Emperor Trajan Decius and His Sons on the Lower-Danubian Limes (AD 249-251)

Bust of Emperor Traianus Decius (249-251), c. 250 – Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy. Realistic depiction showing the preoccupation and anguish caused by the political and military instability of the times.


Proceedings of the 22nd  International

Congress of Roman Frontier Studies,

Ruse, Bulgaria, September 2012

In the mid 3rd century AD the Lower-DanubianLimes is undoubtedly one of the most turbulentborders of the Empire. The rule of Emperor Decius (Huttner 2008, 201-211; Wittig 1931, 1244-1284;Salisbury / Mattingly 1924, 1-23) and his sons (Wittig 1931a, 1284-1285; 1931b, 1285-1286) is anexample for a high point of this tendency. Due tothe fact that Decius and Herennius were the first 2 emperors to lose their lives on the battle field, theevents concerning their tragic end in the Lower Danubian province of Lower Moesia are widelystudied. However, in general the object of the researches is limited to the examination of the conflict with the Goths of Kniva. Despite its indisputable importance, and because of it, a deeper lookin the activity of the imperial family in the LowerDanubian territories is necessary. A detailed analysis of the numismatic and epigraphic evidence fromthe region viewed as a complex has the potential toreveal further aspects of that rule.

The provinces of Lower Moesia and Thrace draw the attention of the central government inthe period AD 249-251, as they are the arena of themost intensive clashes with the Trans-Danubian peoples at the time. However, the actual evaluationand reconstruction of the events there would notbe adequate if they are analyzed isolated from the irneighboring Lower-Danubian provinces, because the reality in Dacia and Upper Moesia was inextricablybound to the two provinces mentioned above.

Numismatic and Epigraphic Information from Dacia

The minting in Dacia started under the rule of Philipthe Arab (244-249) (Salisbury / Mattingly 1924, 21;23; Pick 1898, 1-7), probably in AD 247. The mint itself is not attested on the coins but as central metropolis of the province this probably was Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa (Pick1898, 2). Noteworthy is the local era (Pick 1898, 2) having as a starting point most probably July AD247 (Salisbury / Mattingly 1924, 21).

In Dacia coins were minted for the entire family of Decius. For the Emperor and his wife (Wittig1931, 1249; Kroll 1912, 681) there are issues fromyear ІІІІ and V3. However, the two sons are attestedon Dacian coins only from year V and both of themappear only as Caesars.

The coin types include personification of theprovince of Dacia. The depicted female figure hasdifferent attributes – scepter, branch, sword, andpalm leaf. She is often accompanied by a lion (symbol of the ХІІІth Gemina legion) and an eagle (symbol of the Vth Macedonica legion) (Pick 1898, 5).The constant character of the coin reverses hardensthe attempts to acquire relevant historical information. Still, the appearance of Victoria on the coins ofDecius from year ІІІІ, i.e. issued in the period AD249-250, is indicative. This image, bearing the no-tion of military victory, could be connected with thesuccessful campaigns of Decius against the Trans-Danubian tribes (Boteva 2001).

The province of Dacia provides three honorary inscriptions of the time that are of particular interest (AE 1983, 847 – Micia; CIL III, 1176 – Apulum;AE 1944, 56 –Porolissum). They originate from settlements on the main imperial road through the province which started from Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusaand via Apulum reached the frontier auxiliary fort at Porolissum to the North (Beneš 1978, 74-76). Two of the inscriptions (AE 1983, 847 – Micia; AE 1944, 56 –Porolissum) are set up by military units. The fact that the three monuments are from sites on one and the same road could indicate a possible presence of the imperial couple in this region. It might havebeen linked some how with the military conflict in Dacia. This conflict remained unattested by the ancient authors but its existence is doubtless thanks to the title restitutor Daciarum preserved on the monument from Apulum (CIL III, 1176 – Apulum) ,and Dacicus maximus preserved on a monument from Hispania (Wittig 1931, 1270). The inscriptions from Micia and Apulum (AE 1983, 847 – Micia; CIL III,1176 – Apulum) are with better readable texts andallow dating these events in AD 250. The title ofproconsul (AE 1983, 847 – Micia) attested for the Emperor in the inscription from Micia could alsoindicate the imperial presence in the region.


5 That dating could support the incursions chronology of the Trans-Danubian tribes in the period 248 – 251 proposed by Boteva2001.6 Wittig 1931, 1257. The title is used by an Emperor only outside of Rome.7 Salisbury / Mattingly (1924, 21) consider that the chronology according to the local era begins in the last days of August. Pick(1898, 25) suggests the beginning of October.8 According to Pick (1898, 25) the promotion of Hostilianus as Augustus in year ХІІ testifies that Gallus made him a co-rulerimmediately after the death of Decius. He considers that the appearance of coins attesting the young ruler as Caesar in year ХІІІ isdue to a mistaken die.

