The Devotion Of The Decii


B.C. 339

The spirit of self-devotion is so beautiful and noble, that even when the act is performed in obedience to the dictates of a false religion, it is impossible not to be struck with admiration and almost reverence for the unconscious type of the one great act that has hallowed every other sacrifice. Thus it was that Codrus, the Athenian king, has ever since been honored for the tradition that he gave his own life to secure the safety of his people; and there is a touching story, with neither name nor place, of a heathen monarch who was bidden by his priests to appease the supposed wrath of his gods by the sacrifice of the being dearest to him. His young son had been seized on as his most beloved, when his wife rushed between and declared that her son must live, and not by his death rob her of her right to fall, as her husband's dearest. The priest looked at the father; the face that had been sternly composed before was full of uncontrolled anguish as he sprang forward to save the wife rather than the child. That impulse was an answer, like the entreaty of the mother before Solomon; the priest struck the fatal blow ere the king's hand could withhold him, and the mother died with a last look of exceeding joy at her husband's love and her son's safety. Human sacrifices are of course accursed, and even the better sort of heathens viewed them with horror; but the voluntary confronting of death, even at the call of a distorted presage of future atonement, required qualities that were perhaps the highest that could be exercised among those who were devoid of the light of truth.

In the year 339 there was a remarkable instance of such devotion. The Romans were at war with the Latins, a nation dwelling to the south of them, and almost exactly resembling themselves in language, habits, government, and fashions of fighting. Indeed the city of Rome itself was but an offshoot from the old Latin kingdom; and there was not much difference between the two nations even in courage and perseverance. The two consuls of the year were Titus Manlius Torquatus and Publius Decius Mus. They were both very distinguished men. Manlius was a patrician, or one of the high ancient nobles of Rome, and had in early youth fought a single combat with a gigantic Gaul, who offered himself, like Goliath, as a champion of his tribe; had slain him, and taken from him a gold torque, or collar, whence his surname Torquatus. Decius was a plebeian; one of the free though not noble citizens who had votes, but only within a few years had been capable of being chosen to the higher offices of state, and who looked upon every election to the consulship as a victory. Three years previously, when a tribune in command of a legion, Decius had saved the consul, Cornelius Cossus, from a dangerous situation, and enabled him to gain a great victory; and this exploit was remembered, and led to the choice of this well-experienced soldier as the colleague of Manlius.

The two consuls both went out together in command of the forces, each having a separate army, and intending to act in concert. They marched to the beautiful country at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, which was then a harmless mountain clothed with chestnut woods, with spaces opening between, where farms and vineyards rejoiced in the sunshine and the fresh breezes of the lovely blue bay that lay stretched beneath. Those who climbed to the summit might indeed find beds of ashes and the jagged edge of a huge basin or gulf; the houses and walls were built of dark- red and black material that once had flowed from the crater in boiling torrents: but these had long since cooled, and so long was it since a column of smoke had been seen to rise from the mountain top, that it only remained as a matter of tradition that this region was one of mysterious fire, and that the dark cool lake Avernus, near the mountain skirts, was the very entrance to the shadowy realms beneath, that were supposed to be inhabited by the spirits of the dead.

It might be that the neighborhood of this lake, with the dread imaginations connected with it by pagan fancy, influenced even the stout hearts of the consuls; for, the night after they came in sight of the enemy, each dreamt the same dream, namely, that he beheld a mighty form of gigantic height and stature, who told him 'that the victory was decreed to that army of the two whose leader should devote himself to the Dii Manes,' that is, to the deities who watched over the shades of the dead. Probably these older Romans held the old Etruscan belief, which took these 'gods beneath' to be winged beings, who bore away the departing soul, weighted its merits and demerits, and placed it in a region of peace or of woe, according to its deserts. This was part of the grave and earnest faith that gave the earlier Romans such truth and resolution; but latterly they so corrupted it with the Greek myths, that, in after times, they did not even know who the gods of Decius were.

At daybreak the two consuls sought one another out, and told their dreams; and they agreed that they would join their armies in one, Decius leading the right and Manlius the left wing; and that whichever found his troops giving way, should at once rush into the enemy's columns and die, to secure the victory to his colleague. At the same time strict commands were given that no Roman should come out of his rank to fight in single combat with the enemy; a necessary regulation, as the Latins were so like, in every respect, to the Romans, that there would have been fatal confusion had there been any mingling together before the battle. Just as this command had been given out, young Titus Manlius, the son of the consul, met a Latin leader, who called him by name and challenged him to fight hand to hand. The youth was emulous of the honor his father had gained by his own combat at the same age with the Gaul, but forgot both the present edict and that his father had scrupulously asked permission before accepting the challenge. He at once came forward, and after a brave conflict, slew his adversary, and taking his armor, presented himself at his father's tent and laid the spoils at his feet.

