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Discipline in the Roman Army was ruthlessly enforced. Both legionaries and cavalrymen received the same punishments. As you'd expect, punishments varied with the severity of the offense committed. Unlike today, however, imprisonment was never used as a punishment; but rather it was used to detain those awaiting trial or execution.

Capital Offenses

Capital offenses, according to laws governing the Roman Army, warranted death as a punishment and consisted of such crimes as

  • conspiring against a commander,
  • wounding or killing a fellow soldier,
  • insubordination,
  • fleeing a battle,
  • entering a Roman camp over the wall,
  • faking illness to avoid battle,
  • espionage,
  • treason, and
  • desertion to the enemy in battle.

If a soldier were found guilty of a capital offense, his punishment might take the form of beheading, hanging, burning alive, or consignment to the arena. Executions were handled by the army commander's lictors.

If a cohort of soldiers were guilty of a capital offense, the punishment invoked might be decimatio (decimation). Decimation involved selecting every tenth man from the cohort to be stoned or clubbed to death (fustuarium) by their comrades in the remaining cohorts. A minor penalty, like being forced to eat barley rather than wheat rations, was often levied against the survivors of the offending cohort.

For insubordination by a unit, one possible punishment was being made to encamp outside the walls of the camp. For mutinying, a unit might suffer disbandment.

In actuality, the death penalty was not invoked very often.

Non-Capital Offenses

Non-capital offenses consisted of such crimes as:

  • allowing a standard to fall into enemy hands,
  • casting down weapons during a battle,
  • fleeing the palisade or wall,
  • desertion to the enemy in peacetime
  • going AWOL,
  • giving false witness,
  • blatant physical unfitness
  • theft and
  • rape.

Punishment for such offenses might take the form of: dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank, flogging, fines, extra duties, relegation to an inferior job, humiliation of some sort,or body mutilation.

One form of humiliation might be to parade for a whole day in front of the orderly tent, sometimes only in a tunic to emphasize that the offender had failed in his duty as a legionary. The punishment for rape was to cut of the man's nose. The punishment for stealing a horse might be the loss of the thief's hands; for stealing weapons it might be a flogging. The punishment for desertion to the enemy in peacetime was reduction in rank if you were a cavalryman or dishonorable discharge if you were an infantryman. The ultimate punishment which could be levied against a unit which had lost its standard was its disbandment.