The Belt of Truth
Jesus wants to surround us like a strong belt.
By Dick Stenbakken
If you were asked to describe a Roman centurion or soldier, where would you start? Would your eye be drawn to the flashing, shiny metal breastplate? Maybe you would start your description with the distinctive helmet with its bronze decorations and colorful plume/brush. But Paul begins his description of the Roman/Christian armor in Ephesians 6:10-18 with the belt of truth. “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (verse 6:14).*
A Roman Belt
Why would Paul begin with a plain, ordinary item like a belt? Most of us have all kinds of belts hanging in our closets, or around our jeans, skirts, or slacks. After all, a belt is so mundane, so plain, so non-noteworthy. What’s the significance of a belt? Those were my thoughts before my research revealed that the Roman military belt, cingulum, or cingulum militare, was one of the most prized possessions of a Roman soldier.
The cingulum was about 2.5 inches (6.2 centimeters) wide, often with an elaborate bronze buckle and a tang end of 1.5 inches (about 4 centimeters) that went through the buckle. The belt of the younger and lower-ranking soldier would usually be quite plain and unadorned. However, the more seniority and service a soldier achieved, the more elaborately decorated and distinctive the belt became. Higher-ranking centurions usually had bronze plates riveted to their belt that essentially covered the entire surface other than the tang.
Archeologists have excavated belt plates that show quite a wide variety of patterns and decorations. The very high ranking centurion might have engraved plates that had been decorated with niello, a process of filling in the low spots carved out of bronze plates with copper and lead sulfides to make a black contrasting pattern. The bronze and niello would then be sanded down to the same level, and often the bronze would be silvered, producing something similar to a cloisonné pattern of striking beauty.
A Roman military belt was so distinctive that a soldier, even with just his tunic and no armor, could instantly be identified by his belt. The belt was an absolute giveaway as to who he was. When a soldier was put on extra duty as punishment (that’s a form of discipline with a long history), he would often have to stand guard duty in just his tunic without a belt. The tunic was similar to an extra-long T-shirt that came to the knees, so wearing it without his distinctive belt made the tunic look like women’s attire. This would cause humiliation and embarrassment for the soldier.
If a soldier got into really serious trouble, his commander would strip him of his belt, which meant that the soldier no longer belonged to the legion and was unworthy to be known as a soldier. So, the cingulum was, indeed, a very important piece of the Roman soldier’s uniform.
More Than Fashion Accessory
But the cingulum was much more than eye candy. It had multiple vital as well as practical functions. It encircled the armor, keeping it close to the body, ensuring better protection. It also helped to prevent chafing that would often result if the armor were worn loosely. The belt was cinched fairly snug to make it effective. Note that Paul says the belt is to be “buckled around your waist.” It would be ineffective if it were simply a loose decoration. In addition to snugging the armor to the body, the belt also held the leather shoulder strap on which the gladius, or Roman short sword and scabbard, were suspended. That strap would be secured tightly under the belt and would keep the sword handy for immediate use.
Each Roman soldier also carried a side utility-knife dagger called a pugio which was attached directly to the cingulum. This dagger was used for close-up fighting, and no soldier would be ready for duty without it on his belt.
Lower ranking soldiers would have anywhere from five to eight leather straps attached to the belt hanging down from the belt to knee height at the groin area. The straps were about 1 to 1.5 inches wide (2.5 to 4 centimeters).
The group of straps was known as a sporran. When Roman armor went from the chain-mail style, which came to just about the knee, to the solid metal-banded style, reaching only to the waist, soldiers added the sporran as extra weight to prevent the tunic from being lifted by the wind as well as acting as an anchor whenever the soldier sat down. The actual protective battle worthiness of the sporran was minimal, but its placement had emotional value, for the dangling metal ends attached to each strap were designed to make noise as the soldiers marched into battle, thus serving as a type of psychological booster.
Lessons to Be Learned
Obviously, the Roman belt had many vital purposes well beyond our common belts today. No wonder Paul began his description of armor with the belt of truth. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Imagine this. Jesus wants to surround us like a strong belt and help keep us together in all the battles of life. He wants to be a “tight” part of our life, not just a mere attachment, loosely associated with us. When we allow Him to be our essential truth, we can be as clearly identified by those around us as His followers, just as the Roman soldier was identified by his cingulum.
God’s truth is not mere decoration. Jesus, the living truth, brings real, down-to-earth, functional practicality to our existence and all we do and are. He helps us to be well equipped when facing our spiritual foe.
One important thing to remember is that the belt is not to be used as a weapon causing harm and destruction. Rather, it is a part of the whole armor that offers strength, readiness, beauty, and stability to our individual lives. Paul showed great insight when he started with the belt of truth, and we would be wise to buckle it around us daily.
How is your belt today?
Dick Stenbakken is a retired director of
Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. He writes from Loveland, Colorado.