Word of the day: decimation

In current usage, the word decimation has come to mean something approaching annihilation achieved by one force against an opposing force. In fact, the term originally meant the death of ‘only’ one in ten of a group and was actually a punishment imposed by the Roman army on its own soldiers for an assumed lack of discipline or valour.

As the relevant Wikipedia page explains:

“A cohort (roughly 480 soldiers) selected for punishment by decimation was divided into groups of ten. Each group drew lots, 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 camp. As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank, or distinction.”

And why am I writing about decimation? Well, I recently viewed a television documentary by the British historian Bethany Hughes who described the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus and I learned that the Roman leading the soldiers against the slaves used the act of decimation against his troops. This was before Spartacus was killed in battle (the “I am Spartacus” scene was just an invention for the film) and the surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way. Brutal stuff.


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