Coin Relief 46 – Trajan Decius and family

Welcome to another edition of Coin Relief. In this issue, Andrew Brown discusses the coinage of Trajan Decius and his family.

Trajan Decius and family, AD 249-251

Trajan Decius and his wife Herennia Etruscilla

In an effort to restore stability along the Danube, particularly as a result of Gothic incursion, Philip I placed the legions there under the command of Quintus Decius Valerianus as governor of the provinces of Moesia and Pannonia. Decius was a native of Pannonia Inferior, from near Sirmium (in modern day Serbia), and had held office as a senator, consul in AD 232, and as governor of Moesia, Germania Inferior, and Hispania Tarraconensis, as well as urban prefect in Rome under Philip. While Philip’s plan to resolve the issue of invading Goths was a success in that Decius was able to restore a little stability and quell potential rebellion brought about by the likes of Pacatianus, the trade-off was that the legions on the Danube put their support behind Decius and declared him emperor. The armies of the two men apparently met at Beroea in Macedonia during the autumn of AD 249, with Philip killed in battle and Decius assuming the purple – if we are to follow Zosimus this seems to have been with some reluctance though (Zosimus I.22).

Upon becoming emperor, Decius adopted the name Traianus (Trajan) rather than using his full name of Gaius Messius Quintus Decius Valerianus. This was in part a recognition of his own origins and support base in the Danube region, but more importantly to create a link to, and out of respect for, the emperor Trajan who a century earlier had been instrumental in this region being incorporated into the Roman empire. Indeed, is it fascinating to see reflections of this in Decius’ coinage, where his links to Dacia, Pannonia, and Illyria generally are often reiterated on the reverse types issued. In one issue of coins at Rome (see below), eleven of the deified emperors that preceded him are honoured, potentially providing him an important association to Rome and the empire. These strong links created in particular with one of the greatest of Roman emperors and with the legions and peoples of the Danube region who brought him to power were no doubt designed to secure his position.

Decius’ rule was not just confined to him as emperor, but was also shared with his immediate family through the creation of an Imperial dynasty that ultimately lasted little more than two years. Alongside Decius was his wife Herennia Etruscilla, a member of the Italian aristocracy, and with them two sons, Quintus Herennius Etruscus Messius Decius (Herennius
Etruscus) and Gaius Valens Hostilianus Messius Quintus (Hostilian).

Herennius Etruscus (left) and Hostilian (right), sons of Decius.

New incursions by the Goths in AD 250 led Decius to head back to the Danube on campaign taking with him the elder of the two sons, Herennius Etruscus, who in AD 250 was given the rank of Caesar. The younger Hostilian remained in Rome with his mother, later also rising to the position of Caesar, probably in AD 251 when his older brother was made augustus. Decius’ campaigns against the Goths met with some success initially (although not helped by the internal threat of new usurpers). However, in June AD 251, Decius became the first Roman emperor to be killed in battle at the hands of a foreign enemy when his legions were lured into a marshy battlefield at Abritus (Razgard, Bulgaria) and resoundingly defeated by the Gothic King Cniva. Herennius, too, was killed in the conflict alongside his father and in their place stepped the Roman general Trebonianus Gallus who assumed the mantle of Emperor. In some sources he is reported to have had a hand in or knowledge of the trap laid by the Goths that led to Decius’ defeat, although this is likely a later fabrication (we will look at Trebonianus in a later blog post). After the deaths of Decius and Herennius, Trebonianus Gallus adopted the young Caesar Hostilian and elevated him to augustus as co-ruler, but Hostilian did not see out the year after contracting plague in Rome in AD 251. Herennia remained augusta, but disappears into obscurity following the deaths of her sons.

In Rome Decius was able to affect some change, including the construction of baths and restoration of the Colosseum following a lightning strike. However, he appears to have been a very traditional and conservative man and is perhaps most remembered for his Imperial edict in January AD 250 that led to vicious and widespread persecution of Christians in particular.
The edict essentially required every inhabitant of the empire to make (pagan) sacrifice by a fixed date to the well-being of the emperor and the empire in front of a local magistrate. Certificates (libellus) were issued that testified to the individual’s completion of the sacrifice and loyalty to the empire and her ancestors. Those that did not or who refused were subject to torture and even execution. It seems as though this was not necessarily intended as a means of widespread persecution but rather to reinforce the traditions of Rome and her links to the past while ensuring empire-wide loyalty to the emperor. While also not aimed specifically at the Christian church, rather anyone who refused, the nature of the edict meant that many Christians did refuse to participate in sacrifice and were executed, amongst them the likes of Pope Fabian (AD 236-250). The persecution relaxed slightly the following year, but remained in the memory and had a long-standing impact on the Christian church.

