Gaius Messuis Quintus Decius (201-251) was a native of the middle Danube region, either Illyricum or Pannonia (modern Hungary). In 248,while possibly a prefect of Rome, Decius was appointed by Emperor Philip to restore order along the lower Danube, an area which was under attack by the Goths and where Roman troops where in revolt. After a successful restoration of the region, his troops urged him to accept the imperial title and challenge Philip. With the support of his troops he then marched to northern Italy where he defeated and killed Philip near Verona in September of 249. After defeating Philip, he also killed Phillips sons. Soon after his defeat of Philip, the Senate named Decius emperor and granted him the title of Trajunus.
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Because of the political instability, military and economic crisis, and the social upheavals in the Roman Empire during the third century, one of Decius main objectives was to restore the stability of the empires past. In early AD 250, in an effort to unite the Empire against the threat of the Gothic invasion in the Balkans and the Sassanian Persians in the East and also as an attempt to restore the old virtues of Rome, Decius commanded that all citizens of the empire demonstrate their loyalty to the state gods and his divine reign through public sacrifice. Decius then set up sacrificial commissions in all cities and villages to supervise the execution of the sacrifices and to deliver written certificates to all citizens who performed the sacrifices. A citizens refusal was regarded as a threat to the religious unity of the Roman Empire and a denial of the general goodwill to the sovereign. Consequently, any citizen who refused to perform the sacrifices was subject to arrest, imprisonment, and execution.
Although it is debated whether or not this was a strategic attack against the Christian community, Decius enforcement of the edict initiated the first general persecution of Christians in the empires history. Previous to Decius time, Christian persecutions had been spontaneous and local. Roman Emperors, beginning with Nero, were threatened by the rapid expansion of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. For this reason, Christians often became victims of urban riots and were made scapegoats for disasters and local troubles, as was the case of Neros persecution of Christians blaming them for the great fire of Rome in AD 64. By the time of Decius, the Christian community was no longer a small association of uneducated lower class citizens but had become a cross-section of Roman society including members on all levels of the social scale. Because of this, Christianity posed a much greater threat than in earlier years. However, Decius persecutions had a devastating impact on the Christian community. Many Christians recanted their faith and performed the sacrifices, others purchased false certificates to evade persecution, and many others fled. Those who refused to perform the sacrifices were imprisoned, tortured, and executed, including bishops Fabian of Rome, Babylos of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem.
As Christian persecution increased, crisis on the Danubian frontier in AD 250 prevented the end of the religion. In late AD 250, Decius followed his son Herennuis campaign to the front and led an attack against the Goths and defeated Kniva, the king of the Goths, but Decius army was severely checked. Soon after, Decius suffered a major defeat at Beroea and was forced to flee for safety. By early spring AD 251, because of Decius military diversion at the Danubian front, Christian persecution abated and had ended in Carthage and Rome. The faithful Christians readmitted the apostates and restored steadfast faith and zeal to the entire Christian community. In midsummer of AD 251, Decius led another attack against the Goths and was defeated and killed at Abrittus in the Dobrudja, becoming the first Roman emperor to die in battle against foreign invaders. Decius successors Trebonianus Gallus and Valerian continued his persecution of Christians but never reached the same level of general persecutions.
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Edited, Researched and Written by:
17 December 1999
Copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.