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.
In AD 368 – when barbarian tribes were migrating in ever-larger numbers into the Empire – conscription avoidance was so endemic, stiffer penalties were imposed, including public burnings.
By the end of the fourth century, Emperor Theodosius passed a law that forced the thumb-less to serve and made any parent or landowner presenting a mutilated individual find a second to make good the loss. Eventually, a lack of new recruits, combined with losses in battle, meant Rome became reliant on barbarian migrants to fill staff shortages.
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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine