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Ancient Punishment That Still Exists Today

Usually, a welcome parade is a celebration, but today's worst punishment is anything but a party! Check out how some inmates are welcomed into prisons with this brutal gauntlet of punishment in today's epic new story that reveals the truth about Welcome Parades!

By Jayveer ValaPublished about a year ago 14 min read
Ancient Punishment

A man, blood dripping from his nose, pleads with his captors not to be subjected to their notorious welcoming. He breathes heavily as he gets down on his knees. His heart pounds; tears stream down his cheeks. In this case, the welcome will end in his death. That is a true story and it happened not too long ago, so don’t go thinking the torture we have for you today is dead and gone like many forms of brutality we have talked about in the past. The Welcome Parade from time to time still leaves its mark on this world, but first, we should look at where it came from.

There have been various iterations of this punishment over the years, with the term you are likely familiar with being “running the gauntlet.” It might even be something you did for fun at school, having one poor sucker run through lines of other kids while he takes a beating on the way. You could have even seen it on American Gladiators if that show is your kind of thing. On TV, running the gauntlet was just a bit of evening entertainment, but the earliest forms of running the gauntlet were far from entertaining. It was brutal, often deadly, something that was so horrific it’s hard to get your head around. And when it comes to ancient brutality, as all of you punishment fans know, no one did it better than the Romans.

Let’s imagine you were part of one of those great Roman legions, perhaps with the illustrious Julius Caesar giving you orders. There were many punishments in store for you if you didn’t toe the line. For example, if you stole something from a civilian or another soldier, you might have ended up having your right hand chopped off. The offence of stealing was known as “furtum.” Or maybe you lied about something, or you fell asleep when you should have been manning your post. There was another offence which in translation means “adult men who have abused their persons”, something historians now tell us was the offence of a soldier getting it on with another soldier. You might have been given a stern warning if you did this once, but the Roman armies had their kind of three-strike rule, just as you can find in US law today. Back then, three strikes meant you were out, meaning, you would be killed. Often, the way you would be killed was what was called “futurism supplicium”. The English translation for that is “the punishment of cudgelling.” This sometimes consisted of someone standing at the beginning of two lines of soldiers, all equipped with heavy cudgels. The condemned person was then told to walk through the middle of the line, being battered as he did so. There was no getting to the finish line. It was a death sentence.

This was one of the earliest forms of running the gauntlet, something a tad more disturbing than watching a fitness fanatic on TV run past men armed with soft rubber clubs. It got worse, though. Imagine if you and the rest of the men were in battle with a bunch of very angry barbarians and instead of fighting back you all ran away. When this happened, there had to be punishment so harsh that it would prevent such a thing from ever happening again. That punishment was known as “decimation” or decimation in English. It wasn’t just reserved for cowards, but also for troops who’d shown just a little bit too much insubordination or for those who had mutinied. It was especially harsh because some soldiers might not have been part of the problem, but they might have been punished anyway. The way it went was that every tenth man in the legion was killed. The soldiers picked straws after being put into groups of ten and the guy with the shortest straw was the one who had to be killed. It didn’t matter if he was a great, brave soldier. If he got the short straw, he was done, and the guys doing the killing were his comrades, who themselves had been put on a diet of just wheat and forced to sleep outside of the tents. The men mainly either used cudgels or knives to kill the unlucky soldier. It sounds barbaric, but the Romans knew very well that punishing an entire legion wasn’t exactly great for morale, and killing that many people weren’t good where future battles were concerned. One in ten men was enough to ensure that kind of thing didn’t happen again and there were still enough soldiers remaining to fight another day.

