Geoffrey Nathan and Robin McMahon
San Diego State University
Early Life and Public Career
Any discussion of Decius (and for most third century emperors) must be prefaced by an understanding that the historical tradition is incomplete, fragmentary, and not wholly trustworthy. Any reconstruction of his life and reign will therefore be to some degree speculative. With that caveat in mind, Gaius Messius Quintus Decius was born, to a provincial yet aristocratic Senatorial family during the transitional Severan age, possibly in 201.[1]] His family may have been from Italian stock, although that is by no means certain.[] Attempts to describe his life previous to the consulship are problematic, although he did serve as governor in Moesia in the mid-230’s.[] That also means that Decius probably had been a member of the Senate for some time. We know little else about his early life, other than at some point he married Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla, apparently from the Senatorial ordo as well.[] His political fortunes rose in the troubled 240’s. As instability grew in the mid-third century, Philip the Arab charged Decius, suffect consul for 249, with restoring order along the Danubian frontier.[] In addition to the border unrest, a low-level army officer, Tiberius Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, had led a rebellion of the armies in Pannonia and Moesia.[] For a short time, Marinus apparently claimed the imperial purple and along with movements of the Gepidae, represented a clear threat to the stability of Philip’s rule.[]
Philip’s decision to send Decius was perhaps more motivated by political expediency than by any great confidence in his military abilities.[] Decius had an aristocratic pedigree, and so was likely to have been a popular choice with a Senate that was increasingly doubtful of Philip’s abilities.[] He was also a native of Sirmium in Pannonia Inferior, and so was likely familiar with the intricacies of life and politics in the region.[] Finally, he had, of course, served as governor of the wayward province, and thus undoubtedly had connections there among the civil and military curia–ones that Philip hoped Decius could exploit. Thus, the consul was charged with restoring order along one of the Empire’s most problematic borders. Accompanied by his son, Herennius, Decius traveled to Moesia, probably to reclaim the Legio IV Flavia Felix and possibly the Legio XI, both of which were stationed in that province.[]
Shortly before his arrival, Marinus was killed and local troops quickly named Decius emperor, encouraging him to assert this newfound responsibility in a war against Philip. Philip’s inability to deal decisively with the worsening military crises on the borders, the fear of punishment, and the opportunity for enrichment no doubt motivated the soldiers to place the purple on a local leader–a now increasingly common practice. Decius’ lineage also probably appealed to traditionalists in Rome, who begrudged Philip his humble origins and his possible involvement in the death of Gordian III.[] Philip led out an army in June of 249 to meet his newest rival for the purple and at an unknown location (possibly Verona or Beroea) lost the battle.[] Whether Philip died in the fighting or was assassinated by his own troops–another increasingly common practice–is unknown. Philip’s son, Philip Junior, recently made an Augustus, was quickly put to death by the Praetorian Guard in Rome.[] Decius was the first emperor to come from the Balkans region. How much he wanted to serve is unknown. While this account undoubtedly contains fictional elements, with several popular literary topoi, the rough outlines of the story are undoubtedly true:[] we have epigraphic evidence in July for support among the Pannonian Legio X, suggesting that Decius owed his accession in no small part to local troops[]
Publicity and Power
The victory of an established Senatorial aristocrat was one that seemed to reassert the authority and place of traditional political power, despite the means of Decius’ ascension. The new emperor, no doubt aware of the perils of his position, seems to have embarked upon a highly conservative program of imperial propaganda to endear himself to the Roman aristocracy and to the troops who had thrust the purple upon him. One of his earliest acts was to take the honorific name of Trajan, whose status as the greatest of all emperors after Augustus was now becoming firmly established.[] The fact that Trajan had commanded legions in Upper Germany and had close links to both Pannonia and Moesia at the time of his accession invited the comparison. The name was cleverly chosen: Trajan had been an active and successful general throughout his reign, but had also established a reputation for a widely popular civil government.
Decius also served as consul in every year of his reign and took for himself traditional republican powers, another way to underscore his authority and conservatism. He even tried to revive the long defunct office of censor in 251, purportedly offering it to the future emperor, Valerian.[] Decius moreover portrayed himself as an activist general and soldier. In addition to leading military campaigns personally, he often directly bestowed honors upon his troops, high and low alike.[] He also holds the dubious distinction of being the first emperor to have died fighting a foreign army in battle. Finally, in 250, he associated his sons Herennius and Hostilianus in his rule by making them Caesars, eventually raising the former (and elder) to Augustus.[] Undoubtedly, Decius sought to create a dynasty in much the same way the Gordians had in the previous decade. This traditionalism may to be a large extent, however, a construction rather than a reality. When we abandon the literary tradition and look instead at other forms of evidence, his imperial aims are less clear. The legal record, extremely thin, is only vaguely supportive of a conservative policy: most of his surviving enactments deal with private law issues consistent with earlier Severan jurisprudence.[]
On the other hand in late 249, when Decius returned to Rome, he embarked upon an active building program in the capital. After a destructive fire, he extensively restored the Colosseum. He later commissioned the opulent Decian Baths along the Aventine. He perhaps also was responsible for the construction of the Decian Portico.[] Such activities contrasted to a twenty-year period of relative building inactivity. Both the kind of building projects and their stylistic qualities suggest an attempt to recall the glories of the past. The numismatic evidence also suggests some degree of traditionalism. It is there that we see the first references to Trajan Decius, as well as an association with both Pannonia and Dacia.[] His Liberitas and Uberitas issues, combined with his wife’s Pudicitia and his sons’ Princeps Iuventi coins, all seem to rearticulate traditional ideology.[] Legends tend to be conservative, so this is hardly surprising, but there were no great innovations to suggest a new set of ideological principles. In sum, while the literary reconstructions of Decius’ life are problematic, it seems clear that traditionalism was an important factor in his administration, especially in the wake of Philip’s reign.
