(this is the continuation of a series of essays discussing the number and make-up of the guards at Jesus’ tomb. It can be purchased as an ebook, cover to the right. Main essay | Previous section | Next section: The Romans and Jews: So (un)Happy Together )
The Discipline of the Roman Soldier
Most acknowledge that the Roman military was very good at what it did without really looking at the details. The concession is made easily enough because most of us learned in history class that the Romans conquered a great deal of territory, and we infer, without really thinking about it much, that in order to do this, they must have been reasonably competent. The details are important, though. Sometimes, one gets the idea that people think the Romans only had to deal with barbaric, unorganized thugs, here and there–as if they never defeated other standing armies of significant ability. But this, they did. In other words, they were highly skilled warriors with a great deal of experience, and when one begins to delve into just how skilled they were, and how deep their experience it was, the fact that they were on duty over Jesus’ dead body heightens the question as to how it could have possibly gone missing.
Roman historians themselves have provided us with ample descriptions of their armies at work. We will touch on a handful of examples that are particularly relevant to guard duty, but it is worth pointing out that death was a very common solution to any number of perceived deficiencies, and this includes infractions such as falling asleep on guard duty.
A 1928 academic work by Dr. George W. Currie titled The Military Discipline of the Romans from the Founding of the City to the Close of the Republic systematically lists all examples of infractions recorded in a wide variety of sources, groups them by periods, and describes what the consequences were. One of his basic conclusions is that the Romans were extremely severe upon their own soldiers throughout their rule.
Salient examples include an instance in 390 BC when some Roman guards were asleep on duty and the Citadel of Rome was attacked; the particular guard at fault was subsequently thrown from a cliff. In 322/295 BC, two legions yielded their post. Men were selected from the offenders by lot, and put to death. In 280/271, guards were scourged and beheaded, and their bodies dishonored. In 205 BC, guards allowed items to be stolen from a temple. They had to pay back the value of the items two-fold, or else be put to death. A similar consequence was put upon the guards that allowed two ships to be captured. In 39 BC, two centuries (presumably about 200 men) failed to prevent a lieutenant and his men from being ambushed. The consequence was decimation: every tenth man was counted off, and the selected men were put to death.
In 4 out of the 6 examples that Currie documented, death was inflicted upon the deficient guards. In the other 2, death was right around the corner.
One can begin to see why a Roman guard (and soldier in general) would want to do his very best. If he was lucky, his incompetence would merely result in his dishonorable discharge. More likely, he would die.
It was already mentioned in the main article that Herod put to death all 16 of the guards in charge of keeping Peter in prison (Acts 12:4). It was apparently a common practice that remained well known and in place up to and through the time of Jesus.
The Roman historian Polybius gives us one of the most thorough accounts of the Roman’s military discipline, and we are benefited by the fact that he takes time to specifically detail the duties of the ‘night watch,’ and, importantly, consequences of failure. Here is the relevant portion:
The way in which they secure the passing round of the watchword for the night is as follows: from the tenth maniple of each class of infantry and cavalry, the maniple which is encamped at the lower end of the street, a man is chosen who is relieved from guard duty, and he attends every day at sunset at the tent of the tribune, and receiving from him the watchword — that is a wooden tablet with the word inscribed on it — takes his leave, and on returning to his quarters passes on the watchword and tablet before witnesses to the commander of the next maniple, who in turn passes it to the one next him. All do the same until it reaches the first maniples, those encamped near the tents of the tribunes. These latter are obliged to deliver the tablet to the tribunes before dark. So that if all those issued are returned, the tribune knows that the watchword has been given to all the maniples, and has passed through all on its way back to him. If any one of them is missing, he makes inquiry at once, as he knows by the marks from what quarter p349the tablet has not returned, and whoever is responsible for the stoppage meets with the punishment he merits.
They manage the night guards thus: The maniple on duty there guards the consul and his tent, while the tents of the tribunes and the troops of horse are guarded by the men appointed from each maniple in the manner I explained above. Each separate body likewise appoints a guard of its own men for itself. The remaining guards are appointed by the Consul; and there are generally three pickets at the quaestorium and two at the tents of each of the legates and members of the council. The whole outer face of the camp is guard by the velites, who are posted every day along the vallum — this being the special duty assigned to them — and ten of them are on guard at each entrance. Of those appointed to picket duty, the man in each maniple who is to take the first watch is brought to the tribune in the evening by one of the optiones of his company. The tribune gives them all little tablets, one for each station, quite small, with a sign written on them and on receiving this they leave for the posts assigned to them.
