Grisly Roman Army Discipline

How Rome Conquered the World (Part 4)

Army Discipline

Polybius admired the Roman camp but it was army discipline that really fascinated him. It fascinated everyone. It shocks today. It was strict to the point of inhumanity. Take guard duty. Everyone has to stand guard occasionally—everyone in all armies everywhere. Nights are long and mostly there is no enemy out there beyond the wall. Just before daybreak you, a picket, might find yourself with a heavy head—you might even jerk and find that you have dozed off. Now in the Roman army if that happens to you—if you let it happen—and you are discovered, it means your disgrace and your death. There is a summary court-martial that same morning and a swift sentence. The tribune approaches you with a cudgel—a club—and taps you symbolically on the shoulder. A warning? No: it is the signal for your comrades to come and beat you to death with clubs and stones. There is no appeal. “The consequence of the extreme severity of this penalty and of the absolute impossibility of avoiding it is that the night watches of the Roman army are faultlessly kept,” says Polybius. You better believe it.

Beating to death was the punishment for several other offences, such as giving false evidence, stealing, homosexual practice, and committing the same fault three times. Leaving your post out of fear and throwing away any of your weapons on the battlefield was also punished with death. “For this reason,” says Polybius, “men who have been posted to a covering force are often doomed to certain death. This is because they will remain at their posts even when they are overwhelmingly outnumbered on account of their dread of the punishment that awaits them.” And: “Those who have lost a shield or a sword or any weapon on the battlefield often hurl themselves upon the enemy hoping that they will either recover the weapon they have lost, or else escape by death from the inevitable disgrace and the humiliations they would suffer at home.”

VIRTVS EXERCI-TVS ROMANORVM, soldier standing right, head left, holding trophy over left shoulder and placing hand on head of kneeling captive; *SIRM (wreath) (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.)

Sometimes it happened (though not very often and you will soon see why) that a whole body of soldiers turned tail in a battle. Maybe a whole squadron deserted its post. In this case, the court handed down the famous, the ghastly, sentence of decimation. The tribune called the legion on parade and ordered to the front those who were guilty of desertion of their ranks. He reprimanded them, called them every name he could think of. This was not just another sermon. Everyone knew how it was going to end. “Now I want each of you to choose a number,” he told them. And by lot one out of every ten men was chosen to pay the penalty. What penalty? On the tribune’s order, the army fell on these men—their comrades—and clubbed them to death, mercilessly.
The rest of the guilty men were allowed to live, but possibly they thought death was preferable to the humiliation they had to suffer then. They were told to quarter themselves outside the camp walls, where they were unprotected; and they were given rations of barley—horse food—rather than wheat for sustenance. Their disgrace would live as long as they did. Wasn’t that just the right way, says Polybius, of inspiring terror and repairing the harm done by a weakening of their warlike spirit? Chapeau! [Polybius’ praise—not this author’s]

“But it isn’t only your severe punishments that produce right conduct,” Polybius told the Romans. “That alone wouldn’t make men brave. You encourage them to act heroically by holding out all kinds of rewards and incentives.”

A soldier who acted in battle with extraordinary valor was praised by his general in front of all the troops and presented with gifts. He received a spear if he wounded an enemy—not in a pitched battle, of course, but in a skirmish or in any clash where it wasn’t necessary to engage in single combat. The hero had voluntarily and deliberately exposed himself to danger. An infantryman was awarded with a cup if he killed and stripped an enemy; a cavalryman was presented with horse-trappings. The first man to scale the wall of an enemy city was given a golden crown. And a crown was also given to a soldier who had saved a comrade’s life; “and the comrade whose life he had saved revered him for the rest of his life and treated him as his own father”.

The men who receive those awards were honored not just in the army but back home too, where they were given a place of preference in the religious processions. They showed up wearing their decorations—they were the only ones allowed to do that. And their trophies were hung up in their houses in conspicuous places to remind everyone of their valor. A Roman boy, growing up with those trophies around him, hearing the war stories of his father and friends, and seeing the respect given to the heroes, could hardly wait to join the army and perform deeds like theirs, or greater ones.

“Have you ever seen one of our funerals?” the Romans asked Polybius.

“I sure have. That’s another good example of how you inspire everyone to earn himself a good reputation.” See Roman Funerals Were Like Plays

See How Rome Conquered the World (Part 5) and read about her unique constitution

Return to How Rome Conquered the World (Part 1)


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13 Responses to Grisly Roman Army Discipline

  1. And let us not forget the case of poor Titus Manlius Torquatus, who, when provoked by the enemy fought and won, only to be rewarded with the death penalty for having disobeyed orders (by his own dad too).

  2. Anonymous says:

    thank you so much, this really helped me on my test

  3. Anonymous says:

    thank you so

  4. Anonymous says:

    i did find it intresting

  5. 100swallows says:

    Tom: Those were mean times, though I always suspect that Polybius exaggerated a little. He must have told these things to his Greek countrymen to get them to shape up. Maybe in theory (and on campaign) the Roman army was that tough but Caesar doesn’t sound so heartless and Suetonius, for instance, has Caesar’s soldiers affectionately ridicule him for being gay.

  6. Tom says:

    Id desert, go to Spain or somewhere than serve with those murdering skunks.

  7. dominic says:

    helped me on project thanks

    dominic millner

  8. dominic says:

    that rocked it will help me very munch on project

  9. James says:



    sometime, even people “not really willing or capable to fight” was forced to the due.. but only when strongly needed..

    Roman lost the battle at Cannes not because of tactics (as some people like to say) but because they had a very few trained soldier to deploy against Hannibal and had to fight with many “badly equipped and trained” peasants

  10. 100swallows says:

    Apetcher: It looks like a Roman soldier of those times was a kind of state slave with all duties and no rights.

  11. apetcher says:

    I assume from all of this that there was no grievance policy in the Roman Army!

  12. 100swallows says:

    You better believe it, Eileen. A bit too harsh, no? Polybius the Greek romanticized Roman army toughness. He adored Spartan discipline too. Everywhere he shocks with praise of what we would call Roman atrocities. They were brutal and efficient rather than humane.

  13. elementaryteacher says:

    Wow, no wonder there were no slackers in this army!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

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