This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD

Patrick Lynch - February 4, 2018

The Battle of Abritus in 251 AD is seldom seen as anything more than a footnote in the history of the Roman Empire. The fact that it occurred in the midst of the chaotic Third Century Crisis also means its importance is overlooked. However, it was a noteworthy encounter because it was the only battle to claim the lives of two Roman emperors. Decius and his son, Herennius Etruscus, both died and were also the first Roman emperors to be killed by a foreign enemy.

Although the Third Century Crisis had already occurred upon the death of Alexander Severus in 235, the death of two rulers on the same day only increased the level of instability within the empire. The annihilation at Abritus, and the subsequent acquiescence to Gothic demands placed the empire under serious strain. Matters were made worse by the Plague of Cyprian which lasted over a decade and at its peak, claimed 5,000 lives a day. By 270, the empire was on the verge of collapse and was only saved by the military brilliance of Emperor Aurelian.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
Bust of Maximinus Thrax – Wikipedia


In 238, Emperor Maximinus Thrax began paying annual subsidies to the more aggressive barbarian tribes north of the Danube. It was nothing more than a temporary measure, and when Philip the Arab (Emperor from 244—249) ceased making payments, it contributed to a great deal of unrest. The issue was exacerbated by the increased movement of new tribes which had been prevalent since the reign of Alexander Severus.

At this time in Roman history, the role of emperor was a dangerous one. Maximinus Thrax and Gordian III were murdered while Philip the Arab was deposed by Decius. If an emperor angered the military, he was removed in favor of someone else in the age of the ‘Barracks Emperor.’

Decius had not been in power long when a Gothic chieftain by the name of Cniva led a coalition of tribes on an invasion in 250. He crossed the Danube at Novae with an estimated 70,000 troops which consisted of Goths, Basternae, Taifali, Vandals, and Carpi. It was an impressive feat for one man to unite all these peoples but they were together in their mission to pillage, plunder, and murder as much as they could. The invading force was probably divided into two columns.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
Statue believed to be Herennius Etruscus – Alchetron

The first, comprised of an estimated 20,000 men, unsuccessfully attempted besieged the city of Marcianopolis before trying to lay siege to Philippopolis. Meanwhile, Cniva led the second column as far as Novae in 251, but his army was repelled by General Trebonianus Gallus, the future emperor of Rome. Rather than trying to gain immediate revenge, Cniva wisely avoided another conflict with the talented Gallus and elected to besiege Nicopolis ad Istrum. As was the case with the other sieges, it was not successful.

Although Decius arrived and drove the enemy away from the city of Nicopolis, he crucially failed to press home his advantage, and Cniva and his army were able to retreat without sustaining significant damage. Decius’ ineffectual command was to prove costly as the barbarian enemies led him to his doom.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
One of the 35 towers at the Roman fortress of Abritus – Archaeology in Bulgaria

Disaster at Philippopolis

Rather than being downhearted by his failure at Nicopolis, Cniva and his army marched north, causing as much havoc and destruction as possible. While Decius pursued the enemy, he didn’t make inroads and elected to rest his army after an exhausting march. This was just the opportunity that Cniva was waiting for. He launched a surprise attack on the Romans and forced a disorganized retreat. The Roman army sustained significant losses while Decius and his generals had to flee with the remnants of their men. Cniva was able to gather the weapons and supplies left by the panicked enemy and continued marching, this time south, towards Philippopolis.

As the Romans were still in the process of regrouping, Cniva took the opportunity to lay siege to the city. Unlike the previous siege attempts, the barbarians were successful in capturing Philippopolis. The city was defended by a small Thracian army led by Titus Julius Priscus. The inhabitants of the city declared him as emperor to provide him with authority to make a deal with the enemy. Eventually, Priscus agreed to surrender if Cniva guaranteed the safety of the people. However, the Goths reneged on the agreement. As soon as the gates opened, Cniva and his men looted the city, massacred the inhabitants and burned it. There is no record of what happened to Priscus though it is likely that he was murdered.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
The field where the Battle of Abritus supposedly took place – Brewminate

Let Battle Commence

Decius finally reorganized his army and once again pursued the Goths. He was accompanied by his son, Herennius Etruscus, and Gallus. Herennius had been made co-emperor at the start of 251, but he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it. When Cniva heard that the Romans were in hot pursuit, he ended the retreat and positioned his army in a marshy part of a river valley close to the city of Abritus. It seems as if Cniva was familiar with the area and specifically chose it to lure the Romans into a trap.

