Dec 10 1999

on the Anachronisms of Roman Cruelty

Published by at 3:18 pm under Uncategorized

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“…at last men learned from dangerous times the genius that is grown during war.  Now if the mental prowess with which kings and rulers are endowed were as present in peace as in war, the things of mankind would maintain a more steady and equal course…  Thus, control is always transferred to the best man from his inferiors.” (Sall. Cat. II.2-3, 6)

Sallust feels that war is the best breeder of strong and healthy men.  Witnessing many statements within Sallust’s writings of how he and others accepted war as good for mankind helps us understand the Romans, and why they perhaps seemed cruel at times—for they were “training their minds and their bodies.” (Sall Cat. II.1).  This statement is used as a compliment by Sallust.  It is a compliment in our culture, too; and I believe it says about Sallust what it says about us—that the Romans respected their concept of will-power and efficiency.

Yet was there an inherent and anachronistic inefficiency in Rome concerning the brutality of its weapons and methods of punishment?  Is that evidenced by Caesar’s discussion of Porcian law and the proposed fate of the conspirators?  Is it evidenced by Cicero’s repeated fears that others will prosecute him for being too soft on the conspirators?

In eum locum postquam demissus est Lentulus, vindices rerum capitalium, quibus praeceptum erat, laqueo gulam fregere.

Into that place Lentulus was let down, and that they may inflict the capital punishment which had been ordered, they crushed his throat by means of a noose.

(Sall. Cic. LV.5)

Hours previous to this action, Caesar delivered an oration building upon the audience’s disgust of unnecessarily cruel punishments.  If the Porcian law disallowed flogging, did it not also disallow other tortures?  Did the Romans not feel that strangulation was extreme?  Strangulation seems too inefficient to be common, and quite likely the cruelty of the punishment was a public response to Cato’s passionate remarks.

I first must question whether strangling is an appropriate translation here.  It seems to me that in a culture that disallows flogging, perhaps hanging is a better translation for laqueo gulam fregere.  That is generally considered a quicker and less-painful mode of execution.

Not knowing the exact nature of the Tullianum, one cannot guess the exact chronology of events in this scene either.  Was Lentulus strangled, and subsequently his body was thrown into the pit for abandonment or dishonor?  Was he hung, left to dangle within the twelve-foot drop?  Or, was he lowered down into the pit, wherein waited the executioners who strangled him?

We must realize first that strangulation as seen in movies, where we put our hands on another’s neck and squeeze, is almost impossible.  Even the weakest necks are too strong to be collapsed by this process.  The amount of leverage necessary to generate any significant inward force on a neck requires the attacker to be rather close and at an awkward angle.  This is simply not practical, unless the conspirator were first unconscious so he could not fight back when held close or pushed into a convenient position.  Strangulation must be performed at the throat.  Hanging breaks the neck, while strangulation with a cord attacks the throat.  Without a cord, the only way to strangle someone is to use the neck solely as a fulcrum from which to leverage the thumbs into the carotid artery.  Moreover, the Adam’s Apple and voice box could be crushed with the same leverage, by grabbing the neck, interlocking the thumbs around the Adam’s Apple, and then pulling outward.

An applicable question may be: were the stranglers the triumvirs or were there professional executioners present?  “The tresviri capitales were minor magistrates who had charge of prisons and executions and performed certain police duties.”[1] “The carnifices [were] servants of the tresviri.”[2] This issue is discussed in Cic. de Legibus 3.3.6.[3]

If the executioners were tresviri capitales or carnifices, they may have known how to strangle.  It still seems that this is a brutal and inefficient method; unless it was intentionally done as such to “fit the crime.”  But strangulation without prior incapacitation of the victim is dangerous for the executioner.  It could not be a common practice because the convicted would fight back.

To entertain the possibility of alternative or idiomatic meanings, I searched laqueus, gula, and frango in other Latin works[4]:

Laqueus, as used in various texts and confirmed more succinctly in my Langenscheidt, means “noose, snare, or trap.”  I have read examples of all three usages.

Gula, by the same methods, produced a definition of “gullet, throat; appetite, gluttony.”

