The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 28
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire” with a stable economy, a strong government and superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a rollercoaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Trajan Decius.
Gaius Messius Quintus Decius was born to a provincial yet aristocratic Senatorial family in 201. Little else is known about his early life other than at some point he married Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla. His political fortunes rose in the troubled 240s. As instability grew in the mid-third century, Emperor Philip charged Decius with restoring order along the Danubian frontier.
The decision to send Decius to the frontier 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.
Upon his arrival to the Danubian frontier, local troops pledged allegiance to Decius and named him Emperor. Philip’s inability to deal decisively with the worsening military crises on the borders no doubt motivated the soldiers to do so. The troops encouraged him to assert this newfound responsibility in a war against Philip.
In 248, Philip organized an army to meet his newest rival and lost the battle. Whether Philip died in the fighting or was assassinated by his own troops, an increasingly common practice, is unknown.
The victory of Decius was one that seemed to reassert the authority and place of traditional political power. The new Emperor, no doubt aware of the perils of his position, seemed 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.
Decius 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, 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.
When Decius returned to Rome, he embarked upon an active building program. After a destructive fire, he extensively restored the Colosseum. He later commissioned the opulent Decian Baths along the Aventine and is perhaps also responsible for the construction of the Decian Portico. This was in such contrast to a 20 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.
Another possible aspect of this conservatism was a reported wide-scale attack on the growing Christian minority. The 3rd century saw the slow creation of sizeable communities in the Empire’s urban populations. For the first time, 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. Yet it is more that Decius was reacting to the growing visibility of Christianity, especially in the city of Rome itself.
In 250, Decius associated his sons Herennius and Hostilianus in his rule by making them Caesars, eventually raising Herennius to Augustus. Undoubtedly, Decius sought to create a dynasty in much the same way the Gordians had in the previous decade. However, he would not succeed in doing so.
Decius’ final campaign in 251 led to the death of his son Herennius – and to his own. The Emperor, after chasing Germanic forces around the region, engaged forces outside of Philippopolis. 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. Instead of regrouping his forces and re-securing the borders, Decius unwisely sought to chase down the Germanic forces before they left Roman territory. His decision may have been motivated by his son’s death or an attempt to salvage what had been a failed campaign. In either case, it was ill-advised.
It was at Abrittus that Decius finally met his death. Hoping to cut off the enemy’s escape route, his army was itself cut off in the marshy terrain. The Emperor’s force was surrounded and on July 1, when Decius and most of his troops were slain. In the aftermath, the survivors named Trebonianus Gallus their new emperor, a decision subsequently confirmed by the Senate.
An Altar of Decius was erected where the Emperor fell, still famous two centuries later. Decius’ death was the first of an Emperor at the hands of an enemy of Rome.