Devotio was an extreme form of votum (sacrifice, promise or gift to a deity in exchange for a request), according to which the Roman commander promised to devote his life to the underground (chthonic) deities in the battle with an enemy in exchange for winning his own troops. This act of oath differed from votum in that its subject was a human life, and the completion of the oath (i.e. death of the submitting devotio) occurred before the fulfilment of the favours expected from the deity on the annihilation of the lives of people (public enemies) whose death was desired by the vow. The most extensive description of the described ritual was given to us by the historian of the Augustus era – Livy.
Livy introduced the prayer formulas necessary to perform devotio. The historian created during the reign of Octavian Augustus and his religious innovations that were to replace old-fashioned and traditional canons of religion. Certainly, devotio was not August’s invention, and the rite was preserved in pontifical books. What is characteristic of the archaic period of Rome, the text of the oath is repeated and chaotic, which was not an indicator of the Ovid era – then the religious content had a poetic and unusually composed form.
Devotio could have been a form of consecratio, a ritual that implied sacrificing something to a deity. Devotio was sometimes interpreted as sacrificing a human being. Devotio is an ancient Roman ritual associated with war, expressing heroic ethics and mysticism of fighting – a heroic gift of his own life for the state (rei publici) and for victory
The rite of devotio was performed in emergency situations when the battle took a very bad turn. The man who was supposed to do devotio had to do it entirely of his own free will, nobody could be forced to sacrifice himself because it was thought that it would not have had the appropriate effect then, and even angered the gods. Mostly devotio was completed by army commander (magistratus cum imperio). He was responsible for the army, so he should do everything in his power to secure victory and save them from defeat. If the legions were headed by a consul, the highest official of the republic, then his responsibility was even greater – for the whole state. People who did devotio were considered heroes and went down in history (like the two consuls of the Decius family – Decii).
The ritual of sacrifice was strictly defined and was complemented by the army accompanying pontifex (priest). The person to give his life was wearing a dress called the toga praetexta – a white toga with a purple stripe on the edge. Then she stood on the ground spear and repeated the words of the vow spoken by the priest. They emphasized that this man’s death would be a sacrifice for his homeland. It was like a litany – all major Roman gods were called, starting with Jupiter, Janus, Quirinus and the god of war Mars, and finally the underground gods (goddess of the land of Tellus and Mans). Finally, the deities associated with death, the spirits of the underworld, were the ones who had power over the warriors. The formula spoken to appease the gods was (according to the message of Titus Livy):
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.
– Livy, Ab urbe condtia, VIII 8.9.6-8.9.8
After completing the ritual activities, the executing devotio went alone on the enemy (usually on horseback) and rushed at his formation. The moment he died at the hands of his opponents, a curse that led to their defeat fell upon them. The sacrifice, sacrificing his life, sealed the fate of the enemy army that was to follow him to the land of the dead.
All elements of the devotio ritual were strictly defined. There is even provision for what to do in the event of failure. If the self-sacrificing leader had survived the suicide attack on the hostile army (though it was almost impossible), he could no longer sacrifice to the gods or take political positions in the republic’s authorities. The spear on which he stood uttering the vow was important. It had to be defended ruthlessly, and if it fell into the hands of enemies, it was necessary to make the propitiative sacrifice of hog, ram and bull to Mars.
The only well-confirmed examples of devotio are the dedication of the chiefs in the battles of Veseris and Sentinum. Interestingly, members of the same family, father and son gave their lives. They were both Publius Decius Mus. The first died in 339 BCE and the second in 295 BCE. In both clashes, Samnites and their allies were fought. Elder Decius made devotio as enemies began to gain advantage. He threw himself into the crowd of enemies, apparently causing great panic there. Opponents fled, holding him mad and afraid to face him face to face. In the end, they killed him with javelins, but the suicide attack caused them such a shock that they did not even approach the consul’s body. After the death of Decius, the Romans began to win and won the battle. The same happened at Sentinum in 295 B.C.E. Publius Decius Mus (son) sacrificed himself when the wing of the army he commanded began to lose to the Gauls. And this time after performing the ritual, the Roman army beat the enemy. Krzysztof Kęciek considers this devotio as the only historical one. In 279 BCE during Pyrrhus’ invasion, he was about to give his life to another of the Decius. When news of a powerful ritual condemning the destruction of Rome’s enemies to the army of the King of Epirus spread, morale was seriously shaken. Pyrrhus, fearing panic during the battle, ordered all soldiers to be told how the consul was to wear devotio and forbade them to kill him. He sent a letter to Decius informing him that he would not succeed in attempting to perform the rite and would be taken prisoner. So the consul gave up sacrifice (less reliable sources say that he gave his life, but they refuse it more confidently).
The last devotio is probably the sacrifice of Claudius II of God in the battle of Nis in 269 CE. The emperor allegedly sacrificed the gods in exchange for victory and soon after died of the plague. However, devotio Claudius is probably a legendary product.
The very name devotio means “sacrifice.” Originally used to signify heroic deed, high sacrifice, during the late Empire, it changed its meaning, referring to the ordinary loyalty of the citizen towards the state and even meticulousness in paying tribute (devotio rei annonariae). According to the words of Auguste Bouché-Leclercq in the end, “when Caesar was replaced by Christian God, devotio simply means religiousness, faith and readiness for all sacrifices, and later, as a result of the final degeneration of the expression, means devotion in the universal sense of the word, that is, constantly seeking salvation combined with meticulous and God-fearing fulfilment of cult practices”.
According to Osprey, the ritual devotio also occurred in other peoples. Among the Iberians in the period before the arrival of the Romans and later during their constant fighting on the Peninsula, this rite was common.
Last but not least, another type of devotio was sacrificing your own life in exchange for saving the other person. That was at the end of 37 CE when Emperor Caligula became seriously ill. Apparently there were people ready to give their own lives so that only the emperor would recover.
Livy in Ab urbe condtia cites an episode that happened during the battle of the Romans with the Latinos at Vesuvius, in 340 BCE, when Publius Decius Mus made devotio to raise spiritually resigned Roman hosts. This is how Livy describes this event:
The pontiff directed him to take the gown called prætexta, and with his head covered and his hand thrust out under the gown to the chin, standing upon a spear placed under his feet, to say these words: “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.” Having uttered this prayer, he 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.
– Livy, Ab urbe condtia, VIII, 9