The Mutilation Of Responsibility

The historian Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around A.D. 385, contrasts the indolence and effeminacy of the Romans with the vigor and truculence of the Gauls.  He tells us (XV.11) that the average Gaul is tall, insolent, proud, and “enthusiastic about fighting” (avidi iurgiorum).  His wife is even stronger than he is, and capable of landing punches on an enemy with such force that her fists “seem like catapult missiles launched from its twisted sinews (ut catapultas tortilibus nervis excussas).”

But they are not unwashed savages.  They never appear in public adorned in ragged or soiled garments, but instead preserve a modest, proud neatness.  All of them are fit for, and enthusiastic about, military service; and our historian contrasts this admirable ethic with the shirking cowardice of the upper class sons of Italy in his day.  No Gaul, he says, would ever dream of deliberately amputating his thumb to avoid conscription, “as they do in Italy.”  To the men who mutilate themselves in this way he gives the name murci.

This word murci was one that even Gibbon felt compelled to mention.  He says, in Chapter XVII of his Decline and Fall, that

Such was the horror for the profession of a soldier which had affected the minds of the degenerate Romans that many of the youth of Italy and the provinces chose to cut off the fingers of their right hand to escape from being pressed into the [military] service; and this strange expedient was so commonly practiced as to deserve the severe animadversion of the laws and a peculiar name in the Latin language. 

This “peculiar name” was, of course, murci.  Its etymology is uncertain but subject to informed speculation.  It appears to be a derivative of murcidus, an adjective that meant lazy or slothful.  From this word emerged the corrupted term muricidus, a epithet of abuse that indicated a cowardly or useless person.  In a footnote, Gibbon tells us that the related verb murcare—which is unattested in classical Latin—was used in the late Latin period as a synonym for mutilare, to chop off or mutilate. 

Yet the etymological trail winds even deeper into the historical forests.  The word murci (cowards) probably has some connection to the obscure Roman goddess Murcia.  This deity was supposed to have had a temple, according to Livy (I.33), at the Aventine Hill in Rome.  In very ancient times, the word Murcus was apparently an alternate name for the Aventine Hill.  The goddess’s purpose and rituals are obscure; but early Christian writers, probably derogatively,  linked her worship with the attributes of laziness and idleness.  These references are found in Arnobius’s Disputationum Adversus Gentes (IV.9) and in Augustine’s City of God (IV.16), where he says that the goddess Murcia’s purpose was to make a man useless and inactive (murcidum, id est nimis desidiosum et inactuosum).

So much for the story behind the word murci.  How widespread was the practice of mutilating the hands to avoid military service?  Are these written references the angry outpourings of former generals, or were these self-mutilations common enough to find their way into the pages of history?  The truth is probably somewhere between both extremes.  Historians, by their natures, tend to emphasize what is extreme or unusual.  In every age, it is certainly true that the average man has tried to go about his business with a minimum of drama and fuss.  Yet I think it would be a mistake to dismiss with contempt these accounts of cowardly mutilations. 

Gibbon relates that the emperor Valentinian, in a decree issued to the prefect of Gaul, ordered that any man who deliberately mutilated himself to avoid military service should be burnt alive.  This punishment even found its way into the compilation of laws known as the Theodosian Code.  According to Gibbon, the number of self-amputating shirkers in Illyricum was “so considerable that the province complained of a scarcity of recruits.”  And centuries earlier, the biographer Suetonius (Aug. 24) reports that the emperor Augustus ordered a Roman knight to be sold into slavery for cutting off the thumbs of his two young sons to render them unfit for conscription.

What is surprising in these accounts is the extreme lengths to which some would go to avoid the responsibility of service to the nation.  The fact that self-mutilation would even be contemplated, reveals a profound corruption of the ethic of responsibility and duty.  It betrays a society unwilling to fight for its survival, a society that has lost confidence in its mission and duration.  In the modern era, it is extraordinarily rare for a youth to resort to such extremes of bodily self-harm.  But the avoidance of responsibility, the dodging of duties, still takes place, although under other manifestations and rationalizations. The murci of late Roman times mutilated their hands to avoid military service; but the murci of today mutilate their self-respect, their patriotism, and their patrimony. They believe they can continue to enjoy the fruits of prosperity without having to sacrifice for them.  

There can be no nation without shared duties and obligations.  In an article written for The Atlantic magazine in April 1980, former Senator and Assistant Secretary of the Navy James Webb made these observations:

Gather a group of military professionals in a room where they believe they are among their own and you hear bitter, laconic tales, told with a sense of powerlessness and even doom…Of a present administration so dominated by internationalism on one hand and domestic politics on the other that it sees the military as a domestic political tool, and is more consumed with how many women it can put into a tank than with whether the tanks are operable. Of federal judges who dare to say that voluntary heroin use, which threatened to shut down many operating units several years ago, and which is a federal crime in the civilian world, nonetheless constituted service that is deserving of a mandatory honorable discharge. Of a Congress that is more afraid of the protests of a few thousand comfortable college students than it is of the reality that our manpower situation has deteriorated to the point where our reserves, which are the linchpin of any future mobilization, are three quarters of a million men understrength. Our active duty military will be stranded in a future conflict. We need the draft back.

These words were written in 1980.  And while I can only speculate on how James Webb would feel today, were he to survey the contemporary military and civilian scene, I can make a very good guess.      



Read more about duty and responsibility in the new translation of Sallust: