November 09, 2009

The death of Decius

Manlius sacraficed his son to Roman authority: Livy presents a second sacrafice to Rome therefore which brings back to my mind at least the second aspect of Roman authority- religion. The consul Decius commanded one wing of the Roman army against the Latins: Manlius the other. On Decius's flank the battle went badly and then Decius shouted to Marcus Valerius who blessed him and bade him put on his toga.

Then he girded up his toga in the Gabine manner, leaped fully armed on to his horse and rode into the midst of the enemy- a sight to admire for both armies, almost superhuman in its nobility as if sent from heaven to expiate allthe anger of the Gods and deflect disaster from his own people to the Latins. Thus the terror and panic in every form which Decius brought with him...penetrated deep into the Latin army.... and when he finally fell beneath a rainof missiles, from that moment there was no doubt that the Latin cohorts were thrown into complete confusion VIII 9
This incident is fascinating: obviously it describes something Livy admired. Decius's actions are the epitome of the Roman who throws away his own life to save his country: unlike Manlius's he sacraficed his own life- an unproblematic moment.

They also record something it is right to consider: for Livy here provides us an example of religious enthusiasm. In a peculiar sense Decius is a kind of martyr- unlike Christian or Muslim martyrs he does not die to justify a faith- rather Decius dies to justify an army to his Gods. In the first case the act of martyrdom says something about the individual's relationship with God, in the second the martyrdom, as Livy presents it (and as usual we have no idea of whether this happened or not) justifies the city to the Gods. The nature of the religious relationship has subtly changed between say Decius's sacrafice and Diocletian's persecution.