Trajan Decius Ant AD 249-251 Silver Denarius
Obv: IMP C M Q TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG - Radiate bust
right, draped and cuirassed
Rev: VICTORIA AVG - Victory advancing left, holding
wreath and palm
Rome mint: AD 250 (2nd and 3rd Issue, 5th Officina)
RIC IViii, 29c, page 123
Trajan Decius AR Antoninianus. July-Dec, 250 AD.
Obv: IMP C M Q TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG, radiate, draped
and cuirassed bust right
Rev: ABVNDANTIA AVG, Abundantia standing right pouring
the contents of a cornucopiae.
RIC IV 10b; Sear (5) 9364; Cohen
Trajan Decius (Latin: Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Augustus;
c. 201 – June 251) was Roman Emperor from 249 to 251. In the last
year of his reign, he co-ruled with his son Herennius Etruscus until they
were both killed in the Battle of Abritus.
Early life and rise to power:
Decius, who was born at Budalia, near Sirmium in Pannonia Inferior (now
Martinci and Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia), was one of the first among a
long succession of future Roman Emperors to originate from the Danube provinces,
often simply called Illyricum. Unlike some of his immediate imperial
predecessors such as Philip the Arab or Maximinus who did not have extensive
administrative experience before assuming the throne, Decius was a distinguished
senator who had served as suffect consul in 232, had been governor of Moesia
and Germania Inferior soon afterwards, served as governor of Hispania Tarraconensis
between 235–238, and was urban prefect of Rome during the early reign of
Emperor Philip the Arab (Marcus Iulius Phillippus).
Around 245, Philip I entrusted Decius with an important command on the
Danube. By the end of 248 or 249, Decius was sent to quell the revolt
of Pacatianus and his troops in Moesia and Pannonia; some modern historians
see this rebellion as a reflection of emerging Balkan separatism.
After the collapse of the revolt, Decius let the troops proclaim him Emperor.
Philip had to advance against him and was killed at Verona, Italy, in September
249. The Senate then recognized Decius as Emperor, giving him the
attribute Traianus as a reference to the good emperor Trajan. According
to the Byzantine historian Zosimus, Decius was clothed in purple and forced
to undertake the [burdens of] government, despite his reluctance and unwillingness.
Political and monumental initiatives:
Decius' political program was focused on the restoration of the strength
of the State, both militarily opposing the external threats, and restoring
the public piety with a program of renovation of the State religion.
Reviving the censorship:
Either as a concession to the Senate, or perhaps with the idea of improving
public morality, Decius endeavoured to revive the separate office and authority
of the censor. The choice was left to the Senate, who unanimously
selected Valerian (the future emperor). But Valerian, well aware of the
dangers and difficulties attached to the office at such a time, declined
the responsibility. The invasion of the Goths and Decius' death put
an end to the abortive attempt.
The Baths of Decius:
During his reign, he proceeded with several building projects in Rome,
"including the Thermae Decianae or Baths of Decius on the Aventine", which
was completed in 252 and survived through to the 16th century; Decius also
repaired the Colosseum, which had been damaged by lightning strikes.
Persecution of Christians:
In January 250, Decius is said to have issued one of the most remarkable
Roman imperial edicts. From the numerous surviving texts from Egypt,
recording the act of sacrifice, it appears that the edict itself was fairly
All the inhabitants of the empire
were required to sacrifice before the magistrates of their community 'for
the safety of the empire' by a certain day (the date would vary from place
to place and the order may have been that the sacrifice had to be completed
within a specified period after a community received the edict).
When they sacrificed they would obtain a certificate (libellus) recording
the fact that they had complied with the order. That is, the certificate
would testify the sacrificant's loyalty to the ancestral gods and to the
consumption of sacrificial food and drink as well as the names of the officials
who were overseeing the sacrifice.
