Lesson #191: To Decimate

I learned something awesome today. Well, awesome if you like words and historical bloodshed, which I do.

The English word to decimate , which we use incorrectly in modernity to mean, generically, to wipe out in large numbers or drastically reduce in strength or effectiveness, comes from the Latin decimare, meaning “the removal or destruction of one-tenth.”

The word arose from a Roman practice of killing one in ten of a rebellious group, usually a mutinous army. These men, chosen by the drawing of lots, were stoned or clubbed to death by their fellow mutineers as punishment for all involved.*

And, lest you think this practice was used only in antiquity, an Italian General (Luigi Cadorna) and a Soviet Corps commander used decimation tactics against underperforming Italian units in WWI and retreating Soviet soldiers in WWII respectively. During the Finnish Civil War of 1918, the Whites used decimation against the Reds (their enemy) in what is known as the Lottery of Huruslahti.**

*How I did not learn this when I was reading up on Spartacus, I don’t know because the practice was used by Crassus during his campaigns, including the Third Servile War.

**More can be read here and here.

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