Roman Emperors Dir Trajan Decius

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Trajan Decius (249-251 A.D.) and Usurpers During His Reign

Geoffrey Nathan
San Diego State University

Coin with the image of Trajan Decius (c)2002, VCRC.

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.[[2]] Attempts to describe his life previous to the consulship are problematic, although he did serve as governor in Moesia in the mid-230's.[[3]]   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.[[4]]  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.[[5]] 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.[[6]] 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.[[7]]

Philip's decision to send Decius was perhaps more motivated by political expediency than by any great confidence in his military abilities.[[8]]   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.[[9]] 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.[[10]] 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.[[11]]

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.[[12]] 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.[[13]] 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.[[14]] 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:[[15]] 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[[16]]

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.[[17]] 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.[[18]]   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.[[19]] 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.[[20]] 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.[[21]]

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.[[22]] 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.[[23]] His Liberitas and Uberitas issues, combined with his wife's Pudicitia and his son's Princeps Iuventi coins, all seem to rearticulate traditional ideology.[[24]] Legends tend to be conservative, so this 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.[[25]] 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.[[26]] 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.[[27]]

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.[[28]] Whatever intended effect it may have had on Christianity was thus to a degree unplanned.[[29]] 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.[[30]]

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.[[31]] 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.[[32]] It appears to have been relatively short-lived grab for power, ending in a few days with his execution[[33]]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.[[34]] The Senate declared him a public enemy almost as soon as he chose usurpation.[[35]] He probably survived Decius, but is likely to have perished when Gallus became emperor.([[36]])  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.[[37]] The emperor, after chasing the Germanic force around the region, engaged Cniva's forces outside of Philippopolis, which had been 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.[[38]] 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.[[39]] 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.[[40]] 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.[[41]] Decius and Herennius may have even been deified.[[42]] Christian polemicists, as might be expected, took pleasure in describing Decius' body being stripped and left on the battlefield to be devoured by animals.[[43]] 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.[[44]]  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.[[45]] 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.

Ancient Sources

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)" ArchBulg 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 römishcen 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).


[[1]] In 251 at his death, Decius was purportedly fifty years of age; Syl. Pol. 40. Much of the surviving statuary and coinage shows a man of advanced age.

[[2]]Syme (1971):195-6.

[[3]]See most recently Kienast (1990):203-5. RE has a full recounting, which is not entirely trustworthy: xv:1251f.

[[4]]The Herenni had been members of the Senatorial aristocracy, ennobled in 93 BCE; Cic. Brut. 166. The Etrusci branch were apparently of Italian origin; DKP vol. ii, 1060.

[[5]]Zos. i:21:2.

[[6]]Zos. i:20:2. Cf. Zon. 12:19.

[[7]]Marinus may have been trying to associate himself with Philip, judging from the few coins that survive; RIC4:3:104-5.

[[8]]Although Zosimus implies that Decius already had some amount of military experience; i:21:3.

[[9]]There are ample references to the Decii gens in the literary and epigraphic record. See RE, xv:1251-2, although the connection between Decius and the Republican gens is doubtful at best.

[[10]]Aur. Vic. 29:1. Another tradition places his home in Budalia (Barrington21, B5), approximately 15 kilometers west of Sirmium; Eutr. 9:4.

[[11]]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.

[[12]] HA Gordian 29-30; Zos. 1:18.

[[13]]John An. (FHG iv) fr. 148, has suggested the latter, although Zos. i:21:2 and Zon. 12:19 suggest Verona. See Pohlsander (1986).

[[14]]Zos, i:21:2, however, states that he was with his father.

[[15]]For the importance of the rhetoric, Syme (1971):198-9.

[[16]]CIL iii:4558.

[[17]]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.

[[18]] S.H.A., Val. 5-7. Valerian was princeps senatus (president of the Senate) at the time; SHA Gord. 9:7.

[[19]]He had awarded torques and armbands with his own hands, once giving a young Claudius II the honor; SHA Claud. 13:4.

[[20]]CIL ii:4957, 4958, iii:3746, and 5988.

[[21]]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.

[[22]]See Bird (1994) 128, n. 4, for building references.

[[23]]RIC 12b and 22b.

[[24]]RIC 28, 58b and 59b, 147c. Herennia Etruscilla's Abundantia issue with the figure of Pudicitia is a variation; RIC 74.

[[25]] 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.

[[26]]Eus. Hist., vi:39.

[[27]]He was also apparently one of the earliest, being executed in January of 250; Kelly (1986), 16-7.

[[28]]Knipfling (1923):389-90.

[[29]]See Pohlsander (1986) for a broad assessment.

[[30]]Socrates notes that the origins of the Novatian movement came out of the persecution; Hist. Eccl. iv:28. It also indirectly encouraged the growing homooisian-homoousian controversy; v:19.

[[31]]For Syria, Aur. Vict. 29. On Jotapianus' revolt, Zos. i:21:3 and 22:2. For the revolt in Cappadocia, see Zos. i:20:5 and Polemius Sylvius 37-8.

[[32]]Aur. Vic. 29:5; Epit. 29:3.

[[33]] 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.

[[34]] Polemius Sylvius 39-40. On the possible help or advocacy of the Goths, see Jor. Get. 18; cf. Dexippus, fr. 18.

[[35]]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.

[[36]]Zos. i:24. Ammianus Marcellinus calls them Scythians, but this is a literary synonym; xxxi:5:15-17.

[[37]]Jordanes states that Cniva divided his army in two and took one half into Roman territory for the raids; 18.

[[38]]Aur. Vic. 29:5; Jordanes 18. Again, this statement may be literary artifice, given the nature of the sources.

[[39]]Zosimus claims that he rebelled, in collusion with Cniva; i:23:2. But both Jordanes and Aurelius Victor's accounts

[[40]]Barrington22, D5.

[[41]]Jor., Get. 18.

[[42]] Eutropius 9:4. This is not repeated elsewhere and there is no archeological evidence to support Eutropius' statement, but is quite possible.

[[43]]Lact. Mor. Pers.4, quoting Jer. 22:19 and 36:30.

[[44]]Livy, viii:9 and x:28. See Bird (1994):130, n. 10.

[[45]]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.

Copyright (C), Geoffrey Nathan. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Comments to: Geoffrey Nathan

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