The Persecution of Christians
Another possible aspect of this conservatism was a reported wide-scale attack on the growing Christian minority. The third century saw the slow creation of sizeable communities in the Empire’s urban populations. For the first time, if we are to believe Christian sources, an Empire-wide persecution of Christians was begun under Decius.[] The state required all citizens to sacrifice to the state gods and be in receipt of a libellus, a certificate from a temple confirming the act. The rationale for the emperor’s actions, however, is not entirely clear. Eusebius writes he did so because he hated Philip, who purportedly was a secret Christian.[] Probably the enmity was real, but it seems unconnected to the introduction of these policies. More likely, if Decius did indeed seek to persecute Christians, he was reacting to the growing visibility of the religion, especially in the city of Rome itself. One of the more prominent martyrs of the age was Fabian, the bishop of the imperial capital.[]
But the new policy of public religiosity was much more probably a program to reassert traditional public piety, consistent with some of the other conservative initiatives introduced during the emperor’s short reign. The libelli themselves were largely generalized in nature and language, and there is no implication that they were directed at any one group per se.[] Whatever intended effect it may have had on Christianity was thus to a degree unplanned.[] Christians would have no doubt seen it differently. It is possible then that fourth and fifth century Christian polemicists have misinterpreted (whether purposefully or not) Decius’ libelli. In the particular cases of Eusebius and Lactantius, both wrote in the wake of the great persecution of Diocletian and no doubt magnified upon the theme of the tyrant-persecutor. A hostile tradition notwithstanding, the new requirements did impact Christians most acutely, causing considerable division in the growing ranks of the new religion.[]
Imperial and Military Problems
Like other third century emperors, Decius was not free of threats to his authority, either from within or without. The revolt of Jotapianus, either in Syria or Cappadocia, had actually begun in Philip’s reign, but was quickly quelled after Decius’ accession.[] Probably the usurper’s own soldiers murdered the would-be emperor, since the accounts state that his body was delivered to Decius while still in Rome in the summer of 249.
A potentially more serious revolt broke out while Decius was out of Rome in 250 fighting the Goths. Julius Valens Licinianus, also a member of the Senatorial aristocracy with some popular support, took the purple at the Empire’s capital.[] It appears to have been relatively short-lived grab for power, ending in a few days with his execution[]. The governor of Macedon, Titus Julius Priscus, also permitted himself to be proclaimed Augustus at Philippopolis towards the end of 251, probably with Gothic collusion.[] The Senate declared him a public enemy almost as soon as he chose usurpation.[] He probably survived Decius, but is likely to have perished when Gallus became emperor.([]
Of greater concern than sporadic rebellions, which were relatively minor, were the vitreous northern borders. For the first time, a new and aggressive Germanic people, the Goths, crossed into and raided Roman territory in the 250’s. At the time of Decius’ forced accession, the Gepidae and the Carpi were both raiding deep into the Moesian provinces. They, along with the Goths, raided Pannonia and Dacia as well. Decius was forced to fight campaigns each year of his reign, doing his best to keep the borders stable.
His final campaign in 251 led to the death of his son, Herennius, and to his own. Decius led a successful attack on the Carpi, pushing them out of Dacia. But Moesia Inferior had been left largely undefended and Cniva, king of the Goths, led a sizeable portion of his army into the province.[] The emperor, after chasing the Germanic force around the region, engaged Cniva’s forces outside of Philippopolis, which had recently been sacked by the king and held by the rebel, Priscus. It was here that his elder son was slain by an arrow and the emperor, seeking to reassure his troops, famously proclaimed that the death of one soldier was not a great loss to the Republic.[] Cniva then led his troops homeward, laden with the spoils of war. The loss became Decius’ undoing. Trebonianus Gallus, one of the emperor’s commanders, may have revolted, although it is not entirely clear.[] Instead of regrouping his forces and re-securing the borders, Decius unwisely sought to chase down Cniva before he left Roman territory. His decision may have been motivated by his son’s death (despite his insistence otherwise) or it may have been an attempt to salvage what had been a failed campaign. In either case, it was ill-advised.
It was at Abrittus, about 100 kilometers northeast of Nicopolis that Decius finally met his death.[] Hoping to cut off Cniva’s escape route (and perhaps minimize any help from Gallus), Decius’ army was itself cut off in the marshy terrain. The details are sketchy, but Cniva divided his seventy thousand man army into three groups and surrounded the emperor’s force. On July 1st, the emperor and most of his troops were slain. In the aftermath, the survivors named Trebonianus Gallus emperor, a decision subsequently confirmed by the Senate. Some contemporaries called the death tragic; others heroic. An Altar of Decius was erected where the emperor fell, still apparently famous two centuries later.[] Decius and Herennius may have even been deified.[] Christian polemicists, as might be expected, took pleasure in describing Decius’ body being stripped and left on the battlefield to be devoured by animals.[] Whatever else, his was the first death of an emperor at the hands of an enemy of Rome. But even the account of his death, along with that of his son, must be looked on suspiciously. Their deaths bring to mind the sacrificial devotiones of the famous Republican Decii father and son, P. Decius Mus senior and junior.[] The circumstances of Decius’ death, therefore, are perhaps as opaque as those of his accession.
In spite of gaining some modicum of praise from both ancient and modern observers, Decius’ reign was not well-suited to the demands of a rapidly changing empire.[] Conservatism may have been popular among a certain portion of the Roman elite, but the old aristocracy’s power and influence all but disappeared in the third century. Decius clearly had a broader vision of what he wanted to accomplish in his reign than many of his contemporaries, and certainly he was vigorous, but he was also a man who was not sufficiently flexible when the moment called for it. His religious policy caused major disruptions in Rome and; in contrast to some of the other barracks emperors, Decius proved himself less than apt when dealing with Rome’s Germanic foes. His death may have been heroic, but it was unnecessary and unsuccessful. This best sums up Decius Trajan’s reign.