Coins of Trajan Decius and family

Although Trajan Decius’ coinage does appear on the PAS in small quantity, as well as in hoarded assemblages (Cunetio, for example, has 54 coins of Decius and family), it is not hugely common. In total the PAS records 136 coins of this short-lived dynasty (Table 1), the bulk of which are base silver radiates with just 12 rare late bronze denominations (sestertii, dupondii, and asses). This includes 52 coins from the IARCW Welsh dataset. As might perhaps be expected, Decius himself is by far the most frequently seen with 82 coins (including 35 IARCW coins), followed by his wife Herennia with 28 coins (including 7 IARCW coins). The two sons are quite rare, the elder Herennius has just 16 coins (including 7 IARCW coins), while the young Hostilian whose coinage only appears under Decius in AD
251 has just 10 examples, three of which are from the IARCW dataset.

It is quite plausible there are other examples within the PAS material that have not as yet been identified, but in any case the short period of issue means that numbers are likely to remain low. Many are easily recognisable types, though, and it is important that these are fully recorded and with images on the database so that we can fully understand the volume and distribution of the material. When recording material from this period the standard references remain RIC IV Part 3 and also the Cunetio volume, whose relatively small assemblage of coins is quite representative of the material we see through the PAS. 

For the coinage of this period we are dealing essentially with two mints: Rome and Antioch. The principal mint producing coinage for Decius and his family was Rome, which struck in gold, silver, and bronze from six workshops. There are so far no examples of gold coinage from this period on the PAS but in any case this is not unexpected given that R. Bland and X. Loriot record no examples of gold coins in Britain struck between the reigns of Gordian III (AD 238-244) and Valerian I (AD 253-260). The bulk of the coinage recorded are base silver radiates that are either products of the Rome mint or their copies. Decius also reintroduced large bronze denominations, notably coins of sestertii size with radiate bust types that presumably represent a double sestertius – these are again rare, although there is at least one PAS example.

Coins from the Antioch mint are to date not represented amongst the PAS material, aside from a single coin of Hostilian  and an exceptional silver tetradrachm, not included in the totals above, which highlights the continued production during Decius’ reign of both silver denominations (radiates and tetradrachms) in the eastern mint. This had been
stimulated particularly under his predecessor Gordian III (AD 238-244) and in association with Roman military campaigns in the eastern provinces.

Tetradrachm of Trajan Decius, c.AD 249-51. Record ID KENT-904E25 (Kent County Council, License: CC-BY).

In RIC a third mint, at Milan, is suggested for coins with abbreviated obverse legends for Decius (for Decius see RIC IV.3, nos. 33-43, 77-100). However, these have since been reattributed by K. Elks to the later issues of the mint of Rome, a convention followed in Cunetio and adopted here too.

Trajan Decius (AD 249-251)

Decius’ coinage is not easy to date closely due to a lack of official titles in his coin legends that give, for example, any consul or tribunician years. However, in RIC a basic development of his coinage is provided based on the changing obverse legends as follows:

  • IMP TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG AD 249, adopting the same structure as the last issues of Philip I
  • IMP CAE TRA DEC AVG This is listed as Milan mint in RIC, but assumes the first of the last two issues in Rome with Elks’ study
  • IMP CAE TRA DECIVS AVG This legend is also Milan in RIC, but again transferred to the last of the Rome issues by Elks.

In addition to these main types there is also a rarely seen, but quite extensive consecration issue that commemorates the deified emperors the preceded him, with DIVO obverse and CONSCRATIO reverse legends. This issue too was likely struck at Rome and not Milan as recorded in RIC (nos. 77-98) and is rare amongst PAS finds (see below).

Be careful not to confuse Trajan Decius with Trajan! He adopts the title on assuming power in AD 249, but the radiate busts on the silver and the name Decius are the giveaway.

AD 249 issues – obverse legend IMP TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG

Radiate of Trajan Decius, c.AD 249. Record ID IOW-7D9737 (Isle of Wight Council, License: CC-BY-SA).

The first issues of Decius are taken to be those coins with the legend IMP TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG, since this is the same structure and format of the last issue of coins struck under his immediate predecessor Philip I (IMP PHILIPPVS AVG – RIC IV.3, p. 109). In RIC these are dated to c.AD 249 and are noted to be a small issue with a limited number of reverse types struck prior to Herennius Etruscus’ elevation to Caesar in AD 250. There were no coins of this issue amongst the Cunetio material and they are not common on the PAS either, with only three recorded examples (excluding IARCW coins). Although bronze is struck for this group, there are so far no PAS examples.

AD 249-251 issues – obverse legend IMP C M Q TRAIANVS DECIVS AVG

Radiate of Trajan Decius, c.AD 249-51. Record ID BM-8EF30D (The British Museum, License: CC-BY).

