Historical Analysis of: Polybius on Roman Military Discipline

by Gerard Magee


Polybius was a Greek historian that lived from 200-118 B.C.E.  He was most popular for his work “The Histories” which covered the ascension of Ancient Rome into a superpower and it covered his own personal experiences with the Roman army during that time.  The document “Polybius on Roman Military Discipline is an exert from “The Histories” in which he describes the attitudes of the soldiers toward their duty within the army at that time.


Photo by Matteo Vistocco


This text was taken from a document that primarily expressed the views of the military culture and society between 220 B.C.E and 146 B.C.E.   During this time period a strong military force was an ideal and necessary element of proper leadership.  There were constant upheavals and wars that were fought by the Roman army and the republic required powerful generals and loyal soldiers to fill the ranks.  “The republic needed imaginative commanders to combat slave revolts and foreign invasions in the late second and early first centuries B.C.E”.1 This period was full of constant instability and danger from both external and internal forces.  It was important to defeat any aggression that came from the south, North Africans, as well as the North, Germanic tribes.  It was equally as important to contain the civil unrest that took place over a variety of political issues.  One of the largest social-political issues that arouse during this period was the expansion of Rome’s population fueled by in influx of free landless poor individuals.  Hunt and others testify, “This flood of desperate people increased the poverty-level population of Rome, and landless poor became an explosive swing element in roman politics”.2 Due to the size of this large group, it became important for political leaders to consider the demands and values that they displayed in order to minimize civil disobedience.  One man that acted to instill a sense of pride and loyalty amongst the men of this cluster was Gaius Marius.  Marius came from the equites social class, composed of elite landowners and knights, and he rose to power and commenced the reformation of the Roman army.  Marius seized the opportunity to increase the ranks of the military while managing to please the growing number of landless poor men or proletarians.  Hunt and others write, “For them [proletarian], serving in the army meant an opportunity to better their lot by acquiring booty and a grant of land.”3 This opportunity was too advantageous for them to pass up.  Agreeing to serve as longstanding member of the Roman army would increase their wealth and allow them to secure their families future.  Prior to Marius only those who could afford their own weapons were allowed to serve in the military.  After this change it was possible for members of a socially lower class to serve the country and their leadership.


Photo by Juliana Malta


Marius had no intentions of sacrificing the strength of military discipline by introducing this new class of solider and therefore he utilized positions of elite soldiers to instill good moral conduct and military bearing into the men.  These positions were known as centurions.  The centurions were of high moral standard and were dedicated members of the Roman army entrusted with the responsibility of leadership.  As Polybius notes, “Romans want centurions not so much to be bold and eager to take risks but rather to be capable of leadership and steady and solid in charcter.”4 Marius understood the importance of these positions and thus he held those in these positions to higher standards and enforced extreme punishment for those that neglected their duties.  Polybius further explains this concept: “Those convicted of neglecting sentry duty were beaten or stoned [often to death] as punishment for their offenses”.5 The shame of neglecting their duties extended beyond the boundaries of physical punishment as well.  To break the oath of sentry duty also carried a severe penalty of exile and dishonor. As stated by Polybius: “[Offenders] are not permitted to return to their homeland, and none of their relatives would dare accept such a man into their households”.6  The  decision to uphold the values and expectations was so high that soldiers would be willing to do unimaginable acts in order to avoid scrutiny and punishment.  It overwhelming opinion of the men was that it was better to lose their lives or suffer horrific injuries in battle than go against the orders of the commanders.  Polybius mentions that: “Even when clearly at risk of being wiped out by enormously superior enemy forces, troops in tactical reserve units are not willing to desert their place in the battle lines, for fear of the punishment that would be inflicted by their own side”. 7 Marius was able to instill extreme loyalty and discipline into his soldiers even though they consisted of poor men not directly tied to any plots of land in the empire.  The Roman military’s discipline was fueled by the favor that they gained from performing virtuously in battle and accomplishing the mission.  The soldiers became more loyal to their commanders than to the empire because they were offered a generous share of the spoils of war.  Hunt and others explain this transformation, “Marius’s reform changed Roman history by creating armies more loyal to their commanders than to the republic.  Proletarian troops felt immense goodwill toward a commander who led them to victory.”8 The Generals realized that the path success lied with rewarding those that fought for them in battle and soldiers were willing die for this good fortune.


Photo by Phil Goodwin


The observations of Polybius demonstrate the importance of military service and duty that the Roman soldiers held.  This allows us to better understand how important it was for soldiers to secure the benefits received by military service for their families and themselves.  The desperation of the soldiers to accomplish their tasks correctly and nobly can directly be attributed to the severity of the population increase and subsequent poverty level.  The growth of the Roman society may have been beneficial for the elite class because they gained an abundance of laborers; however, it also carried a crippling effect on the stability of the empire.  Poverty begets mass public discontent which historically leads to civil unrest and violence.  The interest of the large group of proletarians and poor created factions within the political structure of the republic that would cripple the nation’s ability to continue down a prosperous path.  Some of the social elite acted on behalf of the poor while others continued to maintain the traditional values of enhancing their own social standing.  This disparity created a violent separation within the upper-class and senate that had a lasting effect.  This fact is explained by Hunt and other, “The elite’s splintering into bitterly hostile factions remained a source of violent conflict until the end of the republic”.9 The changes within the republic’s army sent a shockwave though the empire based on the fact that future generals utilized the loyalty and discipline of the soldiers to further their own political agendas.  Polybius’s account of this discipline is a perfect demonstration of why controlling the military became a monumental force in the political reformation of the empire.





  1. Lynn Hunt, et al., The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 153.
  2. Lynn Hunt, et al., 153.
  3. Lynn Hunt, et al., 153.
  4. “Polybius on Roman Military Discipline”, in Lyn Hunt et al., The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), 154.
  5. “Polybius on Roman Military Discipline”, 154.
  6. “Polybius on Roman Military Discipline”, 154.
  7. “Polybius on Roman Military Discipline”, 154.
  8. Lynn Hunt, et al., 153.
  9. Lynn Hunt, et al., 151.




Hunt, Lynn, et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. 3rd Ed. Vol. 1. Boston:

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Catalina Magee

Founder of Trend Prive Magazine, America.Guide, Christianity.Global and Roast.Global. Romanian-born American, "seasoned" in Italy, "cooked" in Germany and currently serving in Israel. NCIS Special Agent in Charge EA.

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