Decius (CAIUS MESSIUS QUINTUS TRAJANUS DECIUS), Roman Emperor 249-251. He was born, date uncertain, near Sirmium in Pannonia of a Roman or a Romanized family. Practically nothing is known about his career, but the greater part of his life seems to have been passed in the army. He was the first of the great soldier-emperors from the Danubian provinces under whom the senatorial regime ended and the government became an absolute monarchy. No sooner was his position as emperor made certain by the defeat of Philip at Verona, than Decius commenced to put into effect extensive plans for the reorganization of the empire. Problems of administration, internal as well as external, at once claimed his attention. To the latter he principally devoted his own energies and consequently the greater part of his reign was spent at the head of the legions attempting to repel the Gothic invaders from the Balkan lands. After several campaigns during which he gave no evidence of military genius he met with a signal defeat in the marshes of the Dobrudscha in which he lost his life. This overthrow, attributed by some writers to the treachery of some of the Roman generals, was so complete that the emperor’s body was never recovered. In the administration of the internal affairs of the empire, Decius showed himself to be an unstatesmanlike theorist. He conceived the unpractical policy of reforming the morals of his time by a forcible restoration of the old religion. He revived the obsolete office of censor as a sop to the senatorial party, permitted them to name its first incumbent, whom he invested with the most autocratic powers in matters of civil service and over the private lives of the citizens. Oblivious of the changes wrought by time and the march of ideas, he pinned his faith to the almost abandoned paganism of old Rome as the solution of the problems of his time. Such sweeping reforms necessarily brought into prominence the growing power of the Christian Church, and made it clear that any attempt to realize or enforce the absolutism of earlier Roman politics must necessarily be futile as long as any considerable body of citizens professing the Christian creed was allowed the free exercise of their religion. Belief in the freedom of conscience and the higher estimate of religion found among the Christians could find no part in such schemes as those of Decius and would necessarily prove an insuperable obstacle to the complete realization of his plans. Various reasons have been assigned for the emperor’s hatred of Christianity, some seeing in it an evidence of innate cruelty, others a desire to be avenged on the friends of his predecessor; but there can be little doubt that the main motives for his hostility were political, conceived not in the form of fanaticism but in purposes of political expediency. The scope of the anti-Christian legislation of Decius was broader than that of his predecessors and much more far-reaching in its effects. The text of his edicts has not survived but their general tenor can be judged from the manner in which they were executed. The object of the emperor was not the extermination of the Christians, but the complete extinction of Christianity itself. Bishops and priests were unconditionally punished with death. To all others was given an opportunity to recant and, to ensure the abandonment of Christianity, all were compelled to submit to some test of their loyalty to Paganism, such as the offering of sacrifice, the pouring of libations, or the burning of incense to the idols. The unexpectedness of the attack, coupled with the fact that an appalling amount of laxity and corruption had manifested themselves during the long peace which the Church had just enjoyed, produced the most deplorable effect in the Christian fold. Multitudes presented themselves to the magistrates to express their compliance with the imperial edict and to these apostates tickets were issued attesting the fact that they had offered sacrifice (sacrificati) or burned incense (thurificati), while others, without actually performing these rites, availed themselves of the venality of the magistrates to purchase certificates attesting their renunciation (libellatici). These defections, though numerous, were more than counterbalanced by the multitudes who suffered death, exile, confiscation, or torture in all parts of the empire. The Decian persecution was the severest trial to which the Church up to that time had been subjected and the loss suffered by the Church in consequence of apostasy was almost as damaging as the losses by martyrdom. The problem of deciding on what conditions the lapsi should be admitted to the church and what weight was to be attached to the pardon of confessors, produced the bitterest dissensions and led directly to two dangerous schisms.
P. J. HEALY