Diocletian (245 - 311 AD)
Emperor: 284 - 305 AD
Early Life and Military Career
The early part of Diocletian's life is somewhat difficult to piece together with any certainty. This is primarily because, unlike many Roman emperors that preceded him, Diocletian was not born into a high ranking and therefore well-documented family line, but instead rose from humble beginnings.
Diocletian was born circa 245 AD in the Roman province of Dalmatia (which was formerly known as Illyricum) in modern-day Croatia. Just as little is known of Diocletian's early life, there is even less information surviving about his parents, although it is certain that they were not of any significant rank or status. The Roman historian Flavius Eutropius wrote about Diocletian that "he is said by most writers to have been the son of a scribe".
Given the name Diocles at birth, the future emperor Diocletian would rise in status thanks to his military skills. Again, little is known about his early military career or involvements. In fact, the first time his whereabouts and military responsibilities can be accurately determined is in the year 282 AD as he was approaching nearly 40 years old, when the emperor Carus made him commander of the elite cavalry force that was directly attached to the Imperial household. This high-status position earned Diocletian a consulship in 283 AD.
Diocletian Acquires Power
Now a high-ranking commander, Diocletian took part in Carus' military campaign in Persia. This was a time of great political instability (now referred to as the ‘Crisis of the Third Century' or the ‘Imperial Crisis' of 235 – 284 AD), when the Roman Empire faced much political infighting and numerous external threats. Consequently, Emperor Carus was keen to win favour and consolidate his rule by attacking one of Rome's traditional enemies, the Persians.
The campaign was going well for Carus and the Romans - marching forward into modern day Iraq with relative ease – when Carus died under mysterious circumstances. Legend says his tent was struck by lightning, presumably burning to death inside from the resulting fire, but this may have been a euphemism by the ancient chroniclers to mean (perhaps more likely) that the soldiers under his command mutinied and struck him dead.
Whatever the actual cause of Carus' death, the end result was that his sons Numerian and Carinus became the new Augusti, with Numerian remaining in the east while Carinus went to Rome to become Emperor in the west.
More Mysterious Death
Carus was now dead, and his son Numerian had little motivation to continue the punitive fight with the Persians, and so the Romans began to withdraw from the region. When Numerian and his troops reached Emesa (modern day Homs in Syria) he was, by all accounts, in good health, albeit suffering from an eye infection. This meant he had to travel in a closed litter from that moment onwards, either to shield his eyes from the bright lights and/or to avoid being seen in public with what presumably would be inflamed facial features.
Somewhere along that journey, however, Numerian was found dead in his litter, most likely assassinated; the powerful stench of the decomposing corpse in the hot Eastern temperature soon made the now deceased ruler's condition all too apparent.
Amongst much confusion as to what to do, Diocletian was chosen as the best person to take command, thereby taking Numerian's place as Emperor.
Just a Coincidence, or did Diocletian Play a Role?
Diocletian's rise to power seems, on the face of it, to be a case of being in the right place at the right time; a talented military commander who was ready to accept the top job when offered it at a time when leadership qualities and strength were valued - at least by the army - more than wealth and family names.
Questions remain though about how much of a role Diocletian played in the deaths of both Carus and his son Numerian - assuming that they were indeed assassinated, and their deaths were not of a lightning strike and eye infection respectively - as he was the one who ended up with power. Was he an innocent party to any conspiracy and was simply chosen at the end of it all, or was he part of a plot to oust the unpopular rulers? And, out of all the other military commanders present in the Eastern campaign, why him?
An indication of Diocletian's ability to take life, albeit arguably one which may have no bearing on the events that just unfolded, came when he emerged in front of his troops for the first time wearing the imperial purple.
Lucius Flavius Aper, who was Praetorian Prefect under the Emperor Carus (and was, in fact, Numerian's father-in-law), was accused of Numerian's murder. He was hugely influential, having been effectively vice principis (the Emperor's duputy) under Carus. It was alleged that he had designs on becoming emperor himself and was responsible for Numerian's murder, giving orders whilst Numerian lay dead in the litter until the smell gave the game away.
Whether Aper was responsible for Numerian's assassination with hopes of taking over control, or was completely innocent of any guilt, Diocletian pronounced him guilty and, in full view of his army, swiftly executed him with his sword.
With Aper now dead, a potential challenger had been removed, but of course there was still Carus' other son, Carinus, and the two would soon meet each other with opposing armies. After advancing across the Balkans over the winter, Diocletian met Carinus' army in Moesia, at a place near modern-day Belgrade in Serbia.
The encounter would become known as the Battle of the Margus, as it was fought near the Margus river. Unlike the popular and respected Diocletian, Carinus did not command much loyalty amongst his troops or generals, and a number of defections before and even during the battle meant there was little hope of him being victorious. In fact, it is even said that he was killed by his own men during the fighting.
After Diocletian's success on the battlefield with the Eastern army, the Western army now too hailed him as Emperor. Diocles, the son of low-ranking parents born far from Rome, was now Imperator Caesar Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus, sole emperor of the Roman Empire, now known to us as Diocletian.
