The History of Military Ranks

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Podcast Transcript

Every military in the world is a hierarchal organization. There are people at the top who make decisions, people down below who follow those orders, and people in between who make it happen. 

Today, most militaries have an elaborate rank structure with multiple ranks in the chain of command. 

However, it wasn’t always like that. The modern system of ranks evolved over time, and the ranks that exist today have origins that go back centuries. 

Learn more about military ranks, where they came from, and what they mean on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m guessing that most of you are at least familiar with most of the basic military ranks: general, colonel, sergeant, private, etc. 

What those ranks represent and what the terms mean were something that evolved over time. 

But before I get into the individual ranks and how they were established, we should go way back to how ranks were created in the first place. 

When humans began organized warfare, it was small bands of people who all probably knew each other. There was no need for a hierarchy beyond that of someone who was the leader. 

The name of that person was probably just whatever the word for “leader” was in whatever language they spoke. 

However, over time, armed groups grew larger. This corresponded with the rise of civilizations and agriculture. Larger, more organized states were capable of raising larger armies. 

These armies were a far cry from a band of extended relatives that fought each other in the Paleolithic age. These armies required significant amounts of organization and logistics to move and fight.

One of the first civilizations to raise massive armies of this size was ancient Persia. Persia was the largest empire of its time, encompassing many different cultures and languages. 

Persia was able to raise armies of tens and even hundreds of thousands of men. 

They organized their army in a way that actually made quite a bit of sense, something you would have expected to develop centuries later. 

They organized their units by factors of ten. The smallest unit consisted of ten men and was called a dathabam. The leader of a dathabam was called a dathapatis

The next unit was that of 100 men called a satabam which was led by a satapatis.

A unit of 1,000 men was hazarabam and was commanded by a hazarapatis.

Finally, a unit of 10,000 men was a baivarabam, commanded by a baivarapatis.

At the very top was a commander-in-chief known as the Eran spahbod.

This hierarchy was rather simple by modern standards. An army of 100,000 soldiers would only have five levels of hierarchy, from the top commander to the simple soldier. 

At the bottom of the hierarchy, you didn’t have a whole lot of diversity. You had spear-wielding foot soldiers, archers, and cavalry. Logistical roles would have been filled by civilian camp followers, or by the soldiers themselves. 

The Roman military had a very different system if you remember my episode on the subject. Their commanders were usually elected during the republican period. Oftentimes, armies would be led by one of the two sitting consuls. 

The commander of an army was called a legate, and under them were tribunes, who were often the sons of high-status Roman families. Below that were centurions, who were responsible for much of the real work of the army. 

After the Roman Empire fell in the West, there were changes to how militaries were organized in both the West and the remnant of the empire in the East, aka the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines established a very complicated military hierarchy with the Strat?gos at the top, followed by Tourmarch?s, Droungarios, Domestikos, Magistros, and finally, Komes.

The Byzantine Army is probably worth its own episode in the future, but suffice it to say that it was complicated. 

In Western Europe, feudalism developed—a rigid social system with peasants and nobility. 

Pretty much every military was a reflection of the feudal system. The head of an army would be a lord or a king. If you were a lesser noble, you would be a knight or some other commander.

If you were a penniless peasant, then you were a foot soldier. With some exceptions, it didn’t really matter how smart or talented you were. Social rank was commensurate with military rank. 

Things started to change with the Renaissance as armies became more professional and larger, but they didn’t change that much. Even going into the 18th and 19th centuries, you could buy an officer commission in the British Army. 

Ranks became more formalized in the 18th and 19th centuries, even down to the lowest soldier.  As armies became professionalized, they allowed for promotion and advancement even for common soldiers, something which was possible in the past, but the options were very limited. 

When the world wars came about in the 20th century, the Allies had issues with their ranks. For the most part, there were similar ranks in each army, but the ranks weren’t exactly the same, which made things awkward when you had joint commands. 

In a previous episode on the subject of six-star generals. I mentioned that the rank of five-star general was created simply because other Allied armies had a rank of Field Marshall that the Americans didn’t have. 

When NATO was formed after the war, one of the things the allies did was normalize their ranks across all the member nations. The names for some of the ranks might be different in different countries, but there were now clear equivalents in rank. 

Likewise, rank equivalents were made across all branches of the armed services. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force all have the same number of ranks with equivalent ranks. 

There are currently nine enlisted ranks across all NATO countries, with a special 10th rank for the single top non-commissioned officer in each armed forces branch. Four of the ranks are for enlisted soldiers, and five for non-commissioned officers.

Likewise, there are 10 NATO equivalent officer ranks: 2 junior officer ranks, three senior officer ranks, and five general/flag officer ranks.

So, with that, I want to discuss the origin of the current military ranks. Each rank has a unique history, and the words have a unique etymology. 

I’m mostly going to use American Army ranks, but they are very similar to ranks in other countries as well. 

So, I might as well start with the most common rank, private.

Private is the lowest rank in any army. Historically, what we consider a private has often been known as a soldier, a footman, or some equivalent. 