In the 3rd century BC, the Greek historian named Polybius gave an account of this punishment, writing: “If ever these same things happen to occur among a large group of men... the officers reject the idea of bludgeoning or slaughtering all the men involved…And these men who are chosen by lot are bludgeoned mercilessly.” If you want real-life examples of it happening, look no further than the actions of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus was famous for being the richest man in Rome at one point and for being the guy that formed part of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. He is also well known for heading the army that fought against the rebel slave named Spartacus. Spartacus led his rebel slaves against the Roman Republic in the “Third Servile War”, and by God, did those former slaves prove to be a handful for the Romans? Before Crassus went after them, they embarrassed the Romans several times. That’s why Crassus decided it was time to get serious, and so he put together eight legions of around 40,000 men. At one point during the battles two legions ran from the rebel slaves, so Crassus decided it was time for some decimation. As we’ve described already, he put the men into groups of ten and had them draw straws. It’s thought in one particular instance 500 men were bludgeoned to death. It didn’t matter if the chosen men hadn’t run and had even fought bravely.

Historians aren’t sure about the exact numbers, but it’s thought Crassus might have killed as many as 1,000 to 10,000 of his men through decimation. Similar things happened centuries later, with European armies having their versions of running the gauntlet. In Germany, they had something known as “die Gasse”, which in English simply means “The Alley.” Sometimes the condemned man was forced at knifepoint to walk through the alley as armed soldiers beat the hell out of him. Other times, he was dragged through the alley by a rope. This didn’t always mean death, and sometimes sharp weapons were banned. At the end of the day, if the soldier could get to the end and take his beating like a man he could gain back some of that honour he had lost. In the 18th century, the practice was used by the British Royal Navy as a punishment for men who had committed only small offences, such as speaking out of turn. Depending on the misdemeanour, the guy had to run around the deck a certain number of times as his crewmates threw punches and kicks at him or whipped him with a cat of nine tails. It was pretty much left to the men to decide just how badly the guy was beaten. If he was popular, he could come out of the ordeal with only minor injuries, but if he was not so popular, he might have ended up in a pretty bad way. There was a case in 1760 when a sailor named Francis Lanyon hadn’t returned from leave, and it seems the crew of the ship thought his punishment of having to run the gauntlet three times was somewhat too severe.

Lanyon did his three laps and came out smiling at the end. The British banned the practice in 1806. If you look in the US historical archives you can find at least one case of something similar happening there, although it was before the United States was formed. At Fort James on the 28th day of December 1671, a soldier named Melchior Claes was court-martialed for theft in the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The punishment is described as the “Gantlope”, which is the same as the gauntlet. According to that official document, this is what happened: “The Court Marshall does adjudge that he shall run the Gantlope once the length of the fort, where according to the Custom of that punishment the soldiers shall have switches delivered to them with which they shall strike him as he passes through them stripped to the waist, and at the fort gate the Marshall is to receive him and there to kick him out of the Garrison where he is no more to return.” In case you’re wondering what a switch is, it is a kind of rod. So, he got his beating and was told to leave, which wasn’t that bad considering what you’d already heard.

Some Native American tribes had their versions of running the gauntlet, too. We know this partly because a Jesuit named Isaac Jogues wrote about it after he was captured by the Iroquois in 1641. He wrote, “Before arriving (at the Iroquois Village) we met the young men of the country, in a line armed with sticks.” It seems he wasn’t beaten so badly. Then there was the case of John Stark, a military officer who also ran the gauntlet when fighting with the natives. On April 28, 1752, he was out hunting along the Baker River in New Hampshire when he and his buddies were attacked by Abenaki warriors. One of Stark’s men was killed, but he and a man named Amos Eastman were captured and taken back to the Abenaki settlement. They were immediately told they would be running the gauntlet. But in this case, it seems Stark proved to impress the warriors because as he entered the gauntlet, he grabbed the stick out of one of the warriors’ hands and proceeded to beat the man with it. After seeing this show of courage, the warriors adopted Stark into their settlement and let him stay for the winter.

The next Spring 103 Spanish dollars was paid in ransom to get Stark safely back to New Hampshire and $60 was paid for Eastman. It seems the Native Americans had a thing for this kind of punishment. In the book, The Frontiersman, there’s another case stated. It involved a man named Simon Kenton, who also became a bit of a hero after being captured by Shawnee warriors. He was told he’d be running half a mile of gauntlet while man, woman, and child did their best to beat the hell out of him. There was something like 500 sticks he had to run past, and he was naked when he did it. The book states that the rule was if you fell to the ground, you were beaten more, or even sent back to the beginning, so you had to keep going. Some died, some survived with broken bones, and some were killed anyway even if they did get to the end. It seems Kenton got through and impressed the warriors so much they let him live. They respected his resilience and gave him the name, “Cut-ta-ho-that” (the condemned man).

