Montaigne ponders over what the punishment should be for cowards
I once heard a prince talking to a great captain over dinner about the death-sentence of Monsieur de Vervins, a man who was condemned for having handed over Boulogne to the English (in 1544). The prince was insisting that a soldier could not be justly put to death for not being brave enough. And yes, it makes sense that we differentiate between faults that come only from weakness, and those that are clearly the result of treachery and malice, because in the latter, we act against the rules of reason that nature has imprinted in us, but in the former we could justify ourselves by invoking the same nature that left us in a state of imperfection and lack of courage. Many have thought, in fact, that we cannot be questioned for anything except what we commit against our conscience, and those who feel that there should be no punishment for heretics or misbelievers, nor for judges who fail in their duties due to mere ignorance, base their judgment partly on this rule.
But as for cowardice, it is clear that the most common way of punishing it is through shame and ignominy. In Greece, before the legislator Charondas changed the practice, those who fled from a battle were punished with death. But Charondas ordained that the coward should instead have to go out in public for three days, in women’s clothing. He did this hoping that they would continue to serve, their courage having been awakened by this open shame.
Tertullian echoed this sentiment, that it would be better to embarrass someone that do much worse:
‘Rather bring the blood into a man’s cheek than let it out of his body’
Apparently, in Ancient Rome those who fled were also punished with death. I read of an Emperor Julius put ten of his soldiers to death for fleeing from the Parthians. Yet, elsewhere, for similar offences, he only condemned fleers by lowering their rank.
The Roman soldiers who fled Cannes were harshly condemned but not killed. I think it should be taken into account that a shameful punishment may not just make the fleers harsh and cold, it may also make them enemies.
If an act occurs that is so cowardly and ignorant that is surpasses all that could be considered normal, then the act itself can be taken as evidence of malice and wickedness, and should be punished accordingly.