The Legend Of The Sacrificial Rivalry Between Titus Manlius Torquatus And Publius Decius Mus

Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (or simply Titus Manlius Torquatus) and Publius Decius Mus were the two Roman consuls who led Rome’s military in a campaign against the Latin League in 340 BCE. Rome had many advantages during the campaign. For one, the Roman military of the 4th century BCE was undergoing significant advancement and evolution. In fact, it was in describing this campaign of 340 BCE that the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), first started referencing the Roman Republic’s use of some of its famous military units, such as the hastati, principes, and triarii. In addition to its own growing military prowess, the Roman Republic was also allied to the powerful Samnites for the 340 BCE campaign. Despite these advantages, the Roman consuls, Manlius and Decius, were said to have been extremely nervous about the war. According to legend, much of the worry was due to a belief that Rome’s campaign was not supported by the gods.

As the pervasive atmosphere of worry and concern settled on Rome’s mustered army, the sleep of the two consuls began to be affected. Before long, Titus Manlius Torquatus and Publius Decius Mus were both supposedly having nightmares in which godly messengers were demanding that a Roman consul had to die for the Roman army to prove victorious during the campaign. Livy, the aforementioned Roman historian, described the legend of these dream visitations:

“[I]n the stillness of night, both consuls, it is said, were visited by the same apparition, that of a man of superhuman stature and majesty, who told them that a general on one side and the army on the other were due as an offering to the gods of the Underworld and to Mother Earth; if either army’s general should devote to death the enemy’s legions and himself in addition to them, victory would fall to the people on his side” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.6).

When Titus Manlius Torquatus and Publius Decius Mus reportedly realized that they had the same supernatural dreams and were given the same ominous message, they both agreed that one of them would have to undertake the ultimate sacrifice so that the Roman Republic would triumph. Nevertheless, each consul naturally thought the other man should be the one to volunteer. As the decision was going nowhere, the two consuls ultimately were said to have agreed to let their performance in the campaign decide who would be the sacrifice. The general whose respective wing of the army performed the poorest in battle would be the man whose life would be offered to the gods.

This pledge, so the story goes, was at the forefront of the minds of Titus Manlius Torquatus and Publius Decius Mus when they lined up the Roman army for battle at a site somewhere between Mount Vesuvius and Roccamonfina, Italy, in 340 BCE. The battle commenced and the two consuls began their competition that determined life or death. In the midst of the fray, Publius Decius Mus proved himself to be the more courageous and physically imposing of the two consuls, but, ironically, his wing of the army was said to have faltered while their commander shined. Acknowledging defeat in the competition with his fellow consul, Decius allegedly slipped away from the frontline and found a priest that had accompanied the army. The priest carried out an impromptu ceremony to devote Consul Decius to the gods. This ritual, performed during the battle, 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 was allowed to meet his end, weapon in hand, by charging into battle. Livy described the scene:

“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 the 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 first threw the line of standards into confusion and then penetrated deep into the entire Latin army…he finally fell beneath a rain of missiles…the consul Manlius heard of his colleague’s end, and paid to so memorable a death the well-merited tribute of tears as well as praise, as justice and piety demanded” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.9-10).

The great momentum generated by Publius Decius Mus’ charge lessened somewhat when the general was killed in battle, but Titus Manlius Torquatus was able to swoop in and steer the battle safely to a Roman victory. After the battle was over, the Romans located the body of Decius and gave him a hero’s funeral.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section of The Battle of Vercellae, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (c. 1696–1770), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).

 

Sources:

  • The (Early) History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
  • The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.

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