The Decimation Before Phraata


The army marched by for days and was admired by all
of us for its silence, discipline, and carrion eagles.
Rank after rank marched by in right order and step,
each man heavily packed and armed and looking like the next.
Every night they built a town with towers and walls.
Every morning they tore it down and marched away.
We withdrew when they attacked, attacked when they withdrew
and lived high off their baggage train, killing a few,
losing a few–it was our same old free-style army game–
but they, those killers, had been broken into slaves
and feared their officers more than they feared the enemy.
This they were right to do: once when they broke some "rule"
before our Phraata, we heard them beg for punishment,
so they fell in and counted off and each tenth man
was pulled out of line and killed with his own sword.
They called this "decimation" and did it to strengthen their "wills."
What a people! They killed more of them than we did, but
they beat us anyhow. Then they marched away!
They didn't take what they came for, our defenseless Phraata.

That empire is incomprehensible, but we are in it.
They came back for Phraata and now we are the light horse
auxiliary of the XIth Legion (Augustan) of the Empire
and have no home. The Legionnaires still shout
to their officers, "Please decimate us!" The officers
always do, as we watch, and they always win,
and we and our horses are with them on the flanks
because there's nowhere else to go and nothing else
for us barbarians to do or be: it's a world empire.


Alan Dugan, Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry, Seven Stories Press, 2003.