Decimation (Roman army)
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Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = "ten") was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish mutinous or cowardly soldiers. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning "removal of a tenth".
A cohort selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten; each group drew lots (Sortition), and the soldier on whom the lot fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning or clubbing. The remaining soldiers were often given rations of barley instead of wheat.
Because the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in the group were eligible for execution, regardless of the individual degree of fault, or rank and distinction. The leadership was usually executed independently of the one in ten deaths of the rank and file.
The earliest documented decimation occurred in 471 BC during the Roman Republic's early wars against the Volsci and is recorded by Livy. The practice was revived by Crassus in 71 BC during the Third Servile War against Spartacus, and some historical sources attribute part of Crassus' success to it. Julius Caesar is often reported as having used the practice on the 9th Legion during the war against Pompey, but this has been disproved.
Polybius gives one of the first descriptions of the practice in the early 3rd century BC:
- 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 [as is the case with a small group or an individual]. Instead they find a solution for the situation which chooses by a lottery system sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of these men, always calculating the number in this group with reference to the whole unit of offenders so that this group forms one-tenth of all those guilty of cowardice. And these men who are chosen by lot are bludgeoned mercilessly in the manner described above.
- Antony was furious and employed the punishment known as 'decimation' on those who had lost their nerve. What he did was divide the whole lot of them into groups of ten, and then he killed one from each group, who was chosen by lot; the rest, on his orders were given barley rations instead of wheat.
Decimation was still being practiced during the time of the Roman Empire, although it was very uncommon. Suetonius records that it was used for the last time by Emperor Augustus in 17 BC while Tacitus records that Lucius Apronius used decimation to punish a full cohort of the III Augusta after their defeat by Tacfarinas in AD 20. G.R. Watson notes that "its appeal was to those obsessed with nimio amore antiqui moris" -- that is, an excessive love for ancient customs -- and notes, "Decimation itself, however, was ultimately doomed, for though the army might be prepared to assist in the execution of innocent slaves, professional soldiers could hardly be expected to cooperate in the indiscriminate execution of their own comrades."
A legend suggests that the Theban Legion was decimated in the third century AD. The Legion had refused, to a man, to accede to an order of the Emperor, and the process was repeated until none were left. They became known as the Martyrs of Agaunum.
Byzantine Emperor Maurice forbade in his Strategikon the decimatio and other brutal punishments. According to him, punishments where the rank and file see their comrades dying by the hands of their own brothers-in-arms could lead to collapse of morale. Moreover, it could seriously deplete the manpower of the fighting unit.
Modern instances of decimation
The Italian General Luigi Cadorna allegedly applied decimation to under-performing units during the First World War. In his book Stalingrad, Antony Beevor recounts how, during the Second World War, a Soviet army division commander practiced decimation on deserters by walking down the line of soldiers at attention, and shooting every tenth soldier in the face until his TT-33 pistol ran out of ammunition.
Decimation can be also used to punish the enemy. In 1918, in the Finnish Civil War, the White troops, after conquering the Red city of Varkaus, summarily executed around 80 captured Reds in what became known as the Lottery of Huruslahti. According to some accounts, the Whites ordered all the captured Reds to assemble in a single row on the ice of Lake Huruslahti, selected every tenth prisoner, and executed them on the spot. The selection was not entirely random though, as some prisoners (primarily Red leaders) were specifically selected for execution and some good workers were intentionally spared.
Current usage of the word
The word decimation is often (counter to historical use) used to refer to an extreme reduction in the number of a population or force, much greater than the one tenth defined by the "deci" root. It is frequently used as a synonym for the word "annihilate" which the OED lists as meaning "to reduce to non-existence, blot out of existence".
In popular culture
The 1957 movie Paths of Glory depicts three World War French soldiers arbitrarily selected to be executed as punishment for a failure by their battalion.
The 1964 film Fall of the Roman Empire had a legion recruited from gladiators being punished by decimation by standing along the edge of a high aqueduct and having every tenth man pushed off from behind.
In the 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas, it is reported that Legate Lanius, a high-ranking field commander in Caesar's Legion (itself based upon the Roman Empire), had one tenth of his unit killed by the other nine tenths.
In the fourth episode of the third season of the Starz TV series Spartacus (aired on the 22nd of Feb 2013), this method of discipline was utilized by Crassus on his men for fleeing after a failed attempt to kill Spartacus.
- Lachesis (//; Greek: Λάχεσις "allotter" or "drawer of lots") measured the thread of life with her rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima (the 'Tenth').
- decimate. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000
- G. R. Watson, The Roman Soldier (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), p. 119
- Ab urbe condita, ii.59
- Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, 407
- Polybius, History of the World. Quoted in Shelton, Jo-Ann, As the Romans Did, p. 248 ISBN 978-0-19-508974-5
- Plutarch: Antony, c. 39
- Suetonius, Augustus, 24
- Tacitus, Annals, 3
- Watson, Roman Solder, p. 120
- Codex Parisiensis, Bibliothèque National, 9550, reproduced in Louis Dupraz, Les passions de st Maurice d'Agaune: Essai sur l'historicité de la tradition et contribution à l'étude de l'armée pré-Dioclétienne (260-286) et des canonisations tardives de la fin du IVe siècle (Fribourg 1961), Appdx I. on the historicity of the Theban Legion.
- Huw Strachan (2003) The First World War
- Antony Beevor, Stalingrad, p. 117.