This inscription was discovered in 1990 in the frigidarium (cold-room) of the baths in the Roman citadel at Chersonesos. It records the restoration of the schola principalium - a leisure facility in a Roman garrison – during the second consulship of the emperor Decius in 250 CE, and is a useful source for understanding the challenges faced by Rome at the very edge of the empire, particularly regarding the so-called ‘Gothic invasions’ of the mid third-century.
The inscription was set up to commemorate the restoration of the schola principalium – a space for rest or leisure, sometimes termed a “clubhouse” for junior officers of a Roman legion – by the centurion of the Legio I Italica Deciana, Marcus Ratinus Saturninus. Using his own funds he built the entire structure, the previous of which had collapsed (scholam principalium / a solo labsa(!) de suo / aedificavit). As noted by Jurij Vinogradov and Vitalij Zubar in their publication of the inscription, the phonetics and style of the text bear the stamp of late provincial Latin; labsa in the penultimate line is missing an ‘m’ at the end, and “b” is in place of the more traditional spelling lapsa, representing how the word was pronounced. Chersonissitanae is also a provincial innovation, in place of the classical spelling Khersonessitanae (Vinogradov and Zubar, “Die Scola Principalium,” p. 130-131). This is interesting from a philological aspect, but more significant is the honorary designation of the Legio I Italica as Deciana – “Decian” – which has been eradicated by a damnatio memoriae in this inscription; the Legio I Italica had previously received the honorific attributions Antoniana, Severiana and Gordiana, for their military prowess, but this is the first epigraphic attestation of a military unit as Deciana, indicating their particular importance to the emperor (Vinogradov and Zubar, “Die Scola Principalium,” p. 131).
The inscription is most important for the evidence it gives for the presence of the Roman army in Chersonesos at this date, and for the unstable situation that they were there to monitor. Decius had sent a detachment of troops to the area in 250 CE in order to observe the movement of people in the non-Roman territory of modern Crimea; Rome’s power in the region was largely centred in the eastern Bosphoran Kingdom and the Greek city of Chersonesos to the west, but control of the interior was limited and since the reign of Alexander Severus, there had been movement into the region by “new people” (Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, p. 244). Philip the Arab had withdrawn subsidies to the distant but allied northern tribes of the Danube, which had led to disturbances along the imperial frontier and the invasion of large numbers of raiding ‘Goths’ into Moesia Inferior in 248 CE (see Drinkwater, “Maximinus to Diocletian”, p. 36-38 for a description and bibliography). However, these disturbances were not so serious that the available military could not deal with them and as David Potter has rightly noted, it would appear that the change of strategy and the movement of troops to Chersonesos was rather a “result of Decius’ assertion of personal command” than a “sudden change in the balance of power” (Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, p. 245). The outcome of Decius’s decision was, however, more destabilising than any previous activity on the frontier, leading to a string of disasters that not only did change the balance of power between Rome and the northern tribes, but also nearly caused the “collapse of the prestige of the central government” (ibid, p. 245). Although the exact events of the war with these tribes cannot be stated with any authority, it appears that the majority of the action took place in Moesia Inferior (modern Bulgaria) and that Rome suffered a massive defeat near Augusta Traiana in 250 CE, with the city of Philippopolis captured the following summer, after which the barbarian tribes may have begun to return north to their homelands; Decius engaged battle with them at Abritus, at which he and a large number of his troops were killed (for a description of the geography and the possible sequence of events, see Potter, Prophecy and History, p. 278-287).
The exact identity of those ‘northern tribes’ who crossed the Danube in such large numbers cannot today be known; as Clifford Ando has stated, to search for the “stable identities” of such peoples is impossible, as it presupposes that such population groups had stable identities that can be traced across the centuries. Those tribes moving across the Danube towards the Black Sea in the mid third century CE are often termed “Goths,” but there is no reason to identify them, in terms of ethnography, with the same “Goths” who defeated Valens in 278 CE, in an attempt at reaching a more coherent history (Ando, Imperial Rome, p. 153). The “Goths” attacking Decius may well have been ancestors of those who succeeded Rome in the western provinces in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, but it is impossible to know what exactly distinguished this groups from others in the northern Danube region, or how the fluidity of tribal organisation affected their relationship to each other and the groups that were to follow (for more detailed discussion of this, see Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay, p. 245-256; Woolf, Tales of the Barbarians, p. 41-45).
Both Decius’ name and the honorific title awarded to the Legion have suffered damnatio memoriae in the inscription from Chersonesos, which is somewhat confusing given his deification after death; neither Trebonianus Gallus, who succeeded Decius, nor the usurper Julius Valens Licinianus in Rome, ordered that his name be removed from public monuments, and Gallus even adopted Decius’ son Hostilianus, ruling with him for a short time as co-Augustus (see Peachin, Roman Imperial Titlature, p. 69-74). In the case of this inscription, then, its publishers have suggested that the damnatio represented a “pre-emptive” decision made by a private individual – perhaps the dedicator of the inscription, Marcus Ratinus Saturninus –, in expectation of an imperial order that would follow. If this was indeed the case, then the damnatio is a further indication of how fragile the political situation was in this region, and the increased sense of instability that followed following the death of the emperor (Vinogradov and Zubar, “Die Schola Principalium,” p. 137).
Drinkwater, John, Maximinus to Diocletian and the crisis, in The Cambridge ancient history: The crisis of empire, A.D. 193-337 (ed. A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, A. Cameron; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 28-66