Portraits of Trajan Decius
Imperator Trianus Decius


Up to Imperial Portraiture


Father of  (and succeeded by)
Herennius Etruscus
and Hostilianus

Preceded by  Philip the Arab

  William Storage & Laura Maish
Email us about this page


Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, later Traianus Decius (Trajan Decius) was born in about 201 to a Senatorial family. He served as governor of Moesia in the 230s, and was a consul in 249 when he was sent by emperor Philip the Arab to the Danubian frontier to restore order along the border and to quell the rebellion of Pacatianus, an army officer. When Decius arrived he found that Pacatianus had been killed, and the local troops declared Decius to be emperor. Decius's army fought against that of Philip the Arab, and won, resulting in the death of Philip the Arab, according to some accounts, although some scholars have rejected this account of Philip's death.

(click for large version)

Decius, a former senator and aristocrat, was enthusiastically supported by the senate. He is known for traditionalism, conservative politics, an aggressive construction program, and the first official persecution of the Christians. Decius did require demonstration of sacrifices and traditional state piety, but his direct attack on the Christians is likely a fictional creation of the early church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea. While Eusebius is often accused of having intentionally falsified certain historical events [1], it is entirely possible that his indictment of Decius originated as a misunderstanding, to which speculation was vigorously applied. That is, we cannot assume that his goal was to vilify the Roman government in order to identify early Christians as righteous victims. Eusebius lived through an era of real state persecutions under Diocletian, whose edicts may have sounded to Eusebius very similar to those of Decius. He may have projected his own experience back to a time nearly a century earlier [2].

In the following centuries of the Christian era, Decius grew by legend into an anti-Christian monster [3]. Early 20th century archaeologists and historians such as Lanciani unskeptically amplified these claims [4]. Paul Keresztes [5], who generally accepts early Christian testimony as factual, argues strongly that Decius's decree was anti-Christian. In a detailed analysis James Rives [6] concludes that persecutions probably occurred, but that they were an unintended consequence of Decius's edict.

Conversely, a writer of the Sibylline Oracles (13, 8:13) described him as a "great-souled ruler", and the author of Epitome de Caesaribus (29.2) calls him a man "filled with all skills and virtues" and "calm and congenial in civil affairs". Zosimus calls him an excellent emperor.

Decius was the first Roman emperor to die in battle, and he did so along with his elder son, Herennius Etruscus. Both were killed within a short period of time, apparently by the troops of Cniva, king of the Goths. Ancient sources differ greatly on the location and circumstances of this defeat. Decius's younger son, Hostilianus succeeded him as emperor in 251.

Many more details about Decius can be found in modern writings, though most boil down to extrapolations from already dubious sources. The only primary sources on Decius are secondary mentions in other ancient histories by Aurelius Victor, Zosimus, and a few others. Even many of the above details are conjectural.  A concise and well-researched summary of Decius by Geoffrey Nathan and Robin McMahon can be found at De Imperatoribus Romanis.

One surviving portrait bust, in the Capitoline Museum, can be solidly identified as Trajan Decius. While this identification is based solely on numismatic evidence, the similarity between some, though not all, of the Decius coins (including occipit, nose profile, wrinkles and neck detail) and this marble bust leave no doubt. See this silver antoninianus at Forum Ancient Coins as an example. This bust is included in a style of portraits often called pathetic. Characteristics include presence - if not exaggeration - of wrinkles, sagging skin, broken noses, and signs of age. Decius may have wanted to be portrayed as looking older than he actually was at the time of the portrait. He was almost certainly under fifty years old at the time. Many viewers interpret Decius's expression in this portrait as indicating worry over the bad state of affairs in Rome in the mid third century. Although much of the portraiture of his contemporaries, such as Philip the Arab, Balbinus, and Pupienus show similar characteristics, attributing Decius's expression to concern over the declining empire may be an overly simplistic view. Despite the fact that a primary purpose of Roman portraiture is propaganda, not all artistic trends can be linked to political undercurrents. For example, the Arch of Titus and the Cancelleria Reliefs, both produced under Domitian, have radically different styles. Likewise, some portraits of Gordian III are highly stylized and iconic, while others are in the impressionistic/realistic style of Decius. In any case, this portrait of Decius is extremely expressive, impressionistic, and, some say, "momentary". It strongly contrasts both the classical styling of the Julio-Claudians and the abstract, stylized portraits that dominated a few decades later.