Relatively little remains about Decius’ reign. If there were a biography of Decius in the SHA, it no longer survives, although there are scattered references to his rule in the biographies of Claudius II Gothicus and Aurelian. Zosimus, i:21-23, Aurelius Victor, 29-30, Zonaras 12, Eutropius 9, Jordanes Get. 17-8, and Sylvius Polemius 37-40 have brief accounts of his reign. There are fragments in John of Antioch, fr. 148 and Dexippus, fr. 18. Eusebius, vi:39-41, vii:1, 11, 22, and viii:4, discusses his persecution, and there are passing references to his persecution in Socrates and Lactantius. Inscriptions and coinage are relatively abundant; see note 21 below for several epigraphic references.
Alföldi, A. „The Crisis of the Empire,“ in The Cambridge Ancient History XII, 2nd ed., Cambridge (1939)165-231.
Badian,E. „P.Decius P.f.Subulo“ JRS 46 (1956) 91-96.
Bennett, J., Trajan Optimus Princeps. A Life and Times, London and New York (1997).
Bird, H.W., trans. Aurelius Victor: De Caesaribus, Liverpool (1994).
Boteva, D. „On the Chronology of the Gothic Invasions under Philippus and Decius (AD 248-251)“ Arch Bulg 5.2 (2001) 37-44.
Clarke,G.W. „Double Trials in the Persecution of Decius“ Historia 22 (1973) 650-663 .
Floca, O. „Un monument sculptural de l’empereur Trajan Decius à Ulpia Trajana-Sarmizegetusa“ Latomus 24 (1965) 353-358.
Gibbon, E. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library Edition, New York.
Hornblower, S., and Spawnforth, A. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford (1996).
Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford (1986).
Keresztes, P. „The Emperor Maximinus’ Decree of 235 A.D. Between Septimius Severus and Decius“ Latomus 28 (1969) 601-618.
________. „The Emperor Septimius Severus: A Precursor of Decius“ Historia 19 (1970) 565-578.
Kienast, D. Römische Kaisertabelle, Dartstadt (1991).
Knipfling, J., „The Libelli of the Decian Persecution,“ Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923) 345-90.
Mattingly, H. et al. Roman Imperial Coinage, Oxford (1923-81).
Pohlsander, H.A. „Did Decius Kill the Philippi?“ Historia 31 (1982) 214-222.
_______. „The Religious Policy of Decius,“ Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 16.3 (1986) 1826-42.
Rives, J.B. „The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire“ JRS 89 (1999) 135-154.
Robinson, Olivia F. „Repressionen gegen Christen in der Zeit vor Decius–noch immer ein Rechtsproblem“ ZRG 112 (1995) 352-369.
Salisbury,F.S./Mattingly,H. „The Reign of Trajan Decius“ JRS 14 (1924) 1-23 .
Der Kleine Pauly. Lexicon der Antike, 5 vols., Stuttgart (1964).
Syme, R. Emperors and Biography: Studies in the Historia Augusta, Oxford (1971).
Talbert, R., ed. Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Princeton (2000).
Wissowa, G., et al., eds. Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Stuttgart (1893-1963).
Wolfram, H. History of the Goths, trans. T. Dunlop, Berkeley (1988).
[]See OCD3, 841-2. Since most of Decius’ military operations were in Dacia, which had no known permanent garrison at the time, and Moesia, it stands to reason that he made use of troops in that province.
[]The date of this decision was unclear, but since he is styled Traianus by 250 on coinage suggests it was early. On Trajan’s growing popularity Bennett (1997). Already by the third century, the Senate wished each new emperor on accession: „May you be luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan;“ Eut.. Brev. 8:5:3.
[]All but one of his surviving laws are either directly or indirectly tied to family issues: gift-giving, dowry issues, testamentary concerns; CJ iv:16:2, v:12:9, vi:30:4, vi:58:3pr. and 1, vii:32:3, and viii:53:3. Of interest, too, is the relatively short period in which the laws were issued: with one exception, all were issued in the second half of 250.
[] It is perhaps noteworthy that Zosimus, an exaggerated proponent of traditional paganism and highly critical of Christianity, fails to mention this event. In fact, outside of Christian sources, we have no record of a comprehensive persecution.
[] See Bird (1994)129-30, n. 7. The story is further confused by the claim that Valens had ruled in Illyricum; SHA TT 20. It seems likely that the author of the Thirty Tyrants either mistakenly or purposefully confused Julius Valens with Julius Priscus.
[]Aur. Vic. 29:4. Victor’s narrative seems to imply that Priscus died before Decius, but if the Gothic king, Cniva, wanted to weaken Decius, it makes more sense that he moved against Priscus and Macedonia after beating the emperor.
[]Aur. Vic. 29:3, 30.2; SHA Aur. 42:6. Decius was also one of the few emperors in the third century crisis (along with Claudius II and Aurelian, to be deified; Eut., Brev. 9:4. Modern proponents have included Gibbon, v. 1, 206-18; Syme (1971), 199; and Alföldi (1939), 166-8.