Frango means “to break or dash in pieces, shiver, shatter; grind, bruise, crush; break a promise; break down, subdue; weaken, diminish, violate; soften, move, or touch.”

There were no other texts with all three words used together.  Nor is there any significant alternative usages of these words in Sallust.

Although logically, other meanings could be applied, the previous arguments of either “strangled with a cord” or “hung” seem the most plausible.  Anything else could be a pun, but must have one of these primary meanings.  I now believe that either strangling with a cord involved a prior incapacitation of the victim, or the phrase is referring to a hanging.  If it is the former, it is an appropriate example of the overly ruthless nature developed by this time in the Republic.

Another seeming incongruity of this enlightened culture was their primary weapon—the “Roman sword” or gladius.

Comparing the legions of Rome with other sword-dependent armies, Rome seems strategically superior in every respect.  Yet their swords seemed uncharacteristically primitive.  Having been raised and trained in various combative arts, including competing with multiple types of swords, I feel qualified to note some observations.

The mid-sixth century BC saw the evolution of the phalanx into the legion under Servius Tullius[5].  A soldier within a phalanx carried a large shield and a long spear.  Spearmen have often been categorized and recategorized depending on their relationship  to the archers or the infantry, for keeping distance was always their goal.  A long-range soldier without a corresponding short-range soldier to protect him from offensive-rushes is often defenseless at close-range.  As the surrounding tribes realized this, Rome had to evolve the legion, and with it, a competitive sword.  The legionary was simply a swordsman who threw spears, rather than a spearman with a sword.

But there is much that can be noted about the Roman people through this change of weapons, and their flourishing with the gladius.  The way a man fights is a wonderful expression of his personality, and training a man to fight in a particular fashion is to convert him to the accompanying temperament.  We can assume that over time, the weapons grew to be more and more like the people, and vice versa.

Before this time, swords existed, yet still doubled for chopping wood or skewering meat.  This was impossible with the new Roman sword.  With the development of the centurion, “tools” were separated from “weapons.”  A soldier now carried both.  This was also necessary as defense became a crucial strategy in war, necessitating better walls and forts.[6] The roman sword was short, lacking the leverage for any blade work, such a chopping wood.  Including the hilt, it was a 27” straight-sword—the blade was only approximately 19”.  The flat-side of the blade was relatively convex, lending strength and rigidity.  This weapon was ideal for stabbing, as it probably evolved out of the phalanx spear.  The army was accustomed to the earlier form of the same weapon, and transition was simplified through that comparison.  However, this sword was also short enough that a newly recruited farmer can stab with it without a tremendous amount of hand-eye coordination.  Thus it was a beginner’s killing weapon.  No one would be tempted to “sword-fight” with a sword like this.  The edge of the blade, although sharpened, was relatively useless.  Except under the most ideal situations, there could not be gained enough leverage or momentum to chop into a body or chop off a head therewith.

This sword-standard continued through most of Europe’s history.  The swords we recognize as Braveheart, Excalibur, and Conan-style swords and pommels emphasized brute strength coupled with immense leverage.  Ironically, they were merely enlarged forms of the original roman sword, having little strength or leverage.  Each level of derivation from the roman sword to its descendants, and the caricatures of each of these levels, allow us to see the benefits and drawbacks of various aspects of the gladius.  The aforementioned and later-Germanic swords averaged close to 55”.  Like the Roman sword, the blades were straight, unable to slice without killing.  The swords were heavy and straight enough that there was no ability to recoil.  These, being so large, lost their ability to stab.  Many eventually even rounded their tips, being of no use.[7] The first swinging strike must kill, or the user is incapacitated for perhaps a full 2-3 seconds before another strike can land.  The Roman sword, on the other hand, was light, being small.  The decreased leverage and similarly decreased weight made the sword easier to use.  It required little training, as it was easily seen as “part of the arm.”  As a result, it also required great strength, having no leverage.  The gladii clashed with relatively the same force as forearms had clashed in any non-military disputes.