But old Manlius turned aside sadly, and collected his troops to hear his address to his son: 'You have transgressed,' he said, 'the discipline which has been the support of the Roman people, and reduced me to the hard necessity of either forgetting myself and mine, or else the regard I owe to the general safety. Rome must not suffer by one fault. We must expiate it ourselves. A sad example shall we be, but a wholesome one to the Roman youth. For me, both the natural love of a father, and that specimen thou hast given of thy valor move me exceedingly; but since either the consular authority must be established by thy death, or destroyed by thy impunity, I cannot think, if thou be a true Manlius, that thou wilt be backward to repair the breach thou hast made in military discipline by undergoing the just meed of thine offence. He then placed the wreath of leaves, the reward of a victor, upon his son's head, and gave the command to the lictor to bind the young man to a stake, and strike off his head. The troops stood round as men stunned, no one durst utter a word; the son submitted without one complaint, since his death was for the good of Rome: and the father, trusting that the doom of the Dii Manes was about to overtake him, beheld the brave but rash young head fall, then watched the corpse covered with the trophies won from the Latins, and made no hindrance to the glorious obsequies with which the whole army honored this untimely death. Strict discipline was indeed established, and no one again durst break his rank; but the younger men greatly hated Manlius for his severity, and gave him no credit for the agony he had concealed while giving up his gallant son to the wellbeing of Rome.

A few days after, the expected battle took place, and after some little time the front rank of Decius' men began to fall back upon the line in their rear. This was the token he had waited for. He called to Valerius, the chief priest of Rome, to consecrate him, and was directed to put on his chief robe of office, the beautiful toga proetexta, to cover his head, and standing on his javelin, call aloud to the 'nine gods' to accept his devotion, to save the Roman legions, and strike terror into his enemies. This done, he commanded his lictors to carry word to his colleague that the sacrifice was accomplished, and then girding his robe round him in the manner adopted in sacrificing to the gods, he mounted his white horse, and rushed like lightning into the thickest of the Latins. At first they fell away on all sides as if some heavenly apparition had come down on them; then, as some recognized him, they closed in on him, and pierced his breast with their weapons; but even as he fell the superstition that a devoted leader was sure to win the field, came full on their minds, they broke and fled. Meanwhile the message came to Manlius, and drew from him a burst of tears--tears that he had not shed for his son--his hope of himself meeting the doom and ending his sorrow was gone; but none the less he nerved himself to complete the advantage gained by Decius' death. Only one wing of the Latins had fled, the other fought long and bravely, and when at last it was defeated, and cut down on the field of battle, both conqueror and conquered declared that, if Manlius had been the leader of the Latins, they would have had the victory. Manlius afterwards completely subdued the Latins, who became incorporated with the Romans; but bravely as he had borne up, his health gave way under his sorrow, and before the end of the year he was unable to take the field.

Forty-five years later, in the year 294, another Decius was consul. He was the son of the first devoted Decius, and had shown himself worthy of his name, both as a citizen and soldier. His first consulate had been in conjunction with one of the most high-spirited and famous Roman nobles, Quintus Fabius, surnamed Maximus, or the Greatest, and at three years' end they were again chosen together, when the Romans had been brought into considerable peril by an alliance between the Gauls and the Samnites, their chief enemies in Italy.

One being a patrician and the other a plebeian, there was every attempt made at Rome to stir up jealousies and dissensions between them; but both were much too noble and generous to be thus set one against the other; and when Fabius found how serious was the state of affairs in Etruria, he sent to Rome to entreat that Decius would come and act with him. 'With him I shall never want forces, nor have too many enemies to deal with.'

The Gauls, since the time of Brennus, had so entirely settled in northern Italy, that it had acquired the name of Cisalpine Gaul, and they were as warlike as ever, while better armed and trained. The united armies of Gauls, Samnites, and their allies, together, are said to have amounted to 143,330 foot and 46,000 horse, and the Roman army consisted of four legions, 24,000 in all, with an unspecified number of horse. The place of battle was at Sentinum, and here for the first time the Gauls brought armed chariots into use,--probably the wicker chariots, with scythes in the midst of the clumsy wooden wheels, which were used by the Kelts in Britain two centuries later. It was the first time the Romans had encountered these barbarous vehicles; they were taken by surprise, the horses started, and could not be brought back to the charge, and the legions were mowed down like corn where the furious Gaul impelled his scythe. Decius shouted in vain, and tried to gather his men and lead them back; but the terror at this new mode of warfare had so mastered them, that they paid no attention to his call. Then, half in policy, half in superstition, he resolved to follow his father in his death. He called the chief priest, Marcus Livius, and standing on his javelin, went through the same formula of self-dedication, and in the like manner threw himself, alone and unarmed, in the midst of the enemy, among whom he soon fell, under many a savage stroke. The priest, himself a gallant soldier, called to the troops that their victory was now secured, and thoroughly believing him, they let him lead them back to the charge, and routed the Gauls; whilst Fabius so well did his part against the other nations, that the victory was complete, and 25,000 enemies were slain. So covered was the body of Decius by the corpses of his enemies, that all that day it could not be found; but on the next it was discovered, and Fabius, with a full heart, pronounced the funeral oration of the second Decius, who had willingly offered himself to turn the tide of battle in favor of his country. It was the last of such acts of dedication--the Romans became more learned and philosophical, and perhaps more reasonable; and yet, mistaken as was the object, it seems a falling off that, 200 years later, Cicero should not know who were the 'nine gods' of the Decii, and should regard their sacrifice as 'heroic indeed, but unworthy of men of understanding'.


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