Another View of Trajan Decius
New York University
Place of Birth and Antecedents
The Emperor Decius, whose full name as emperor was Caius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius, was the first in the long line of Roman emperors who came from the Balkan provinces.[]
He was born in the Pannonian village of Budalia near Sirmium which was located at the junction of the rivers Save and Drina about 100 miles west of Belgrade.[] Our sources do not give the year of his birth, but historians place it around the year 190 A.D.. We are „in the dark“ as to Decius’ parents, but unlike most of the later emperors from this region, Decius had a respectable background and was himself a senator and consul. Most likely he was the son of an army officer stationed by chance in Budalia.[] That his father had an Italian origin can be seen as both names, Decius and Messius, are old Oscan names from Italy. Q. Decius Vindex, the procurator of Dacia, has been suggested as a possible parent or relative.[]
Offices Held Before Becoming Emperor
Rising in rank under the Severans, Decius had a distinguished career before he was acclaimed emperor. Sometime between 215-225 A.D. he served as Quaestor and was admitted to the Senate. In 234 he served as governor of Moesia and it was probably around this time that he was consul suffectus.[] In 238 he was governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Curiously, during the civil war of 238 A.D.., between Maximinus and the Senate’s nominees, the Gordians, and later Balbinus and Pupienus, he remained loyal to Maximinus.[] This loyalty to the Senate’s enemy was apparently not held against him, and sources favorable to the Senate always spoke highly of him. This was also true of the future emperor, Valerian, who had sided with the Senate’s nominees in 238; but who, nevertheless, was said to have been a close associate of Decius’ after he (Decius) became emperor.[] Decius married well. His wife, Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla, came from an old Etruscan family and as Mater Castris and probably accompanied Decius on some of his campaigns. Decius had two sons, Q. Herennius Etruscus Messius Decius, and C. Valens Hostilianus Messius Quintus, who both served in his government.[]
Events Leading Up To His Elevation As Emperor
Zonaras and Zosimus, our best literary sources for Decius’ reign, give the following circumstances surrounding Decius’ elevation to the throne. Sometime in the late winter or early spring of 249, the Emperor Philip I was confronted by the news of simultaneous rebellions. One, in the eastern provinces, led by an army officer named Jotapianus, and the other, in the province of Pannonia, led by another officer, Marinus. (Tiberius Claudius Marinus Pacatianus.) Being perplexed and somewhat at a loss as to what course to take, Philip convened a meeting of the Senate, and upon asking for advice, the sole senator to speak was Decius who spoke words to the effect that these types of rebellions were frequent, that neither of these men possessed a large following, and that more often than not these types of rebellions collapsed of their own accord. And, as it happened, that was exactly how it fell out; both rebels were murdered by their own troops shortly thereafter.[]
Philip, impressed by Decius’ foresight, and still fearing the mood of the legions in Moesia and Pannonia, requested Decius go there in person and place affairs in order, naming him the commander in chief of the legions in both areas. Although Decius told Philip he did not think this was a good idea, Philip, nevertheless, persisted, and Decius went back to his native province, where soon after his arrival the legions forced him to become emperor. In spite of all this, Decius was said to have taken no action but to have sent Philip a conciliatory message indicating he would not accept the position he had been given. Philip, distrusting Decius’ sincerity, led an army north and met Decius near Verona. Details of the battle are not given in the sources except to state that, although Philip had a larger army, Decius’ had a well thought-out battle plan, superior leadership and troops with better morale. Philip himself perished in the fighting, and his son either died with him or perished in Rome shortly after the battle.[]
There is no direct evidence to corroborate this account. It may be a little too neat. The noted Roman historian, Sir Ronald Syme, has pointed out that Decius is the „palmary specimen of the reluctant usurper,“ a standard figure throughout the literature of the late Roman Empire.[] Numismatic evidence, however, does support the idea that Decius did not act precipitously. When Pacatianus began his revolt at the end of 248, the Roman mint at Viminacium ceased to mint coins for Philip and Pacatianus restruck Philip’s coins with his own portrait. This revolt must have been suppressed in April of 249, as the mint there resumed striking coins for Philip at that time. Further, it is more than likely that Philip would not have sent Decius to pacify the legions without a substantial amount of money, perhaps even including good arrears of pay. The evidence from coin hoards shows that Decius neither struck his own coinage at this time nor re-struck Philip’s coins. This would seem to indicate that, at least when he left Rome, he had not planned a revolt from the start, and for the first weeks after his arrival did not revolt against Philip.[] Then too, in a similar situation, he had remained loyal to Maximinus during the civil war of 238.
The literary sources we have do not give us any exact dates for these events. However, from inscriptions, papyri and published laws, the general course of events can be established. The first indication of hostile action comes from an inscription dated May 28, 249 where the legion X Gemina calls itself Deciana.[] The date of a law in Justinian’s code show us that Philip was still in Rome on June 17, 249.[] In addition, there are coins of Philip after August 29, showing he was still emperor then. A law in Justinian’s code under Decius’ name shows us he was emperor by October 16, 249.[] This would place the date of the Battle of Verona sometime between August 29, 249 and October 16 of 249. Given that Decius would have to march to Rome from Verona, it is most likely that the battle took place close to September 1.[]
Arrival in Rome
Whatever may have been the case with the above-mentioned events, it is certain that once Decius became emperor he wasted no time in getting to work on the business of running the Empire. Although literary sources fail to give many details of Decius’ reign, the coinage, papyri and inscriptions illuminate Decius’ activities as emperor and the general tone he hoped to set for his reign. His arrival in Rome, probably in October of 249 after his victory over Philip, is announced by his ADVENTUS AUGUSTI coins. It was also at this time that he adopted the name of Trajan, indicating which emperor he hoped to model his reign after.[] One of his first acts upon entering Rome, was to give a monetary distribution to the citizens there known as a „congiarium“ which was announced by his LIBERTAS coinage.[] In that same month he honorably discharged a group of veterans from the fleet after their 28-year term of service was up.[] He issued some new laws regarding inheritances and began to build new baths in the city.[] It is not known whether it was on the Senate’s or Decius’ initiative, but it was also at this time that the Senate voted Philip’sdamnatio memoriae.[] Nevertheless, in the first four months of Decius’ reign at least, the Empire received a brief respite from the storms which it had undergone and was shortly to undergo again. The Emperor Decius was twice named consul, in 250 and later in 251. On the second occasion, he was joined by his son, Q. Herennius Etruscus Messius Decius.[]
