Roman emperor, A. D. 249-251, whose full name was C. MESSIUS QUINTUS TRAJANUS DECIUS, was born about the close of the second century at Bubalia, a village in Lower Pannonia, being the first of a long series of monarchs who traced their origin to an Illyrian stock. We are altogether unacquainted with his early career, but he appears to have been entrusted with an important military command upon the Danube in A. D. 245, and four years afterwards was earnestly solicited by Philippus to undertake the task of restoring subordination in the army of Moesia, which had been, however, disorganized by the revolt of Marinus. [PHILIPPUS ; MARINUS.] Decius accepted this appointment with great reluctance, and many misgivings as to the result. On his appearance, the troops deeming their guilt beyond forgiveness, offered the envoy the choice of death or of the throne.
With the sword pointed to his heart he accepted the latter alternative, was proclaimed Augustus, and forced by the rebels to march upon Italy, having previously, according to Zonaras, written to assure his sovereign that his faith was still unbroken, and that he would resign the purple, as soon as he could escape from the thraldom of the legions. Philippus, not trusting these professions, hastened to meet his rival in the field, encountered him in the vicinity of Verona, was defeated, and slain.
This event took place towards the end of A. D. 249.
The short reign of the new prince, extending to about thirty months, was chiefly occupied in warring against the Goths, who now, for the first time, appeared as a formidable foe on the north eastern frontier, and having crossed the Danube, under Cniva their chief, were ravaging the Thracian provinces.
The details of their invasion are to found in Jornandes, Zosimus, and the fragments of Dexippus, but these accounts appear so contradictory, that it is impossible, in the absence of an impartial historian, to explain or re concile their statements.
It would seem that the barbarians, in the first instance, repulsed Decius near Philippopolis, and were thus enabled to take that important city, but having lost their best troops during these operations, and finding them selves surrounded by the Romans who were now advancing from different points, they offered to purchase an unmolested retreat by the surrender of their prisoners and plunder.
These overtures being rejected, the Goths turned to bay, and gave battle near Abricium late in the year A. D. 251.
After a deadly struggle, their desperate valour, aided by the incautious confidence of the Romans, prevailed.
The son of the emperor was slain by an arrow, while Decius himself, with his best troops, became entangled in a marsh, and were cut to pieces or engulfed.
Some proceedings in the civil administration of this epoch, which at first sight would be considered as wholly without connexion with each other, but which were in reality intended to promote the accomplishment of the same object, deserve special attention.
The increasing weakness of the state was every day becoming more painfully apparent, and the universal corruption of public morality was justly regarded as a deepseated canker which must be eradicated, before any powerful effort could be made for restoring healthful vigour to the body politic. Two remedies suggested themselves, and were immediately called into action.
It was determined to revive the censorship and to persecute the Christians.
It was hoped that, by the first, order and decency might be revived in the habits of social life; it was imagined that, by the second, the national religion might be restored to its ancient purity, and that Rome might regain the favour of her gods.
The death of Decius prevented the new censor, Valerian, the same who afterwards became emperor, from exerting an authority which could scarcely have produced any beneficial change; but the eager hate of Pagan zealots was more prompt in taking advantage of the imperial edict, and made much havoc in the church. Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem, lamented the martyrdom of their bishops Fabianus, Babylas, and Alexander; Origen was subjected to cruel tortures, while Alexandria was the scene of a bloody massacre. In Africa, vast numbers, falling away from the truth, disowned their belief, and after the danger was past, the readmission of these renegades, comprehended under the general appellation of Lapsi,
gave rise to various bitter controversies, which distracted for a long period the ecclesiastical councils of the west. [CYPRIANUS.]
Of the general character of Decius it is impossible to speak with certainty, for our authorities are scanty, and the shortness of his public career afforded little opportunity for its development. Victor pronounces a warm panegyric, declaring that his disposition was most amiable, that he was highly accomplished, mild and affable in his civil relations, and a gallant warrior in the field. Zosimus and the Christian historians, writing under the influence of strong feeling, have severally represented him as a model of justice, valour, liberality, and all kingly virtues, or as a monster of iniquity and savage cruelty, while even, in modern times, the tone adopted by Tillemont on the one hand, and by Gibbon on the other, can scarcely be pronounced fair or dispassionate, the language of the latter especially being such as to mislead the unlearned reader both as to the nature and extent of our information, and to induce him to conclude that we posses materials for pronouncing a judgment which do not in reality exist.
(Victor, de Caes.
29; Eutrop. 9.4
; Trebell. Pollio Valerian.
100.1; Euseb. Hist. Eccles.
6.39, &c; Zosim. 1.21-23; Zonar. 12.19
; Jornandes, R. G.
100.16, &c. For the family of Decius, see HERENNIA ETRUSCILIA, HERENNIUS ETRUSCUS, HOSTILIANUS.)