A good deal has been written about the origin and recruitment of centurions, but their language use has not been analysed as an index to their literacy, culture, educational levels, and (in some cases) bilingualism. This paper will be about the sociolinguistics of the centurionate. I take as my starting point two poems from Bu Njem in the African desert, one of which has only recently been published for the first time.
The military outpost of Bu Njem (Golas, Gholaia) lay 200 km south of Cape Misurata in the desert of Tripolitania. The fort, the construction of which began some time after 24 January 201, was garrisoned by a uexillatio of the legio III Augusta, and later by a numerus collatus. From here there survive ostraca of various kinds dated mainly to the 250s, but in this paper I am going to deal with the unlikely topic of poetic activity within the camp. Curiously, we have poems set up on stone in the name of two centurions, both of them acrostichs which spell out the centurions' names. The first, in iambic senarii and dated 202–3, has the name of Q. Avidius Quintianus, the second, dated to early 222, that of M Porcius Iasucthan; Iasucthan is of Libyan origin. This poem, on a charitable view, is composed in hexameters. The poems provide remarkable evidence for the cultural and linguistic level of centurions, if one can make the assumption that the texts were the responsibility of the two centurions themselves.