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Attitude of Romans towards defeated

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Surrendering Vercingetorix
Surrendering Vercingetorix

The Roman law of war guaranteed its inhabitants relative protection if they surrendered as a result of negotiations with a Roman commander. However, if they refused to capitulate and the fortifications were conquered by storm, then the whole town became a prey for the army. The city that lost the war with Rome had to rely on the grace or disgrace of the “sons of the she-wolf” and often only coincidence, the mood of the legionaries or the attitude of the leader decided about her fate. The worst was, of course, the fate of those cities that were conquered by force, in such a situation nothing could stop the soldiers from cooking hell for the unfortunate inhabitants. They enjoyed a privilege which the Romans called direptio. During the direptio, soldiers had the unlimited right to murder, rape (rapere) and plunder, but this right was limited in time (usually up to 1 day). It should be remembered that during the republic, the legionaries did not appropriate the spoils, but only took them to camps where, after their sale, they were distributed equally among individual centuries (this was of course only theoretically and in historians trying to colour the facts).

Josephus Flavius, a Jewish historian wrote in the “Jewish War” that after the capture of Jerusalem (70 CE), the Romans:

So they now left these towers of themselves, or rather they were ejected out of them by God himself, and fled immediately to that valley which was under Siloam, where they again recovered themselves out of the dread they were in for a while, and ran violently against that part of the Roman wall which lay on that side; but as their courage was too much depressed to make their attacks with sufficient force, and their power was now broken with fear and affliction, they were repulsed by the guards, and dispersing themselves at distances from each other, went down into the subterranean caverns. So the Romans being now become masters of the walls, they both placed their ensigns upon the towers, and made joyful acclamations for the victory they had gained, as having found the end of this war much lighter than its beginning; for when they had gotten upon the last wall, without any bloodshed, they could hardly believe what they found to be true; but seeing nobody to oppose them, they stood in doubt what such an unusual solitude could mean. But when they went in numbers into the lanes of the city with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook without and set fire to the houses whither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is, of such as died by the famine; they then stood in a horror at this sight, and went out without touching any thing. But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood. And truly so it happened, that though the slayers left off at the evening, yet did the fire greatly prevail in the night; and as all was burning, came that eighth day of the month Gorpieus [Elul] upon Jerusalem, a city that had been liable to so many miseries during this siege, that, had it always enjoyed as much happiness from its first foundation, it would certainly have been the envy of the world. Nor did it on any other account so much deserve these sore misfortunes, as by producing such a generation of men as were the occasions of this its overthrow.

Josephus Flavius, Jewish war, VI.8.5

We have a similarly cruel message from the capture of the Gallic Avaricum in 52 BCE. Caesar himself wrote that on that day the legionaries “did not let decrepit old people, neither women nor tiny children.”

Ruins Carthage. A great example of what actions the Romans took towards the defeat is the demolition of Carthage in 146 BCE. The city burned down, and the remains of what was left were plundered by the Romans. When the news of the destruction of Carthage reached Rome, the Senate sent representatives to Africa, who threw the city in a cage and decided to completely destroy it, so that no stone would remain on the stone. The conquest of Carthage ended the Third Punic War.

At the time of the direptio POWs were a kind of prey that the legionaries possessed only for temporary use, the fate of which, in turn, depended on the chief. As a result, taking prisoners was not in the interest of ordinary legionaries. This may explain the frequent massacres of defenceless populations carried out by the Romans. During the Punic Wars, only one city conquered by force escaped the direptio, that was New Carthage, and later the city of Synopa (conquered in 70 BCE – it was saved by L. Licinius Lucullus, but it caused a general hatred towards him among the subordinate soldiers and resulted in the denunciation of obedience in the later period). There is a story connected with the conquest of the aforementioned New Carthage. The men of the victorious Roman leader of the Scipio Africanus brought him the most beautiful woman in town as a captive. The chief caused great consternation when he released this “prey”, for it was unusual and unusual behaviour.

Confirmation that the war by the Romans was brutal is the column Marcus Aurelius, which is a monument to the emperor’s glory over the Marcomanni and the Quadi. On the building, we see women hiding and hiding from Roman soldiers, being led into captivity, and even trying to cover their children with their bodies in a dramatic gesture. Also on the column of the Dacian conqueror, Trajan, we see the civilian population fleeing from the legionaries chasing her. The Romans were proud of their ruthlessness, and for the women were an important part of the spoils of war.