I believe the primary purpose of a straight-sword is to encourage stabbing… to discourage “fighting.”  Fighting is inefficient and causes injuries and hatreds.  Killing is inherently stoical.  A Roman sword cannot be “flashy.”  A soldier cannot employ flourishing strikes and live to pass on his technique.  A straight-edged sword disallows circular-recoil.  It is for stabbing; and muscularly would weary the troops quickly if used any other way.

The argument that the sword was rarely used outside of organized warfare is evidenced by the fact that the gladius was worn on the right hip.  Quickly drawing one’s sword and using the draw as the initial strike was impossible.  A right-handed man cannot draw a right-sided sword as quickly as he could were it on the left-side.  Another argument is that the gladius handles were generally made of wood or bone; and the pugio handle was often bronze[8].  Any of these three surfaces are not conducive to a strong grip.  In formal battles a strong grip is not as crucial, because the pressure is against the index finger and thumb instead of the curl of the grip.  Independent of this it is still likely that there may have been a piece of leather or rope wrapped around the sword handle, to allow for a stronger grip.

The culture that thrives on this kind of weapon is reflected in Caesar’s appeal “When… feelings stand in the way the mind cannot easily discern the truth…”  (Sall. Cat. LI.2).  Stoicalness has been the goal of many and perhaps all cultures, most especially those who have endured extreme struggles.  If psychological arguments of catharsis-seeking are true, these cultures flourish if they can become extroversive enough to heal from their trials.  Without complete catharsis, Rome is left a culture that is internally embittered, but ruthlessly efficient.[9]

The length of the Roman sword also discourages the tunnel-vision towards weapons which existed later in history.  When in battle, those with long swords and fluid techniques generally stick to technique.  It is often the case that such a soldier will not punch or kick, and thus, without years of training, will fight in a very predictable manner.  The advantage to a short sword is that it encourages punches, kicks, forearms and knees.  I do not believe there is any reason to believe that Rome developed the technique, which became common with Asian swordsmen, of using the weapon largely to encourage a tunnel-vision syndrome in the opponent, and then controlling him thereby.

These are many of the benefits of a short sword.  The longer, more flexible sword of the Spanish “Zorro” style, employs a lot of leverage spread over a relatively small surface area, allowing it to easily penetrate the skin, but only when inserted exactly perpendicular to the flesh, and with considerable momentum and confidence.  Rome had no time for such training.  Its strength was in its blitzkrieg.  The Spanish sword is light and whippy, evidencing the prosperity and confidence of the Spanish armies.  They had no desire to kill their own people, rather to keep them in awe and therefore subjection.  Grace and elegance was their goal.  Previous to Alfred the Great and later Charlemagne, there was never time to develop sword-work as an art.  Swords were designed to kill and nothing more.  The Roman sword therefore had little capacity to wound, much as the famed swords of the Samurai.

A Samurai’s katana is relatively straight-edged, and in total length average around 42 inches.  Because of this, and similar to the Viking swords discussed earlier, they could, with practice, literally and vertically chop a man in two.  Yet they were lightweight and kept a slight curve, enabling them to be used quickly and fluidly, unlike the Viking swords.

A culture that uses a curved sword is a culture that means to slice the skin without chopping.  It can recoil and strike again quickly, yet is not designed to kill.  If you were to try to chop someone in half with a circular blade, the blade would instinctively roll off.  Thus, as with the Spanish swordsmen, one can hold back an uprising of peasants without killing them.  No one wants to kill his own slaves.  That’s expensive and dangerous.

Another peculiarity of the Roman sword is its lack of a blood-corridor.  Usually on any form of sword there is some provision that the blood run off before the next strike.  This is accomplished through the direction or depth of the grain, or more commonly, through an engraved pattern that looks merely like an embellishment, but in fact serves to channel the blood.  Perhaps this was accomplished through technique.  The movements of the broadswordsmen of the Middle East and China are circular so that they are able to wipe the blood onto the back or shoulder between each strike.  A broadswordsman can easily strike twice per second and have the sword cleaned between each strike.

