The Roman war machine was an efficient fighting force. What created such an efficient fighting force? Training and discipline. This article is focused on just one particular part of Roman discipline. The harshest punishment in my opinion: Decimation.
Romans had punishments for varying degrees of offence. An individual soldier or a small group could be lashed, sentenced to heavy labour or even executed for harsh crimes or cowardice.
Decimation was a punishment at a whole new level. Usually reserved for unit organizations at the cohorts (480 men per unit), Legions (5000+ men per unit), or even full armies. The charge war for levying such a punishment was generally mutiny en masse, cowardice en masse or gross insubordination.
This punishment was usually ordered by the elite authorities within the Roman military hierarchy, meaning only legates, consuls or later the emperor could order a unit to be decimated.
The unit(s) marked out for decimation would be gathered. By the drawing of lots, 1 out of 10 men would be marked out. This unfortunate soldier would be executed, by his 9 comrades. Manner was killing was brutal, by either stoning or clubbing the man till death.
The punishment did not end there. Soldiers would then be given rations of barley, in lieu of wheat. This might not sound harsh, but to the soldiers, Barley was animal fodder. Wheat based rations was given to soldiers. It was a downgrade of status, something frowned upon within the Roman military.
The more dangerous aspect, if on campaign the decimated unit(s) would have to sleep outside the fortifications of the Roman Fort. Any night attack by the barbarians, and those men would be the first fatalities.
A pitfall of this punishment: dishonourable soldiers, may not necessarily be executed. Survivors, regardless of personal glory and accomplishments were liable to be decimated through unit affiliation. The message would be clear but there’s a chance that courageous soldiers might be the unfortunate victims of this brutal punishment.
The real damage is trauma not only to the 9 survivors, but the army as a whole. It’s hard to imagine soldiers who are campaigning and fighting together, not to develop a strong bond. To then have to murder one of your comrades would be very traumatic to say the least. The army would know their commander means business and it would be best to obey all future orders from then on. It could also reinforce flagging morale.
Uses of Decimation in Roman history.
The first recorded use of the Decimation punishment came in 471BCE. This was incident was recorded by Livy in his histories of Rome. The Consul of the year, Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis oversaw the punishment. The following is an extract from Livy’s Histories of Rome:
No one thought of anything but flight. They made their way over heaps of bodies and arms in such wild haste that the enemy gave up the pursuit before the Romans abandoned their flight. At last, after the consul had vainly endeavoured to follow up and rally his men, the scattered troops were gradually got together again, and he fixed his camp on territory undisturbed by war. He called up the men for an assembly, and after inveighing, with perfect justice, against an army which had been false to military discipline and had deserted its standards, he asked them individually where the standards were, where their arms were. The soldiers who had thrown away their arms, the standard-bearers who had lost their standards, and in addition to these the centurions and duplicarii who had deserted their ranks, he ordered to be scourged and beheaded. Of the rank and file every tenth man was drawn by lot for punishment. – Livy, The Histories of Rome, Book 2, Chapter 59.
The most prominent and well known example of the use of Decimation was done by Crassus during the Third Servile War against Spartacus.
When the election of new praetors came on, fear fell upon all, and nobody offered himself as a candidate until Licinius Crassus, a man distinguished among the Romans for birth and wealth, assumed the praetorship and marched against Spartacus with six new legions. When he arrived at his destination he received also the two legions of the consuls, whom he decimated by lot for their bad conduct in several battles. Some say that Crassus, too, having engaged in battle with his whole army, and having been defeated, decimated the whole army and was not deterred by their numbers, but destroyed about 4000 of them. Whichever way it was, when he had once demonstrated to them that he was more dangerous to them than the enemy, he overcame immediately 10,000 of the Spartacans, who were encamped somewhere in a detached position, and killed two-thirds of them – Appian, The Civil Wars
As stated in my article on Spartacus, it is highly unlikely the entire army was decimated. I believe the insubordinate legions were decimated and even Appian is not confirming if it was true or not. So let’s take that with a grain of salt and assume the survivors of the 2 legions were decimated.
It would have shaken the core of every man under Crassus’s command, as it was the first time in nearly 3 centuries that this ancient punishment was used. As stated in Appian’s history, it seemed to have worked with Crassus eventually routing the slave army in the field.
Well that was the Roman punishment of decimation. The harshest but could be an effective punishment if used correctly.
Whilst not directly related to this , I’d like to talk about the use of the word ‘decimation’ in the English vocabulary. It is used to describe extreme reductions or complete ruin of something. I believe this is an incorrect use of the word, given the original meaning was to remove a ‘tenth’. So just keep that in mind.
I hope to get more regular with the blog with work permitting. Thanks for reading. If there’s any topic you’d want me to write on, do let me know in the comments.