15 Brutal Military Punishments throughout History to the Modern Age

The militaries of the world are founded on principles of discipline, so it's no surprise military punishments in history have been quite harsh over the centuries. The Romans controlled their legions with good pay and an iron will, and they knew how to punish those who wouldn't stay in line. In the centuries since, militaries have punished traitors, rebels, rabble rousers, and other troublemakers. Developing such punishments were at various points throughout history something of a major preoccupation for military forces. 

What worked for a land-based army in Rome wouldn't necessarily work on a ship in the British Navy, so what began as beatings turned into keelhauling and facing a fusillade. Even basic training has its fair share of punishments, and it's not just a drill sergeant screaming in a recruit's face. Curious which military had the worst punishments? Interested in learning how the military punished people in history? Check out this list of historical and modern examples of military punishments to see for yourself.

Some contemporary military punishments are on the list for comparison's sake, not because they're especially brutal; you can marvel at the contrast between the likes of old school brutality found in keelhauling and the relatively low key psychological brutality of yelling. 

Photo: Metaweb / GNU Free Documentation License

  • Decimation

    Video: YouTube

    The Romans had one of the most powerful military forces in the history of the world. Part of that was because they didn't tolerate shenanigans. Possibly the cruelest of Roman military punishments was "decimation," employed in the event of mutiny, fleeing, or general under performance. During a decimation, all the men in a unit drew lots, 10 percent of which were "bad" (the short straw, basically).

    Those who drew the bad lots were fed bad rations, beaten brutally, forced to camp in unsafe areas, and basically sentenced to a horrible demise.

  • The Snake Sack

    The Snake Sack
    Photo: Andre Castaigne / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Treason is considered by many to be the ultimate offense and the Romans, known for harsh discipline, didn't take the offense lightly. According to Volume 5 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, those guilty of treason had bags put over their heads, were whipped mercilessly, then suspended or crucified publicly from a cross or tree.

    Another Roman punishment, poena cullei, involved sewing the offender into a sack with live snakes or other animals, then throwing the sack into water. Poena cullei was typically reserved for those guilty of parricide, or ending the life of a close relative, usually parents or siblings. The punishment might also be used on those guilty of a treasonous act of similar nature, such as terminating a metaphorical father figure (a higher-ranking military official, for instance) or symbolic brother (comrade in arms). 

  • Flogging

    Flogging was most popular on 18th and 19th-century naval vessels, and used on crew members who were insubordinate; they were lashed in full view of the rest of the crew. While several implements could be used for lashing, the cat 'o nine tails was the favorite: a whip-like device of nine waxed cords of rope knotted at the end.

    It tore flesh easily, but the wounds were mostly superficial, allowing offenders to continue with their duties while causing excruciating pain as well as a bloody spectacle.

  • Bucking And Gagging

    By the time the Civil War rolled around, lashing had been done way with in the army. But there were still soldiers who broke rules, so there needed to be a way to punish them. One of the methods was bucking and gagging, in which the punished sits in the dirt, bent forward, hands tied to his or her legs, knees bent.

    A large stick went over the arms and under the knees, creating an unnatural and uncomfortable position, and another stick was secured in the mouth like a bit. 

  • Riding The Wooden Mule

    While some Civil War punishments were benign, the worst offenders were subjected to painful reprimands. One of them was known as "riding the wooden mule," which involved sitting on a very narrow rail that was high enough so your feet couldn't touch the ground.

    Those punished had to sit on the rail all day, which got very uncomfortable. 

  • The Firing Squad

    The Firing Squad
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A favorite of militaries everywhere since the invention of the gun, you have to have done something very bad to earn a spot in front of a fusillade. Offenses that earned you this punishment included treason and desertion.

    The way this usually worked is the offender would stand against a brick wall and, once the cue was given, soldiers standing side-by-side facing the offender would open fire.