Around 1616 Peter Paul Rubens engaged in a large tapestries series project about the heroic Roman consul Decius Mus. This panel, which is a small sketch or modello for the larger composition, depicted the first episode of that story, which normally consisted of seven or eight scenes. In his History of Rome, Livy describes an episode in the war between the Romans and the Samnites, the inhabitants of the plains of Latium (south-central Italy), against their Roman rulers in 340 BC. The Roman forces led by co-consuls Decius Mus and Titus Manlius were outnumbered and in danger of defeat when an apparition visited them both at night and declared that victory would come to the army whose leader lost his life. Decius Mus, thus, vowed that he would sacrifice himself to ensure Roman victory.
In the Gallery’s painting, Rubens depicts Decius Mus recounting the apparition to his soldiers the following morning. With his right arm raised and left hand holding the commander’s staff, he strikes a powerful pose that conveys the gravitas of the vision as his men listen with rapt attention. The soldiers hold the signa, or legionary standards, of the Roman republic—the Roman eagle, or Aquila; the open palm, a symbol for virtue; and the standard inscribed SPQR, the symbol of the Roman Republic—and lend historical legitimacy to scene.
Rubens maintained an abiding fascination with Greco-Roman antiquity throughout his career. This interest manifested in his fidelity to ancient literary and pictorial sources and in the subject matter he chose. The lion-scalp trim on Decius Mus’s boots, his armor with its torso-molded breastplate ornamented with griffins, and even the lappets on his skirt adorned with alternating lion and human heads were all drawn from historic sources. Rubens was profoundly influenced by the ancient philosopher Justus Lipsius’s writings about the great Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who hailed Decius Mus a model for military and political leadership due to his constancy, virtue, and nobility. Rubens underscored these Stoic ideals by placing Decius Mus on a marble dais whose square shape emblematized fortitude.