After defeating Philippus Arabs at Verona in September of 249, Gaius Messius Quintus Decius had become the new ruler of the vast Roman Empire. The new emperor built the thermae Decianae or Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill in Rome and was possibly also responsible for construction of the obscure Porticus Decii. His decision to have the Colosseum restored, which had been damaged in a fire, may have been an attempt to bolster his popularity. The people still remembered Philippus’ spectacular Ludi Saeculares of the previous year and expected much the same from Decius.
From the beginning, Decius’ rule was insecure and threatened by internal and external factors. The rebellion by Jotapianus in Syria soon faltered and the man’s head was brought to Decius to prove it, but the mysterious Silbannacus may still have been stirring up trouble in Germania before he too was taken care of. A much more serious development was that a Germanic tribe known as the Franks had appeared on the Rhine border not too long ago. The Franks were banging on Rome’s door and would soon strike deep into the heart of the Empire. Their brethren the Alemanni were a threat as well, and so were the Goths, Carpi, Sarmatians and other tribes on the Danube border.
Decius must have kept a wary eye on the Persians too. They had made peace with Philippus, but Philippus was dead and King Shapur needed little encouragement to stage a new invasion. Finally, Decius soon had to deal with a new enemy, an enemy that was not even human. It is quite possible that early in Decius’ reign, the epidemic that is known as the Plague of Cyprian spread from Ethiopia to the Roman province of Egypt. From there it would find its way to other provinces and ultimately Rome and claim tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. In these precarious circumstances, the new emperor needed as much support from the immortal gods as he could get.
Early in his rule, Decius issued an Edict which ordered the entire free population of the Roman Empire to sacrifice to the ‘ancestral gods’ on his behalf. Although the text of the Edict itself has been lost, we can reconstruct it fairly well. This is in large part thanks to so-called libelli which have been found in Egypt and which date from June and July of 250. A libellus was basically a receipt which proved that the holder had respected the Edict and had made the required sacrifices. Provincial and local authorities set up sacrificial committees and summoned families to send representatives to sacrifice on behalf of the whole family. They were required to appear before the committees and make a libation, burn some incense or sacrifice an animal and eat from the meat.
The obligation to sacrifice to the ‘ancestral gods’ was rather vague, perhaps deliberately. The 50-70 million inhabitants of the Empire, most of them Roman citizens since Caracalla’s Constitutio Antoniniana of 212, did not necessarily have to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods. They could also pick local favourites. Jews were likely exempted from the Edict, as it was clear that these staunch monotheists would never sacrifice to ‘gods’ (plural). Christians, on the other hand, were not exempted, and the Edict would prove to be extremely problematic for them. Already in about 112, the governor of Pontus and Bithynia, Plinius the Younger, was told that there were certain rites that true Christians would never perform, such as invoking the traditional gods and offering incense or wine to images of (divine) emperors. The church father Tertullianus (ca. 155-240) concurred. In his Apologeticus, he cites Plinius’ observations and concludes more than once that Christians categorically do not sacrifice.
The Apologeticus was written in 197, and in 249, little more than 50 years later, many Christians likely still felt the same. This must certainly have been true for the Church authorities, the patriarchs and bishops. So how did the Christian communities in the Empire respond to Decius’ Edict? There will certainly have been Christians who saw no problems with offering a little incense for the emperor’s wellbeing, but other must have experienced a deep spiritual crisis. Some openly refused and were lynched, executed or locked up, others fled and waited for the storm to pass. There were also Christians who simply bribed the provincial and local authorities to obtain their libelli without ever having made a sacrifice. And then there were those who lapsed and made a token sacrifice, albeit dejected and half-heartedly. We cannot how many people were in each of the categories mentioned, but we may reasonably assume that the number of deadly victims of the Decian persecution cannot have been more than a few hundred. Most victims were likely from the eastern provinces, for the simple reason that this part of the Empire had the largest Christian populations.
While later Christian writers tended to exaggerate the Decian persecutions and the number of martyrs, we should beware not to underestimate the seriousness of the event. Decius’ Edict was in any case without precedent and his persecution does seem to have hit the administration of the Church very hard. The bishop of Rome, Pope Fabianus (236-250), was executed or died in prison on 20 January 250. In 251, bishop Alexander of Jerusalem passed away in prison as well. Saint Babylas, the patriarch of Antiochia, was imprisoned and died in captivity in 253. The bishop of Carthage, the same Cyprianus who gave his name to the aforementioned Plague of Cyprian, went into hiding (he would later die a martyr’s death in 258), while patriarch Dionysius of Alexandria fled to the desert of Libya. Rome, Jerusalem, Antiochia, Carthage and Alexandria were all cities with sizeable Christian populations. Although there is no evidence that Decius specifically targeted Christians with his Edict, the fact that provincial and local authorities went after bishops and patriarchs may have been an attempt ‘to bite the head off the snake’.
