This painting, created in the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1577 – 1640), was inspired by the history and folklore of the ancient Roman Republic. The scene is set in 340 BCE, when the consuls Publius Decius Mus and Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus led the forces of Rome in a war against the Latin League. According to legend, omens for the campaign were mixed. Interpreters of heavenly signs predicted that Rome could win the war, but that the life of one of Rome’s consuls would be the price of victory. Accepting these omen readings, the consuls allegedly committed their lives to the hands of Fate, and decided to fight with wild abandon during the upcoming battle.
When the Romans and the Latin League met in a pitched battle during the campaign of 340 BCE, both Publius Decius Mus and Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus were present on the battlefield. During the battle, Publius Decius Mus’ wing began to struggle, but this only made the consul fight with more boldness and disregard for his own safety. In fact, Decius decided to fully embrace the role of a human sacrifice. He 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. His heroic end was described by the historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), who wrote:
“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
- 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.