Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions
Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Stephanie Schoppert - July 28, 2016

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Decimation as Discipline

The discipline of the Roman Legionaries was legendary. Men who infringed even the most minor rule could face severe punishments. The ordinary soldier was often beaten for not doing their duty. Punishments and beatings were severe enough that men would obey orders even in fear of battle or harsh conditions. However, the severe form of discipline often resulted in mutinies and they were a common occurrence especially after the 3rd-century crisis. The most extreme form of punishment was the decimation and this was a collective punishment. It was often used by senior commanders to punish troops that had attempted or threatened mutiny.

The word decimation is derived from Latin for tenth and it can be loosely translated as ‘taking a tenth’. If a unit was found guilty of mutiny then they were sentenced to decimation. The legion was lined up without arms and their standards. Some reports say that they also had to remove their armor. Then one out of every ten men would be stoned to death. Some reports say that commanders would choose the men and others say their colleagues would choose. Some say the men were chosen individually and others state it was by lot. Whatever the method it made soldiers think twice about mutiny and was so brutal that even those who administered it saw it’s faults. They knew that often innocent men were punished by decimation but the fear that was generated by the punishment was considered worth this necessary evil.

The punishment was very rare. The remaining soldiers were often punished by giving a poor diet and by being obliged to reside outside of the camp for a given period.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions
Bust of Flamen

Rituals For War

When it came to declaring war there were a number of rituals that were traditionally performed. A specialized body of priests known as fetials had a number of different rituals that they needed to perform in order for war to be declared by the Senate. The final part of the ritual was to throw a spear into enemy territory. This worked well enough for a time but eventually the territory of Rome grew to be far too big for this to be practical. Rome often did not even share borders with their enemy or the enemy was much too far away from the fetials for them to throw the spear.

Most were ready to do away with this part of the tradition but the fetials were too superstitious to let it go. They found a rather ingenious way to keep up the tradition without actually having to travel long distances or through enemy territory. They found a spot of land near the temple of Bellona (the goddess of war) and declared that spot of land to be non-Roman. When the Romans decided they wanted to go to war against King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 BC they needed to throw a spear into his territory. So the Roman Legion captured one of King Pyrrhus’ soldiers and forced him to buy the piece of land near the Bellona temple. Then the fetials were able to throw the spear onto this land that now belonged to the enemy they wished to fight.