Favorite Words

On August 17, 2004, in Culture, by peterb
  • Tooku (far away, Japanese)
  • Chiacchiarare (to chit-chat, to gossip, Italian)
  • Batcheat (chit-chat, Hindi)
  • Decimate (kill every tenth soldier, Latin)
  • Hamartia (sin, human frailty, Greek)
  • Quay (wharf, Canadian)
  • Zdorovie (health, Russian)

Decimation, in Latin, does not actually refer to senseless violence, but to a very specific — and rare — military punishment that could be imposed on a legion (or a subunit thereof, such as a cohort) for extreme cowardice. The soldiers were divided into groups of 10. Each group drew lots. One soldier in the group drew the losing tessera. The other 9 were given clubs, and forced to beat the losing soldier to death. A devious and harrowing punishment, decimation was arguably as hard on the soldiers who “won,” who had to murder the comrade they had marched, ate, slept, and fought with, as it was on the soldier who was killed. Probably the most well-known decimation was that handed down by Crassus on those of his legions who were routed by Spartacus. Fifty squads of ten men each were decimated.

As Plutarch observes, “Those who are punished in this way not only lose their lives but are also disgraced, since the whole army are there as spectators, and the actual circumstances of the execution are very savage and repulsive.”


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