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
, 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
In the following centuries of the Christian era,
Decius grew by legend into an anti-Christian monster
Early 20th century archaeologists and historians such as Lanciani
unskeptically amplified these claims
who generally accepts early Christian testimony as factual, argues
strongly that Decius's decree was anti-Christian. In a detailed
analysis James Rives
concludes that persecutions probably occurred, but that they
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
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
. 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.
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.
Nathan and McMahon at
seem to have reached the same conclusion.
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
4 We are
all indebted to
Rodolfo Lanciani for his great works on Roman ruins. His textual
criticism/eclecticism skills were poorly developed, however.
Kerestes, P. "The Decian Libelli and
Contemporary Literature." Latomus 34 (1975), 763-779.
Rives, James. "The Decree of Decius and the
Religion of Empire", Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999), pp. 135-154.
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.