A Roman emperor (full name, Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius) from the autumn of 249 to late June 251. Born about 200 at Sirmium in Pannonia, he became an important senator and married into the Roman noble house of the Herennii. In 248, when the Goths were exerting intense pressure on the Danube frontier provinces, Decius was charged by Emperor the Arabian to take over the defenses of Pannonia and Moesia. The Goths were checked, and mutinies among the legions were quelled. Decius was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and after fruitless negotiations with Philip, he confronted the imperial forces near Verona in the late summer of 249. In the ensuing battle Philip was defeated and slain. Decius is recorded as emperor in Egypt by 27 November 249 (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus XII.1636).

EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA says that Decius “on account of his enmity toward raised a against the churches” (Historia ecclesiastica VI.39.i). This is partially corroborated by the writer (c. A.D. 265) of XIII (Jewish) Sibylline (ll. 79-88). Decius’ aim, however, may have been wider: a general restoration of the virtues associated with the republic and early empire. His revival of the office of censor and his assuming the name Trajanus, after the optimus princeps (Trajan), indicate this. This outlook also included religion. It would seem that to underline the necessity of renewed popular acknowledgment of the role of the Roman gods in restoring the empire, Decius ordered that the annual and vota performed in honor of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome (3 January 250) should be repeated throughout the cities of the empire. At least one Italian town, Ansedona (modern Cosa), hailed Decius as “the restorer of the sacred rites and liberty” (restitutor sacrorum et libertatis).

The counterpart of this policy was the immediate arrest of prominent Christians, including Pope Fabian, who was tried before the emperor and executed on 20 January 250 (Libri pontificalis, p. 27). Other prominent Christians were arrested, including Babylas, bishop of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem. of Alexandria, the fourteenth patriarch, escaped through a lucky accident (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica VI.39.2), and Cyprian of Carthage went into hiding (Cyprian, Letters 8, written by Roman presbyters to him and included in his collection of letters).

Though there can be no certainty, it would seem that these measures directed against individuals and resulting in trials and executions were distinct from the general that resulted from the repetition of the annual imperial vota on an empirewide scale. The requirement was for all Roman citizens, who since the Antonine Constitution of 212 included nearly all free inhabitants of the empire, to demonstrate their allegiance to the dei publici. They would do this by offering incense to the gods, pouring a libation, and eating sacrificial meat. The acts would be supervised by a commission drawn from the chief citizens of the district. In Egypt, forty-three certificates (libelli) given to individuals who had sacrificed have been discovered, mainly from Oxyrhynchus but also from Arsinoe and Alexander’s Isle in the Fayyum.

Two examples may be quoted:

1st Hand: To the commission chosen to superintend the sacrifices at the of Alexander’s Isle. From Aurelius Diogenes, son of Satabous, of the village of Alexander’s Isle, aged seventy-two years, with a scar on the right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed to the gods, and now in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have made sacrifice, and poured a libation, and partaken of the sacred victims. I request you to certify this below. Farewell. I, Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this petition.

2nd Hand: I, Aurelius Syrus, saw you and your son sacrificing.

3rd Hand: . . . onos. . . .

1st Hand. The year 1 of the Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Epiph 2 [26 June 250].

To the commission chosen to superintend the sacrifices. From Aurelia Ammonous, daughter of Mustus, of the Moeris quarter, priestess of the god Petesouchos, the great, the mighty, the immortal, and priestess of the gods in the Moeris quarter. I have sacrificed to the gods all my life and now again, in accordance with the decree and in your presence, I have made sacrifice, and poured a libation and partaken of the sacred victims. I request you to certify this below.

Both libelli indicate the solemn character of the action, obligatory even to those who already held priesthoods in local cults.

As a demonstration of solidarity toward the empire and its rulers, Decius’ measure was extremely successful. Given the alternatives of formally acknowledging the empire and its gods and standing ostentatiously aside from any outward show of loyalty, the great majority of Christians seem to have chosen the former. At Alexandria, Bishop paints an awe-inspiring picture of the mixture of panic, confusion, and resigned acceptance of the imperial edict by the mass of the Christian population (in Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica VI.41.10.14). At Smyrna, the see of the martyr-bishop Polycarp, Bishop Euctemon was among those who sacrificed to the gods (Martyrdom of Pionius 15.1), and the confessor Pionius won scant support for his defiance. Pity and ridicule were the principal emotions he aroused among the populace of Smyrna (Martyrdom 16).

At Carthage, Cyprian admits that the great majority of his congregation lapsed (Letters 11.1), an assessment that was confirmed a year later when he wrote the De lapsis. Would-be sacrificers to Jupiter were turned away at the temple and asked to return on the morrow, so overwhelming was the response (De lapsis 8). In the country areas, whole congregations seem to have apostatized; one, that of Sutunurca, was led to the pagan altars by the bishop himself (Letters 59.10). In Alexandria, there was some resistance. mentions seventeen martyrs, six significantly being recorded as “Libyans” (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica VI.41.14-42.4).

He also describes vividly how in some cities and villages, pagans turned on the Christians and massacred them or forced them to flee into the desert, where death or slavery at the hands of Saracen tribes awaited them (Eusebius, Historia ecclesiastica VI.42.1-4). In general, resistance came from those who had little to lose and little standing in their communities. At Carthage, Lucianus, the leader of the confessors, is described as “little instructed in holy scripture”; and another, Aurelius, “did not know letters” (Cyprian, Letters 27.1).

Decius delivered a heavy blow to the church, the more effective because Christianity was still very largely an urban religion, whose adherents therefore were more easily identifiable. The mystique of the emperor and the empire was still a living factor in the of the provincials. Defiance, even at the orders of bishops, was only rarely acceptable.

No one can tell what would have happened if Decius had lived and his long duel with the Gothic king Kniva had not ended in his defeat and death in the marshes of Abrittus, near the delta of the Danube (June 251). Cyprian’s return to Carthage in the spring of 251 and his ability to hold a council not long after Easter of that year, before Decius met his end, suggests that there would have been a slow recovery. The reign of Decius indicates, however, that in Egypt, as elsewhere in the empire, Christianity could be contained. There were still forces of loyalty and devotion to tradition that would safeguard the empire from disintegration in the twenty years of civil war and invasion that followed the death of the emperor.


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W. H. C.