Discipline in the Roman army – a system of punishment & reward

The Roman army was probably one of the most effective fighting forces in history. A large contributor to that effectiveness was the discipline that was regularly praised by generals like Caius Julius Caesar. But while the weapons and armor of Roman soldiers are widely known it is far less known how the discipline was upheld by a sophisticated system of punishments and rewards.

In the following, I would like to present the different types of punishments and rewards that were used to keep up discipline in the Roman army. Additionally, I will also explain who was responsible for imposing these punishments and rewards.

Some offenses, especially those threatening the entire unit (like falling asleep on guard duty) were punished with the death penalty or a dishonorable discharge which kept the soldier from getting his retirement and ostracised him). Less severe offenses were punished with degradations, pay reductions, or corporal punishment. Outstanding service was rewarded with promotions, a bonus, or decorations. Punishments and rewards could either hit individual soldiers or entire units.

Please note that this article is part of a series of articles that are aimed at giving more insights into the lives of the regular Roman soldier. You can find links to these articles at the bottom of the page.

But let`s now dive into how a system of punishments and rewards was used to keep up discipline in the Roman army by starting out with a brief introduction into the status of discipline in the Roman army in general.

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The status of discipline in the Roman army

Just like any army, the Roman army not only relied on the discipline of both individual soldiers and entire units but also highly valued discipline. Now I could present a long list of why that was the case. But I think it is actually much more memorable if I instead present one particular example of Roman discipline that was handed down to us by Caius Julius Caesar himself.

The Gallic War (originally the Commentarii de Bello Gallico, you can find a translated version here* on Amazon) as the first-hand account of Caius Julius Caesar about his conquest of Gaul offers several opportunities to look at the discipline of the Roman army.

One example that especially kept my interest is Caesar’s portrayal of a Gaul surprise attack on his army while the soldiers were still building defenses. Caesar claims that that attack was so swift and so surprising that he did not have time to give the acoustic signal that would have told his soldiers to get into battle formations.

But luckily for him, he did not have to explicitly give the order since not only his Centurions but also the regular soldiers were disciplined and experienced enough to immediately react in the right way.

They formed battle formations on their own. Caesar explicitly states that when he came to the especially experienced 10th Legion, he could only encourage his men to keep fighting since all the steps that would have been necessary to get the soldiers battle-ready had already been executed before Caesar or his generals had explicitly given these orders.

Now one could ask how surprising that attack actually was. Well, according to the report of Caius Julius Caesar the Roman soldiers didn`t even have time to put their helmets on and take the shield covers off their shields before they were engaged by the Gauls.

If you are interested in further reading about Caesar`s war in Gaul as Caius Julius Caesar himself experienced it then I can highly recommend you to the translation of the Gallic War here* on Amazon.

I think that it is pretty obvious that the level of self-sufficient thinking but also the level of discipline that was necessary for the portrayed situation was the result of long and hard training. But the training of Roman soldiers is a story for another time, let`s focus on the discipline aspect for now.

That kind of portrayed discipline was upheld by a sophisticated system of punishments and rewards that we will now look at.

Maintaining discipline – a system of punishments & rewards

So now we have seen an example for a situation in which a lack of discipline could have been catastrophic for the war efforts and could have easily ended the political career of Caius Julius Caesar (probably even his life). Do you wonder why military success and a political career were so closely interlinked during the time of the Roman Republic? Find out more about that in my article here!

Both discipline and morale were maintained by a sophisticated system of punishments and rewards. Both could hit individual soldiers but also entire units.

By the way, a lot of what Roman writers wrote about the severity of the punishments must be taken with a grain of salt.

In reality, the army was often much more pragmatic than the writers make it seem. Let`s take the decimation of a unit, more on how a decimation worked and for which offenses it could be imposed later, as an example. For a decimation to take place a majority had to support that decimation. And that kind of support was not always a given!

Another reason why the actual punishments in the Roman army were often more pragmatic than reports of ancient writers make it seem is that experienced soldiers were hard to replace and too many executions made recruiting even more difficult than it already was.

Especially the last point should be noticed since Rome already struggled to find enough recruits, more on the reasons for that and the recruitment of Roman soldiers in general in my article here. Making that procedure even harder by scaring off volunteers through too many executions was just not reasonable.

So let`s now look at the two parts, the punishments and the rewards, of that system.

Let`s start with the punishments.

Punishments in the Roman army

Since there was a wide variety of different punishments I decided to arrange these punishments from the hardest to the lightest. After having had a look at the different types of punishments we will then look at who was able to impose these punishments. Possible punishments were…

  • Decimation
  • Death Penalty
  • Dishonorable discharge (= missio ignominiosa)
  • Degradations (for example from the Legions into the auxiliary troops)
  • Pay reductions
  • Punishment drills
  • Corporal punishment
  • Temporarily getting banned from the camp
  • Receiving rations of barley instead of wheat

Let`s look at them individually.


