Why Did Ancient Romans Cut Off Their Thumbs?

Why Did Ancient Romans Cut Off Their Thumbs?

Conny Waters – Icestech.info – Can you come up with a reason why you would deliberately remove your healthy thumbs? Ancient Roman males believed they had had a good cause to cut off their thumbs.

To understand their motivation for damaging their hands one must first realize that life in the ancient Roman Empire could be very difficult not just for children and women, but also for men regardless of status.

Why Did Ancient Romans Cut Off Their Thumbs?

Credit: Public Domain

A rich and powerful Roman male could enjoy delicious food, parties, a variety of entertaining activities, and everything good life had to offer, but his comfortable living could easily turn into a nightmare if he decided to cut off his thumbs.

So, why would anyone want to deliberately want to damage his hands? Inquiring one’s body on purpose sounds crazy, but Roman males knew they were forced to damage their fingers to avoid military service.

The Roman Empire was vast and powerful, but to achieve glory and greatness it depended on its strong military machinery to defend its borders and conquer new lands.

Being a soldier in the Roman Empire was a challenge. Not only was military training very demanding, but you could also expect to be away from your home and loved ones for long periods. Men who wanted to avoid being recruited to the Roman Army cut off their thumbs because then they wouldn’t be able to hold and use a sword.

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The punishment for cutting off a thumb could be severe even if you were a member of the aristocracy. Historical records tell Emperor Augustus was furious when he learned a rich man had cut off his sons’ thumbs so they could avoid conscription. These two young men were sold as slaves and all the possessions of the rich father were confiscated.

Five European Barbarian tribes hated and wanted to destroy Rome. These were the Huns, Franks, Vandals, Saxons, and Visigoths (Goths)  and they destroyed many Roman towns and cities. The Romans had to respond and the Empire was in great need of skilled soldiers who could hold off the Barbarian invasion, but many men refused to be recruited to the army.

In time, the punishments for avoiding conscription became even harsher than before, and it wasn’t uncommon to witness men being burned at the stake in public. It was simply impossible to refuse to be a Roman soldier. If you did you could be executed.

Ancient Roman Empire Map

The ancient Roman Empire was huge and had many enemies. Credit: Public Domain

“The Romans required at least 20,000 new recruits just to replace the losses to the field army after Adrianople, and these men would not have been easy to find.98 This is especially true due to the difficulties in recruitment that existed in the late fourth century.

Speaking on the character of the Gauls in 355 Ammianus writes, “no one here ever cuts off his thumb to escape military service, as happens in Italy, where they have a special name for such malingerers (murci).”

Additional law codes indicate the problems with recruitment in Italy likely permeated much of the empire.

In 364, Valentinian and Valens issued a law reconfirming the previous law established by Constantine that the sons of soldiers must serve in the military.

The next year an additional law was issued stating that if a person of low status helped a deserter then he would be sent to the mines and if a high status individual helped a deserter then he would be fined half of his total property.

A third law issued in 368 stated that “if a person cuts off his fingers to avoid military service he will be sentenced to death and if his master fails to prevent him from this he will be severely punished.” 1

Written by Conny Waters – Icestech.info Staff Writer

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Expand for references

  1. Ott, Justin, “The decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire” (2009). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.

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