During the winter of 250, possibly taking advantage of a frozen Danube and the fact that troops had been drawn away for the battle at Verona, the Carpi and also the Goths, under their chief,. Kniva, crossed into Moesia. They then divided themselves into two armies and one besieged Novae, while the other moved south and besieged L. Priscus the governor of Moesia, in Philippopolis (located about 100 miles due north of the Aegean Sea.)[]
Decius, on being informed of the invasion, sent his son, Herennius, now elevated to the rank of Caesar, ahead to the area with the army Decius had brought with him. The departure was announced by the coins bearing the legends, EXERCITU ILLLYRICUS; GENIUS EXERCITUS ILLYRICIANA AND PANNONIAE.[]
Meanwhile, Kniva was beaten back by Gallus, the governor of Upper and Lower Pannonia. The Goths then turned south towards the city of Nicopolis[]
As the crisis escalated, in June or July of 250, Decius hastened to leave Rome to join the army. Before leaving Rome, he appointed the future Emperor, Valerian, to an unspecified post involving the finances and internal affairs of the Empire.[] Initially, after his arrival in the area, Decius had success against the invaders and in bringing a measure of stability to the area. Nicopolis was relieved and inscriptions bearing the legends Dacius Maximus and restitutor daciarum announced the expulsion of the Carpi from the province.[]
While these events were taking place, Decius also restored a measure of military discipline and founded military colonies in the regions of Pannonia and Moesia. In addition, communications along the military roads south of the Danube, as well as the roads leading to it were repaired.[] In the west a rebellion was suppressed and there was a victory over the barbarians.[] Besides these measures in the Balkans, Decius inaugurated and completed an Empire-wide project of restoration of roads, bridges and frontier defenses. Numerous milestones from the provinces of Britain, Africa, Galatia, Palestine, and Syria, as well as Pannonia, attest to this work.[]
During this period he was hailed imperator twice but it is not possible to connect these acclamations with any specific events[]
At the end of the year 250, following these successes, Decius decided to attack Kniva and his Gothic forces. We do not have any details of what happened next. Perhaps Decius, became overconfident, or something else went wrong. Regardless, when Decius did engage Kniva the Romans suffered a severe defeat. Decius retreated with what troops he had left and joined Gallus.[] While these events were unfolding, Priscus, at Philippopolis, possibly in collusion with the Goths, proclaimed himself emperor. It is not known whether Priscus was trying to use the Goths for his schemes, or the Goths were using Priscus for theirs; but in any case, Philipoppolis was stormed and destroyed with an ensuing massacre of its inhabitants and Priscus disappears from the historical record.[] While these events were taking place in the field, another revolt broke out in the city of Rome where a senator, Julius Valens Licinianus, having secured some support, attempted a coup. The rebellion was, however, quickly suppressed, probably by Valerian.[]
In the Spring of 251 Decius and Gallus again determined to renew operations against Kniva, who was retreating back towards the Danube River. Once again, in the beginning, the campaign went well for the Romans. At some point in the fighting, however, Herennius, who, in the crisis had been elevated to the rank of Augustus, was killed. We are told that, when his soldiers tried to console him for the loss of his son, Decius, replied with words to the effect that: The loss of one soldier is but a small thing.[] Zosimus tells us that while these events were taking place Gallus had begun treasonable communications with the enemy. Accordingly, during the next engagement, after the Romans, had defeated two Gothic detachments and the Romans were in a swampy area near Abrittus (which is between the Black Sea and the Danube River), Gallus, acting according to a pre-arranged plan, gave a signal to the Goths who surrounded and annihilated the Roman force. Decius perished in the battle and his body was never recovered. He is the first, but not the last, Roman emperor to die fighting the barbarians. Gallus himself made a quick and disgraceful peace with the Goths and hurried back to Rome, where for a brief time he shared power with Hostilian, Decius’ surviving son.[] Hostilian subsequently either died of the plague or was murdered, perhaps by Gallus.
Decius and Gallus
Decius may have had the unusual posthumous fate of first having been deified, then having his memory condemned, and then being restored to his former status. The role which Gallus played in this does cast him in a more sinister light. After the disaster at Abrittus it appears both Decius and Herennius were deified. This must have been in the latter half of June of 251.[] When Gallus returns to Rome he is Augustus and Hostilian, Decius’ surviving son, is made Caesar. Shortly afterwards there was a new arrangement in which Gallus and Hostilian are Augusti and Volusian, Gallus‘ son, is Caesar. Subsequent to this, Hostilian was said to have died of the plague in August.[] There is, however, convincing evidence that Gallus had ordered the damnatio memoriae of Decius and his family before August, in fact as early as July; thus reversing his position during the aftermath of Abrittus. There are a number of inscriptions where Decius’ name as well as his sons’ names were erased; the standard procedure following the Senate’s decree. For some time, it was believed that this was the action of either usurpers, such as Valens, or even of Christians.[] However, the discovery of an army document, where Decius’ and Herennius’ name have been suppressed, leaving only the iterations of III et I cos., with no names, indicates that the condemnation was an official policy. Further, some of the documents with erasures or suppression of names can be dated as early as July 15 of 251.[] This would indicate that either Hostilian was dead at this time, or that Gallus took the action while he was still alive. It is quite possible that, rightly or wrongly, as rumors of Gallus’ treachery began to circulate in the aftermath of the battle, Gallus decided he needed to take action against Decius to protect himself.[] One of those actions may have included the murder of Hostilian. As the number of erased inscriptions was not large compared to Philip’s, and as some were even repaired, it seems the damnatio was carried out with little enthusiasm, thus indicating dissatisfaction with Gallus’ decree.[]
Decius and Christianity
While engaged in the re-establishment of military order and the revitalization of the Empire’s infrastructure, Decius also initiated a program that he hoped would effect a spiritual revitalization of the Empire as well. It was, however, this plan which set him on a collision course with the growing Christian population in the Roman Empire.
