Decimation (Roman Army)
Decimation was a form of military discipline
In its original sense, discipline is referred to systematic instruction given to disciples to train them as students in a craft or trade, or to follow a particular code of conduct or "order". Often, the phrase "to discipline" carries a negative connotation. This is because enforcement of order –...

 used by officers in the Roman Army
Roman army
The Roman army is the generic term for the terrestrial armed forces deployed by the kingdom of Rome , the Roman Republic , the Roman Empire and its successor, the Byzantine empire...

 to punish mutinous or cowardly soldiers. The word decimation is derived from Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 meaning "removal of a tenth".


A unit selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten; each group drew lots (Sortition
In politics, sortition is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision-makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates....

), and the soldier on whom the lot fell was executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning
Stoning, or lapidation, is a form of capital punishment whereby a group throws stones at a person until the person dies. No individual among the group can be identified as the one who kills the subject, yet everyone involved plainly bears some degree of moral culpability. This is in contrast to the...

 or clubbing
Blunt trauma
In medical terminology, blunt trauma, blunt injury, non-penetrating trauma or blunt force trauma refers to a type of physical trauma caused to a body part, either by impact, injury or physical attack; the latter usually being referred to as blunt force trauma...

. The remaining soldiers were given rations of barley
Barley is a major cereal grain, a member of the grass family. It serves as a major animal fodder, as a base malt for beer and certain distilled beverages, and as a component of various health foods...

 instead of wheat
Wheat is a cereal grain, originally from the Levant region of the Near East, but now cultivated worldwide. In 2007 world production of wheat was 607 million tons, making it the third most-produced cereal after maize and rice...

 and forced to sleep outside the Roman encampment.

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
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

's early wars against the Volsci
The Volsci were an ancient Italic people, well known in the history of the first century of the Roman Republic. They then inhabited the partly hilly, partly marshy district of the south of Latium, bounded by the Aurunci and Samnites on the south, the Hernici on the east, and stretching roughly from...

 and is recorded by Livy
Titus Livius — known as Livy in English — was a Roman historian who wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people. Ab Urbe Condita Libri, "Chapters from the Foundation of the City," covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome well before the traditional foundation in 753 BC...

. The practice was revived by Crassus in 71 BC during the Third Servile War
Third Servile War
The Third Servile War , also called the Gladiator War and the War of Spartacus by Plutarch, was the last of a series of unrelated and unsuccessful slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known collectively as the Roman Servile Wars...

 against Spartacus
Spartacus was a famous leader of the slaves in the Third Servile War, a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the events of the war, and surviving historical accounts are sometimes contradictory and may not always be reliable...

, and some historic sources attribute part of Crassus' success to it. Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman and a distinguished writer of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire....

 is often reported as having used the practice on the 9th Legion during the war against Pompey
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey or Pompey the Great , was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic...

, but this has been disproved.

Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...

 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 [see original text]."

Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 describes the process in his life of Antony
Mark Antony
Marcus Antonius , known in English as Mark Antony, was a Roman politician and general. As a military commander and administrator, he was an important supporter and loyal friend of his mother's cousin Julius Caesar...

. After a defeat in Media
Antony's Parthian War
Antony's Parthian War or the Roman-Parthian War of 40-33 BC was a major conflict, which followed the Battle of Carrhae, between the Roman Republic, represented in the East by the triumvir Mark Antony, and the Parthians...

"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
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

. Suetonius
Lives of the Twelve Caesars
De vita Caesarum commonly known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.The work, written in AD 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, was the most popular work of Suetonius,...

 records that it was used for the last time by Emperor Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

 in 17 BC while Tacitus
Annals (Tacitus)
The Annals by Tacitus is a history of the reigns of the four Roman Emperors succeeding Caesar Augustus. The surviving parts of the Annals extensively cover most of the reigns of Tiberius and Nero. The title Annals was probably not given by Tacitus, but derives from the fact that he treated this...

 records that Lucius Apronius used decimation to punish a full cohort of the III Augusta
Legio III Augusta
Legio tertia Augusta was raised in the year 43 BCE most likely by the consul Gaius Vibius Pansa and the emperor Augustus who served the Roman Empire in North Africa until at least the late 4th century CE. It is possible that it fought in the battle of Philippi against the murderers of Caesar...

 after their defeat by Tacfarinas
Tacfarinas was a Numidian deserter from the Roman army who led his own Musulamii tribe and a loose and changing coalition of other Ancient Libyan tribes in a war against the Romans in North Africa during the rule of emperor Tiberius .Although Tacfarinas' personal motivation is unknown, it is...

 in AD 20.

A legend suggests that the Theban Legion
Theban Legion
The Theban Legion figures in Christian hagiography as an entire Roman legion — of "six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men" — who had converted en masse to Christianity and were martyred together, in 286, according to the hagiographies of Saint Maurice, the chief among the Legion's...

