigma of the whipping (by virgae) suffered by criminals prior to execution or the cudgeling (by fustes) endured for severe military offenses.[14]

Tacitus mentions Lucilius, a centurion known as "Gimme Another" (Cedo Alterum or Alteram) for his tendency to break his vine staffs during beatings;[15] he was one of the first killed during the Pannonian Mutiny.[14]

Generally, however, soldiers were expected to endure their punishments; seizing the vine staff was cause for demotion and breaking it or harming the centurion were offenses punishable by death.[14] Some scholars state the vine staff was the instrument used to beat the Iceni queen Boadicca.[16] St Marcellus the Centurion was martyred following a scene where he cast away his vine staff and repudiated his rank.[17]


The vine staff is often featured on Roman tombs of the 1st through 4th century as a symbol of a centurion's status. These monuments show a variety of forms. During the early Principate, it was usually straight with a rounded top; it later acquired a mushroom-shaped head, which was continued under the Byzantines.[3] Less often, it appeared in knotted and sinuous forms. One centurion gave his vine staff to the Temple of Jupiter at Heliopolis (modern Baalbek) as a votive offering. It was broken and given to the emperor Trajan when he inquired of the oracle of the Heliopolitan Jupiter whether he would survive his upcoming invasion of Parthia.[18]

See also[edit]

  • Pace stick, a similar long stick used in the British and Commonwealth armed forces as a symbol of authority and as an aid to military drill
  • Swagger stick, a similar rod or crop used in the British and American armed services[6]



  1. ^ Robinson (1975), p. 157.
  2. ^ Brand (1968), p. 83.
  3. ^ a b D'Amato & Rava (2012), pp. 38–39.
  4. ^ a b D'Amato & Rava (2013), p. 38–39.
  5. ^ D'Amato & Sumner (2009), p. 20.
  6. ^ a b Webster 1979, p. 132.
  7. ^ a b Walters (1997), p. 40.
  8. ^ Lewis 1890, p. 206.
  9. ^ Ovid, Art of Love, III, 527.
  10. ^ Mannix (1964), p. 33.
  11. ^ Cited in Mannix.[10]
  12. ^ Gallonio (2013), p. 51.
  13. ^ Cited in Gallonio.[12]
  14. ^ a b c Brand (1968), p. 84.
  15. ^ Tacitus., Annals, Bk. I, Ch. 23, §4.
  16. ^ Williams (2009), p. 109.
  17. ^ Gallonio (2013), pp. 49–50.
  18. ^ Cook (1914), p. 553.