Emperor Decius: The Man Who Faced the Gothic Invasion and the Crisis of the Third Century

An accomplished politician born into money, the short reign of Gaius Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus was beset by internecine struggles, religious persecution, wars against the Goths and a plague that killed thousands of people. Here is the remarkable story of Decius, emperor of Rome.

History Rulers
9 May 2023

Emperor Decius, a formidable leader who emerged from the shadows of Rome’s political chaos, ascended the imperial throne amidst the treacherous Crisis of the Third Century. His rule, fraught with internal strife, external threats, and the spectre of a devastating plague, would leave an indelible mark on the empire’s history.

Decius was a man who sought to mould Rome to his own vision, but ultimately proved to be ill-suited to the demands of the empire he ruled. The fifty-year Crisis of the Third Century was a period of profound political corruption and instability, dramatic economic decline, external threats from barbarian invasion, social unrest and internal fragmentation. As such, facts are scarce and conjecture is rampant.

Here, we’ll tell the story of Traianus Decius, emperor of Rome and we’ll answer the question ‘how did Decius die?’

The Early Life of Gaius Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus

Portrait of Emperor Decius (Photo by Sepia Times via Getty Images)

The future emperor was born somewhere between 190 and 200 AD in Budalia, somewhere close to the modern-day town of Martinci in Serbia. Indeed a number of Roman emperors who reigned during the Crisis of the Third Century hailed from this region of the Balkan peninsula, including Hostilian, Quintillus, Aurelian and Probus.

It’s believed Traianus Decius was born into a wealthy, land-owning family but other than that, almost nothing is known of his early years. It’s generally agreed that he was a senator and served as a suffect consul, a consul elected to finish the one year term of a consul who vacated office before his full year was complete.

It’s also said that he served as a governor in Moesia, a large area south of the Danube River; Germania Inferior, a region encompassing the Benelux countries and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany; and Hispania Tarraconensis, parts of eastern, central and northern Spain and northern Portugal. Again, facts are hard to come by and these governorships are not well established in the historical record.

He also served as an urban prefect under emperor Marcus Julius Philippus Augustus, better known as Philip the Arab.

Decius, Emperor of Rome

Emperor Decius From Icones Imperatorum Romanorum (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The Empire under the rule of Philip was teetering on the edge. Following unrest, rebellion and the constant threat of invasion, Philip eventually offered to resign as Emperor. A number of sources suggest that Decius was one of the key voices that persuaded him to remain in power, although there’s little historical evidence to suggest this is true. Philip clearly trusted Decius however, and sent him to quell rebellion and expel the Goths. He was so successful, the legions, tired of Philip’s reign, proclaimed Decius as emperor.

It’s said that Decius had no designs on the emperorship and assured Philip of his continued support, but Philip amassed an army to crush him. The two faced off at the Battle of Verona in Italy. Philip was killed and Decius, reluctantly and unwillingly according to Byzantine historian Zosimus, was proclaimed emperor of Rome.

He chose the name Traianus Decius in honour of the emperor Trajan, for whose magnificent reign he sought to emulate.

Soon after becoming emperor, he began a series of building projects including repairing the 170-180 year-old Colosseum and building the Thermae Decianae, the Baths of Decius, which were completed a year after his death and survived until the 1500s.

The Decian Persecution

Portrait of Pope Fabian (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Emperor Decius is perhaps most famous for what became known as the Decian Persecution. This was an empire-wide edict ordering everyone to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods in front of a magistrate. Those who complied were issued with certificates and those who refused were threatened with imprisonment, torture and execution. Even Pope Fabian was sent to prison where he died.

It’s commonly agreed that this was a persecution against Christians, although the edict stopped short of naming any one religion. There are a number of reasons why Decius, emperor of Rome, may have issued such a widespread proclamation, but the motivations were likely political, religious, social and indeed personal.

He sought to revive and reinforce traditional Roman religious practices, which he believed were vital for maintaining the empire’s stability and strength. Conversions to Christianity were increasing and the new religion was viewed as an emerging threat.

Another reason is perhaps more narcissistic. By ensuring the loyalty of the populace to the state, he ensured their loyalty to him. Coupled with that, he wanted social cohesion and – in a textbook diversionary tactic – would scapegoat Christians for the state of the empire, including an outbreak of the Plague of Cyprian which was said to have taken 5,000 lives a day.

The persecution had a lasting impact on the Christian community. Many faced difficult choices, including apostasy, obtaining false certificates of sacrifice, or facing punishment. This period of persecution created divisions within the Christian community that persisted for many hundreds of years.

How Did Decius Die?

The Goths before The Battle of Abritus (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In 250, Emperor Decius left Rome in the hands of a senator named Publius Licinius Valerianus and set out to battle the Goths, who had crossed the Danube and attacked the city of Philippopolis in Thrace. In case he didn’t return, he named his son Herennius Etruscus as caesar.

The campaign started poorly, with the Goths gaining the upper hand, including victory at the Battle of Beroe. Regrouping in the summer of 251, Emperor Decius – now joined by his son – engaged the Goths again at the Battle of Abritus in northeastern Bulgaria.

According to historian Jordanes – writing several hundred years after the events – Herennius was killed by an arrow early in the battle, while Emperor Decius himself, along with much of his army, became stuck in a swamp and massacred. It’s believed he was the first Roman emperor to die on the field of battle against a foreign enemy.

After Decius’ death, his successor, Trebonianus Gallus, signed a peace treaty with the Goths that allowed them to retain their plunder and prisoners. This was seen as a humiliating defeat for Rome and contributed to the eventual decline of the empire.


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