Many scholars have also identified the head of a nude general in the guise of Mars, possibly based on the Ares of Alkamenes, as Decius. While the Mars face appears at least a decade younger than that of the Capitoline Decius, the resemblance is very strong, and the possibility that Decius could have been the subject of this portrait as a younger man is supported by his long political career and family history. An analysis of ratios of key facial feature measurements (e.g. distance between eyes compared to nose length, nose width, mouth width, eye line to mouth) supports this conclusion. Other features are also very similar, such as sunken eyes and ear shape (note equivalent facial details in photos from similar angles below). The sculptures appear to have been made in roughly the same period, based on stylistic details.

Another head, also at the Montemartini, was identified as Decius by Susan Wood in a 1982 article on Philip the Arab [7]. The head is now thought by some to represent a young Philip the Arab, but while it may have been made by the same sculptor as the famous Vatican Philip, the facial resemblance to it is minimal. This is discussed more in the discussion of portraits of Philip the Arab.


Decius (?) as Mars -
Museo Centrale Montemartini

Decius in the Capitoline Museum

Head of the Montemartini Mars



Profile of Museo Capitolina Decius


Profile on coin of Decius Augustus -
"G M Q Traianus Decius AUG"
(Museo Nazionale-Massimo collection).
Other coins show a stronger likeness
to the imperial (Capitolina) portrait.


Unknown Roman of
the 3rd century at
Centrale Montemartini
(Gasworks Museum), Rome


1 I am not merely referring to the now-popular claim against Eusebius that he admitted outright that lying was sometimes necessary. Gibbon's attack on Eusebius for his statement (Praeparatio Evangelica, xii, 31) , "it may be lawful and fitting to use falsehood (pseudos) as a medicine, and for the benefit of those who want to be deceived", has been refuted - though not entirely convincingly - by Lightfoot. Regardless of the outcome of that contest, a general reading of Eusebius shows that his primary objective is apologetics, not history, as is indicated by his own statement of purpose, "We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity." Some of  his claims, made at the dawn of Catholicism, are in conflict with historical record; others simply strain credibility. It appears that enthusiasm for his new faith clouded his ability to discriminate as a historian. That he at times intentionally misled his audience is also obvious in Vita Constantini, where he, as T.G. Elliot (Eusebian Frauds in the Vita Constantini, Phoenix Vol. 5, No. 42, Summer 1991) has shown, fabricated the account of Constantine's prohibition of pagan sacrifice.

2 Nathan and McMahon at De Imperatoribus Romanis seem to have reached the same conclusion.

3 By the 6th century, Decius had been connected in Christian legend with the gruesome torture of Saint Agatha. As the story goes (admitted to be of uncertain origin by the Catholic Encyclopedia), Agatha's breasts were crushed and cut off. Saint Peter then appeared and healed her. But she was then rolled in live coals and was near death when an earthquake struck, killing one of her tormentors. Agatha thanked God for ending her pain, and died. Agatha has become a patron saint of breast cancer. Some non-religious websites now report that it was Decius himself, as opposed to a spurned Roman prefect, who abused her. This seems to be a fine example of how religious myths transform into historical fact through secular channels. Early renaissance painters could not resist the graphic opportunities afforded by the Agatha story. See, for example, Sebastiano del Piombo's Martyrdom of St Agatha.

4 We are all indebted to Rodolfo Lanciani for his great works on Roman ruins. His textual criticism/eclecticism skills were poorly developed, however.

5 Kerestes, P. "The Decian Libelli and Contemporary Literature." Latomus 34 (1975), 763-779.

6 Rives, James. "The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire", Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999),  pp. 135-154.

7 Wood, Susan. "The Bust of Philip the Arab in the Vatican: A Case for the Defense," American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 86 (Apr. 1982), pp. 244-247. The label on a photo of this portrait in this article identifying it as Decius may be a printing error.


Keywords: William Storage, Bill Storage, Decius, Rome, imperial, emperor, museum, tourism, travel, art history

Copyright 2006 Bill Storage. Updated 110/03/2007

Original photo resolution 4368 x 2912 pixels recorded 11/05 - 8/07 with Canon EOS 5D digital cameras with Canon 24-105mm f/4 and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lenses.