Decius and the Goths: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 1

Modern historians have chosen a good name when they refer to the period between the Secular Games of Philip and the reign of Diocletian as the crisis of the Third Century.  During this period the empire suffered from problems of instability, invasion, famine and plague.
This makes the story very difficult to tell.  People obviously had other things on their mind than than keeping records. As Gibbon puts it

The confusion of the times, and the scarcity of authentic memorials, oppose equal difficulties to the historian, who attempts to preserve a clear and unbroken thread of narration.

He is dead right and picking your way through these years is a nightmare, though I suppose actually living through them would have been worse.

The first thing to go wrong, the start of a long list, was a military uprising in Maesia, led by some not very well known local commander.  Maesia was the large Roman province along the south of the Danube in its last several hundred miles before it pours into the Black Sea, roughly modern Bulgaria.  The spelling is usually Moesia and it seems to be mainly Gibbon that calls it Maesia. But whatever its name, it was a border province with large numbers of troops.

Philip was alarmed and reported the situation to the Senate.  One senator, a respected figure with considerable government experience called Decius, spoke out calling for calm.  He predicted that the rebellion would soon be over.  And he was soon proved to be right – the rebels killed their leader bringing the crisis to a close. Decius correctly assessed that to be successful a rebellion needed a more prestigious figurehead. 

Philip was impressed.  Who wouldn’t be?  But he still worried about the state of those particular legions.  So he sent Decius out to take control of the discontented troops who he seemed to have the measure of. A shrewd manoeuvre, putting potential rebels under the control of an able and trustworthy senator.

But the Maesian legions were determined to cause trouble.  No sooner had Decius arrived but they rebelled again. The leader this time?  Decius. The troops instantly saw that unlike their earlier effort this new commander had star quality.  They instantly proclaimed him emperor.  His cooperation in the project was secured by threatening to kill him if he didn’t join in.  A funny kind of leadership when you think about it, but these were becoming unusual times.

Decius then led his legions into Italy – well led might be stretching it a bit, but he at least accompanied them – where in a pitched battle they overthrew the larger forces of Philip.  Philip and his son were killed and the Senate proclaimed Decius as emperor. Despite the irregular way that he had got the job, Decius was a bit of a throwback to an earlier mode of emperor.  He was conservative. His power base was in the Senate but he seems to have quickly established himself as an effective head of the army, even though you might have thought the way he came to power might have made this tricky.  He was obviously a skilled politician.

He also had ideas. His main aim was to restore the ancient values of the Romans.  To this end he revived the long abandoned post of censor.  This was to be a pretty wide ranging role involving tax policy, passing laws, selecting senators, restoring the equestrian order and the promotion of virtue.  He put this potentially plum job to the Senate, and by acclamation they chose the man that most closely resembled the Romans’ idea of the virtuous.  This man was Valerian.  However Valerian wasn’t sufficiently virtuous to want to risk such a politically sensitive role. 

At first sight the desire of Decius to restore the past seems Quixotic, but at least he was analysing the Empire’s problems.  His willingness to share power with Valerian might not have lasted a serious disagreement, but it did show some creative thinking and a willingness to move away from autocracy.  The involving of the Senate also showed a desire to establish a consensus.  Conservatives are sometimes just the people to think the unthinkable and come up with necessary but radical reforms.

A promising start, but Decius only had a couple of months in Rome to administer the empire in peace.  He was then forced to return to the Danube to deal with an invasion by a new tribe of troublesome barbarians.  These were the Goths, and this was their first invasion of the empire.  It would not be their last.  The Goths were to soon become the most deadly enemy of the Romans and a constant threat to their peace and security.  The notoriety of the Goths was to grow and they remain to this day a by word for, well quite a lot of different things actually, but barbarism is one of them.

For now they were just another group of barbarians out to try their luck in an invasion of the empire.  But many years later the Goths were to be in a position to commission an historian to record their early years, so we do have a bit of a back story on this particular tribe. Like the other German tribes they didn’t have any writing, so what we know about the early history of the Goths is basically hearsay.  But this is the story the Goths themselves believed, and we have no reason to doubt it.