By far the most frequently seen group of coins for Decius has a slightly longer obverse legend that includes his title of C for caesar and abbreviations of his personal names M(essius) and Q(uintus). Twenty-seven of his radiates on the PAS database (excluding IARCW material) carry this longer legend, along with all of the bronze coinage that can be closely identified (a total of 6 coins, excluding IARCW data). This reflects the pattern seen in Cunetio, too, where radiates with the IMP C M Q legend type comprise 19 of the 22 recorded coins for Decius. The number of reverse types is again limited and for the PAS material at least just seven different types are seen in the silver coinage.

Alongside the radiates there are a total of six bronze coins for Decius that belong to this issue of coins – all of the identifiable bronze issues of Decius on the PAS database (excluding IARCW coins). One of the largest bronze coins recorded through the PAS is a coin introduced by Decius in an attempt to reform the Roman coinage. This is likely a double sestertius that weighed up to about 41g, denoted as a double not just by its size and weight, but also the presence of the radiate crown on the bust type in much the same way the dupondius was likely a double as or the radiate a double denarius. There is only one example of this type on the PAS database.

As of Trajan Decius, c.AD 249-51. Record ID PUBLIC-D4BA05 (Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY).

For the smaller bronze denominations, it is notable that four out of the five identifiable coins have the same Liberalitas reverse type, with just a single coin depicting Victory. Bronze coinage in general is not common for this period, but it is interesting that the same types are repeated even if their distribution doesn’t suggest restricted circulation in one part of the province.

AD 249-251 issues – obverse legend IMP CAE TRA DEC AVG and IMP CAE TRA DECIVS AVG

Although coins bearing these abbreviated obverse legends were initially catalogues in RIC as products of a third mint, presumed to be Milan, Elks’ study of this issue shifted them to the later phases of production at the Rome mint. These are not common coins on the PAS, with just three radiates recorded (excluding IARCW coins) all with the same Genius reverse type. Interestingly, this mirrors quite well the material from Cunetio, where the two official coins from this later series are also the same Genius type (Cunetio nos. 322-323).

Radiate of Trajan Decius, c. Ad 249-51. Record ID WMID-4132A6 (Birmingham Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

AD 250-251(?) Consecration/Divi issues

Within the last issues of the mint of Rome are an unusual group of consecration issues that commemorate eleven of the deified emperors that preceded Decius (interestingly including Commodus, but not, for example, the likes of Claudius or Tiberius). All have similar format in that they depict the deified emperor on the obverse, with legend beginning DIVO, followed by a reverse with legend reading CONSECRATIO and types depicting eagles or altars.

This is an unusual series of coins and not something really seen since the large restoration issues of the likes of Titus or Trajan (albeit these too slightly different in their composition). It has been variously suggested that the divi issues could have been designed to provide a direct link between Decius and the deified emperors and thus give his rule a sense of divine legitimacy and stability, as a means of him reframing his own rise to power, a representation of the traditions and nature of imperial power, or alternatively perhaps even to compensate previous emperors whose coins were overstruck during Decius reign (see further below).

Radiate of Trajan Decius, divi issue commemorating Antoninus Pius. Record ID NMGW-23DC38 (National Museum Wales, License: CC-BY-SA).

Whatever the case, they are not common as British finds and there are only two PAS examples, one commemorating Antoninus Pius and a second possible example for Vespasian that appears to be a contemporary plated copy.

Herennia Etruscilla (AD 249-251)

Alongside the coinages struck by Trajan Decius were those of his wife Herennia Etruscilla, which appear in tandem to those of Decius probably from the beginning of his reign and likely the products of at least one of the six operating workshops at the mint of Rome. These are less common than coins of Decius himself – there were just 17 examples in Cunetio and the PAS has very few more with just 17 radiates, one sestertius and three asses (excluding seven IARCW coins). All are products of the mint of Rome and as with Decius’ coinage, Elks’ analysis of the coinage places types listed as products of Milan in RIC within the later phases of production at Rome.

Radiate of Herennia Etruscilla, AD 249-251. Record ID LVPL-02C065 (National Museum Liverpool, License: CC-BY-SA).

For the radiates, the standard obverse legend is HER ETRVSCILLA AVG with two bust types based on the treatment of Herennia’s hair, one with straight hair, the other with hair in ridges – this distinction is perhaps best outlined in the structure of the Cunetio hoard report where they are separated out unlike in RIC. On the bronze types, a longer obverse legend appears, typically reading HERENNIA ETRVSCILLA AVG.