The events regarding Fabianus, Alexander, Babylas, Cyprianus and Dionysius, and certainly their deaths, imprisonments or flights may be considered historical. Another famous victim of the persecution was the Christian teacher Origenes, who may have corresponded with Decius’ predecessor Philippus. However, there are plenty of stories about alleged martyrs that need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The historicity of saints such as Minias, Reparata, Fusca and Maura is problematic, while the tale of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus is pure fiction.
War against the Goths
In the summer of 250, Decius named his eldest son Herennius Etruscus his Caesar. As is attested by numerous coins, he also began styling himself Trajanus, after the famous Roman emperor (98-117) who had conquered Dacia. Decius had good reasons for doing so, as hostile tribes had once again crossed the Danube. They invaded the province of Moesia Inferior and began pillaging their way to Thrace further to the south. The invaders were most likely Goths (‘Scythians’ in Zosimus’ account), although these may have been joined by bands of Carpi and Sarmatians. Decius and his son hastened to the region to intercept them. The emperor was going to follow in Trajanus’ footsteps, as his illustrious predecessor had campaigned here as well.
The most detailed account of the Gothic and Roman campaigns is given by the sixth century historian Jordanes, who was himself of Gothic descent. It should be noted that he wrote some 300 years after the facts, but there is not good reason to reject his base narrative. The Goths were led by their king Cniva, who decided to split his army into two smaller forces. The first column probably attacked the city of Marcianopolis (now Devnya in Bulgaria), which had been named after Trajanus’ sister. The attack was likely unsuccessful. According to Jordanes, the second column comprised 70.000 men, a number that is no doubt inflated. This part of the army was commanded by the king himself. Cniva first attacked Novae, which was defended by the governor of Moesia Inferior, Trebonianus Gallus (Legio I Italica was stationed here). Gallus managed to repel the Gothic attack, so Cniva decided to march further south and advanced on Nicopolis, a city founded by the great Trajanus himself.
By now the emperor had arrived in Moesia, along with his son and his army. Cniva therefore withdrew into the Balkan Mountains (Haemus Mons) and advanced on Philippopolis, which was defended by the governor of Thrace, Titus Julius Priscus. Decius gave chase, but his army was ambushed near Beroea and almost annihilated. The emperor fled north with the few survivors, took refuge with Gallus and began raising a new army. In the meantime, Cniva could focus on taking Philippopolis. The city was captured and sacked, and the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus suggests that 100.000 people were killed. This is no doubt an exaggeration and even Ammianus himself seemed sceptical of the claim, but the city was certainly thoroughly pillaged. Somehow Titus Julius Priscus had managed to strike a deal with Cniva, as he was not killed and – likely with Gothic support – even proclaimed himself emperor. Perhaps Cniva hoped to get away with his loot while Decius focussed on defeating his rival for the throne. As it turned out, Priscus was swiftly murdered, probably by his own men.
With Priscus out of the way, Decius succeeded in cutting off the Gothic retreat. The final confrontation took place near Abritus in 251. The battle was probably fought in June, and – if we follow Zosimus’ account – likely involved a number of large skirmishes. The emperor managed to rout two Gothic warbands, but did not realise that he was being lured into the marshes. There Decius was defeated and killed, along with Herennius Etruscus and most of his soldiers. The emperor’s body was never recovered. His Gothic campaign had ended in disaster and Decius became the first Roman emperor to be killed in battle against a foreign enemy. Some sources claim that he had been betrayed by Trebonianus Gallus, who was said to have refused to come to the emperor’s aid. The story sounds like mere gossip, but it was easy to blame Gallus, as the troops in the region soon proclaimed him the new Augustus.
While Decius was in the Danube region fighting the Goths, a certain Julius Valens Licinianus had revolted against him in Rome, in 250 or 251. This revolt had been quickly crushed, and now that Decius was dead, the Senate had little choice but to recognise Gallus as the new emperor, along with Decius’ other son, Hostilianus. Gallus’ son Volusianus became a Caesar. The death of an emperor on the battlefield marked the darkest day of the Crisis of the Third Century so far. But even darker days were soon to follow.
- Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, Book 31.5;
- Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 29-30 (translated and annotated by H.W. Bird);
- Epitome de Caesaribus 29;
- Jordanes, Getica 101-103;
- Plinius’ letter to Trajanus;
- Tertullianus, Apologeticus;
- Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 1.23.
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West, p. 94-100 and 103-104;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 97-99;
- Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 596-599.
 Plinius’ letter to Trajanus.
 See for instance Chapter 2: “an obstinate disinclination to offer sacrifices”; Chapter 9: “their refusal to offer sacrifice”; Chapter 10: “”You do not worship the gods,” you say; “and you do not offer sacrifices for the emperors.” Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”; Chapter 27: “When we are called therefore to sacrifice, we resolutely refuse”.
 Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 98.
Updated 28 February 2023.