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Devotion: A Roman Hero

Oil Painting: 'The Death of Decius Mus' by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1616

Oil Painting: 'The Death of Decius Mus' by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1616

'Devotion' in English means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for someone or something. The word, however, comes from the Latin word 'Devotio,' a religious ritual requiring a commanding general to sacrifice himself in the hope that the gods would turn the tide of battle nearly lost.

The most famous example of a Devotio was Publius Decius Mus who in 340 B.C. was commanding a consular army engaged in battle with the Samnites. A tribe from the South-Central Italy and one of the most persistent enemies of Rome. The battle was fought near Capua, which in time would become the second city of Italy, after Rome itself.

Once battle was engaged, the Roman's left flank started to give and on seeing the possible disaster unfolding, Mus sought advice from the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. This elective office would eventually be occupied by Julius Caesar and subsequently Roman Emperors; and eventual claimed by Popes down to the modern day.

The Pontifex Maximus described for Mus the required ritual of Devotio. Mus after performing the ritual charged alone into the enemy ranks and fought with such vigor the Samnites became afraid to fight fearing Mus was possessed by a god. Mus was only killed after being pelted by darts at a distance and his body left alone.

His sacrifice in the end allowed the Roman army to regroup and ultimately win the battle. What is perhaps most intriguing about this story is the insight into the Roman outlook: the mentality of a Roman general to sacrifice himself for glory and victory is one good explanation for why Rome became an empire.

This episode may also help explain why some people accept the risk and sacrifice of death especially in war, but even when fighting for a cause they deeply believe in. The understanding that all people must eventually die, so accepting the real risk of death to help achieve something greater than yourself can be one most meaningful act someone can do in their life.

This I think is the core idea behind Achilles, hero of Greek myth, who decided to die young, but live forever in fame rather than die old, but forgotten.

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