Devotio was the extreme form of the votum (sacrifice, promise or gift to a deity in return for a request), in which the Roman commander promised to devote his life to underground (chthonic) deities in battle with the enemy in return for the victory of their own troops.
Devotio – Lives for the Motherland
Devotio differed from votum in that its object was a human life, and the completion of the vow (that is, the death of the person making the devotio) was before the fulfilment of the expected from the deity favours, consisting also in the annihilation of the life of people (the enemy) whose death was wished by the person taking the oath.
Devotio could have been a form of consecratio, a ritual that involved sacrificing something to a deity. Devotio was sometimes interpreted as sacrificing a human being. The ritual was closely related to the war and expressed the heroic ethics and mysticism of the fight – a heroic gift of one’s life for the state (rei publici) and for victory.
The devotio rite was performed in exceptional circumstances when the battle took a very bad turn. The man who was going to devotio had to do it entirely of his own free will – no one could be forced to sacrifice himself because it was felt that it would not have had the proper effect and would even anger the gods. Usually, devotio was completed by an army commander (magistratus cum imperio). He was responsible for the troops, so he should do everything in his power to ensure victory and prevent defeat. If the legions were headed by a consul, the highest official of the republic, his responsibility was even greater, as he also represented the entire state. The people who devotio were considered heroes and went down in history (like two Decius consuls – Decii).
The most comprehensive description of this ritual is left to us by the historian of the Augustan era – Titus Livius. A Roman historian of the 1st century BCE created during the rule of Octavian Augustus and his religious reforms to replace the old-fashioned and traditional canons of religion. It is certain that devotio was not an invention of Augustus and the rite was preserved in the books of Pontiffs, from where Livius probably drew his knowledge.
Devotio – other forms
It is worth adding that another kind of devotio was sacrificing your own life in exchange for saving another person. This was the case at the end of CE 37 when Emperor Caligula became seriously ill. Apparently, there were people who were ready to give their own lives so that the emperor would recover1.
Interestingly, over time the word devotio also took the form of a magical ritual intended to harm or kill another person. Tacitus uses the term devotiones and refers to the mysterious poisoning Germanicus2.
Another form of votum is also worth mentioning – the so-called evocatio, when by committing certain rituals, attempts were made to win over a foreign deity, e.g. during a city siege. In this way, the Romans persuaded secret beings to go to their side, promising a worthy temple and worship.
What was the devotio ritual like before the battle?
The ritual of sacrifice was strictly defined and was carried out by the accompanying pontifex (priest) army. The person who was to give his life wore a garment called toga praetexta – a white toga with a purple stripe at the hem. Then she stood on a spear placed on the ground and repeated the words of the vow uttered by the priest. They emphasized that human death was to be a sacrifice for the homeland. All major Roman gods were invoked, beginning with Jupiter, Janus, Quirinus and the gods of war Mars and Bellona. Finally, the deities associated with death, the spirits of the underworld, as those who have power over the combatants (including the earth goddess Tellus and the spirits of their deceased ancestors) were addressed. The formula uttered to appease the gods was to be as follows.
Janus, Jupiter, father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, ye Lares, ye gods Novensiles, ye gods Indigetes, ye divinities, under whose power we and our enemies are, and ye dii Manes, I pray you, I adore you, I ask your favour, that you would prosperously grant strength and victory to the Roman people, the Quirites; and that ye may affect the enemies of the Roman people, the Quirites, with terror, dismay, and death. In such manner as I have expressed in words, so do I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself, to the dii Manes and to Earth for the republic of the Quirites, for the army, legions, auxiliaries of the Roman people, the Quirites.
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, VIII 8.9.6-8.9.8
After completing the ritualistic activities, the person performing devotio set off on his own (usually on horseback) and attacked his formation. The moment he died at the hands of his opponents, a curse fell on enemy troops, leading to their defeat. The commander, by sacrificing his life, sealed the fate of the enemy army, which was to follow him to the land of the dead.
All elements of the devotio ritual were strictly defined. It even foresees what to do in case of failure. If a self-sacrificing general survived a suicide attack on enemy troops (though it was practically impossible), he could no longer sacrifice to the gods or hold public office in the Republic.
In addition, the spear on which the commander stood while pronouncing the vow was important. It was absolutely to be defended, and if it fell into the hands of enemies, it was to be sacrificed to Mars atone for a pig, a ram, and a bull.
Examples of devotio from source
One of the best-described devotio examples are the sacrifices of the generals under Veseris and the Sentinum. The stories were described by Titus Livius and, interestingly, members of the same family, father and son, gave their lives; both of them were called Publius Decius Mus. The first was killed in 340 BCE and the second in 295 BCE
Battle of Veseris (340 BCE)
In 340 BCE, Publius Decius Mus and Titus Manlius Torquatus became consuls of Rome. In the same year there was a war with the Latin Union. According to Livy, in the vicinity of the city of Capua, both consuls had a dream that indicated the victory of this army, whose leader would give his life to mother Earth and the gods of the underworld. The consuls consulted their dreams with haruspices and agreed with the soldiers that in the event of an imminent defeat on one of the wings, the consul commanding here would give his life in the form of devotio.