The records state that he was “adopted into the tribe by a motherly squaw whose own son had been slain.” He didn’t stay there for long, being rescued at some point soon after. So, when we’re talking about the Welcome Parade you have to bear in mind that it has a long history. Now we will talk about modern times and how running the gauntlet never really went out of fashion. It was very popular in Poland just a few decades ago when the Communist government ruled over things there. They had a word for it: “ścieżka zdrowia”, which in literal terms means “health path.” You could say that is a very darkly ironic term because in no way was this process good for someone’s health. It was used by the police and militias to get people in line, whether they were political dissidents or run-of-the-mill criminals. The most well-known cases happened during the summer of 1976 when there were a bunch of protests all over Poland against the government. There was even a version of the gauntlet in Brazil that was called “Corredor polonês”, meaning “Polish corridor.” That’s exactly what it was, a corridor made up of men brandishing batons.

The condemned, sometimes with both his shoelaces tied together, had to make his way through that corridor while being subjected to one hell of a beating. One man named Waldemar Michalski later explained what happened to him in 1976. He said: “On the first day I walked the ‘path of health’ on the way from a truck to the police van, about 50 meters. They ordered me to walk slowly so that each one could hit me. They beat me with fists, clubs, and boots. At the very end, I fell. I couldn't get up again under the hail of clubs.” This was just the beginning of his path to health. He said he got a second gauntlet on the way to the police van and a third beating when he went to get a haircut. He has beaten again on the way to the car and then again inside the prison. His path of health led him to his prison cell. The Poles may have gotten this from Russia, whose army in the 19th century had a form of punishment known as the “Piglets.” We guess because of a lot of squealing going on. In this case, the condemned man had to walk through lines of 50 men and he had to do that 20 times, with the punishment supposed to consist of 1000 strikes with sticks, batons, or whips.

According to the historian Wiktoria Śliwowska, the prisoner would usually be dead after 300 to 400 blows. It was indeed just a very slow and painful form of execution. Then there’s Egypt, where we have a very clear view of how the Welcome Parade is used in Egypt because of a man named Alaa Abd El Fattah. He explained what it was like for him and many other prisoners when they first entered the prison. He said: “If you are classified as a person without protection, you will be vulnerable to extreme degradation and violence from the moment you enter prison. The intensity of the degradation will decline with time, but the terror of those first days will never fade. The cruellest form of humiliation for new prisoners is known as the parade.” He went on, saying that these prisoners without protection were forced to crawl on their hands and knees through a row of officers who each struck the prisoner with their fists and feet.

As we mentioned at the start, this could be deadly. El Fattah wrote that one elderly man died as he was about halfway through the parade. He added: “The prisoners were grim for two nights and a gloom settled over us, but the prison routine remained unchanged in any respect, and we saw no brass making inquiries.” He also said that another prisoner went through the same ordeal, but this man was of high class, and it seems the prison had misunderstood this. He took his beating, only for the word to get out that his wealth status should have precluded such barbarity. The prison warden had to issue a lot of apologies after that. Still, no one was ever held accountable for the tortures, or the death, and the parades just kept happening. So, if you think the ancient Romans were bad, look no further than 2019 and probably today for a similar kind of violence.

Lastly, we come to Belarus, where welcome parades are still going strong today, too. The prisoners taking the beatings were part of the 2020-2021 Belarusian protests. Those in prison were treated even worse, with Human Rights Watch writing in 2020: “They had serious injuries, including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries. Some had kidney damage. Six of the people interviewed were hospitalized, for one to five days.” That’s all we know about the welcome parade.


About the Creator

Jayveer Vala

I write.

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