Decius, Roman Emperor

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Reigned 249 to 251; b. Budalia, near Sirmium (in modern Yugoslavia), c. 201; d. Abrittus in the Dobruja, June 251. He was of Etruscan descent and probably of a senatorial family. He was prefect of Rome before Emperor Philip the Arab sent him to command the armies on the Danube. After his troops proclaimed him emperor in the summer of 249, he defeated and slew Philip near Verona in September. He spent his brief reign fighting the goths and being betrayed by his generals. In hopes of restoring the ancient religious traditions of Rome, he began a systematic persecution of Christians. His decree, which is not extant, required everyone in the empire to appear before special commissions and perform some act of public worship to the Roman gods. Compliance with the decree was attested to by libelli (certificates), more than 40 of which, dated June 12 to July 15, 250, have been discovered in Egypt. Many Christians, including bishops and other clergy, apostatized, and others went into hiding. Among those who suffered in the persecution were: SS. cyprian of Carthage, dionysius of alexan dria, and gregory thaumaturgus (who wrote of the persecution); Pope fabian, whose martyrdom left the See of Rome vacant for some time; origen, who survived tortures; Bishops alexander of jerusalem and Babylas of Antioch; Pionius, Asclepiades, and Sabina of Smyrna; the seven sleepers of ephesus; Carpus, Papylus, and Agathonice in Pergamum; Melitenus and Polyeuctus in Armenia; Mappalicus and his companions and Celerinus in Africa; the priest Moses in Rome; and Bishop Nestor of Magydus.

After Decius died in battle against the Goths, the persecution, which had not been renewed at the beginning of 251, came to an end. The Church then took up the problem of dealing with lapsi (apostates) who wished to return to their faith. libellatici, those who had purchased libelli without sacrificing to the gods, were readmitted after penance. Those who had sacrificed willingly were not absolved until the moment of death. So strong was the impression made on Christians by the persecution of Decius that in later times martyrdoms about which little or nothing was known were described in terms of the persecution of Decius. The persecution has been interpreted as a manifestation of the growing state absolutism that would not tolerate a rival in the conscience of its subjects.

Bibliography: j. wittig, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. 15.1 (1931) 124484. l. fronza, Studi sull'imperatore Decio, 2 v. (Trieste 195153). g. bardy, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947) 3:506507. k. gross, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765), 3:184185; Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser (Stuttgart 1950) 3:611629.

[m. j. costelloe]