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Bust of Decius (loan from Capitoline Museums) - Glyptothek - Munich - Germany 2017.jpg
Bust of Decius
Emperor of the Roman Empire
ReignSeptember 249 – June 251
Co-emperor Herennius Etruscus (251)
Predecessor Philip the Arab
Successor Trebonianus Gallus and Hostilian
Bornc. 201
Budalia (Martinci, Serbia)
DiedJune 251 (aged 50)
Abrittus (Razgrad, Bulgaria)
Spouse Herenia Etruscilla
Issue Herennius Etruscus and Hostilian
Full name
Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius
Regnal name
Imperator Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Augustus

Decius ( /ˈdʃəs,ˈdɛʃəs/ ; fully: Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius; c. 201 June 251), also known as Trajan Decius, was Roman emperor from 249 to 251.


A distinguished politician during the reign of Philip the Arab, Decius was proclaimed emperor by his troops after successfully putting down a rebellion in Moesia. In 249, he defeated and killed Philip near Verona and was recognized as emperor by the Senate afterwards. During his reign, he attempted to strengthen the Roman state and its religion, leading to the Decian persecution, where a number of prominent Christians (including Pope Fabian) were put to death.

In the last year of his reign, Decius co-ruled with his son Herennius Etruscus, until they were both killed by the Goths in the Battle of Abritus.

Early life and rise to power

Antoninianus of Trajan Decius. Inscription: IMP. C. M. Q. TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG. Trajan Decius Ant.jpg
Antoninianus of Trajan Decius. Inscription: IMP. C. M. Q. TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG.

Decius, who was born at Budalia, [1] [2] 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. [3] 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). [4]

Around 245, Philip entrusted Decius with an important command on the Danube. [5] 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. [6] After the collapse of the revolt, Decius let the troops proclaim him Emperor. Philip advanced against him and was killed at Verona, Italy, in September 249. [7] The Senate then recognized Decius as Emperor, giving him the attribute Traianus in reference to the 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. [8]

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. [9]

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. [4]

Persecution of Christians

A Byzantine fresco of Saint Mercurius (a Christian victim of the Decian persecution), dated 1295, from Ohrid, North Macedonia Byzantine icon St-Mercurius 1295.jpg
A Byzantine fresco of Saint Mercurius (a Christian victim of the Decian persecution), dated 1295, from Ohrid, North Macedonia

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 clear: [10]

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. [1] 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. [10]

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. [11] 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." [1] 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. [12] 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. [13] 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 killings at Carthage and Alexandria." [13] 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." [13] Despite no indication in the surviving texts that the edict targeted any particular group, Christians bore the brunt of the persecution and never forgot the reign of Decius; whom they remembered as "that fierce tyrant". [13]

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" (Cyprian was 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[ citation needed ] 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 260–261.

Fighting the Goths and death

The Gothic Invasions of 250-251 AD Battle of Abritus.jpg
The Gothic Invasions of 250–251 AD

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. [9] This is the first considerable occasion that 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. [5] 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. [4] Then the invaders began returning to their homeland, laden with booty and captives, among them many of senatorial rank. [14]

Battle of Abritus

Coin of Herennius Etruscus. Inscription: HER. ETR. MES. DECIVS NOB. C. / CONCORDIA AVG. F Herennius Etruscus Coin .jpg
Coin of Herennius Etruscus. Inscription: HER. ETR. MES. DECIVS NOB. C. / CONCORDIA AVG. F

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 Abritus, 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 Abritus [2] or Forum Terebronii (modern Razgrad). [5] 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. [1] As the historian Aurelius Victor relates:

The Decii (i.e., Decius and his son), while pursuing the barbarians across the Danube, died through treachery at Abritus 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. [15]

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. [16] [17] 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. [18] Decius was the first Roman Emperor to die in battle against a foreign enemy. [13]

Family tree

Philip the Arab
Roman Emperor
Marcia Otacilia Severa
Vexilloid of the Roman Empire.svg
Roman Emperor
Herennia Etruscilla
Trebonianus Gallus
Roman emperor
Afinia Gemina Baebiana
Philip II
Herennius Etruscus
Roman Emperor


  1. 1 2 3 4 Decius: 249 – 251 AD University of Michigan. Retrieved March 30, 2011
  2. 1 2 Handbook to life in ancient Rome, By Lesley Adkins, Roy A. Adkins, 2004, p. 28
  3. "These men are usually called the Illyrian emperors since they all were born in that province (Illyricum) and were raised to power by legions stationed there". Joseph Ward Swain, The Ancient World
  4. 1 2 3 Scarre 1995, p.169
  5. 1 2 3 Chisholm 1911.
  6. Potter 2004, pp.634–5 (note 106)
  7. Potter 2004, pp.240–241
  8. Zosimus, New History I.22
  9. 1 2 Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Decius, Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus". Encyclopædia Britannica . 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 913.
  10. 1 2 Potter 2004, p.241
  11. Potter 2004, p.243
  12. Ancient History Sourcebook
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 Scarre 1995, p.170
  14. Wolfram 1988, p.46
  15. Aurelius Victor, Book of the Caesars 29
  16. Scarre 1995, pp.168–169
  17. Southern 2001, p.308
  18. Potter 2004, p.247
  19. "Travel to the Age of Decius". Hamshahri Online (in Persian). 2007-02-13. Retrieved 2019-08-08.