Pudicitia is a common motif on the coinages of the Imperial women as the concept of modesty for the wife of the emperor, the chief priest of Rome. Coins depicting Pudicitia are by far the most commonly seen on Herennia’s coinage on the PAS and were similarly well represented within the Cunetio hoard comprising 11 of the 17 coins. Aside from the examples
noted above, a further four radiates depicting Pudicitia standing are also recorded on the database but the distinction between straight or ridged hair is not possible to identify either due to their preservation or lack of images. The total number of coins with either the seated or standing Pudicitia type for Herennia therefore comes to 14 of the 17 radiates represented. Only four bronze coins of Herennia are recorded on the PAS, one sestertius (lacking an image) and three asses. As with Decius, bronze of this period is not common and so it is perhaps not surprising that there are so few coins of Herennia. The types represented within the PAS data reflect those seen on the radiates, with all but one of the asses depicting Pudicitia.

Herennius Etruscus (AD 250-251)

Radiate of Herennius Etruscus, c.AD 250-51. Record ID WMID-BEFBD6 (Birmingham Museums Trust, License: CC-BY-SA).

Coins appear for Herennius Etruscus once he is made Caesar by Decius, probably in AD 250, and last until the following year when he was killed in battle alongside his father. There are essentially two divisions of Herennius’ coinage. The majority are issues of Herennius as caesar in AD 250-251, followed by a rare, short-lived issue of coins following his elevation to augustus in AD 251. There are no PAS examples of Herennius as augustus and none were identified within the Cunetio material, although there are examples amongst the 270 coins of Herennius in the Dorchester Hoard. The PAS records just nine coins of Herennius Etruscus (excluding seven IARCW coins), all radiates and of the mint of Rome, with types that reflect his position as the junior emperor and ‘prince of the youth’.

The radiates of Herennius as Caesar should not be confused with those of his father, despite the use of DECIVS in the obverse legend. The Q at the start of the legend and NOB C to denote his position as the noble Caesar rather than the augustus are useful indicators that this is Herennius rather than Decius. A change does occur in his coinage as augustus, however, with the addition of IMP and AVG in the obverse legends, again the Q HER near or at the start of the legend are key.

Radiate of Herennius Etruscus. BM: 1844,0425.2227 (Trustees of The British Museum).

This coin from the British Museum collection demonstrates his shift to augustus, with obverse legend containing his full titles and names Q(uintus) HER(ennius) ETR(uscus) MES(sius). The reverse type, with VICTORIA GERMANICA legend, relates to a ‘German’ victory that is likely a reference to campaigns on the Danube (around modern Bulgaria) against the Goths later in 250 and in the spring of AD 251 that, while including some
successes, ultimately led to the deaths of both Herennius and his father.

Hostilian (AD 251)

For the youngest son, Hostilian, coinage probably does not appear until c.AD 251 once he was made Caesar – a little time after his older brother had been given the same rank prior to heading off on campaign in the Danube region. Hostilian was still Caesar at the time of his father’s death in AD 251, so all of the coinage that appears for him under Decius is as Caesar. Once Trebonianus Gallus assumes power in AD 251, however, Hostilian is elevated to co-ruler with the title of augustus. This may perhaps have been to help smooth the transition of power, with Herennia also remaining augusta, but the young adopted emperor did not last long into Gallus’ reign, succumbing to plague in the summer of AD 251. Rare coins of Hostilian as augustus are known and date to the reign of Trebonianus Gallus in AD 251, but there are so far no PAS examples. Of the seven radiates for Hostilian recorded to date on the PAS, six are from the mint of Rome with a single eastern example from the Antioch mint.

Radiate of Hostilian, c.AD 251. Record ID ASHM-D8A016 (Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology, License: CC-BY).

Copies, mules, and hybrids

One thing to look out for in this period generally are the appearance of contemporary copies of both the radiate and bronze denominations, as well as a number of potential mules or hybrids where obverse and reverse types of one or more ruler have been muddled on the same coin. Indeed, there are examples of earlier denarii that have been overstruck with radiate types for Trajan Decius, perhaps as a means to secure the raw materials for striking new coin or alternatively to remove the earlier denarii from circulation. There do not appear at present to be any clear examples of this practice within the PAS material, but it is possible others will turn up or are hidden amongst the coins still to be edited within the database.

Radiate of Trajan Decius, c.AD 249-251, overstruck on a denarius of Caracalla. BM: 1991,0149.7 (Trustees of The British Museum).

Perhaps more common are copies that combine obverses and reverses of different rulers, for which there are multiple examples noted in RIC not just for Decius but also Herennia and the two sons. There are a number of PAS examples that demonstrate this, often the coin types being quite base or plated copies. It is important to remember when recording these on the
PAS database that they need to remain in Reece Period 12, their period of issue, but to note in both the description and numismatic fields that these are contemporary copies.

References and further reading:

R. Bland ‘From Gordian III to the Gallic Empire (AD 238-274)’ in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage (Oxford, 2012): Chapter 28

R. Bland and X. Loriot Roman and Early Byzantine Gold Coins found in Britain and Ireland (Spink,

K.J.J. Elks ‘Reattribution of the Milan Coins of Trajan Decius to the Rome Mint’, NC 12, 1972: 111-115