The duty of going the rounds is entrusted to the cavalry. The first praefect of cavalry in each legion must give orders early in the morning to one of his optiones to send notice before breakfast to four lads of his own squadron who will be required to go the rounds. The same man must also give notice in the evening to the praefect of the next squadron that he must make arrangements for going the rounds on the following day. This praefect, on receiving the notice, must take precisely the same steps on the next day; and so on through all the squadrons. The four men chosen by the optiones from the first squadron, after drawing lots for their respective watches, go to the tribune and get written orders from him stating what stations they are to visit and at what time. After that all four of them go and station themselves next the first maniple of the triarii, for it is the duty of the centurion of this maniple to have a bugle sounded at the beginning of each watch. When this time comes, the man to whom the first watch fell by lot makes his rounds accompanied by some friends as witnesses. He visits the posts mentioned in his orders, not only those near the vallum and the gates, but the pickets also of the infantry maniples and cavalry squadrons. If he finds the guards of the first watch awake he receives their tessera, but if he finds that anyone is asleep or has left his post, he calls those with him to witness the fact, and proceeds on his rounds. Those who go the rounds in the succeeding watches act in a similar manner. As I said, the charge of sounding a bugle at the beginning of each watch, so that those going the rounds may visit the different stations at the right time, falls on the centurions of the first maniple of the triarii in each legion, who take it by turns for a day.
Each of the men who have gone the rounds brings back the tesserae at daybreak to the tribune. If they deliver them all they are suffered to depart without question; but if one of them delivers fewer than the number of stations visited, they find out from examining the signs on the tesserae which station is missing, and on ascertaining this the tribune calls the centurion of the maniple and he brings before him the men who were on picket duty, and they are confronted with the patrol. If the fault is that of the picket, the patrol makes matters clear at once by calling the men who had accompanied him, for he is bound to do this; but if nothing of the kind has happened, the fault rests on him. A court-martial composed of all the tribunes at once meets to try him, and if he is found guilty he is punished by the bastinado ( fustuarium). This is inflicted as follows: The tribune takes a cudgel and just touches the condemned man with it, after which all in the camp beat or stone him, in most cases dispatching him in the camp itself. But even those who manage to escape are not saved thereby: impossible! for they are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of the family would dare to receive such a man in his house. So that those who have of course fallen into this misfortune are utterly ruined. The same punishment is inflicted on the optio and on the praefect of the squadron, if they do not give the proper orders at the right time to the patrols and the praefect of the next squadron. Thus, owing to the extreme severity and inevitableness of the penalty, the night watches of the Roman army are most scrupulously kept.
We will re-iterate what Polybius himself concluded as self-evident: “Thus, owing to the extreme severity and inevitableness of the penalty, the night watches of the Roman army are most scrupulously kept.”
What applies to small groups, and guards on the night watch, is applied to large groups that ‘desert their posts’ in the form of ‘decimation.’
If the same thing ever happens to large bodies, and if entire maniples desert their posts when exceedingly hard pressed, the officers refrain from inflicting the bastinado or the death penalty on all, but find a solution of the difficulty which is both salutary and terror-striking. The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lots sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice. Those on whom the lot falls are bastinadoed mercilessly in the manner above described; the rest receive rations of barley instead of wheat and are ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot. As therefore the danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affects all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated both the inspire fear and to correct the mischief.
When one now considers how detailed and thorough the Romans attended to the specific task of guarding themselves, and how severe the consequences were, we must conclude that it is highly implausible that the Roman guards could have fallen asleep at Jesus’ tomb. We can also understand why, after it was clear that the body was gone, that they decidedly would not want to report this fact to their superiors. Their only hope was that the Jews would protect them. The alternative, literally, was death. But would the Jews play ball?
The Jews were not inclined to be sympathetic to the Romans. The idea of dead Roman soldiers must have been, in the main, a very pleasant one to turn about in one’s mind. However, what if balanced against this highly desirable prospect was a very undesirable prospect, that Jesus’ followers would begin announcing to all that Jesus had risen from the dead?
Or, to put it differently: if the Jewish leaders were the Roman guards’ only hope, it could also be said that the Roman soldiers were the Jewish leaders’ only hope.
To understand this tension more fully, and to better appreciate the reasoning behind the assertion that the Jews would not have entrusted Jesus’ tomb only to the Romans, we must now take some time to examine the relationship of these two peoples.