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Roman army – bloody, brutal, vengeful…

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

In the photo, a reenactment group of "Roman legionaries" during a historical picnic at the Maxentius Hippodrome in October 2018
In the photo, a reenactment group of "Roman legionaries" during a historical picnic at the Maxentius Hippodrome in October 2018 | Photo: Michal Kubicz

While we marvel at Rome’s achievements – architecture, mosaics, frescoes, literature and law – the truth is painful: the vast empire was not created by extraordinary coincidence, and the peoples incorporated into it were not consulted. Therefore, although later millions of people living in the Mediterranean basin benefited from the benefits of the Pax Romana and relatively rarely rebelled, this happened only after their ancestors paid with their own blood for the “privilege” of living under the heel of the Romans.

The Romans did not consider whether wartime cruelty to civilians was moral, good, or just. They were only interested in whether it was necessary to achieve the expected goal. In their eyes, purpose justified even the greatest monstrosity. And the goals could be different.
One of them may have been to create a “chilling effect” – to show that any resistance is futile. Example? During the Second Punic War, Scipio captured New Carthage in modern-day Spain and captured the entire city except for the fortress where the last defenders took refuge. Roman troops began slaughtering civilians – they killed literally everyone, regardless of age and gender, all in front of the helpless defenders locked in the castle.

As written by R.A. Gabriel in the book “Scipio Africanus: Rome’s Greatest General”: “Brutality was not Scipio’s inborn trait, but he appreciated its usefulness as a means to achieve important goals”. Hmm … “appreciated the usefulness…” – the author wrote cautiously in reference to the Roman approval of mere bestiality. Scipio was ready to sacrifice the lives of the civilian inhabitants of New Carthage in order to spare his own army during the capture of the fortress. I will omit here the descriptions of these events presented by Polybius. One thing is certain: the future conqueror of Hannibal achieved his goal – the defenders, terrified of the brutality of the Romans, finally surrendered the castle.

The display of unimaginable cruelty by the army could be a form of severe punishment inflicted on the entire community: this was the case with the destruction of Corinth by Mummius in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. It was no longer the commander, but the Roman Senate itself who decided to punish the city for – as Livy writes – the bad treatment of the Roman legates. Rome took the position that everyone owed the respect of the Empire, and whoever did not understand this should be punished as an example. At the same time, the Romans destroyed other Greek cities: Thebes and Chalcis, this time for helping Roman enemies. Here, the punishment for disloyalty was combined with a warning to other cities not to help the enemies of the Empire. Again, civilians became the victims.
Interestingly, the Roman historian Livy does not blame Mummius for razing a given city to the ground. On the contrary, he praises him for his restraint in not appropriating the riches of the cities plundered before the destruction, but sending everything back to Rome. Indifference to the fate of the inhabitants is combined here with typically Roman bureaucratic meticulousness.

Julius Caesar was praised for his clementia (grace/forbearance) shown to his enemies, but events in Gaul showed that when it was necessary to be ruthless, not even an eyebrow twitched. Punishment could affect the entire community for disloyalty to Rome. For example, one Gallic city initially wanted to defend itself against Caesar’s troops but eventually agreed to surrender its arms. Everything indicated that the city would avoid bloodshed. However, when it turned out that during the night some of its inhabitants attacked the Romans, Caesar changed his mind and gave his soldiers a free hand: the city was plundered. In such situations, the legionnaires were merciless – they burst into cities and every slightest sign of opposition was punishable by death. Rape of women was normal. Looting – obvious. Following this event, Caesar sold 53,000 men, women and children taken into slavery to a wholesaler. They probably came to the slave markets in Italy. What was their fate, we can only guess.

An even worse fate befell the inhabitants of another city – Avaricum. Caesar and his men had to work hard during the capture of this well-fortified town, but in the end they breached the walls and surrounded the defenders of the city gathered in the streets and squares. The Romans could have taken them all prisoner, but as Caesar himself writes in his work “On the Gallic War”: “(…) our people, enraged by the slaughter in Cenabum and the hardship of siege works, did not let the old people, women, or children pass. In short, out of a total population of about forty thousand, only eight hundred (…) managed to escape from the city (…)”. It would seem that Caesar allowed a slaughter that was completely unnecessary. However, from his perspective, it was justified, because it allowed him to satisfy the bloodlust of his people, and thus easier to control his own army. Caesar closed the description of the death of 39,000 people in one sentence, which was a dry report devoid of any emotions. Today we would call him a psychopath.

Sometimes, however, the cruelty was at least partly due to the frenzy of battle itself, not the commander’s decisions. Josephus in his “War of the Jews” left us a dramatic account of the capture of Jerusalem by the future emperor Titus Flavius:

The ardor of the advancing legionary soldiers could not be restrained by admonishment or threat, but they were all overcome with fury. (…) The insurgents, for their part, no longer had any possibility to rush to the rescue – there was only slaughter or escape everywhere. Mostly the victims were the weak and unarmed commoners, who were killed where they were caught.

Flavius Josephus, Jewish War

Despite the bloody suppression of the Jewish uprising by Titus, in “Lives of the Caesars” Suetonius praises Titus for his … kindness (sic!), and he dismisses the brutality of the Roman army in Jerusalem with silence. From the perspective of the ancient chronicler, it was something completely insignificant, undeserving of attention. In fact, it was the normal practice of the Romans that rebellious peoples were punished with the greatest severity. The Romans had no mercy for the rebels. The cruelty shown to the Jewish insurgents was to be a warning to others who would like to follow in their footsteps. As a side note, I will add that Joseph reporting on the Jewish war clearly whitewashes Titus, as he indicates that the future emperor had no way to stop the cruelty of the soldiers. But at least Josephus had reasons: remember that he was writing his historical work at a time when he was already indebted to the Flavian family, so he might have been grateful (or cautious!) to omit certain facts that did not fit the emperor’s image.
Did Roman cruelty really stand out from the rest, centuries ago? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, that was the nature of those times. Other peoples also constantly waged wars among themselves, and they were no less bloody. Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Assyrians, Carthaginians or pre-Columbian peoples: all these civilizations had a hand in the endless slaughter of humanity, so it’s hard to blame the Romans for doing otherwise.

The trouble, however, is that twenty centuries have passed, and some things still don’t change. And I can’t understand it.

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