Polybius, “The Roman Army”

(Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE): Rome at the End of the Punic Wars [History, Book 6])


The discipline and dedication of the citizen-soldiers help explain Rome’s success in conquering a world empire. In the following account, Polybius tells how the commanders enforced obedience and fostered heroism.


As soon as the morning appears, those who have made the rounds carry the tablets to the tribune. If they bring the full number back they are suffered to depart without any question. But if the number be less than that of the guards, the inscriptions are immediately examined, in order to discover from what particular guard the tablet has not been returned. When this is known, the centurion is ordered to attend and to bring with him the soldiers that were appointed for that guard; that they may be questioned face to face with him who made the rounds. If the fault be in the guard, he that made the rounds appeals at once to the testimony of his friends who were present. Such evidence always is demanded from him; and in case that he is not able to bring this proof, the whole blame rests upon himself. The council is then assembled; the cause is judged by the tribune, and the guilty person sentenced to be bastinadoed. This punishment is inflicted in the following manner.

The tribune, taking a stick into his hand, gently touches the criminal; and immediately afterwards all the soldiers of the legion attack him with sticks and stones; so that the greatest part of those that are thus condemned are destroyed immediately in the camp. If any one escapes, yet he is not saved. For all return into his country is shut against him: nor would any of his friends or kindred ever dare to receive him into their houses. Those, therefore, who have once fallen into this misfortune are lost without resource. The conductor of the rear, and the leader of the troops, if ever they neglect to give the necessary notice in due time, the first to the inspectors of the watch, and the second to the leader of the succeeding troop, are subject also to this punishment. From the dread of a discipline so severe, and which leaves no place for mercy, every thing that belongs to the guards of the night is performed with the most exact diligence and care.

The soldiers are subject to the control of the tribunes, as these are to that of the consuls. The tribunes have the power of imposing fines, and demanding sureties, and of punishing with stripes. The same authority is exercised by the prefects among the allies. The punishment of the bastinadoe is inflicted also upon those who steal any thing in the camp; those who bear false testimony; who, in their youth, abuse their bodies; and who have been three times convicted of one fault. These offenses are punished as crimes. There are others that are regarded as the effects of cowardice, and disgraceful to the military character. When a soldier, for example, with a view of obtaining a reward, makes a report to the tribunes of some brave action which he has not performed. When any one, through fear, deserts his station, or throws away his arms in the time of engagement. For hence it happens that many, through the dread of the allotted punishment, when they are attacked by much greater numbers, will even encounter manifest destruction, rather than desert that post which they had been ordered to maintain. Others again, when they have lost their shield, or sword, or any other part of their arms in the time of action, throw themselves precipitately into the very midst of the enemy; hoping either to recover what they have lost, or to avoid by death the reproaches of their fellow-soldiers, and the disgrace that is ready to receive them.

If it happens that many are at one time guilty of the same fault, and that whole companies retire before the enemy, and desert their station; instead of punishing all of them by death, an expedient is employed which is both useful and full of terror. The tribune, assembling together all the soldiers of the legion, commands the criminals to be brought forward: and, having sharply reproached them with their cowardice, he then draws out by lot either five, or eight, or twenty men, according to the number of those that have offended. For the proportion is usually so adjusted, that every tenth man is reserved for punishment. Those, who are thus separated from the rest by lot, are bastinadoed without remission in the manner before described. The others are sentenced to be fed with barley instead of wheat; and are lodged without the entrenchment, exposed to insults from the enemy. As the danger, therefore, and the dread of death, hangs equally over all the guilty, because no one can foresee upon whom the lot will fall; and as the shame and infamy of receiving barley only for their support is extended also alike to all; this institution is perfectly well contrived, both for impressing present terror, and for the prevention of future faults.

The method by which the young men are animated to brave all danger is also admirable. When an action has passed in which any of the soldiers have shown signal proofs of courage, the consul, assembling the troops together, commands those to approach who have distinguished themselves by any eminent exploit. And having first bestowed on every one of them apart the commendation that is due to this particular instance of their valor, and recounted likewise all their former actions that have ever merited applause, he then distributes among them the following rewards. To him who has wounded an enemy, a javelin. To him who has killed an enemy, and stripped him of his armor, if he be a soldier in the infantry, a goblet; if in the cavalry, furniture for his horse; though, in former times, this last was presented only with a javelin. These rewards, however, are not bestowed upon the soldiers who, in a general battle, or in the attack of a city, wound or spoil an enemy; but upon those alone who, in separate skirmishes, and when any occasion offers, in which no necessity requires them to engage in single contest, throw themselves voluntarily into danger, and with design provoke the combat. When a city is taken by storm, those who mount first upon the walls are honored with a golden crown. Those also who have saved the lives of any of the citizens, or the allies, by covering them from the enemy in the time of battle, receive presents from the consul, and are crowned likewise by the persons themselves who have thus been preserved, and who, if they refuse this office, are compelled by the judgment of the tribunes to perform it.

Add to this, that those who are thus saved are bound, during the remainder of their lives, to reverence their preserver as a father, and to render to him all the duties which they would pay to him who gave them birth. Nor are the effects of these rewards, in raising a spirit of emulation and of courage, confined to those alone who are present in the army, but extended likewise to all the citizens at home. For those who have obtained those presents, beside the honor which they acquire among their fellow soldiers, and the reputation which immediately attends them in their country, are distinguished after their return, by wearing in all solemn processions such ornaments as are permitted only to be worn by those who have received them from the consuls as the rewards of their valor. They hang up likewise in the most conspicuous parts of their houses the spoils which they have taken, as a monument and evidence of their exploits. Since such, therefore, is the attention and the care with which the Romans distribute rewards and punishments in their armies, it is not to be thought strange that the wars in which they engage are always ended with glory and success.