The first home of the Goths was southern Sweden. The region from which they  are supposed to have come is still called Gotland. They seem to have been united under a king called Odin who was later to become a God.  Deification of a successful leader was common enough in ancient times.  In fact given the number of reports of sightings of Elvis Presley I have a feeling that humans haven’t entirely shaken off this habit.  The fame of Odin became very widespread and was later to be carried to England by the Saxons who slightly changed his name to Wodin.  He is still dimly remembered in the name for the day of Wednesday.

At some point, probably around the time of Julius Ceasar, the Goths started on what was to prove a prolonged career of conquest.  They set out in three boats across the Baltic.  They had by this stage already split into the three groupings that were to characterise them.  The Ostrogoths and the Visigoths were the eastern and western goths respectively.  The Gepids were in the last boat, and their name means the late comers.

They landed at the mouth of the river Vistula in what is now Poland. The city that stands there now is called Gdansk, and it is possible that the Gd bit of the name is a memory of the Goths who founded the city.  From there they worked their way south.  By the time of the Antonines they had spread into Prussia.  During the reign of Alexander Severus they were near enough to Dacia to raid it.  By the time of Philip they reached and conquered the Ukraine and established a home there. 

The Ukraine was a rich land intersected with navigable rivers, productive forests were filled with beehives producing highly desirable and very tradeable honey and there was ample fertile land.  They could settle down to the hard work of developing the agriculture and trade to create a prosperous kingdom.  Or they could attack the already prosperous and well developed Roman empire and simply loot their wealth instead.  They were Goths. I think we all know which option they opted for.

During the reign of Philip, 248 to be precise, their king Cniva launched a daring raid into the Balkans. He crossed into Dacia with little resistance – indeed some Roman troops deserted and joined him. He penetrated across the Danube into Maesia and laid siege to a provincial capital called Marcianopolis. The inhabitants, in despair, paid them to go away.  As they returned to their homes unhindered and considerably richer they must have felt well pleased.

It begins to become clear why the Maesian legions were so keen on a change of management. They had just been humiliated by a bunch of barbarians who had got off scot free, no doubt with some property belonging to the soldiers or their friends and family.

The Goths were soon back in greater numbers devastating the countryside and this time settled on the city of Nicopolis. This was where Decius and his army found them. An out and out battle with a full scale Roman field army led by the emperor probably wasn’t what the Goths had in mind. They instantly struck camp and cleared off.  But they didn’t retreat, they regrouped and instead set out to launch an attack on an even bigger city – Philippopolis.

Decius was on a serious mission. He had to show that the authority of Rome could not be flaunted in the way the Goths seemed determined to, well, flaunt it.  He therefore pursued the Goths closely – which was probably not what they expected. Cniva then did something that Decius cannot have expected.  He suddenly changed direction and fell on the Roman camp, taking them by surprise. Provisions were destroyed and confusion reigned.  Decius himself had to flee for his life.

With the relief force scattered, the city surrendered.  The governor happened to be the brother of the late Emperor Philip. Cniva proclaimed him the new emperor.  So Decius was now faced with barbarians who far from being taught a lesson had got the better of him in battle and had managed to get control of a large city and even start playing politics. This was not the script he had in mind.

Still he wasn’t without resources and was not easily beaten.  He gathered his troops together, reorganised the position and set guard on Cniva’s route of retreat.  With his superior forces and tactical position he soon had the upper hand again. The position of the Goths was now desperate.  They had no means to maintain themselves and could not retreat without fighting a full scale army. 

Decius pursued the Goths as they attempted to get out of the empire, eventually catching up with them near a town called Forum Terebronii. The Goths and the Romans encountered one another in a bog, where the Romans’ better armour proved to be a disadvantage compared to the lighter armed barbarians.  What on paper should have been a Roman victory turned into a Roman route.  Early in the day the son of Decius was killed.  Decius courageously ignored this setback, proclaiming that the loss of one soldier was of little consequence to the republic.  But it was to no avail. And later in the day he too was killed and the Goths were master of the field.  His body has never been found.

With his death the Empire lost a man who had, despite numerous setbacks, shown the promise of being a good if not a great emperor.  He was only 50.  He could easily have led for another 10, 15 or even 20 years.  It had also lost a significant army, and the Goths still had their stolen treasure and prisoners.  The psychological damage inflicted was huge as well.  Decius was the first emperor to lose his life to the barbarians.  The empire had been run for the benefit of the army for a long time now.  If it couldn’t even protect the citizens from barbarian attack, what exactly was the point?

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