All Roads Do Not Lead to Rome
We tend to imagine Roman emperors sitting around all day in a lavish imperial palace in Rome and, whilst many did, in Diocletian's time (3rd century AD), an emperor's claim to the throne had more to do with the strength and loyalty of the army rather than any claim based on bloodline or family name, as it had been centuries before in the early days of the Imperial period.
Now that power was given (and taken away) primarily through military victories and support of prominent generals, the power of the Senate back in Rome had significantly diminished. Emperors at that time presumably thought of the Senators back in Rome as more of an annoyance than having any feelings of needing to care about their opinion. This idea is backed up not only by how little time Diocletian actually spent in Rome (see below), but also by the fact that he himself always dated the beginning of his reign from the time he was first acclaimed by the army generals, rather than the date when he was finally officially ratified by the Senate in Rome.
Diocletian spent little time in Rome, mainly because he didn't need to. Unlike Julius Caesar about 300 years earlier who had to rush back to Rome before the powerful Senate could move against him, in Diocletian's time he had nothing to fear from them. His chief concern was in quashing rebellions and heading off any potential challenges to his position from others.
It is claimed that in over 20 years as emperor, Diocletian only spent a grand total of about 6 months in Rome. The capital and seat of power was now where the emperor actually sat, i.e. wherever he happened to be at that moment in time, which was often on a military campaign somewhere. Semi-permanent residences, where Diocletian spent more of his time, did exist in places such as Milan, along with Trier in Germany and Thessalonica in northern Greece. Diocletian's foremost residence was in Nicomedia, in modern-day Turkey. From this base, he was roughly in the middle of the two sides of his Empire, so it was the optimum position to be should he need to travel east or west.
Too Much for One Man to Handle
With territory now spanning most of the European continent, it is ironic that this was probably the time when an emperor needed the advice and administrative resources of the Senators to assist him. But those days of Senatorial power were gone and never coming back; power now rested firmly in the emperor's hands and it was up to him as to who helped him when he wanted it.
Trying to manage the entire Empire himself, particularly with the existence of so many internal and external threats, was too much for Diocletian to handle on his own. So, in 285 AD, with no sons to even consider for the post, he promoted his friend and fellow officer Maximian to the position of co-emperor.
Maximian, who came from low stock just like Diocletian and was a similarly brilliant military commander, went west to quell peasant revolts in Gaul and be on the lookout for invasion from Germanic tribes, whilst Diocletian remained in the east to keep watch on the Persians and maintain order in the eastern provinces.
Closer Ties and Religious Symbolism
Although they were co-emperors, it was on the understanding that Diocletian was still the senior party in the cooperation. This method of rule was entrenched in the minds of the people by the assumption of new titles by both men. Diocletian would assume the title of Iovius and Maximian Herculius, in reference to the gods Jupiter and Hercules respectively. Like Jupiter, ruler of the gods in Roman mythology, Diocletian would give the orders and be a terrifying force in his own right, whilst Maximian as Hercules (famous for his strength), would be the one to travel the Empire and fight all those who opposed them. Also in Roman mythology, Hercules was said to be the son of Jupiter, which not only had a symbolism to portray Diocletian as the senior position of the two, but there is also some debate amongst historians as to whether Diocletian actually adopted Maximian as his filius Augusti, his "Augustan son", upon his appointment to the throne, in accordance with a precedent set by some of the previous emperors.
Too Much for Two Men to Handle: The Foundation of the Tetrarchy
Whilst Diocletian took care of the eastern side of the Roman Empire, Maximian had more difficulties in the west. A series of setbacks against a rebellious commander named Carausias, who had his eye on being emperor of Britannia and northern Gaul, meant that Maximian was faced with the prospect of losing credibility as a capable commander and co-emperor. His main purpose after all was to secure the western side of the empire; and the loss of Britain and large parts of Gaul would have been unthinkable.
Historians differ as to whether the appointment was made by Diocletian, or that Maximian did it of his own volition, but either way, in 293 AD Flavius Constantius was promoted to the title of caesar (effectively, a deputy co-emperor to Maximian), who now took charge of the war against Carausias. Diocletian also did the same thing, appointing his son-in-law Galerius as his own co-emperor. It was assumed that these two younger men would one day take over and inherit the Empire (which they did in 305 AD). Flavius Constantius also married Maximian's daughter Theodora, further binding the new ruling group.
This party of four become known as the Tetrarchy, from a Greek term meaning "rule of four" or "rulership by four". Despite the term sounding like it was some kind of council or committee making decisions, Diocletian was still very much at the top of the hierarchy.
Diocletian's Monetary Reforms
Throughout history, and with the present day certainly being no exception, those in power have sought to meddle in the workings of the free market. Quite often they do so with the best of intentions, identifying that something doesn’t seem fair or right, and so they attempt to step in and do something about it. However, almost without fail, these actions create other problems down the road, and usually end up making things worse than if they had just left the market alone to function and find its own level.
