The heroic death of the Roman consul Decius Mus is an "exemplum virtutis", an example of a particularly virtuous act. It is cited on several occasions in Classical literature, but Rubens was the first artist to translate into painting Livy’s account of the war between the Romans and the Latins in the year 340 BC (Ab urbe condita, Book VII, chapters 6, 9 and 10).

The inhabitants of the plain of Latium had risen against Roman dominance and challenged the Romans to a battle; the Latins had a superior army. The Roman supreme commanders encamped at Capua, the consuls Decius Mus and Titus Manlius, had the same dream: the army whose commander fell in battle would carry the victory.

Rubens restricts his narrative to the hero of his sequence of paintings: in the first picture, Decius comes before his army alone to describe his dream. Titus Manlius does not appear until the last picture. The artist shows Decius Mus standing on a pedestal in an imperious pose. Standard-bearers from different units have assembled in front of him in diverse battle-dress.

An oil sketch for this painting in the National Gallery, Washington, DC, shows that Rubens considered enriching the secular story with allusions to the gods of the Antiquity by having Jupiter’s eagle hover above the consul’s head like a divine protector. He chose to omit the mythological touches from the final version, however. Rubens followed a pictorial formula that was common in Antiquity, the adlocutio, in which the commander addresses his legates and tribunes from a raised position. Depictions of this type can be found on triumphal monuments in Rome such as the Arch of Constantine and Trajan’s Column. Rubens used relief scenes from the latter as a direct model. He approved od reworking ancient images creatively. but stressed in his essay “De Imitatio Statuarum” that a sympathetic understanding of the model was also necessary. He went on to say that it was advisable “that judicious use be made of them, that in no way permits the stone to show.” Rubens’s translation of the relief scene into the medium of painting does retain the frieze-like character, but the symmetrical arrangement of the figures in the ancient model is submitted to a lively variation, involving a large number of movements. The open painterly style provides an additional element of dynamism.
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Peter Paul Rubens
Decius Mus relating his dream, 1616/1617
oil on canvas
height 294 cm, width 278 cm
Inv.-No. GE47
Provenance: 1616 contract between Peter Paul Rubens and the tapestry manufacturers Jan Raes and Frans Sweerts in Brussels and the dealer Franco Cattaneo from Genoa; 1661 the cycle falls into the possession of the painter and collector Carel de Witte, Gonzales Conques and Jan Baptist van Eyck in Antwerp ("The Interpretation of the Victim" and probably "Trophy" did not come into their possession until after 1661, both most likely bear the imperial seal), 1692 in van Eyck’s estate inventory in Antwerp ("The Dismissal of the Lictors" cannot be traced definitely in the estate inventory); 1693 acquired by Prince Johann Adam Andreas I von Liechtenstein from the dealer Marcus Forchoudt in Antwerp, exhibited in a gallery in the Liechtenstein City Palace in Bankgasse in Vienna, from 1807 to 1945 the cycle has remained in its current location
Further works on display
Decius Mus preparing for Death, 1616/1617
The Death of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Dismissal of the Lictors, 1616/1617
The Interpretation of the Victim, 1616/1617
The Trophy, 1616/1617
The Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1637
Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1614/1615
Oil sketch of Mars and Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
Mars und Rhea Silvia, c. 1616/1617
The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius, c. 1616
Satyr and Maid with Fruit Basket, 1615
The Lamentation, c. 1612
Christ Triumphant over Sin and Death, 1615/1622
Double Portrait of Albert and Nikolaus Rubens, c. 1626/1627
Portrait of Jan Vermoelen, 1616
Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens, c. 1616
Henry IV seizes the Opportunity to conclude Piece, 1628
The Victory of Henry IV at Coutras, 1628
The Consecration of Decius Mus, 1616/1617
The Obsequies of Decius Mus
Three Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Joachim, 1615/1620
St. Catherine in the Clouds, 1620/1621
Four Music-Making Angels, on the reverse side of St Anne, 1615/1620
Apollo in the Chariot of the Sun, 1621/1625
The Conversion of St. Paul, 1601/1602
Perseus and Andromeda
The Virgin adorned with flowers, 1609/1610
Psyche taken up into Olympus, 1621
Landscape with Milkmaids and Cows, 1616
Allegory of war, 1628
The Hunt of Meleager and Atalanta, 1628 (?)
The Assumption of the Virgin, modello, 1637
Ganymede, 1611/1612
Diana´s Hunt, 1628
St. Francis of Assisi before the Crucified Christ, 1625
Portrait of a Monk (?)
Adoration of the Magi, 1609/1610
The Visitation, 1611/1612
Portrait of Nicolaas Rockox, 1615
Samson and Delilah, c. 1610
Related themes
Rubens in Wien
The Decius Mus Cycle
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