Numismatic and Epigraphic Information from Upper Moesia

The minting in Viminacium (Pick 1898, 21-60) began under Gordianus ІІІ and continued within the period AD 239-255 (Pick 1898, 23). At that time the city was the residence of the provincial governorand received the rights of a colony. Similarly to the Dacian minting just discussed, all nominals bear onthe reverse the issuing year according to the newlyestablished local era. Its beginning is supposed to bein the autumn of the respective calendar year.

Viminacium struck coins for all members of the Decius dynasty: for Decius and for Herennia Etruscilla they are minted in years ХІ and ХІІ. The older son of the imperial couple, Herennius Etruscus, is represented by coins from year ХІІ, on which heis attested as Caesar. The coins of the younger son, Hostlianus, have more complicated chronology dueto his joined rule at the beginning with his father and brother, and after their death with Trebonianus Gallus (Huttner 2008, 211-221; Drinkwater 2005,28-42; Hanslik 1958; Gilliam 1956) and Volusianus (Huttner 2008, 211-221; Hanslik 1958a, 1996-1997). He has coins from year ХІІ and ХІІІ, and is attested both as Caesar and as Augustus. Here of particular interest is a medallion (Pick 1898, 50, #148) that could be an evidence for the presence of the young ruler in the town. The item attests himas Caesar, which dates it in the mid 250 – early 251, when according to the traditional views the young Hostilianus has been left by his father in Rome (Huttner 2008, 210; Soutbern 2001, 75). The medallion issued only for him in Viminacium questionssuch a historical reconstruction and allows an alternative one. As is well known, medallions were issued by the provincial mints only in occasion of imperial visits in the respective region. Because of this it is fair enough to suppose that some time within the period mid 250 – early 251 Hostilianus has left Rome in order to arrive in Viminacium. The reasonfor this visit is unclear, however, it could have beenin a way connected with the Gothic invasion. If this supposition is correct it could explain Valens’ riot (Aur. Vict.Caes. 29, 3;Epit. de Caes. 29, 5) in Romein AD 251. It is possible that the usurper took advantage of the temporary absence from Rome of all the representatives of the Decius’ dynasty. Possibly, when Hostilianus returned to the Capital Valens was swiftly eliminated (Sommer 2004, 43-44; Brauer1975, 54).

The minting of Upper Moesia, similar to the Dacian one, has reverse types depicting personification of the province. The female figure appears with several traditional attributes and two accompanying animals – a lion and a bull, symbols respectively ofthe IVth Flavian legion and the VІІth Claudian legion. During the rule of Decius a few new attributes appear, amongst which are the orb, scepter, cornu-copia, wreath. Noteworthy is again the representation of Victoria, crowning the head of the personified Moesia (Pick 1898, 44, # 123), which appearson Decius’ coins issued in both years of his mintingin Viminacium. The figure of the Goddess on the coins of Decius could be connected to the turbulent situation provoked by the incursions first of the Carpes and the Goths, and after that of the Gothsled by Kniva in the neighboring provinces of Dacia, Lower Moesia and Thrace. The victorious message in this case most probably echoes the success of Decius already achieved, though it is also possible to have implied a promise for future victories.

Reverse types representing the personified Moesia holding legionary standard in each hand exist for the Augusta Herennia Etruscilla (Жеков/ Христова 2004, # 60) and the younger son Hostlianus (Pick 1898, 52, # 156). They attest the young ruler as Augustus being struck in year ХІІ. It is possible that this issue dates from the middle of the year when the father and brother were already dead, and Hostilianus was ruling with Trebonianusand Volusianus. This seems to be the only logical explanation for the fact that this type is attested solely for Herennia Etruscilla and her younger son(Pick 1898, 25).

So far five mile stones connected with Decius’ rule originate from Upper Moesia (IMS 6, 204 –Scupi; AE 1984, 754 – near by Scupi; ILJug 1464 –near by modern Blace, Serbia; AE 1976, 605 – probably nearby the modern town of Sopot, Serbia; IMS4, 124 – by the present day Bračin, Serbia). All of them were found in places on the road Scupi – Naisus which is connected to the main road in the region via Diagonalis (Evans / Destani 2006, 255). While three of them bear the name solely of Decius, on the other two the names of Decius, Herennia Etruscilla and Herennius Caesar appear (AE 1976, 605 – probably near by the modern town of Sopot, Serbia; IMS 4,124 – by the present day Bračin, Serbia), indicating that the lat ter was probably included actively in the running of the Empire. The absence of the younger brother Hostilianus is noteworthy, especially if the theory that the two brothers are proclaimed Caesars simultaneously is correct (Peachin 1990, 33). This situation could possibly be explained with the personal presence of the three in Upper Moesia, where orders were is sued for the reconstruction of the important road Scupi –Naissus.