The Decimation (= decimatio) was not only the hardest punishment but also the best-known punishment in the Roman army. Decimation meant that 10% of the soldiers of the punished unit, that could be a contubernium (8 soldiers), a century (80 soldiers), a cohort (around 480 soldiers), or even an entire Legion (around 4.000 soldiers), were drawn and would then be beaten to death by the rest of the punished unit. That process of getting beaten to death by their own comrades was called fustuarium.

The reason why I would rate the decimation as an even more brutal punishment than the death penalty that we will talk about next is simple.

While the death penalty did only hit guilty soldiers the decimation could also hit innocent soldiers who had the misfortune of being in an undisciplined unit.

To better understand what I mean by that we have to take a look at the offenses that were punished with the imposition of a decimation.

Offenses that were punished with Decimation were…

  • Mutiny
  • Collective desertion
  • Gross failure in battle

But there was one problem with all these offenses that could cause a decimation.

Let`s assume that of the 80 men in a cohort only 60 fled during battle, which would definitely be considered a gross failure. The punishment for that failure, the decimation, would also affect the 20 soldiers of the century who had held their ground. These 20 men, who in our example did not commit any offense, could still be a part of the 10% that were drawn and beaten to death.

That was one of the reasons why over the course of the Roman Republic decimations had become rarer and rarer until they were barely performed during the time of the Roman Empire. And whenever decimations were performed during that time it was explicitly noticed that it was a rare occasion of the utilization of an ancient punishment.

By the way, the 90% of a unit that survived the decimation were then temporarily expelled from the (fortified) camp. These men then had to camp and sleep outside of the camp where they were without almost any protection against attacks. These temporary banishments from the camp were also used to punish minor offenses, more on that later.

But apart from the decimation as a collective punishment for a unit, there was also the death penalty for individual soldiers.

Death penalty

The death penalty, the way the execution was performed, and the offenses necessary to get the death penalty are quite similar to the decimation.

Offenses that were punished with the death penalty were…

  • Mutiny
  • Desertion
  • Gross failure in battle
  • Breaches of duty (like falling asleep during guard duty)
  • Smaller offenses that were repeated for the 4th time

Roman soldiers who were punished with the death penalty were usually beaten to death by their comrades, that process is called fustuarium.

It is important to state that just like the criminal law for civilians the punishments for Roman soldiers would become more and more moderate over the course of the early and middle Roman Empire.

That, as stated above partially had to do with the lack of volunteer recruits, more on the reasons for that lack of recruits here.

The next punishment that was almost as bad as the death penalty was getting a dishonorable discharge.

Dishonorable discharge (= missio ignominiosa)

While the death penalty took the life of the punished soldier the dishonorable discharge not only took his job, his retirement, but also his social status. Men who were dishonorable discharged were prohibited from entering Rome and were socially stigmatized and ostracized.

When a soldier was punished with a dishonorable discharge he lost his right to receive a retirement.

You can find more information on the retirement of Roman soldiers and how much Roman Legionaries, members of the auxiliary troops, and members of the Praetorian Guard could expect in my article here. And here you can find out more about the other 2 ways a Roman soldier could get released from service.

So now we have talked about the serious punishments that could cost the life or the financial future of a soldier. But there were also countless other, less harsh, punishments for minor offenses.

Punishments for smaller offenses

While some offenses, especially offenses that could threaten the entire unit (like falling asleep during guard duty) were harshly punished with either the death penalty or a dishonorable discharge (keeping the soldier from getting his retirement and ostracising him) countless less severe offenses were punished differently.

Possible punishments for minor offenses include…

  • Degradations (for example from the Legions into the auxiliary troops)
  • Pay reductions
  • Punishment drills
  • Corporal punishment
  • Temporarily getting banned from the camp
  • Receiving rations of barley instead of wheat

All these punishments could either be imposed against individual soldiers or entire units.

Now degradations and punishment drills sound pretty normal as a punishment. And punishments in the shape of pay reductions are also not unusual. By the way, here you can find out more about the pay that Roman soldiers received and what they could buy with it.

But let me guess, the most surprising punishment to you was probably the barley rations instead of wheat rations. I actually wrote an entire article on the diets of Roman soldiers where I also go into the reasons for why barley rations were seen as a punishment. Please click here for more information.

Now one more word about corporal punishment.

Corporal punishment, the so-called castigatio was the most widespread form of punishment and was up to the judgment of the Centurions. The Centurions would also perform these corporal punishments for which they carried the vitis, a club.

By the way, we have reports talking about one Optio, the Optio was an executive officer, whose superior Centurion broke so many of his clubs on the backs of his soldiers that that particular Optio always carried one or two additional clubs with him in case the Centurion needed a new one.