 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 will seriously deplete the manpower of the fighting unit.

Modern instances of decimation

The Italian General Luigi Cadorna
Luigi Cadorna
Luigi Cadorna GCB was an ItalianField Marshal, most famous for being thechief of staff of the Italian army during the first part of World War I.-Biography:...

 applied decimation to under-performing units during the First World War. In his book Stalingrad
Stalingrad (book)
Written by Antony Beevor, Stalingrad is a narrative history of the epic battle fought in and around the city of Stalingrad during World War II, as well as the events leading up to it and those which occurred after...

, Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor
Antony James Beevor, FRSL is a British historian, educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst. He studied under the famous military historian John Keegan. Beevor is a former officer with the 11th Hussars who served in England and Germany for five years before resigning his commission...

 recounts how, during the Second World War, a Soviet Corps
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...

 commander of a division practised decimation on retreating soldiers by walking down the line of soldiers at attention, and shooting every tenth soldier in the face until his TT-33
The TT-30 is a Russian semi-automatic pistol. It was developed in the early 1930s by Fedor Tokarev as a service pistol for the Soviet military to replace the Nagant M1895 revolver that had been in use since tsarist times, though it never fully replaced the M1895.-Development:In 1930, the...

 pistol ran out of ammunition.

Decimation can be also used to punish the enemy. In 1918, in the Finnish Civil War
Finnish Civil War
The Finnish Civil War was a part of the national, political and social turmoil caused by World War I in Europe. The Civil War concerned control and leadership of The Grand Duchy of Finland as it achieved independence from Russia after the October Revolution in Petrograd...

, the White troops, after the battle of Varkaus
Varkaus is a Middle-Savonian industrial town and municipality of Finland.It is located in the province of Eastern Finland and is part of the Northern Savonia region. The municipality has a population of and covers an area of of which is water. The population density is .The municipality is...

, ordered all the captured Reds to assemble in a single row on the ice of Huruslahti, selected first all leaders and then every fifth prisoner, and executed them on the spot. This incident is known as the Huruslahden arpajaiset (the Lottery of Huruslahti
Lottery of Huruslahti
The Lottery of Huruslahti is a well-known event in the Finnish Civil War, in which several "Red" prisoners were summarily executed by the White troops, after the Battle of Varkaus in 1918...


Current usage of the word

The word decimation is often used to refer to an extreme reduction in the number of a population or force, much greater than the one tenth implied by the "deci" root.

In Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation....

 uses "decimate" to indicate the taking of nine in ten, noting that the Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary , published by the Oxford University Press, is the self-styled premier dictionary of the English language. Two fully bound print editions of the OED have been published under its current name, in 1928 and 1989. The first edition was published in twelve volumes , and...

supports the "pedigree" of this "rare" meaning.

In popular culture

In Max Brooks
Max Brooks
Maximillian Michael "Max" Brooks is an American author and screenwriter, with a particular interest in zombies. Brooks is also a television and voice-over actor.- Early life and education :...

' 2006 novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
World War Z
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a 2006 post-apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks. It is a follow-up to his 2003 book The Zombie Survival Guide. Rather than a grand overview or narrative, World War Z is a collection of individual accounts in the form of first-person anecdote...

the army of the Holy Russian Empire uses decimation in its traditional sense to punish units who mutiny.

In the 2010 video game
2010 in video gaming
The year 2010 has seen many sequels and prequels in video games, including several new titles.-Events:-Game releases:List of games scheduled for release in 2010 in North America....

, Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas is a first person action role-playing video game in the Fallout series developed by Obsidian Entertainment, and published by Bethesda Softworks. The game is based in a post-apocalyptic environment in and around Las Vegas, Nevada...

, a reference is made to decimation when it's reported that Legate Lanius, a high-ranking field commander in Caesar's Legion (itself based upon the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

), had one tenth of his unit killed by the other nine tenths.

See also

  • Fustuarium
    In the military of ancient Rome, fustuarium or fustuarium supplicium was a severe form of military discipline in which a soldier was cudgeled to death...

  • Lachesis
    Lachesis (mythology)
    In Greek mythology, Lachesis was the second of the Three Fates, or Moirae, also known as the Triple Moon Goddesses or the Lunar Dieties. Each phase of the moon representing each of the fates - Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos...

     (ˈlækəsɨs, "allotter" or "drawer of lots") measured the thread of life with her rod. Her Roman equivalent was Decima
    Decima (mythology)
    In Roman mythology, Decima was one of the Parcae, or the Fates. She measured the thread of life with her rod. She was also revered as the goddess of childbirth. Her Greek equivalent was Lachesis....

    (the 'Tenth').

External links

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