It took Thomas Couture three years to complete The Romans of the Decadence the proportions of which betray grand artistic ambitions. He wanted to give fresh impetus to French painting and to do so referred, rather conventionally, to the masters of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Flemish school. The work is a history painting, regarded as the noblest genre during the 19th century: it therefore had to represent human behaviour and convey a moral message. This was explained by Couture himself, who quoted two lines from the Roman poet Juvenal, (c. 55-c.140 AD) in the catalogue for the 1847 Salon where the painting was exhibited: "Crueller than war, vice fell upon Rome and avenged the conquered world".
In the centre of the painting, Couture has placed a group of debauched revellers, exhausted and disillusioned or still drinking and dancing. In the foreground are three men who are not taking part in the drunken revels: on the left, a melancholic boy sitting on a column and on the right two foreign visitors casting a disapproving eye over the scene. The antique statues looming above the group also seem to be condemning the orgy.
Apart from illustrating an ancient text, Couture was alluding to French society of his time. A Jacobin, Republican and anticlerical, he criticised the moral decadence of France under the July monarchy, the ruling class of which had been discredited by a series of scandals. This painting is therefore a "realist allegory", and the art critics of 1847 were quick to see in these Romans "The French of the Decadence".