This painting, by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577 – 1640), was inspired by a legendary story from the history of the ancient Roman Republic. The scene is set in 340 BCE, when the consuls Publius Decius Mus and Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus were leading the forces of Rome in a war against the Latin League. According to legend, both consuls of Rome had dreams (or perhaps nightmares) in which godly messengers demanded that a Roman consul had to die if the Roman army wanted to be victorious during the campaign against the Latins. Naturally, neither of the consuls was eager at the moment to take one for the team, as it were. Despite their pre-battle impass, Publius Decius Mus and Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus did come to a morbid agreement—they decided that if the battle began to go bad for the Romans, fulfilling the dream’s orders would be the duty of the consul whose respective wing of the army was faltering. They also reportedly divulged this agreement to other officers of the Roman army, so that the officers could plan and prepare for the worst. On this, the ancient historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) wrote, “so they summoned the legates and tribunes and publicly announced the gods’ commands, hoping thereby that the army in the field would not be alarmed by a consul’s voluntary death. They then agreed together that on whichever flank the Roman army started to give way, the consul in command there should sacrifice himself…” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.6). It is this scene, of Publius Decius Mus bringing his officers into the loop, that Peter Paul Rubens re-creates in paint.
Unfortunately for Publius Decius Mus, when a battle ensued against the Latin coalition, it was his own wing of the Roman army that began to lose ground. Acknowledging defeat in the competition with his fellow consul, Decius allegedly slipped away from the frontline and found a nearby priest to conduct an impromptu ceremony to devote himself to the gods. This ritual, performed as the battle raged, allegedly required that Decius dress in a purple toga, stand on a spear, and recite a long speech about offering himself to the gods on behalf of Rome. With that, the preparations were done and the sacrifice could reach its conclusion. Publius Decius Mus, however, would not end his life like a sacrificial animal. Instead, he met his end, weapon in hand, by charging into battle, where he fought to the death against the Latins. After Decius’ sacrifice, the surviving consul Titus Manlius Torquatus was able to swoop in and steer the battle safely to a Roman victory.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.