In the fall of 249, shortly after becoming emperor, Decius conceived of a novel method to invoke the aid of the gods on behalf of the Roman Empire; all the subjects of the Empire would be required to offer a sacrifice to the gods and all who did so would receive a certificate of compliance. Those who refused would face imprisonment, and possible capital punishment. The original decree of Decius has been lost, but we do have the testimony of Eusebius and Lactantius who were alive during that time and, more importantly, papyrologists have uncovered a number of „libelli“ or what were essentially certificates of compliance with the decree. The „libelli“ tell us a good deal about the nature of the decree and enable historians to develop a good idea of Decius’ aims.[]
The Nature of Decius’ Decree
Method of Administration
Prior to the discovery of the „libelli“ it was assumed that Decius’ decree applied only to Christians or perhaps people suspected of being Christians. From studying the individuals who obtained „libelli“ and wording of the „libelli“ the consensus among scholars today is that all the subjects of the empire were required to sacrifice. In support of this view one of the primary documents cited is a libellus belonging to a woman named Aurelia Ammonous of Egypt, who styles herself “ …a priestess of the god Petesouchos… and priestess of the gods in the Moeris Quarter…“ and therefore hardly likely to be under suspicion of being a Christian.[] Another important point that emerges from the libelli is the fact that the word „Christian“ does not appear on any of the libelli found thus far. Nor does the Emperor’s name appear on any of the extant libelli, indicating that sacrifices and prayers offered were not to be seen as directly for his benefit. Further, there are no specific gods named in the libelli. Thus, Decius was most likely asking for something akin to the Roman supplicatio where prayers and sacrifices were offered on behalf of all the gods possessing temples in the city of Rome. „The objects of the sacrifices which Decius ordered his subjects to perform were the traditional gods of the Roman state including the divi“ (i.e. the deified Roman Emperors).[]
The wording of the libelli appears to be based on a stereotyped formula. They are essentially a petition which is then validated by a signature and date. If the person obtaining one was illiterate, it would be executed by a scribe or perhaps a member of the commission. Thus, a stereotyped beginning is followed by name, parentage, place of birth and residence of the petitioner, followed by a complimentary close.[] A typical example reads, „To the commission chosen to superintend the sacrifices. From Aurelius Asesis, son of Serenus, of the village of Theadelphia [in Egypt]. I have always and without interruption sacrificed to the gods, and now in your presence in according with the edict’s decree have poured a libation and sacrificed and partaken of the sacred victims. I request you to certify this for me below. Farewell. I Aesis, am 32 years of age and injured…[Dated June 12, 250.]“[] We are not certain of the exact method for carrying out such a vast enterprise; the Roman Empire being a heterogeneous place, local conditions may have varied considerably. More than likely, after completing the sacrifice, people would obtain a certificate recording that they had complied with the Emperor’s order. It is quite possible that the procedure followed the method of paying taxes. A time within which the sacrifice had to be made was announced, and on any specific day individuals would submit their names to the officials overseeing the sacrifice beforehand to avoid long lines. Most likely, the commissions varied in size with respect to the size of the town or village.[]
Motives for the Decree
One interesting point of the decree is there does not appear to be any one event which caused Decius to issue it. The third century was a time of great stress and troubles for the Roman Empire. While many of the disasters which befell the Empire lay in the near future, by 250 barbarian invasion, instability at the top and economic problems were all making their presence felt. In addition, Rome had just passed its 1,000-year anniversary and such a general thanksgiving would reaffirm the traditional pax deorum for the new millennium. In addition, it is important to recognize that the Roman state ultimately rested upon religious foundations and the tranquility and prosperity of the Empire depended upon a balance of human and divine forces.[] Therefore, as Decius sought to strengthen the Empire’s physical ability to withstand invasion, he would not neglect the other equally important half of the equation, the spiritual side.
Seen in this light, the Decree itself was not a measure specifically directed against the Christians (or any other group for that matter.) This idea is further corroborated by the literary sources which do not mention any attempt by Decius to follow up his decree to sacrifice with any specific decree or actions against the Christians; no attempt was made to force Christians to apostasize (as under Trajan or later under Diocletian), there is no record of any confiscation of Church property, and, most convincingly of all, Christians were allowed to practice their rights while they were being held in jail awaiting trial.[} Nor were all the Christians who refused to sacrifice executed; many were released from jail having not complied with the order. Thus, „Beyond the requirement to sacrifice, which applied to all…Decius seems to have taken no other measures against the Christians.“[] According to H.A. Pohlsander, what Decius hoped to accomplish was to „lead the masses back to the traditional cults…to secure the favor of the gods by collective piety.“[]
Effects of Decree on the Church
Whatever may have been Decius’ motives, effects of the Decree were both dramatic in the short run, and the source of many difficulties for the long term. For whatever reason, according to Eusebius in many cities of the Empire there had been an ongoing and spontaneous pogrom against the Christians during the last months of Philip’s reign and into the first months of Decius’reign.[] It is not known if this situation had anything to do with Decius’ decision since there appears to be no specific context for it. Although not all persons who refused to sacrifice were executed, many were, while many others faced imprisonment and torture. Among the victims was Pope Fabianus, who died at Rome early in 250. There is also the distinct possibility that Decius himself witnessed the trial of one of the Christians.[]
