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Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius (201-251), Roman emperor (249 - 251) was born at Budalia near Sirmium in lower Pannonia. He was the first among a long succession of distinguished men to come from the Illyrian provinces.

Emperor Decius
Emperor Decius

In around 245, the emperor Philip the Arabian entrusted him with an important command on the Danube. By 249 (or the end of 248), he was sent to quell a revolt of troops in Moesia and Pannonia and forced to assume the imperial dignity. He still protested his loyalty to Philip, but the latter advanced against him and was slain near Verona.

During his brief reign, Decius engaged in important operations against the Goths, who crossed the Danube to raid districts of Moesia and Thrace. (This is the first considerable occasion the Goths appear in the historical record, who would later come to play such an important role.)

The Goths under Cniva (king of the Goths) 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 Bero, sacking their camp and disbursing the troops. It was the first time a Roman emperor fled in the face of Barbarians. The Goths then moved to attack Philippopolis which fell into their hands and who treated the conquered with frightful cruelty. Its commander, Priscus, declared himself emperor under Gothic protection.

The siege of Philippopolis had so exhausted the numbers and resources of the Goths, that they offered to surrender their booty and prisoners, on condition of being allowed to retire unmolested. But Decius, who had succeeded in surrounding them and hoped to cut off their retreat, refused to entertain their proposals. The final engagement, in which the Goths fought with the courage of despair, under the command of Cniva, took place on swampy ground in the Dobrudja near Abritum (Abrittus) or Forum Trebonii. Jordanes records that Decius' son Herennius Etruscus was killed by an arrow early in the battle, and to cheer his men exclaimed, "Let no one mourn; the death of one soldier is not a great loss to the republic." However, his army was annihilated in this battle, and Decius slain. He became the first Roman emperor killed in a battle with barbarians.

Decius was an excellent soldier, a man of amiable disposition, and a capable administrator, worthy of being classed with the best Romans of the ancient type. The chief blot on his reign was the systematic and authorized persecution of the Christians, which had for its object the restoration of the religion and institutions of ancient Rome.

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 (afterwards emperor). But Valerian, well aware of the dangers and difficulties attaching to the office at such a time, declined the responsibility. The invasion of the Goths and the death of Decius put an end to the abortive attempt.

The "Decian persecutions" of Christians

The persecutions of Decius figure large in the history of the Roman Catholic Church but are not otherwise officially mentioned. Early in 250 Decius issued the edict for the suppression of Christianity, and the "Decian persecution" famous to Christians began. Measures were first taken demanding that the bishops and officers of the church sacrifice to the Emperor, a matter of an oath of allegiance that was taken by Christians as profoundly offensive.

Just at this time there was a second outbreak of the Antonine Plague, which at its height in 251 to 266 was taking the lives of 5,000 a day in Rome. This outbreak is referred to as the "Plague of Cyprian" the bishop of Carthage, where both the plague and the persecution of Christians were especially severe. Cyprian's biographer gave a vivid picture of the demoralizing effects of the plague [1] ( and Cyprian moralized the event in his essay De mortalitate. The human reaction to overwhelming devastations is universally twofold: to moralize them, and to lay the blame on a nearby minority and wreak vengeance. As Jews paid with their lives during the 14th century's Black Death, so in Carthage the "Decian persecution" unleashed at the onset of the plague sought out Christian scapegoats.

The career of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who survived the episode, only to be martyred later, offers a picture of the disorders and divisions in the doubly traumatized Christian communities, when it was a question whether or how to receive back those who had weakened, paid civic homage to Decius and were inscribed in the libelli as having performed their civic obligation. The persecution of Decius, in which Fabian, bishop of Rome is said to have been martyred, also provide the context for the seven "apostles to Gaul" of Christian history and legend. In its classic form their story is a brief mention in Gregory of Tours "History of the Franks" (written in the decade before 594) quoting a lost vita of Saturnin of Toulouse. These seven bishops sent out to re-Christianize Gaul are individually discussed at their own entries: Gatien to Tours, Trophimus to Arles, Paul to Narbonne, Saturnin to Toulouse, Denis to Paris, Austromoine to Clermont, and Martial to Limoges.

Preceded by:
Philip the Arab
Roman Emperor

with Herennius Etruscus
Succeeded by:

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