If a Roman General Ordered Decimation, What Would Have Happened if the Legionaries Refused to Comply?

If a legion ordered to perform decimation refused to comply, the other legions under the commander would be brought into action. It is quite possible that the entire mutinous legion would be killed. The Romans took mutiny very seriously.

In 206 B.C. Publius Cornelius Scipio faced a mutiny among the soldiers at his base at Sucro in Spain. He had been ill and there had been a rumor that he had died. Due to his illness the soldiers had not been paid in a timely fashion. Scipio did not order a decimation, he wanted to punish the specific ringleaders, not random soldiers. He sent seven military tribunes to Sucro to find out what was going on and determine who the ringleaders were.

He ordered the 8000 soldiers to come to New Carthage to get their back pay. When they got there, the ringleaders were invited to dine with the officers, and plied with plenty of wine. When they were sufficiently drunk they were arrested and put in chains. The rest of the soldiers in the group were disarmed. The next day he assembled the soldiers of the mutinous legions. They found themselves disarmed and surrounded by soldiers loyal to Scipio who were banging their swords on their shields. Scipio addressed the soldiers in the following terms:

“I never thought words in which to address my troops would fail me,” he said. “Having lived with the army almost from my boyhood, I know soldiers through and through. But now, in your presence, I do not know what to say or how to say it. I do not even know by what title I should address you. Am I to call you Roman citizens, you who have revolted against your country? Can I call you soldiers when you have renounced the authority of your general and broken the solemn obligations of your military oath? Your appearance, your features, your dress and your demeanor I recognize as those of my fellow countrymen, but I see that your actions, your language, your spirit and temper are those of our enemies! What differences are there between your hopes and aims and those of the Ilergetes and the Lacetanians? And yet they chose men of kingly rank, Mandonius and Indibilis, to lead them in their madness, while you delegated the auspices and supreme command to Atrius, an Umbrian and Albius, a man from Cales. Please tell me, soldiers, that you did not all join in that or approve of its being done. I will gladly believe that only a few were guilty of such insensate folly, if you assure me that this is so. For the crime is of such magnitude that if it involved the whole army it could only be expiated by a frightful sacrifice!

“It is painful for me to speak of these things, but unless these wounds are handled and probed they cannot be healed. After the expulsion of the Carthaginians from Hispania I did not believe that there were people anywhere who wished me dead, and yet so greatly was I mistaken that even in my own army the report of my death was not only credited but eagerly looked for. I would not for a moment wish to lay this to the charge of you all, for if I thought that the whole of my army wished for my death, I would die here before your eyes. My life would have no attraction for me if it were hateful to my fellow countrymen and my soldiers.

“About myself I prefer to be silent. You may have lent a thoughtless rather than a willing ear to reports of my death. But your country-what has it deserved of you that you should make common cause with Mandonius and Indibilis for its betrayal? What have the Roman people done that you should deprive the tribunes whom they elected of their authority and bestow it on private individuals? And not content with having such men for tribunes, you, a Roman army, have transferred the fasces of your commander to men who have never possessed so much as a single slave to be at their command! The headquarters tent was occupied by an Albius and an Atrius; at their doors the trumpet sounded; to them you went for orders; they were seated on Publius Scipio’s tribunal; the lictors were in attendance and cleared the way before them; in front of them the axes and fasces were borne!

“Though no crime is dictated by rational motives, I would still like to know what was in your mind, what was your intention? Years ago a legion which was sent to garrison Regium murdered the principal men of the place and kept possession of that wealthy city for ten years. For this crime the entire legion of 4000 men were beheaded at Rome in the forum. But at least they chose a military tribune, Decius Vibellius, to lead them, not an Umbrian who was little more than a camp-follower, or an Atrius whose very name is an evil omen. Nor did they join hands with Pyrrhus, the Samnites or the Lucanians, the enemies of Rome, but you communicated your plans to Mandonius and Indibilis and prepared to join them at arms. They intended to make Regium their home without any idea of attacking Rome or its allies. Did you intend to make Sucro your permanent abode?

“What hope of a successful revolt could you have entertained? Even if the rumor that I was dead had been correct, did you imagine that such tried leaders as Marcus Silanus, Gaius Laelius and my brother Lucius Scipio would have failed to avenge this insult to Rome?

“Coriolanus was driven to make war on his country by an iniquitous sentence which condemned him to dishonored and forlorn exile, but his affection as a son recalled him from the crime which he was meditating as a citizen. What have you suffered to call out this bitter hostility? Did you proclaim war against your country, did you desert the people of Rome in favor of the Ilergetes, did you trample underfoot all law, human and divine, simply because your pay was a few days in arrears owing to your general’s illness?

“There is no doubt about it, soldiers, you were seized with madness; the bodily illness from which I suffered was not one whit more severe than the mental malady which overtook you.

“I admit that my words have appeared stern and unfeeling to you, but how much more unfeeling, think you, has your conduct been than anything I have said? You imagine that it is right and proper for me to tolerate your actions, and yet you have no patience to hear them mentioned. Bad as they are however, I will not reproach you with them any longer. As for the army as a body, if you sincerely repent of your wrongdoing you give me satisfaction enough and more than enough. Albius of Cales and Atrius of Umbria with the other ringleaders in this detestable mutiny will expiate their crime with their blood. The sight of their punishment ought to give you satisfaction rather than pain, if indeed you have recovered your sanity, for their designs would have proved more mischievous and destructive to you than to anyone else.”

Then the ringleaders were brought forth, naked and in chains. They were scourged and decapitated in the presence of their fellows.

It is highly unlikely that a Roman cohort or legion would refuse to comply with an order for decimation because they would have known that far worse would follow.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.