What is the origin of the term ‘Tercio’?

What is the origin of the term ‘Tercio’ – the name adopted by the large Spanish pike and shot units of the Renaissance? The word literally means a bundle, or a one-third part of something (Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez, 2012) but he origin of the term for a military unit is not known. There are, however, various theories.

The main contenders seem to be:

  • Three Corunelas
  • Three ‘battles’ of earlier armies
  • Three Italian garrisons
  • Three weapons of the 1497 Ordinance
Early Spanish tercio

Early Spanish tercio, engraving by Merian. Source – Theatrum Europaeum

Three Corunelas

Firstly, the Tercios were formed from three of the earlier Corunelas. Maybe that is what suggested the term ‘Tercio’.

[A ‘tercio’ was] thrice the size of the ‘colonelcies’ of the previous generation

Oman (1987), p. 58

[The tercios] were created by amalgamating existing Corunelas in threes

Gush (1975) p. 49

Three ‘battles’ of earlier armies

Probably the most common theory is that ‘Tercio’ referred to a body that could form one of the three traditional ‘battles’ of earlier armies – van, main-battle, and rear.

It is likelier that it [the term ‘Tercio’] came from their resemblance to one of the three ‘battles’ of earlier armies.

Gush (1975) p. 49

The [French] legions combined pikemen and arquebusiers in a pattern similar to the better-known tercios of Spain, which are first mentioned by that name in 1534. The tercio (Spanish ‘third) was the tactical formation that took its title from the medieval practice of dividing an army into three parts – the van, main battle and the rear.

Turnball (2006) p. 75

It will be remembered that it was in 1533 that Francis I took in hand the reorganization of the French army into ‘legions’. It is interesting to find that it was in the following year 1534 that we find the first mention of the creation of large infantry units in the Spanish host, thrice the size of the ‘colonelcies’ of the previous generation. These were the ‘Tercios’ whose name was famous for many a day. Apparently the style came from the old military tradition that an army array was divided into three divisions – van, main-battle, and rear – as we have so often seen. A ‘tercio,’ or third, was therefore a body sufficient to make up one of these normal divisions.

Oman (1987), p. 58-59

Three Italian garrisons

However, a popular theory is that the term ‘Tercio’ came from the division of the Spanish forces in Italy to garrison the three main possessions – Naples, Sicily and Milan.

The Venetian ambassador in Naples in 1597, Girolamo Ramuzio, noted that in those times the Spanish infantry in Italy was divided in three parts: the tercio [third] of Lombardy (Milan), the tercio of Naples and the tercio of Sicily; and since then these units became known by the term “tercio”.

Boeri, Mirecki, & Palau (2011) citing Istituo Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici Napoli (1992)

Traditionally, the Ordinance issued in Genoa by Emperor Charles V in 1536 has been considered the document by which the tercios were created. however, the reference to Tercios in the Ordinance states: ‘The Spanish infantry of the Tercio of Naples and Sicily in our army have been paid until the end of September this year, and those of the Tercio of Lombardy until mid-October this year, and the soldiers of the Tercio of Malaga who stayed in Nice, and the company from Jaen that serves in our army, until 25 October’. Therefore, this ordinance did not mark the birth of the Tercios, but simply recognized – under a term which had become official over time – units that had already been formed.

‘Tercio’ as the title of a military unit may have been used first in 1509 for the Tercio of Zamudio (its commander’s name), which became the Tercio of Naples in 1513. Similarly, the Tercio of Sicily was created in 1534 with forces employed in the North African campaign against the Berbers and Turks; and two years later the Tercio of Lombardy was formed in the recently acquired Italian territory of the Duchy of Milan.

Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012) p. 11

However, there is a fly in the ointment for this theory as outlined by the Notario Lopez’s:

The origin of the term tercio for a military unit is not precisely known, and various theories have been put forward (the word literally means a bundle, or a one-third part of something). A logical suggestion that the term originated in the division of the Spanish forces to garrison the three main possessions in Italy – Naples, Sicily and Milan – falls down when we recall that, as noted above, the term had first been used some 20 years before the occupation of the Duchy of Milan.

Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012) p. 11-12

Three weapons of the 1497 Ordinance

The last theory is that the term ‘Tercio’ derived from the organisation of the infantry under the 1497 Ordinance into thirds. Each third being equipped with a different weapon.

The most likely theory finds the origin of the term in the organization of the infantry under the 1497 Ordinance into thirds – tercios – according to their types of weapon.

Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012) p. 11-12

So what do I think?

My view on the main contenders:

  • Three Corunelas: Maybe.
  • Three ‘battles’ of earlier armies: Maybe.
  • Three Italian garrisons: Probably not because the term ‘Tercio’ was already used 20 years before those garrisons existed.
  • Three weapons of the 1497 Ordinance: Probably not because the weapon divisions of 1497 do not correspond to the multi-weapon divisions called a ‘Tercio’ from 1509.

References

Boeri, G. Mirecki, J. L., and Palau, J. (2011). Spanish Armies in the War of the Lague of Augsburg, 1688-1697. The Pike and Shot Society.

Gush, G. (1975). Renaissance Armies 1480-1650. Patrick Stephens.

Istituo Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici Napoli. (1992). Corrispondenze diplomatiche veneziane da Napoli. Le relazioni. Author. [Italian]

Notario Lopez, I., and Notario Lopez, I. (2012). The Spanish Tercios 1536-1704 [Men-at-Arms 481]. Osprey.

Oman, C. (1987). A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Greenhill.

Turnball, S. (2006) The Art of Renaissance Warfare: From the Fall of Constantinople to the Thirty Years War. Greenhill Books.

5 comments to What is the origin of the term ‘Tercio’?

  • Jaime Muñoz

    There are several theories bit the most likely it is note in the article.
    The first document in wich the term “tercio” appeared dates from 1531. It refers to the siege of Firence during the Winter. Till then, troops used to be disbanded in Winter in order to save Money. But in Firenze, the spaniards decided to keep one third (=Tercio) of the troops alive. This was the first tercio and was oficially borne on May 1st 1531.

    • Steven Thomas

      That makes five theories. Sound plausible.

      The problem with this theory is that the “‘Tercio’ as the title of a military unit may have been used first in 1509 for the Tercio of Zamudio (its commander’s name), which became the Tercio of Naples in 1513.” At least according to Notario Lopez & Notario Lopez (2012).

  • Jaime Muñoz

    The assertion that there was a Tercioin 1509 is completely false. Clonard, a very bad historian of the XIX century have stated this but provided no evidence. I challenge Notario on strated that. Copying what others have written without going to archives only perpetuates errors.

    Please to meet you Steven. I recommend you http://www.tercios.org as the most serious study about tercios.

  • Jaime Muñoz

    Tehe Tercio de Napoles was born in 1532, not in 1509, and it was set up from the original created in 1531. http://tercios.org/ITALIA/u_TIE02.html http://tercios.org/ITALIA/inf_espanola_1.html

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