Related Research Articles

Battle of Abritus Roman battle

The Battle of Abritus, also known as the Battle of Forum Terebronii, occurred near Abritus in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior in the summer of 251. It was fought between the Romans and a federation of Gothic and Scythian tribesmen under the Gothic king Cniva. The Roman army of three legions was soundly defeated, and Roman emperors Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus were both killed in battle. They became the first Roman emperors to be killed by a foreign enemy. It was one of the worst defeats suffered by the Roman Empire against Germanics, rated by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus as on par with the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, the Marcomannic invasion of Roman Italy in 170, and the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

251 Calendar year

Year 251 (CCLI) was a common year starting on Wednesday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Traianus and Etruscus. The denomination 251 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.

The 240s decade ran from January 1, 240, to December 31, 249.

The 250s decade ran from January 1, 250, to December 31, 259.

250 Calendar year

Year 250 (CCL) was a common year starting on Tuesday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Traianus and Gratus. The denomination 250 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.

Pope Cornelius was the bishop of Rome from 6 or 13 March 251 to his martyrdom in June 253. He was pope during and following a period of persecution of the church and a schism occurred over how repentant church members who had practiced pagan sacrifices to protect themselves could be readmitted to the church. Cornelius agreed with Cyprian of Carthage that those who had lapsed could be restored to communion after varying forms of penance. That position was in contrast to the Novationists, who held that those who failed to maintain their confession of faith under persecution would not be received again into communion with the church. That resulted in a schism in the Church of Rome that spread as each side sought to gather support. Cornelius held a synod that confirmed his election and excommunicated Novatian, but the controversy regarding lapsed members continued for years.

Philip the Arab Roman emperor, 244–249

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Aemilianus, also known as Aemilian, was Roman emperor for three months in 253.

Herennius Etruscus Augustus

Herennius Etruscus was Roman emperor in 251, ruling jointly with his father Decius. His father was proclaimed emperor by his troops in September 249 while in Pannonia and Moesia, in opposition to Emperor Philip the Arab. Decius defeated Philip in battle, and was then proclaimed emperor by the Roman Senate. Herennius Etruscus was elevated to caesar in 250, then further raised to augustus in May 251. When the Goths, under Cniva, invaded the Danubian provinces, Herennius Etruscus was sent with a vanguard, followed by the main body of Roman troops, led by Decius. They ambushed Cniva at the Battle of Nicopolis ad Istrum in 250, routing him, before being ambushed and routed themselves at the Battle of Beroe. Herennius Etruscus was killed in the Battle of Abritus the following year, alongside his father. After the deaths of both emperors, Trebonianus Gallus, who had been governor of Moesia, was elected emperor by the remaining Roman forces.

Hostilian Roman emperor in AD 251

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Cniva Gothic king

Cniva was a Gothic king who invaded the Roman Empire. He successfully captured the city of Philippopolis in 250 and killed Emperor Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus at the Battle of Abritus as he was attempting to leave the Empire in 251. This was the first time a Roman Emperor had been killed in combat against barbarians. He was allowed by the new Emperor Trebonianus Gallus to leave with his spoils and was paid tribute to stay out of the empire.

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Decian persecution Christian persecution resulting from Roman edict

The Decian persecution of Christians occurred in 250 AD under the Roman Emperor Decius. He had issued an edict ordering everyone in the Empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the emperor. The sacrifices had to be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and be confirmed by a signed and witnessed certificate from the magistrate. Although the text of the edict has been lost, many examples of the certificates have survived.

The Battle of Verona was fought between the Roman general and usurper Decius, and Roman Emperor Philip the Arab in 249. Decius was victorious, and Philip was killed. Decius then became Roman Emperor.

Battle of Nicopolis ad Istrum

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Regnal titles
Preceded by
Philip the Arab
Roman Emperor
Served alongside: Herennius Etruscus (251)
Succeeded by
Trebonianus Gallus and Hostilian
Political offices
Preceded by
Lucius Fulvius Gavius Numisius Aemilianus
Lucius Naevius Aquilinus
Consul of the Roman Empire
with Vettius Gratus,
Herennius Etruscus
Succeeded by
Trebonianus Gallus,