Reading a piece on the Huffington Post (I only go there for the articles, honestly) led me to wonder about a figure identified, with typical HuffPo understatedness as “Trump ‘Intellect’ Unmasked,” an individual called Michael Anton. What I found most interesting was not his writings (because I’ve already had enough of that sort of writing for several lifetimes), but the pseudonym under which he chose to write, in 2016, pieces defending various aspects of Administration’s agenda. That pseudonym, as you may by now have read, was Publius Decius Mus.
The name was only vaguely familiar to me; as most of my studies dealt with the later Roman Empire, I didn’t read a lot of the history of the early Republic. But what struck me immediately was that mus, amusingly, is Latin for “mouse.” As I started thinking about the name, it occurred to me to wonder: why choose that name, in particular? Using famous Latinate names has a pedigree in American political writing; the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, some of the greatest documents in American history that no bugger has read, were written under names like Brutus, Cato, and Publius. Granted, that was two hundred thirty-odd years ago, when there was more chance that a literate person might have read the classics, at least enough to get the reference in a newspaper. Nevertheless, what is significant about Decius that he was worth name-checking as a pseudonym in the 21st century? Surely there’s more to it than the HuffPo writer’s simple identification as “a self-sacrificing Roman consul?” It turns out that, yes, there is.
Out came the trusty Oxford Classical Dictionary. Under the name Decius (remember, Roman family names are in the middle, so our mousey friend was a member of the gens Decia), however, there were three entries for Publius Decius Mus, a grandfather-father-son trio from the mid-fourth to the early third centuries B.C.E. Based on the references cited, I went to the relevant volume of the history of Livy, and read the accounts of these three men.
First, a bit of background. Livy (59 B.C.E. – 17 C.E.) wrote in the time of unrest at the founding of the Roman Empire, under Augustus. His intention, as far as anyone can now know, was to codify and legitimise Roman history, to present a unified version that worked in concert with the new order imposed by Augustus. He says:
“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind, for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
– Livy, Ab Urbe Conditia Libri, Book I, 1 (trans. de Selincourt)
While Livy compiled his history from a variety of sources now lost to us, he also did so enthusiastically, for he loved his subject and wanted his writing to serve as a moral compass for Rome and Romans. Not all of the books of his history have come down to us (regrettably), but those that have give us a broad and rich view of a vast swath of Roman history.
To consolidate their power on the Italian peninsula, Romans went to war against the other inhabitants (too many to name here). In the mid-to-late 300s, Roman conquests were looking eastward, as Rome consolidated its grip. A consul (the highest elected political office of ancient Rome, consuls were elected annually in pairs) of the old Plebian family Decia, Decius was involved in the prosecution of the Roman war against the Samnites, an eastern territory. As consuls were also military commanders-in-chief, they led the troops into battle.
Long story short, the battle didn’t go as well as hoped, until Decius made an incredibly self-sacrificing (or glory-seeking, depending on how he saw his chances) move: he pledged himself and his troops under the religious auspisces of devotio. Devotio was an extreme form of a promise made to a god (or vota). Basically, the devotio pledge is one in which you pledge to sacrifice your life, and the lives of your men, in exchange for victory. We get our word devotion in English from this source, although it usually doesn’t mean that we intend to get ourselves speared. As the story goes, Decius, having made this pledge, swarms into battle, dies, but saves the day. (“And the people rejoiced…”)
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t the first time that Livy tells the story. He uses it again for Decius’s son (also called Publius Decius Mus), who died at the battle of Sentinum in 295 B.C.E. (Livy, Book X, 28). Writing in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the historian E.T. Salmon suggested that in fact, the story of the son’s was the more likely of the two versions. But, because history is weird, there’s actually a third version, attributed to Decius the Second’s son, predictably also called Publius Decius Mus, who is said in Plutarch (in his life of Pyrrhus) and in the history of Dio Halicarnassus to have died under the same conditions, at yet another battle.
So there are in fact three Consuls called Decius, and all of them are said to have undertaken the devotio, although historians generally agree that this is hyperbolic and assume that it was only one: Livy, remember, was trying to make a big, moral, theatrical point. Anyway, three in one family starts to look like martyrdom, or incredible carelessness. But where does that get us? I have a suggestion to make. In Book VIII, while still talking about Decius senior (if you will), Livy discusses some of the rules surrounding the practise of devotio. At the end of this passage, he remarks (rather snidely, one feels):
“These details [of devotio] I have thought it appropriate to repeat, in the very words in which they were formulated and handed down, although the memory of every practice, religious and secular, has been effaced by our preference for all that is new and foreign in place of what is native and traditional.”
— Livy, Ab Urbe Conditia Libri, Book VIII, 11 (trans. Radice)
And there, it seems, is all the intellectual underpinning that you need to call yourself Decius, and to rail angrily against that greatest of bug-bears… change. All of history is change: populations moving, discoveries being made, worlds being uprooted and even, perhaps, getting better. By calling yourself Decius, by seeking to emulate a relatively obscure Roman who died 2,300 years ago, and pledging yourself to a deity, in order to gain victory: how many people are supposed to understand that? What’s the — may the gods help me — “target audience?” Where is the subtext supposed to be most effective… a roomful of Classicists from the 19th century? Or is it out of smug, smirking self-satisfaction, wondering who could possibly crack the code? I’d be the first to say that people should learn more history, but only so they don’t go electing a bunch of damn fools.
However, it’s possible that Livy also contains an answer, in that part that quoted at the very beginning: the study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind. Maybe some of these people should read some more history, especially if they think that they already know it all (when so clearly that is not the case). Learn history, so you don’t end up on the wrong side of it, perhaps. And whether it does any good or not, at least if they’re reading, they won’t be doing.
And for the Viewer-in-Chief himself, can some cable news outlet get cracking on an adaptation of Livy’s History of Rome? Please do plant the idea in his head that real leaders pledge their lives to the gods and then plunge into battle. The sooner, the better.
Hammond, N.G.L. and H.H. Scullard. The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, 1970.
Livy. The Early History of Rome. Penguin Books, 1971.
— Rome and Italy. Penguin Books, 1982.