Who imposed punishments in the Roman army?

So now we talked about the punishment of both minor and severe offenses and about how Centurions could perform corporal punishment on their own judgment. But what about the other punishments? Who decided if and how a soldier should be punished?

The right to decide over the life and death of the punished soldier was held by the governor of the province or the commander-in-chief of an army, not by individual generals. The punishment of offenses that did not justify the death penalty was up to the commanders of the individual Legions while Centurions could independently impose smaller punishments. The punishment of officers was decided by the Emperor.

So after having talked about the punishments it is now time to look at the other, much more pleasant, part of the system that kept up discipline in the Roman army.

Rewards in the Roman army

Just like the punishments, the rewards could also be handed out to individual soldiers or to entire units. The precondition for all rewards (except retirement) was an outstanding service, ideally in the shape of an accomplishment. We will look at some possible accomplishments and the respective rewards in a minute.

But for now, I would like to start with the promise of retirement as a tool to maintain discipline.

The promise of retirement

Each soldier who joined the Roman military during the time of the Roman Empire was promised a gift of either land or money after he had served his time. Here you can find more information on how long Roman soldiers (Legionaries, auxiliaries, and Praetorian guardsmen) served.

But there was one condition for getting that retirement. The soldier had to get an honorable discharge from the army, a punishment in the shape of a dishonorable discharge would have excluded the soldier from getting his retirement. Retirement as a reward for long and loyal service was a key tool in maintaining discipline since no soldiers wanted to risk ending up without it.

Do you want to find out more about how much a soldier, depending on if he served in the Legions, the auxiliary troops, or the Praetorian guard, got and what he could do with his retirement? Here you can find answers!

Another crucial tool to motivate the soldiers to keep up discipline were promotions.


Just like Roman society in general, more on that here, the Roman army allowed a degree of advancement through the ranks that, compared with later times, was unusual.

Just as an example, most of the Centurions (officers who commanded a unit of 80 soldiers) came from the ranks. And a Centurion could further be promoted all the way up to Primus Pilus (the highest-ranking professional soldier in a Legion).

That kind of possibility motivated the soldiers and the officers and helped maintain discipline although it would also sometimes lead to an unreasonable level of rivalry. A good example of that can once again be found in the Gallic War* where Caius Julius Caesar describes the rivalry between two Centurions called Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.

Financial rewards

Now promotions did also guarantee a financial reward in themselves since higher-ranking positions got a higher pay, more on that here. But there were also additional bonuses for outstanding accomplishments.

But contrary to the next type of reward these (financial) benefits could not be visually presented.

Decorations (either individually or for the entire unit)

Just like any modern army the Roman army also handed out decorations for outstanding accomplishments. Let`s take a look at a few of them.

  • Corona civica (= the crown of the citizens)

The corona Civica was a wreath that was originally made out of Oak leaves but was later made out of metal in the shape of Oak leaves. The Corona civica was one of the highest decorations in ancient Rome and was awarded to Roman citizens who saved the life of another Roman citizen in battle. Even Caius Julius Caesar and emperor Augustus proudly wore the corona civica.

  • Corona muralis (= the Crown of the wall)

The Corona muralis was a golden crown in the shape of a city wall that was given to the soldier who first climbed the city wall during a siege (and also survived that endeavor). During the time of the Roman Empire, the Corona muralis was mostly awarded to Centurions, not so much regular soldiers.

  • Phalerae

The Phalerae were rewards in the shape of sculpted disks that could be gilded or silver plated and could show simple ornaments but also the heads of gods or emperors. These military decorations were usually carried on a leather harness on the chest of a soldier during parades.

  • Torques (chokers) & armillae (bangles)

Both Torques and armillae could be rewarded to soldiers and officers for outstanding accomplishments. While armillae were awarded in pairs and in full size the Torques would often be downsized and would be worn similar to modern-day medals on the chest.

And during the late Roman Empire, some emperors would be crowned with torques instead of the Diadem that was traditionally used. By the way, the tradition to get crowned with a Diadem had originally been adopted by Alexander the Great from the Persian king. Here you can find more information on that and the other Persian customs Alexander the Great adopted.

So there we have it. The different Punishments and rewards that in combination formed the sophisticated system that would encourage soldiers to maintain discipline even under harsh conditions like the described Gaul surprise attack at the start of the article.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the less known dimensions of the Roman army.

If you want to learn more about the daily life of the average Roman soldier I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the diet of a Roman soldier and if Roman soldiers were really vegetarians (like it is sometimes claimed).

And here you can find out more about why Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry until they retired. More on the retirement of Roman soldiers here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


H.J. Höper: Alltagsleben römischer Legionäre (1985).

M. Junkelmann: Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment (1986).