Sometimes the fear of rape and cruelty of the Romans was so great that the opponents of the Romans took drastic decisions. This is evidenced by the attitude of the Cimbri defeated in 101 BCE by Gaius Marius. The defeated barbarians tried to negotiate that their women would not become captives and would instead become untouchable priestesses. Failing that, the Cimbri murdered their women and their children by hanging them, cutting them up, and piercing them with swords. In this way, they wanted to avoid disgracing their bodies.

Cities, of course, were not always conquered by force; some opted for unconditional surrender. Those that fought Rome for the first time and surrendered without a fight, as some cities in Sicily during the First Punic War, were directly dependent on Rome but were not destroyed or given as loot to the legionaries. It was different when the city tried to defend it – it usually meant the same fate as if the city had been conquered by force. Only when the commander saw any benefits in saving the population could he end up spending all valuables and giving them hostages. However, these were exceptional situations, such as in Spain, where two cities (Kertime and Kentobrige) were spared, thinking that this would cause some of the Iberian insurgents to give up fighting.

Sometimes there was a conditional surrender, according to which the city ceased its defence against the Romans on the condition that they undertook to spare the population. Unfortunately, the “honour of the legionaries” who always wanted to be rewarded for their efforts often led to the violation of the provisions of the treaty. There were cases where the commander himself broke a given word, such as M. Claudius Marcellus in Syracuse (212 BCE) and P. Licinius Crassus in Koronea (170 BCE), and even such situations where the conditions negotiated by one of the Roman commanders were broken by another, such as in Casilinum (214 BCE) or Abder (170 BCE).

It is worth mentioning how the Romans dealt with Carthage – the hated enemy at the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE). Well, when the city was razed to the ground, certain religious practices were carried out there – namely, the land on which the proud Phoenician city stood was sprinkled with salt so that nothing would ever grow on it. Appropriate spells were uttered, giving the area of the former city to the gods of the underworld – this meant excluding from settlement forever. Hence, later (in 122 BCE), religious accusations against the Grakch brothers who wanted to establish a colony there – Colonia Iunonia.

Symbolic violence

Ruins of cardo (north-south street) Aelia Capitolina. Today’s old town.
Author: Olivier Lévy | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The Romans also used symbolic violence. According to Josephus, after the first Jewish uprising Jerusalem was in ruins. There is no certainty about the circumstances of Hadrian’s reconstruction of the city. It was renamed Aelia Capitolina (full Latin name: Colonia Aelia Capitolina). According to Cassius Dio, initially, the emperor wanted to benefit the Jews by rebuilding the city. Eventually, however, after visiting Jerusalem, he decided to rebuild the city as a Roman colony and settle soldiers there. Furthermore, Hadrian was to prohibit Jews from returning to the rebuilt city under the death penalty. It was announced by a special sign some distance from the city. It alluded to, among other things, a tablet hanging in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, which in turn threatened to kill the pagans who crossed the holy territory. The Christians were also mocked, because where Jesus’ torment and burial took place, the temple of Aphrodite was erected, who was the goddess of love, and her worship was associated with debauchery, among others temple prostitution (although there is a dispute here by historians) and the so-called holy weddings.

According to Cassius Dio, such an action by the emperor resulted in the indignation of some fundamentalist Jews who began to prepare for the armed uprising that broke out under the leadership of Simon Bar Kochba. The uprising was suppressed by the Romans. Hadrian, under repression, changed the name of the province of Judea to Syria Palestina, prohibited Jews from entering Jerusalem (except on Tisha B’Av), and established a cult of Roman gods there. On the site of the demolished temple in Jerusalem, he founded the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. It is not certain, however, whether the foundation of the Roman colony and the cult of Jupiter in ancient Jerusalem took place before the uprising, or after its suppression, as part of repression. Jews were forbidden to enter the city until the 4th century CE inclusive. The city had no walls. At that time, there was a small garrison of soldiers from the X legion.

Barbarians attack on Roman troops.


There were rules for plundering in the Roman army. When the city was stormed, all the spoils were divided among the legionaries. If the city surrendered by itself, the senior officers decided on the distribution of the spoils.
The fact that the allocation of loot was an important element for the integrity of the Roman army is evidenced by the account of Livius, who mentioned the rebellion of the army stationed at Sukron (in Spain) in 206 BCE. According to the ancient historiographer, the decline in military discipline took place there, among other things, “because they were used to living off quite abundant spoils taken from the enemy.”

