Decimation (Roman army)
Decimation (Latin: decimatio; decem = "ten") was a form of military discipline used by senior commanders in the Roman Army to punish units or large groups guilty of capital offences such as mutiny or desertion. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning "removal of a tenth". The procedure was a pragmatic attempt to balance the need to punish serious offences with the practicalities of dealing with a large group of offenders.
A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) 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 (the latter being the standard soldier's diet) for a few days, and required to camp outside the fortified security of the marching camp.
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, unless rigged to eliminate the mutiny ringleaders. 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. In an incident where his army had been scattered, consul Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis had the culprits punished for desertion: Centurions, standard-bearers and soldiers who had cast away their weapons were individually scourged and beheaded, while of the remainder, one in ten were chosen by lot and executed.
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. The number of men killed through decimation is not known, but it varies between 1,000 (used on 10,000 men), or a cohort of around 480-500 men, meaning only 48-50 were killed.
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 practised during the time of the Roman Empire, although it was very uncommon. Suetonius records that it was used by Emperor Augustus in 17 BC and later by Galba, 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, led by Saint Maurice, 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 a collapse of morale. Moreover, it could seriously deplete the manpower of the fighting unit.
Modern instances of decimation
During the Battle of Breitenfeld (1642), one of many battles of the Thirty Years' War, Colonel Madlon's cavalry regiment fled from the fight. It was followed by the massive fleeing of other cavalry units, which caused the final turn in the battle. The battle was a decisive victory for the Swedish army under the command of Field Marshal Lennart Torstenson over an Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire under the command of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria and his deputy, Prince-General Ottavio Piccolomini, Duke of Amalfi. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm assembled a court-martial in Prague which decided that the Madlon regiment was to be decimated. 90 men (chosen by rolling dice) were executed in Rokycany, Czech Republic on December 14th 1642 by Jan Mydlář jr., the son of Jan Mydlář, famous executioner from Prague. On the first day of the execution the regiment's cords and battle banners were broken by the executioner. On the second day, the chosen men were hanged on the trees on the road from Rokycany to Litohlavy. Another version said that the officers were beheaded and soldiers shot down (and hanged on the trees afterwards). Their mass grave is said to be on the place of Black mound in Rokycany, which commemorates the decimation to this day.
Italian General Luigi Cadorna allegedly applied decimation to under-performing units during World War I. Certainly one specific instance of actual decimation did occur in the Italian Army during World War I on 26 May 1916. This involved the execution of one in ten soldiers of a 120 strong company of the 141 º Catanzaro Infantry Brigade, which had mutinied killing officers, carabinieri and other soldiers. Two days later Cadorna endorsed the shooting of the 12 mutineers, including a junior officer and three sergeants, in a telegram sent to senior commanders.
In his book Stalingrad, Antony Beevor recounts how, during World War II, 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 pistol ran out of ammunition. This would be eight or nine men, depending on whether the commander carried his weapon with a loaded chamber or not.
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 him 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" (as in "decimal") root. It is frequently used as a synonym for the word "annihilation" (the OED lists "annihilation" as meaning "to reduce to non-existence, blot out of existence",) or for "devastation", (to lay waste) to which it bears a syllabic resemblance.
- 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
- Polybius, History of the World. Quoted in Shelton, Jo-Ann, As the Romans Did, p. 248 ISBN 978-0-19-508974-5
- G. R. Watson, The Roman Soldier (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), p. 119
- Ab urbe condita, ii.59
- Livy: History of Rome 2.59.9-11, quoted in Sage, M M: The Republican Roman Army; a Sourcebook (2013) p147
- Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, 407
- Plutarch: Antony, c. 39
- Suetonius, Augustus, 24
- Suetonius, Galba, 12
- 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.