Ultimately, there was a battle with the Latins at Veseris (also known as the Battle of Vesuvius). At some point, Decius noticed that his troops were losing. So he decided to sacrifice his life; for this, he asked pontifex to conduct a ritual. Then he threw himself into the crowd of enemies, causing great panic there. The opponents fled, considering him mad and afraid to face him. In the end, they killed him with javelins, but the suicide attack shocked them so much that they did not even come close to the consul’s body. After Decius’ death, the Romans began to win and they won the battle.
This is how Livius describes the event:
Having uttered this prayer, he [Decius – author] orders the lictors to go to Titus Manlius, and without delay to announce to his colleague that he had devoted himself for the army. He, girding himself in a Gabine cincture, and fully armed, mounted his horse, and rushed into the midst of the enemy. He was observed by both armies to present a more majestic appearance than human, as one sent from heaven as an expiation of all the wrath of the gods, to transfer to the enemy destruction turned away from his own side: accordingly, all the terror and panic being carried along with him, at first disturbed the battalions of the Latins, then completely pervaded their entire line. This was most evident, because, in whatever direction he was carried with his horse, there they became panic-stricken, as if struck by some pestilential constellation; but when he fell overwhelmed with darts, instantly the cohorts of the Latins, thrown into manifest consternation, took to flight, leaving a void to a considerable extent. At the same time also the Romans, their minds being freed from religious dread, exerting themselves as if the signal was then given for the first time, commenced to fight with renewed ardour. For the Rorarii also pushed forward among the antepilani, and added strength to the spearmen and principes, and the Triarii resting on the right knee awaited the consul’s nod to rise up.
– Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, VIII, 9
Almost 3/4 of the enemy army was killed or taken into Roman captivity.
Battle of Sentinum (295 BCE)
Another devotio incident was at Sentinum in 295 BCE Publius Decius Mus (son) sacrificed himself when the wing of the army he commanded began to lose to the Gauls.
Publius, in addition to pronouncing the father’s formula, added more spells to the death vow.
Fear and flight, death and blood, I carry the wrath of the heavenly and underground gods before me, curse my doom on enemy banners, missiles and weapons, and the place of my death will be the place of destruction of the Gauls and Samnites.
– Titus Livius, The history of Rome since the foundation of the city, 10.28.16-10.28.17
Having said these words, Decius Mus, just like his father, mounted a horse, broke through the retiring Roman legionaries and moved into the centre of the enemy infantry. Livy reports that at the same moment as the Roman consul ran into the enemy’s weapons, the scales of victory turned to the Romans.
The Polish historian Krzysztof Kościek considers this devotio as the only historical one.
Ultimately, the Romans won the battle, leaving about 8,700 fallen legionaries on the battlefield, obliterating 25,000 enemies and enslaving another 8,000.
Battle of Asculum (279 BCE)
During the Pyrrhus invasion of Italy, another Decius – also Publius Decius Mus – was about to give his life, imitating his father and grandfather. The enemy armies met at Asculum. Decius was consul in 279 CE and commanded the Roman legions.
At one point in the army of the king of Epirus, news spread about a powerful ritual to doom Rome’s enemies, which seriously shook the morals. Pyrrhus, fearing a panic breakout during the battle, ordered all soldiers to be informed how the consul who was about to devotio would be dressed and forbade them to kill him. He sent a message to Decius, informing him that his attempt to perform the rite would fail and he would be taken prisoner. The consul resigned from the sacrifice3. According to Cicero, however, Decius was actually to die in the act of devotio, letting himself be hit by enemy arrows4.
Battle of Nis (269 CE)
The last known from devotio sources is the sacrifice of Claudius II Gothic at the battle of Niš (ancient Naissus) in CE 269. There are two versions of the Emperor’s death: either as a result of a plague or in connection with a sacrifice. The latter version was a kind of legend that grew up around the emperor and which led to his deification after his death. The emperor was supposed to offer his life to the gods in exchange for the victory over the Goths5. He would soon die of either the plague or smallpox.
Subsequent understanding of devotio and occurrence
The very name devotio means “sacrifice”. Originally used to denote heroic deed, lofty sacrifice, in the late Empire period, it changed its meaning, referring to the ordinary loyalty of a citizen to the state, and even to scrupulousness in paying tributes (devotio rei annonariae).
The French historian, Auguste Bouché-Leclercq, stated: “when Caesar was replaced by the Christian God, devotio simply means religiosity, faith and readiness to make all sacrifices, and then, due to the final degeneration of the expression, it means devotion in the common sense of the word, that is, constant striving for salvation combined with the meticulous and godly fulfilment of cult practices”.
The devotio ritual was not only performed by the Romans. There are also Greek stories and legends about such a ritual, incl. the figure of Menoeceus, who died during the siege of Thebes or the suicide fight in the Thermopylae ravine by Leonidas and the Spartans.