Summing up, one has to acknowledge the im-portance of the two provinces during the period under scrutiny. The coinage with personificationsof Upper Moesia and Dacia represented with sym-bols of prosperity and stability, strongly contrastwith the martial types that were featuring more orless the contemporary central minting (Mattingly /Sydenham / Sutherland 1949, 107-117). The pres-ence of Victoria in the local issues of Decius andhis family gives additional data for the state of theLower-Danubian provinces and the Roman victo-ries there.

The inscriptions hint not only the care for theroad infrastructure in the region. The presence ofthe imperial family can also be presumed. Deciusis honored by the inscriptions and the milestonesboth alone and together with his wife HerenniaEtruscilla and their elder son – Caesar HerenniusEtruscus. Very instructive case is to be found in theneighboring province of Lower Pannonia, where aninscription from Aquincum (AE 2003, 1455) clearlyattests Herennius Etruscus as an active factor in therunning of the Empire since the very moment ofhis proclamation as Caesar. The monument was setup bylegio II Adiutrix Consta{a}ns Traiana{nana}Decianain honor solely of the young ruler. Suchtendency is attested already during the rule ofSeptimius Severus and remains visible even underPhilip the Arab (Грозданова 2009; 2010; Körner2002) provoked by the need of imperial presence onmore than one military front and the strong internalunrest (Boteva 1998).

Decius and His Family in Lower Moesia and Thrace Prior to the Clash with Kniva

The territories of Lower Moesia and Thrace becomethe main scene during an essential part of the Decius’rule. His presence there is surely evidenced, howev-er, no local minting is attested so far. Undoubtedlythe lack of local issues in these two provinces reflectsthe tensed situation within the period. Probably theinvasion of the Trans-Danubians during AD 248-251 made the minting there impossible.

The appearance of numerous coin hoards inthe region, some of them of an astonishing numberof pieces (Touratsoglou 2006, 191, 193; Мушмов1930-1931, 263-265), could be explained both withthe concentration of military units there and thelack of local issues. It is obvious that such enormoushoards could not have been private property.

Due to the tragic events оn the territory ofLower Moesia most of the information in the sourc-es concerns the Gothic invasion led by Kniva andthe fatal battle by Abritus in AD 251. The activity inthe region from the beginning of Decius’ rule since the late 249 to the early 251 remains rather dim.Because of this here the stress is going to be laid onthis aspect, while the clash with the Goths of Knivawill be left aside.

So far four milestones from Lower Moesia areattested (ILBulg, 7 –Oescus; AE 2004, 1253 –Novae;AE 1973, 481 –Sacidava; ISM 1, 322 –Istrus), allof them without explicit chronological information.The fact, however, that only the name of Decius ap-pears in the inscriptions points that they belong tothe earliest period of his rule. This early dating isalso supported by the Emperor’s title on two of thestones (AE 2004, 1253 –Novae; ILBulg, 7 –Oescus)and the name ofP [—]Post [umino?] whose presenceas provincial governor is dated to late AD 249 – 250(Gerhardt / Hartmann 2008, 1148; Thomasson1984, col. 145). The fact that only Decius is attest-ed on the monuments could also indicate his per-sonal concern with the Lower-Moesian territories.Obviously, the reparation of the road system in theregion belongs to the time before the Goths startedinvading the province under Decius.

Only two relevant inscriptions (IGBulg ІV,2009 – close to Serdica, in the present day villageof Slatina; IGBulg ІV, 1989 –Soneium, modernTraianovi Vrata) originate from the province ofThrace and both of them were found in the territoryof ancientSerdica. One of them is a milestone setup by the provincial governor T. Iulius Priscus; onit the names of both Decius and Etruscilla appear.

The other one honors Etruscilla solely and is carvedon a marble basis. The Empress, following the tradi-tion started in the second half of the 2nd century AD,bears the title ofmater castrorum.This could indi-cate her importance and commitment to the mili-tary activity of her husband. Boris Gerov considersthis monument as a proof for reconstruction worksof the military installations (Gerov 1963, 137-138)in the region.

To sum up: the epigraphic and numismatic datafrom the provinces of Dacia, Upper Moesia, LowerMoesia and Thrace, and the inscription from LowerPannonia, testify for aware and systematic activity ofthe central government in the region. The mintingis withdrawn to the provinces of Dacia and UpperMoesia. Though affected by the Trans-Danubian in-cursions, especially Dacia, they were not in the epi-center of the most destructive actions of the Gothsand their allies the Carpes.

The strong presence of the imperial family inthe region is obvious. It was represented not just byDecius and the Augusta Herennia but also by theyoung Caesar Herennius Etruscus. Immediately af-ter his nomination as Caesar he appears in LowerPannonia. Later his activity was obviously connect-ed with the turbulent events in the Lower-Moesianand Thracian territories along with the fatherEmperor. It seems reasonable to insist that the poli-tics of Decius in the region was adequate to the situ-ation he was in.


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Lily Grozdanova, PhD

Department of History

Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

15 Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd.

BG-1504 Sofia


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