In addition to the trials and tribulations suffered by those in prison, many persons fled their homes only to fall victim to bandits, starvation and barbarians.[] Besides people suffering in prison, another problem for the Church concerned the great numbers of people who either complied with the order or obtained a libellus through bribery, but who later repented, and wanted re-admission into the Church.[] The situation caused a schism in the Church as a faction led by a church leader named Novatius argued that „idolatry was an unpardonable sin, and that the Church had no right to restore to communion any who had fallen into it, their forgiveness must be left to God; it could not be pronounced in this world.“[] The situation would be further complicated when Novatius’ followers would extend this idea to all mortal sins and Novatius proclaimed himself Pope against St. Cornelius, Fabian’s successor. Novatian was pronounced a heretic and his claims were set aside; but his heresy would last down to the seventh century. We do not know how the action against the Christians ended. Generally, by the spring of 250 ecclesiastical authors speak of it as in the past tense. It may simply be that Decius, faced with serious problems in the Balkan area of the Empire, realized his priorities and let the matter drop.[]
Effects of the Decree on the Roman Empire
Besides the long-term effects Decius’ action had for the church in terms of how it would deal with its members who had sacrificed, another major, and largely inadvertent, effect of Decius’ decree was to initiate a trend towards centralization of religion in the Empire. One of the hallmarks of religion in the ancient world was its lack of centralization. This was true of the Roman ruler cult as well. Instead each city arranged its own sacrifices, honors and ceremonies as they saw fit.[] What constituted „paganism“ in the Roman Empire was a myriad of cults, celebrations, rites and deities. The primary emphasis was on worshipping in the same manner that your ancestors had done.[] The effect of Decius’ decree was to replace this by a centralized Empire-wide religion that had certain expectations of its inhabitants. Further, prior to Decius’ decree there was no indication that participation in any religious action was mandatory. From this point forward a structure was created „in which religious deviants could be defined and punished“[]; this would be a standard feature of Christianity
Although he ruled for barely two years, and the weight of precious metals in the coinage continued to decline during his reign; nevertheless, the coins from Decius’ reign are most interesting. Decius was the first of the emperors to use the legends „Dacia Felix“; „Pannoniae“; „Genius Exercitu Illyriciani“; and „Genius Illyrici“; to advertise the legions which were to play such a pivitol role in the history of the Later Empire.[]
Most interesting of Decius’ coinage was his unique series of ‘Divi’ antoniniani, or coinage which on its obverse (front) commemorate many of the deified emperors of the past. All these coins have the reverse legend of CONSECRATIO and an altar or eagle.[] Included were Augustus, Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus, and Severus Alexander. Left out were Julius Caesar, Claudius, Lucius Verus, Pertinax, and Caracalla. The inclusion of Commodus and the exclusion of Caesar, Claudius and Pertinax is curious. There are also a large number of coins showing his wife, Etruscilla, as well as both of his sons: Herennius first as Caesar, later as Augustus, and Hostilian as Caesar and Augustus.[]
Although the ancient non-Christian writers always spoke highly of Decius, his brief reign failed to give the Roman Empire the measure of stability it needed. It is of course impossible to say whether or not the disasters which befell the Empire could have been avoided or mitigated had Decius not been killed. Nor is it possible, given the present state of our sources to know what went wrong during his campaign against the Goths. Probably no one man could have met all the challenges of invasion, usurpation, plague, and fiscal collapse which confronted the Roman Empire during the coming decades. Certainly he attempted to rule well and establish the Empire’s defenses on a firm basis. His legacy has, however, been largely determined by his attempt to establish a measure of religious conformity in the Empire and by the resulting persecution of the Christians.
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________.. (ed.) Monumenta Germania Historica 9.1 Chronica Minora. Chron. A.D. 354; Polemii Silvii. (Berlin, 1892).
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Zonaras, Annales. ed. M. Pinder. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantium. Bonn, 1844.
Clarke, G.W. „Some Observations on the Persecution of Decius.“ Antichthon 3 (1969) : 63-76.
Eckhel, Joseph. Doctrina Numorum Veterum. (Vindobonae, 1828).
Gerov, Boris. „Zur Identität des Imperators Decius mit dem Statthalter C. Messius Q. Decius Valerinus.“ Klio 39 (1961): 222-226.
Gilliam, J.F. „Trebonianus Gallus and The Decii:L III et I cos.“ Studi in Onore Di Aristide Calderini E Roberto Paribeni. (Milan, 1956): 305-311.
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Hohl, Ernst. „Vopiscus und die Biographie des Kaisers Tacitus.“ Klio 11 (1911): 178- 229.
Kerestes, P. „The Decian Libelli and Contemporary Literature.“ Latomus 34 (1975) :763-779.
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Pohlsander, H.A. „The Religious Policy of Decius.“ Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Romischen Welt. II 1b: 1826-1842.
________. „Did Decius Kill The Philippi?“ Historia XXXI (1982): 213-222.
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Syme, Ronald. Emperors and Biography. (Oxford, 1971)
Wittig, K.“Decius.“ Paulys Real-Encyclopedie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Vol 5 (Stuttgart, 1932) cols 1244-84 (Messius No. 9).
[] For Decius’ name see Dietmar Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle, (Darmstadt, 1990) p. 204. For a detailed discussion of the variations See, Wittig, „Messius No. 9“, Paulys Real-Encyclop@die Der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, XV.1246. ( Hereafter, Wittig, RE, XV.)
[]Ernst Hohl, „Vopiscus und Die Biographie des Kaisers Tacitus,“ Klio XI (1911) p. 204, Combining the reports of Aur. Vict., Caes. 29.1, „Simiensium vico ortus„; Eutrop. IX.4, „E Pannonia Inferiore Budaliae Natus„; Epitome 29.1, „Pannonia Inferiore Bubaliae Natus„. All of these sources are presumed to have used a lost history known as the Kaisergeschichte. Guido Barbieri, L’Albo Senatorio, No. 1662 Messius.