Did the Romans use multiple swords?  Did they have separate show-swords and practical weapons, as with the US military?  Were swords imported, and thus were there different types?  Was the gladius only used in battle-formation combat?  We don’t know the answer to a lot of these questions, mainly because most of the surviving swords we have are from those whose swords were consciously preserved, namely, famous generals.  “It is now accepted that Roman military equipment occurs in funerary contexts within the Roman Empire.  At the same time, it is recognized that it was not normal practice for Roman soldiers, whether legionary or auxiliary, to be interred with their weapons and armor.  The problem here lies in gauging just how representative those burials we know of really are.”[10]

I don’t believe that any of these aspects of the Roman sword was intentional; but I do believe these inspired coincidences led to the dominance of Rome.  The world would be a different place if Rome had developed a different form of its primary weapon—even so different as if it had developed guns.  I also believe that there is much to be seen about a culture from its choice of weapons.  Everything to do with Rome was ruthlessly efficient, from its language to clothing to methods of corporal punishment.  Perhaps it was at times too efficient.  Cicero and Caesar were both incongruously merciful at times; and although it made them famous, it also hurt many of their relationships.


[1] J.C. Rolfe, ed. Sallust (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995). 113.

[2] J.C. Rolfe, ed. Sallust (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995). 115.

[3] M. Tullius Cicero, De Legibus: Libri Tres (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1973). 378-382.

[4] Gregory R. Crane, ed., The Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu (Somerville, MA: December 1999)

[5] M. Cary and H. H. Scullard, A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine, 3rd ed. (Hong Kong: St. Martin’s Press, 1975) 53.

[6] Roman Soldiers, 10, Rupert Matthews, Bookwright Press, New York, 1990

[7] Arms and Armor. Michelle Byam. Knopf. 1988. 12-13.

[8] Arms and Armor. Michelle Byam. Knopf. 1988. 12-13.

[9] James E. Loehr, Toughness Training for Life, (New York: Plume, 1993)

[10] M.C. Bishop, “O Fortuna: A Sideways Look at the Archaeological Record and Roman Military Equipment,” Roman Military Equipment: the Sources of Evidence ed. C. van Driel-Murray, (Oxford: B.A.R., 1989)

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “on the Anachronisms of Roman Cruelty”

  1. Thanks for the insightful article. Am I to infer that the gladius was worn on the right hip deliberately to slow the draw, to discourage dueling and armed conflict among the ranks when tempers flared? Or merely because, as a weapon of war, it didn’t matter so much where it was worn and wearing it on the right hip at least balanced the shield?

    I have heard several bad arguments as to why the unique right hip arrangement. None seemed rational. To wear a sword on the right hip requires a solid, positive, rational reason. To deliberately stop soldiers drawing and attackin in one move, in a fit of temper, makes more sense than anything I have ever heard said on the subject. A matter of dicipline and also explaining why senior ranks wore the weapon on the left – they were more responsible and could be trusted. That makes sense. If that is the theory you are proposing here, I like it a lot.

    I will also be giving the rest of this piece some thought. Thanks again.

    • Colin Jensen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m not arguing that wearing the gladius on the right was necessarily a conscious decision as much as perhaps an evolution, but either stemming from or with the result that it was less convenient. We picture warriors from movies, going to battle constantly and participating in skirmishes daily. I think the truth is that if one person dies in each instance of combat, in aggregate the average soldier would only be in one battle. Because there were advantages, and not all of one side died, it was surely higher than that, but not by much. Some rare veterans may have used their gladius in a fight 10 times, but still no more than that in a lifetime (because, mathematically, the average number of uses has to be 1.0.) Anyway, so part of my point was that the gladius as pictures in the movies, where many men line up in a row and stab forward, couldn’t have been the dominant use for its evolution. Its primary uses must have been 1) as a threat and 2) as a daily tool. Otherwise, for all the reasons listed in the essay, it would have at least had a leather handle, would have been worn on the left, would have evolved into a more-effective weapon, etc.

      And you make a great point that seniors wearing on the left is perhaps a reflection of their more common use of the gladius (being better-trusted, saluting and making oaths more, using the sword more often in battle than as a spanner for opening crates, etc.)

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