There is a suggestion that Decius chose the battlefield because there was flat terrain which would have proved advantageous to the Romans. Decius had been a governor in Moesia Inferior so he would have known the terrain. However, he made a critical error by following the enemy to a site preferred by Cniva. The Gothic leader divided his forces into between three and seven units (the number varies according to the source). He placed his front line on the swamp’s far side and another unit behind it, Cniva chose to lead the rear unit. He also put other divisions on both sides of the battlefield, but they were obscured by his long front line.

Once Decius had heard that the Goths had paused, he wanted to mimic the enemy’s successful attack after the siege of Nicopolis. It was a terrible blunder because the moment he marched his army to the swampy terrain chosen by Cniva, he was playing into the hands of the enemy. To make matters worse, he organized his army in typical battle formation, a tactic anticipated by Cniva who had another trick up his sleeve.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
Statue of Gallus – Wikipedia

A Complete Rout

Legend has it that Herennius was killed by an arrow before the pitched battle. Although it must have been heartbreaking for Decius, the emperor tried to act like it was irrelevant. According to Aurelius Victor and Jordanes, Decius addressed his troops and said: “Let no one mourn. The death of one soldier is not a great loss to the Republic.” Some sources claim that Herennius actually died in battle with his father.

In any case, Decius led a foolhardy charge against the Gothic front line. They retreated through the swamp in what was a pre-ordained measure designed to lull the Romans into a false sense of security. Cniva’s plan was a spectacular success as the overconfident Romans believed the battle was a rout and blindly followed the enemy. They soon found themselves in the midst of thick swamp and had no idea what to do next. Soon, their formations disintegrated into chaos as panic ensued. The marshy terrain slowed the Romans to a halt, and now, they were ripe for slaughter.

Cniva launched a devastating attack from three sides and destroyed the vast majority of the Roman army. According to 12th century, Byzantine chronicler, Zonaras, Decius and his son and “a large number of Romans fell into the marshland; all of them perished there, none of their bodies to be found, as they were covered in mud.” Gallus survived the slaughter, was declared emperor on the battlefield, and led the remainder of the army in a retreat. He was criticized for not rescuing survivors and laughably, for not pursuing the Goths. Whatever about helping Roman captives, another attack on the Goths would have been akin to a suicide mission.

This is How Two Roman Emperors Brutally Died During the Same Battle in 251 AD
Ruins near Abritus – Wikiwand


Gallus is also accused of cowardice because he negotiated a treaty with the Goths instead of continuing to fight. As well as allowing Cniva and his men to keep the booty they had plundered, Gallus agreed to pay them an annual tribute. In reality, the mess the Romans were in meant Gallus had little choice but to give in to the Gothic demands in the short term. Despite the treaty signed in 251, the barbarian tribes continued to raid Lower Moesia.

Like every other emperor in the Third Century Crisis, Gallus was at the mercy of the military, and they soon began to lose faith in their leader. Once Aemilianus defeated the invaders in 253, he was declared emperor, and he marched on Italy to stake his claim to the throne. After suffering defeat in a battle, Gallus was murdered by his own troops in August 253. The Goths continued to be a problem until Emperor Aurelian defeated them conclusively in 271 in a battle that claimed the life of the Gothic king, Cannobaudes.

Given the fact that Decius was certainly an able commander, it is hard to fathom why he followed the Goths into that swamp when it would have been wiser to remain on flatter terrain. Perhaps he was mindful of the importance of the military on the role of emperor and wanted a decisive victory to solidify his rule. Whatever the reason, it was arguably the worst defeat suffered by Rome since Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, and it was another sign that the Roman Empire was in terminal decline.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Roman Military Disasters: Dark Days & Lost Legions – Paul Chrystal

Roman-Goth Battle of Abritus (251 CE) Battlefield Identified Near Bulgaria’s Dryanovets – Ivan Dikov in Brewminate

The Battle of Abritus – Ancient History Encyclopedia

The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine – Patricia Southern

The Roman Empire at Bay AD 180-395 – David S. Potter

Epitome historiarum – Joannes Zonaras