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.
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.
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.