[]Magie, D., ed. Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Loeb Edition (Cambridge, 1982) Vita Aurelian XLII, „…the Decii who in their lives and deaths should be likened to the ancients.“ Although the SHA is notoriously unreliable, its favorable estimate of Decius indicates its author had disassociated him from Maximinius. Zonaras, Ann. 12.20, says Valerian was appointed to some internal fiscal position.. The story in the SHA that Decius appointed Valerian Censor has been rejected as fiction of the authors. See H.A. Pohlsander, The Religious Policy of Decius“ Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, II, 16.3 (1986) p. 1830. For Valerian’s role, see SHA „The Three Gordians“ IX.7
[]For sons, see Wittig, RE, XVcols. 1261-1267, 1284-1286; F.S. Salisbury and H. Mattingly, „The Reign of Trajan Decius,“ Journal of Roman Studies, XIV (1924) pp 12-16. Op. cit. Barbieri, No. 1595 & No. 1736.
[]Salisbury and H. Mattingly, op. cit. p 3; D.S. Potter, p. 257. There is a very different account of all this given by John of Antioch (FHG IV 597-598) who claims that Decius stirred up a rebellion against Philip and had him murdered. Most historians reject this account. See op. cit. H.A. Pohlsander, (1982) pp 213-222. Pohlsander argues that since Decius was in Pannonia at the time, he would have had to have stirred up the people in Rome through intermediaries; further, the account states that Philip left Rome to campaign after he had sent Decius. The coins that were re-struck are the younger Philip’s minted after their deaths. For the coinage see R.A.G. Carson, 85
[]Wittig RE, XV, 1252-1257, esp. 1257; Arthur Stein, „Zur Chronologie der römischen Kaiser,“ Archiv Fur Papyrusforschung, VII pp 40-42; also J.R. Rea, „Date-Clauses of A.D. 250 and 251,“ The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, LI (1984) p. 19 Nos. 3608-3610.
[]Op. cit. Rives, p. 142; and p. 142 note 46. „Like most of the other Balkan emperors, he was apparently devoted to Roman tradition. The most striking evidence for this is found in his own self-presentation. Shortly after becoming emperor he added the name ‘Traianus’ to his nomeniclature. Trajan was one of the great heroes of Rome, remembered not only as the optimus princeps but also as a great general and victor; hence the very name of the new emperor Trajan Decius promised the return of the good old days.“ Also Pohlsander (1986) p. 1831. For coins, Henry Cohen, Description Historique des Monnaies FrappNes Sous L’Empire Romain, (Paris & London, 1880-1892) p. 186, No. 2 et. al.
[]Syme, op. cit. p. 215; This is reported (at some length) in the SHA in the partial life of Valerian where the author says Decius appointed Valerian Censor, thereby reviving an office which had for many years been absorbed by the emperor. See Scriptores Historia Augusta, Loeb Edition (Cambridge, 1982) ed. David Magie volume III p. 8 note 3″ The attempt to revive the censorship, as described here, is as fictitious as the ‘Senatus consultum’ itself…“ It is better described by Zonaras XII.20 as some important position.
[] Wittig, RE XV, cols 1268-9; Eutrop. Brev. IX.4. Wittig rejects the idea that the VICTORIA GERMANIA legend on coins comes from the suppression of a revolt there, especially since the legends appears on Herennius’ and Hostilian’s coins also: „Das klingt [that it was for the suppression of the revolt] nicht nur unwahrscheinlich, sonder lasst auch ausser acht, dass je eine Mhnze des imp. Herennius… Aug und Hostilianus Caes. mit VICTORIA GERMANIA (Cohen, nr. 41 & 70) existiert.“ Also see an interesting comment in Joseph Eckhel, Doctrina Numorum Veterum, (Vindobonae, 1828) p. 345.
[]Michael Peachin, Roman Imperial Titulature and Chronology, p. 30., Peachin doubts if these titles were official. Although no papyri display them, there are coins with the reverse legend VICTORIA GERMANIA and DACIA FELIX. Nonetheless, Peachin remains unconvinced.
[]Wittig, RE XV, 1272; Vict. Epit. 28. Also at this time the eastern provinces were experiencing serious problems as an adventurer named Mareades led a band of followers on expeditions which ravaged the area, even capturing cities. See op. Cit. Potter, pp 44-45.
[]Since their discovery, many historians have carefully examined these documents. For a complete collection (up to 1923), translations and analysis, see Knipfing, Harvard Theological Review, 16 (1923) pp 345-390. Besides Knipfing, the Libelli and the action of Decius have been examined by a number of historians including Joachim Molthagen, Hypomneta, 28 (1970) esp. 61ff; K. Gross, (E. Liesering,) „Decius,“ Reallexikon Fur antike und Christentum, Vol. III (Stuttgart, 1957), cols 611-629; H. Last „Christenverfolgung II (juristisch)“ Reallexikon für Antike Und Christentum, (Stuttgart, 1954) p1227; J.B. Rives Journal of Roman Studies, 89 (1999), 135-154; Hans A. Pohlsander, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II, (Berlin, New York, 1986), 1826-1842
[]Knipfing, p. 365 No. 4. Discussed in H.A. Pohlsander, „The Relgious Policy of Decius,“ Aufsteig und Neidergang Der Römischen Welt II 1 p. 1832-3; Joachim Molthagen, „Der römische Staat und die Christen im zweiten und dritten Jahrhundert,“ Hypomneta, 28 (1970) pp 80-82.
[]Pohlsander, (1986) 1836. Also, Last, p. 1227; Vogt, p. 1185; . Gross, p. 623. The lone dissenter is P. Keresztes Latomus, 34 (1975) pp 761-781. That the priestess was a closet Christian sp. 763 seems far-fetched. Precendents can be found in Livy, III, 5.14, 7.6; XXII, 10.8; XXXIV, 55.3; Suet. Claudius 22; Tacitus, Ann. XV, 44.1
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