The term private comes from the term “private soldier.”

You might be asking yourself, what is so private about a private? If there is a private, is there a public?

Actually, sort of. The term “private soldier” has been described in a few different ways.

The first is that “private soldiers” were distinct from members of the nobility who were officers and led more public lives. Similar to how someone might call themselves a “private citizen.”

Another explanation is that a “private soldier” was someone who didn’t have anyone under him. He was only responsible for themselves. 

The term “private soldier” is an antiquated term that isn’t used much today, but it was used frequently in the 18th and 19th centuries. The term private was first used in the British military, and it was later copied by the Americans, who, for the most part, just copied most of the British ranks. 

It was first used as a rank in the 18th century. 

In the US Army, there are two ranks of private, the lowest of which is often called a recruit, and a third rank called a private first class. 

Going up in rank, the next rank would be a corporal. A corporal is usually considered to be the lowest rank of non-commissioned officer.

The word corporal is derived from the Latin word “corpus” which means body, with the medieval Latin derivative “corporalis” meaning “of the body”. 

This rank originally denoted an officer responsible for a body of troops or a particular unit.. It has a NATO rank of OR-4 and a Uniformed Services pay grade rank in the US of E-4.

Next are sergeants. The word sergeant comes from Old French, which itself comes from the Latin word “serviens,” meaning “one who serves.” This rank historically denoted a servant or attendant.

Some organizations, such as the United States House of Representatives have a Sergent at Arms, which is not a military position but rather reflects the ancient use of the word. 

The US Army has multiple ranks of sergeant including Sergeant Major, First Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Sergeant first class, and Staff Sergeant.

The rank was first used in the British military and the name came from the fact that each officer was assigned a sergeant, which explains the name and its origin as a servant. 

Today, sergeants are the highest-ranking non-commissioned officers, and each branch of the military has a special rank of a single sergeant, known as the Sergent Major of the Army, or Marine Corps.

Above sergeants are officers, and the lowest-ranking officers are lieutenants. 

The word lieutenant comes from the French words “lieu” meaning place, and “tenant” which means holding.  Combined they mean “holding in place,” referring to someone who holds a position in the absence of a higher authority.

A lieutenant would often be someone acting in the name and authority of the king. 

In the US Army, Marines, and Air Force, there are second lieutenants and first lieutenants. 

A big question many people, including many British people, wonder is why Commonwealth Countries pronounce it as “leftenant”, when there is nothing in the word that would indicate that sounds like an ‘f’.

The best reason I’ve heard is that in Old French, lieu was “luef,” and that was the pronunciation that took in Britain. The “leftenant” pronunciation was used in the American military as late as the 1790s but eventually fell out of favor. 

The next rank is captain. Captain comes from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head.” The term was used to denote the leader of a unit or head of a company of soldiers.

While the origin of the word is the same for a naval captain, a captain in the Navy and a captain in the Army have totally different equivalent ranks. A naval captain is the equivalent of an Army colonel. 

An Army captain is normally the head of a company that usually consists of roughly 100 – 200 soldiers.

Above a captain is a major. The origin of major is very straightforward. It comes from the Latin term “major,” meaning “greater” or “senior.” It was originally used to denote the senior subordinate of a Colonel.

A major can lead a company, or they could be an executive officer in a larger unit such as a regiment. 

Above a major is a colonel. The US military has lieutenant colonels and colones. 

The word originates from the Italian word “colonnello,” which means “column of soldiers.” The title refers to the commander of a column or regiment in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The word colonel has a very odd pronunciation, given how the word is spelled. The reason has to do with the fact that the Italian word came to English via French. The French had originally changed the Italian word to coronel, spelled c-o-r-o-n-e-l. That is also how it is spelled in Spanish. 

For whatever reason, in English, the original Italian spelling was taken, but the pronunciation was pronounced in the French manner….which had a different spelling.

FYI, Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, did not hold that rank in the military. Rather, he was a Kentucky Colonel, an honorary title bestowed by the State of Kentucky. 

A colonel will usually be in charge of a regiment. 

Finally, above colonel, is general. The word ‘general’ is derived from the Latin word “generalis,” meaning “pertaining to all, universal.” This term came into use as a rank in the French Army and was adopted by the British Army and subsequently by the American Army to denote the highest level of command.

There are currently five ranks of generals on the books in the United States. In order of seniority from lowest to highest is a Brigadier general, a Major general, a Lieutenant general, a General, and a General of the Army…and if you remember back to my episode, there is also a sixth rank of general known as General of the Armies. 

Note that while a major outranks a lieutenant, a Lieutenant General will outrank a Major General. 

In Germany in the 19th century, they used to have a rank known as a Colonel general. 

In this episode, I’ve focused primarily on Army ranks, which are very similar to ranks in other branches of the miliary, save for the navy. Naval ranks and traditions are very different, and I’ll save those for a future episode. 

As with many things in our world, military traditions date back centuries, which is why many military ranks with odd spellings or pronunciations still exist today.