In ancient times, decimation was used by Roman military leaders to brutally punish their own soldiers for cowardice and insubordination.
In ancient times, few armies were feared as much as the Romans. And Roman generals sometimes went to great lengths to keep their soldiers in line. One of the cruelest punishments they utilized was decimation, which involved slaughtering a tenth of a disobedient unit.
Decimation was used sparingly but effectively throughout the Roman army. It often involved dividing the disobedient legion into groups of ten, then having the soldiers from each group draw lots. The soldier with the shortest straw in his section would be killed — by the other nine members of his group.
But though this military punishment seems especially barbaric, it didn’t end with the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, decimation continued in one form or the other up until the 20th century.
What Is Decimation Punishment?
As Ancient Origins writes, “decimation” means “removal of a tenth” in Latin. And that’s basically what this brutal punishment entails.
As Greek historian Polybius explained around 150 B.C.E., decimation was usually used on soldiers who’d deserted their posts during battle. Afterward, the guilty unit would be forced to draw lots, and the tenth with the shortest straw would be brutally executed by their fellow soldiers.
“The tribune assembles the legion, and brings up those guilty of leaving the ranks, reproaches them sharply, and finally chooses by lots sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes twenty of the offenders, so adjusting the number thus chosen that they form as near as possible the tenth part of those guilty of cowardice,” Polybius wrote, according to Cambridge University Press. “Those on whom the lot falls are clubbed mercilessly.”
Though it was bad enough to have to kill their fellow soldiers, the surviving men were then punished further. As Polybius wrote, they were then exiled from the safety of the military encampment, and forced to survive in the wild for several days with rations of barley instead of wheat.
While decimation was not utilized as frequently as some suggest, it certainly was used by multiple Roman military leaders.
How Ancient Romans Used Decimation
One of the earliest known instances of decimation happened in 471 B.C.E. Then, Roman historian Livy writes that Appius Claudius Sabinus brutally punished his army after they were roundly defeated by the Volsci.
Not only did he slaughter soldiers who returned without their weapons, standard bearers who returned without their standards, and centurions who’d deserted their posts, but he decimated most of the army. Ancient Roman senator Frontinus suggests the men were cudgeled to death.
Other instances of decimation were recorded around the same time, though exact details and dates can be hard to come by. Cambridge University Press writes that military hero Fabius Rullianus decimated soldiers from two defeated legions by beheading around 315 B.C.E. Likewise, an otherwise unknown general named Aquilius used decimation to punish centuries that had faltered in front of the enemy by beheading soldiers who’d drawn lots.
At the turn of the millennia, decimation continued sparingly. Ancient Origins reports that Mark Antony used decimation to punish his men after their defeat by the Parthians in 35 B.C.E. Hundreds of years later, Emperor Maximian allegedly used decimation to slowly eliminate every last man of a Christian legion who refused to fight their fellow Christians in 286 C.E.
All in all, decimation remained a rare — if terrifying — form of punishment in ancient Rome. As Polybius writes, its very idea struck terror into the hearts of soldiers. And though the Roman Empire eventually collapsed in 476 C.E., decimation didn’t die with it.
Rather, this form of military punishment continued for hundreds of years.
The Continuation Of This Brutal Punishment
After the fall of the Roman Empire, armies in Europe and beyond continued to use decimation, albeit on rare occasions. This punishment was used following several battles during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), and Paraguayan troops were punished with decimation during the War of the Triple Alliance (1864 – 1870).
Even in modern times, some armies continued to use decimation to keep soldiers in line. As Ancient Origins notes, World War I Italian General Luigi Cadorna allegedly decimated the 141st Catanzaro Infantry Brigade after they mutinied in 1917. In all, some 750 men were killed on Cadorna’s orders.
French military leaders also used decimation to punish troops during World War I, killing every tenth man of the Régiment Mixte de Tirailleurs Algérien (Mixed Algerian Infantry Regiment) by firing squad in December 1914 after the soldiers failed to fight in the opening weeks of the conflict. Four years later, the Finnish White Guard also used decimation to kill communist rebels that they’d taken prisoner during the Finnish Civil War.
Decimation may be an ancient punishment, but it’s retained its potency. Used sparingly by the Romans, it nevertheless developed a terrifying reputation that cast a long shadow across history. No matter if they were fighting in the Samnite Wars, the Thirty Years War, or World War I, soldiers deeply feared this punishment, which chose its victims randomly.
As Polybius wrote: “The danger and dread of drawing the fatal lot affect all equally, as it is uncertain on whom it will fall; and as the public disgrace of receiving barley rations falls on all alike, this practice is that best calculated both to inspire fear and to correct the mischief.”
After reading about the grisly history of decimation, go inside the history of the Praetorian Guard, the fearsome military unit of ancient Rome. Or, discover the true history of Caligula, the “mad” Roman emperor who allegedly tried to make his beloved horse a consul.