In the event of capturing a hostile city, the Romans quite often plundered it, but also murdered its inhabitants. The crimes against the civilians of the captured city were carried out in two ways: on the orders of the chief commander or on his own responsibility. Appian of Alexandria mentioned a culpable (the historian openly admitted that the act in question was a “perfidious crime”) behaviour of Romans against Regium – Romans murdered the inhabitants of the city in 280 BCE during the war with Pyrrhus.

Roman soldiers who stood in the Regium to protect and secure the city against some enemy attack, like their leader Decius, envied the Reginians for their welfare; so they took advantage of the fact that they feasted at a certain religious ceremony and murdered them, and took their wives by force1.

Appian of Alexandria, Roman history, III.9

Polybius, in turn, writes:

As their armies are usually composed of two Roman legions and two legions of allies, the whole four legions being rarely massed, all those who are told off to spoil bring the booty back each man to his own legion, and after it has been sold the tribunes distribute the profits equally among all, including not only those who were left behind in the protecting force, but the men who are guarding the tents, the sick, and those absent on any special service.

Polybius, The Histories, X.16.4-5

However, the Roman military doctrine did not allow the Roman population to suffer, especially women and their virtue. During the civil war in Spain, the Roman commander Sertorius (1st century BCE) ordered the execution of the entire cohort of 500 people. He did so because one of the soldiers of this unit tried to rape a Roman citizen.


Jugurth in chains before Sulla
Jugurth in chains before Sulla.

The punishment of the yoke met the defeated enemies of the Romans very often and was the greatest disgrace that could fall on the defeated opponents. According to Livius, such a yoke was made of three spears, two of which were hammered into the ground, and the third was tied across at the top. Defeated without armour or weapons, they had to pass deeply bent under it, or even crawl. Triumphal Arch is derived from such a yoke, and in a way fulfilled its role.

It is worth adding that the Romans also suffered defeats and sometimes had to go under the enemy’s yoke. During the Jugurthian War (111-105 BCE) in 110 BCE, the Roman army under the command of legate Aulus was defeated at Suthul and to avoid being cut into the trunk, she was forced to a disgraceful passage under the yoke.

Keeping order

Any insurrection and disobedience to Roman authorities met with a stern response from the Romans. “By setting an example” to subsequent rebels, the Romans carried out systematic public executions, including cutting the throats of hundreds of prisoners, creating kilometre-long lines of crucified ones, trampling them guilty by elephants, and finally sending them to individual cities to die in gladiator arenas (the leader and the elect were left alive until the time of triumph, where the plebs of Rome were shown in mocking triumph, walking in chained chains; the leader was later ritually strangled in prison).

You have to remember that Romans were not alone and did not have any particular cruelty. The Greeks, during the Peloponnesian War or later, Alexander the Great, did a similar thing, wiping entire cities off the map. As Caesar noted in his memoirs, his greatest victories cost him several hundred dead and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of enemies. Most of the slaughter carried out by the Roman legions was due to the fact that the enemy army was either in disarray or in flight. Back then, the legions were ruthless and the slaughter was the only guarantee of a lasting victory. There were also cases when the Romans did not fully understand the enemy’s gestures. This is what happened, for example, at Cynoscephalae (197 BCE). As Livy wrote, in “Ab urbe condita”:

Quinctius, after pressing hard on the retreating enemy, suddenly, because he saw the Macedonians raising their spears, and not knowing what this meant, halted his troops for a moment because of the strangeness of the action. Then, when he learned that it was the customary gesture of the Macedonians to indicate their surrender, it was in his mind to spare the vanquished. But the soldiers, ignorant that the fighting was over, so far as the enemy was concerned, and not knowing the general’s plans, charged, and killing the first put the rest to flight.

Titus Livy, Ab urbe condita, XXXIII.10

  1. Own translation from Polish.
  • Appian of Alexandria, Roman History
  • Flavius Josephus, Jewish war
  • Titus Livy, Ad urbe condita
  • Matthews Rupert, Rzym mroczny, ponury, krwawy, Warszawa 2007
  • Polybius, The Histories

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