In our modern context, the very term ‘decimation’ pertains to the utter destruction of a habitat, populace or even an eco-system. But as it turns out, a few Roman generals purposefully enacted the method of decimation as disciplinary punishment for their legions!
To put things into perspective, the word decimation comes from Latin decimatus, and itself relates to ‘decem‘ or tenth. So, when the punishment was enforced, it was most probably known as decimatio and the vicious process entailed choosing every tenth man from a cohort (approximately 480 men) to be put to death. And, the utterly ruthless part was – this unlucky man had be to stoned or clubbed to death by their remaining comrades-in-arms, in a brutal practice known as the fustuarium.
The remorseless punishment was usually reserved for the troops who have displayed insubordination, cowardice, will to conspire, murderous intent on fellow soldiers, participation in espionage activities, desertion or in few cases when they had faked illness so as not to participate in upcoming battles. And in a true Roman fashion, the ‘democratic’ part of the severe process encompassed the selection of the soldier in a random manner (by lottery) – regardless of his rank, reputation or even his involvement in the actual transgression or revolt. The remaining soldiers were then sometimes forced to make their quarters outside the main army camp and given diets of barley which was obviously harder to digest than the usual rations of wheat.
The first documented case of decimation was noted by Livy – the ‘loved’ tyrant consul Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis invoked the punishment for his troops on charge of cowardice in 5th Century BC, when a battle was lost against their Italian rivals, the Volsci. It was 400 years later when Crassus famously ordered the decimation of his troops when they failed to face up to the task of defeating Spartacus and his rebellious army.
But the most bloodthirsty episode of the punishment probably occurred when Emperor Maximian dictated the decimation of the famed ‘Theban Legion’, the Christian troops who were stationed in the fortress town of Agaunum, in 3rd Century AD. The punishment was enforced when the soldiers disobeyed direct orders to persecute their fellow Christians from the area. Incredibly, the remaining troops again defied their original orders even after the brutal sentence was carried out. Finally, the frustrated emperor ordered the punishment as a repetitive course of action until the entire legion of 6,600 soldiers was annihilated down to the last man. The Swiss town of Agaunum is currently known as Saint Maurice, named after Mauritius, the canonized commander of the Martyrs of Agaunum *.
Interestingly enough, decimation as a form of capital punishment was very uncommon (and even controversial) during the era of the late-Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire. The great Julius Caesar is said to revoke his initial enforcement of the punishment on his 9th Legion, when they took the field against Pompey in the ensuing civil war. But the form of military retribution had carried on in some form or the other even after the passing of the Roman epoch.
A famous documented example of the truculent practice occurred in 1642, when 90 members of a 900-strong cavalry were chosen and executed on orders of Austria’s Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, when they lost a battle against the rampaging Swedish Army in the Thirty Years War. The ambit of democracy was also maintained in this instance, with the unfortunate members being chosen by a roll of dice!
Quite startlingly, there are also vaguely chronicled examples of the savage punishment even in the 20th century. Such inhumane episodes occurred during isolated incidences of the First World War (involving the Italian Army), Finnish Civil War in 1918 and the Second World War (involving the Soviet Army – according to author Antony Beevor, in his acclaimed book Stalingrad).
*Note – The episode of the Theban Legion is believed to be fictional or at least an embellished literary account by many academic historians, including Denis Van Berchem, of the University of Geneva; and David Woods, Professor of Classics at the University College Cork.