According to D. S. Potter, Decius did not try to impose the superiority
of the Roman pantheon over any other gods. It is very probable that
the edict was an attempt to legitimize his position and to respond to a
general unease provoked by the passing of the Roman millennium. While
Decius himself may have intended the edict as a way to reaffirm his conservative
vision of the Pax Romana and to reassure Rome's citizens that the empire
was still secure, it nevertheless sparked a "terrible crisis of authority
as various Christian bishops and their flocks reacted to it in different
ways." Measures were first taken demanding that the bishops and officers
of the church make a sacrifice for the Emperor. The sacrifice was
"on behalf of" (Latin pro) the Emperor, not to the Emperor, since a living
Emperor was not considered divine. Certificates were issued to those
who satisfied the commissioners during the persecution of Christians under
Decius. Forty-six such certificates have been published, all dating
from 250, four of them from Oxyrhynchus. Anyone, including Christian
followers, who refused to offer a sacrifice for the Emperor and the Empire's
well-being by a specified date risked torture and execution. A number
of prominent Christians did, in fact, refuse to make a sacrifice and were
killed in the process, including Pope Fabian himself in 250, and "anti-Christian
feeling[s] led to pogroms at Carthage and Alexandria." In reality,
however, towards the end of the second year of Decius' reign, "the ferocity
of the [anti-Christian] persecution had eased off, and the earlier tradition
of tolerance had begun to reassert itself." The Christian church,
despite no indication in the surviving texts that the edict targeted any
specific group, never forgot the reign of Decius whom they labelled as
that "fierce tyrant".
At this time, there was a second outbreak of the Antonine Plague, which
at its height from 251 to 266, took the lives of 5,000 daily in Rome.
This outbreak is referred to as the "Plague of Cyprian" (the bishop of
Carthage, where both the plague and the persecution of Christians were
especially severe). Cyprian's biographer Pontius gave a vivid picture
of the demoralizing effects of the plague and Cyprian moralized the event
in his essay De mortalitate. In Carthage, the "Decian persecution",
unleashed at the onset of the plague, sought out Christian scapegoats.
Decius' edicts were renewed under Valerian in 253 and repealed under his
son, Gallienus, in 260-1.
Fighting the Goths and death
The Goths enter the Balkans:
The barbarian incursions into the Empire were becoming more and more daring
and frequent whereas the Empire was facing a serious economic crisis in
Decius' time. During his brief reign, Decius engaged in important
operations against the Goths, who crossed the Danube to raid districts
of Moesia and Thrace. This is the first considerable occasion the
Goths — who would later come to play such an important role — appear in
the historical record. The Goths under King Cniva were surprised
by the emperor while besieging Nicopolis on the Danube; the Goths fled
through the difficult terrain of the Balkans, but then doubled back and
surprised the Romans near Beroë (modern Stara Zagora), sacking their
camp and dispersing the Roman troops. The Goths then moved to attack
Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), which fell into their hands. The
governor of Thrace, Titus Julius Priscus, declared himself Emperor under
Gothic protection in opposition to Decius but Priscus's challenge was rendered
moot when he was killed soon afterwards. Then the invaders began
returning to their homeland, laden with booty and captives, among them
many of senatorial rank.
Battle of Abritus:
In the meantime, Decius had returned with his re-organized army, accompanied
by his son Herennius Etruscus and the general Trebonianus Gallus, intending
to defeat the invaders and recover the booty. The final engagement,
the battle of Abrittus, in which the Goths fought with the courage of despair,
under the command of Cniva, took place during the second week of June 251
on swampy ground in the Ludogorie (region in northeastern Bulgaria which
merges with Dobruja plateau and the Danube Plain to the north) near the
small settlement of Abrittus or Forum Terebronii (modern Razgrad).
Jordanes records that Decius' son Herennius Etruscus was killed by an arrow
early in the battle, and to cheer his men Decius exclaimed, "Let no one
mourn; the death of one soldier is not a great loss to the republic."
Nevertheless, Decius' army was entangled in the swamp and annihilated in
this battle, while he himself was killed on the field of battle.
As the historian Aurelius Victor relates:
The Decii (ie. Decius and his son),
while pursuing the barbarians across the Danube, died through treachery
at Abrittus after reigning two years. ... Very many report that the
son had fallen in battle while pressing an attack too boldly; that the
father however, has strenuously asserted that the loss of one soldier seemed
to him too little to matter. And so he resumed the war and died in
a similar manner while fighting vigorously.
One literary tradition claims that Decius was betrayed by his successor
Trebonianus Gallus, who was involved in a secret alliance with the Goths
but this cannot be substantiated and was most likely a later invention
since Gallus felt compelled to adopt Decius' younger son, Gaius Valens
Hostilianus, as joint emperor even though the latter was too young to rule
in his own right. It is also unlikely that the shattered Roman legions
would proclaim as emperor a traitor who was responsible for the loss of
so many soldiers from their ranks. Decius was the first Roman Emperor
to die in battle against a foreign enemy.
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