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Did Roman men dodge their military service?

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Life in the Roman Empire wasn’t all banquets and festivals as, for the men at least, there were long periods of military conscription.

Although by no means common in the early Empire, some men attempted to escape service by cutting off their thumbs so they couldn’t wield a sword. Draft-dodging, however, was dealt with severely. Emperor Augustus once punished an aristocrat who removed the thumbs of his two sons, by selling him into slavery and auctioning off his property.

 

via History Extra

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There are several well attested examples of resistance to conscription during the Republic.  Particularly for service in Spain.  In 151BC the consuls were incarcerated by the tribunes for persisting in the levy and only the intervention of Scipio Aemilianus prevented worse trouble. (Polyb 35.4, Livy Epit 48).  This happened again in 138.(Livy Epit 55). 

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That some men avoided recruitment is not unusual - that happens in every society, and although the Romans were often militaristic and belligerent, the prosperity and easy lives offered by military success meant that many no longer had the immediate need to sign their lives for twenty five years (and in imperial times, it wasn't unusual to serve longer).. What is noticeable is that risk had little to do with it. When a Roman male of free birth got into financial trouble, he was more likely to cut a deal with a lanista and spend a few dangerous years in the arena than spend quarter of a century, or roughly two thirds of his expected adult life, as a lowly soldier who might never see combat and would ordinarily receive regular pay and benefits. The possibility of getting rich quick was seen as far beter than long term investment. That is probably very romanesque in general.

 

That said, it wasn't just financial. We tend to forget these men had families and occupations to take care of, which in many cases must have seemed more important to them than service for a cause the individual probably had no interest in. Therefore when the gentleman punished by Augustus cut off his sons thumbs so he could not wield a sword, he was trying to ensure his estate would pass on and be taken care of.

 

Incidentially Augustus also asked Tiberius at one point to look into how many men were hiding in rural slave barracks to avoid service. Clearly this was a known problem and fairly widespread enough to reach the top level of government.

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