Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Decius
Decius. The reign of this emperor, though among the shortest in the Roman annals (A.D. 249-251), has gained a pre-eminence in ecclesiastical history altogether disproportioned to its place in general history. It was burnt in on the memories of men as a fiery trial, and occasioned many memorable controversies.
When Cn. Messius Decius Trajanus first appears in history it is with a grown-up son, himself between fifty and sixty, as a member of the Roman senate, in the last year of the reign of Philip the Arabian. The army elected him as emperor, and forced him to lead them into Italy. Near Verona they encountered Philip, who was defeated and slain (June 17, A.D. 249), and Decius began to reign. He associated his own son and Annius Maximus Gratus with him as Caesars.
The edict which made his name a byword of reproach may have been due to a desire to restore the rigorous morality of the old Roman life, and the old religion which gave that morality its sanctions. If we may judge by the confessions of the great Christian teachers, who owned that the church deserved its sufferings, the lives of its members did not then present a very lovely aspect. Christian men were effeminate and self-indulgent, trimming their beard and dyeing their hair; Christian women painted their faces, and brightened their eyes with cosmetics. The clergy were covetous and ambitious, looking on their profession as a path to wealth and influence. In addition to these evils they presented, even more than they had done in the days of the Antonines, the aspect of a secret society with a highly compact organization. That the late emperor had been supposed to favour it or even to have been secretly a member of it was enough to add another element to the policy which Decius now adopted.
That policy was opened early in A.D. 250 by an edict no longer extant, of which we can form a fair estimate, partly from an account given by Gregory of Nyssa (Vit. Greg. Thaum.), and partly from the history of the persecution, as traced by Cyprian, in his epistles and the treatise de Lapsis, and by Dionysius of Alexandria (Eus. H. E. vi. 40-42). It did not order any sharp measures of extermination. Magistrates throughout the empire were ordered, under heavy penalties, to put pressure upon the worshippers of Christ to abjure Christianity. Fear did its work on many whose faith had never had any real groundwork in conviction. The seats of the magistrates were thronged with apostates, some rushing eagerly to be conspicuous among the first to offer sacrifice and sprinkle incense on the altar; some pale and trembling, as if about to be themselves sacrificial victims. In that crowd of renegades were, too, not a few base and feeble-hearted priests of the church. Others found an ingenious way of satisfying their conscience, and securing their position and life. The magistrates were not above accepting bribes, and for a reasonable money payment would give a certificate (libellus) that sacrifice had been duly offered, without making the actual performance of the rite compulsory. The libellatici were rightly branded by Christian feeling with a double note of infamy. They added dishonesty and falsehood to cowardice and denial. Bad as the sacrificati, the thurificati, might be, they were not so contemptible as these. Next, severe measures were brought to bear on the faithful. They were dragged before the prefects and other magistrates, questioned as to their faith, required to sacrifice, exposed to insults and outrages if they refused, thrust into prison, and, in many instances, ill-treated till they died. The wiser and more prudent bishops, such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage, followed the counsel of their Lord (Matt. x. 23), and the example of Polycarp, fled from the storm themselves, and exhorted their followers to do the same. Some, who thus withdrew from the common life of men, never returned to it (e.g. Paul, the hermit of the Thebaid, and Maximus of Nice), and the Decian period has been commonly regarded, though with some exaggeration, as the starting-point of the anchoretic life. The wiser pastors continued, as far as they could, to watch over their flocks and keep them steadfast in the faith, even while exposed to taunts and suspicions of cowardice or deception. Others languished in prison, like the sufferers at Rome, of whom Cyprian tells, "sine solatio mortis." Some courted death not in vain, or met it bravely.
The persecution of Decius (commonly reckoned as the seventh) may fairly be measured as to its extent, if not its actual severity, by the list of martyrs under it still found in the calendar of the Western church. It was more extensive and more systematic than any that had preceded it. Fabian, bp. of Rome, was among the foremost of the victims; Babylas of Antioch, Pionius of Smyrna (seized, it was said, while celebrating the anniversary of the martyrdom of Polycarp), Agatha of Sicily, Polyeuctes of Armenia, Carpus and his deacon of Thyatira, Maximus (a layman) of Asia, Alexander, bp. of Jerusalem, Acacius of the Phrygian Antioch, Epimachus and Nemesius of Alexandria, Peter and his companions of Lampsacus, Irenaeus of Neo-Caesarea, Martial of Limoges, Abdon and Sennen (Persians then at Rome), Cassian of Imola, Lucian a Thracian, Trypho and Respicius of Bithynia, the Ten Martyrs of Crete, have all found a place in the martyrologies of this period, and, after allowing uncertainty to some of the names, the list is enough to shew that there was hardly a province of the empire where the persecution was not felt. Among "confessors" (a title which seems to have been then, for the first time, used in this sense) were Origen, who was tortured on the rack, and the boy Dioscorus who, at the age of 15, offered himself for the crown of martyrdom, but was spared by the Alexandrian prefect in pity for his youth. To this reign belongs the well-known legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, told for the first time by Gregory of Tours (de Glor. Martyr. c. 95). Confessing the faith, like Dioscorus, in the prime of early manhood, they were, it was said, walled up in a cave, and left to die. They fell asleep, and the place acquired a local fame for its sanctity. In the reign of Theodosius (A.D. 447) the cave was opened, and the sleepers awoke, went forth, and were startled at the changes which they witnessed, temples destroyed and churches standing in their place. Their second life was, however, of short duration. They again lay down together and fell asleep, this time not to wake again.
Happily, the persecution was as short as it was severe. The attacks of the Goths (or the Carpi, probably a Gothic tribe) drew Decius and his son into Pannonia, where they fell in battle. In some respects the after-effects of the Decian persecution were more important than its direct results. It cleared off the crowd of half-hearted Christians, and left behind those who were prepared by its discipline for the severer struggles that were to come under Valerian and Diocletian. Questions arose as to the treatment of those who had apostatized (the lapsi of Cyprian's treatise). Were the libellatici to be dealt with on the same footing as the thurificati? Were either capable of readmission into the fold of Christ? Was that readmission to be conditional upon the church's normal discipline, or were the confessors to be allowed to give a certificate of absolution (the libellus pacis) to those whose weakness or repentance was sufficient reason for indulgence? Some of those who prided themselves, like many of the Roman confessors, on their constancy, looked down with scorn on the indulgence shown by Cyprian and Cornelius to the lapsi, and even taunted the latter with having been a libellaticus. The tendency to ascetic rigorism of discipline would doubtless have shown itself sooner or later in any case, but historically the Novatianist schisms had their beginning in the Decian persecution. Cf. Eus. H. E. vi. 39-45; Cyprian, de Laps., and Epp. passim; the articles in this dict. on the persons named above; and an excellent paper on Decius by Hefele in Wetzer and Welte's Kirchen Lexicon. For the general history of the reign, see Gibbon (c. x.), whose narrative is based on Zosimus and Zonaras.
- A document purporting to give the text of the edict was published at Toulouse A.D. 1664, but is universally acknowledged to be spurious.