Inflation is one such issue that governments and central banks today are always concerned with, and are constantly tinkering with tools such as interest rates and money printing to control it. But this phenomenon is nothing new, as even back in Roman times there were worries over inflation eroding the purchasing power of people’s money.
In 275 AD, the last year of his life, the emperor Aurelian greatly altered the Roman coinage. This was done because the Imperial coinage had become so debased that there was actually very little silver in them. Mint workers had become so accustomed to getting away with stealing most of the silver that should have gone into the coins, that they actually rebelled against Aurelian when he tried to make these changes.
The new coins may have been of a much higher quality, but because of this, and through such a massive undertaking of trying to replace all of the old poor quality coins in the empire, it threw the Roman economy into chaos and brought with it high levels of inflation.
Diocletian knew that economic instability and rampant inflation were a problem. If the population were struggling to buy food and goods, they would quickly turn against him. And it wasn’t just the ordinary people that were complaining. Soldiers were also beginning to become unhappy about the dwindling purchasing power of their pay, and if centuries of previous Roman history had showed one thing, it was that emperors would be wise not to upset the army.
In 301 AD, Diocletian took steps to remedy the situation. He introduced his own new system of coinage, and issued the Edictum De Pretiis Rerum Venalium (Edict on Maximum Prices), which fixed prices of over 1,000 goods and services including wheat and wine, in an attempt to stave off rising inflation.
As alluded to earlier, like all attempts to meddle in the free market, it was not a success. What made things worse was that Diocletian only really had a basic grasp of economics and why prices went up. According to him, rising prices were simply the result of greedy and unscrupulous traders seeking to take advantage of the good Roman citizen, and not through other factors such as currency supply and debasement, product availability, fluctuating demand, transportation costs etc.
With a maximum price limit in place, it made items in some regions simply unprofitable to sell, which meant they either disappeared entirely in terms of availability, or they were bought and sold in secret in a black market at prices over the new limits. Although it was supposed to be good for the people in terms of fixing a maximum price, it simply caused more trouble than it was worth. While there are some records of the harsh penalties being enforced that came with failure to comply with the edict, it was largely ignored, so much so that some historians have suggested that even within a year of its introduction it had largely been forgotten about, and certainly had by the end of Diocletian’s reign in 305 AD.
Related Page: Notable Reforms of the Civil and Military Command
Religious Persecution of Christians
The religion of Christianity had been gathering in popularity and increasing in numbers in the years up to and including those of Diocletian’s time in power.
Emperor Gallienus issued the first official declaration of tolerance with regard to the Christians in 259 AD. This had restored Christian places of worship and cemeteries and rescinded the decree of his father, Valerian, who had largely tried to force Christians to switch their faith back to the traditional Roman gods.
For over 40 years things were, for the most part, peaceful between Christians and those worshipping the Roman deities, so much so that many Christians occupied prominent positions in places such as the army and educational institutions. Then things changed when, in February 303 AD, Diocletian tried to do the same thing as Valerian before him. He posted an edict at Nicomedia commanding all Christians in the Empire to worship the traditional Roman gods. Their property was seized, and those who refused to comply and recant their faith faced the loss of their civil rights and even death.
Diocletian was a man who was conservative in matters of religion, and had a strong belief in the traditional Roman gods and goddesses. As such, he no doubt saw other religions, especially those that were rapidly gaining in popularity, as a threat and a challenge to his beliefs.
Shortly before his persecution of Christians, Diocletian went after followers of Mani, a prophet who was born in the 3rd century AD in modern day Iran. He founded a religion – Manichaeism - which quickly spread, and was right on the doorstep of Diocletian’s residence in Antioch. His treatment of the followers of Manichaeism was brutal. He seized their property for the Imperial coffers, executed many through the blade or by burning them alive, while sending others off as slaves to work in nearby quarries and mines.
After this merciless suppression of Manichaeism, his next target was Christianity.
On 24th February 303 AD, Diocletian introduced his edict against the Christians, which ordered the destruction of Christian places of worship and forbade Christians assembling for worship. Executions of prominent members of the clergy took place, which only served to further the resolve of their fellow Christians to resist the persecution.
Although Diocletian obviously had his own beliefs and reasons for engaging in the persecution of Christians, and was all too willing to do so, many historians believe that it was actually his co-emperor Galerius who was the main driver behind the brutal persecution of the Christians. It may have been political, insofar as removing bishops and clergy who were influential and held much sway with a large number of people which could prove problematic in the future, rather than any true hatred of the Christian faith or its followers specifically.
After 40 years of relatively peaceful co-existence, these actions were neither popular nor supported by everyone, however. Many ordinary citizens were unsympathetic to the cruel killings and treatment of those who followed the Christian faith, people who were now so woven into the fabric of society that they were friends, work colleagues etc. Even the other two members of the Tetrarchy – Emperor Maximian and his deputy Constantius in the west – largely ignored the edict, leaving the Christians in the western side of the Empire relatively untouched.
After eight years, in 311 AD Galerius (who was now emperor of the east following Diocletian’s abdication in 305 AD (see below)), rescinded the edict, presumably realising the way attitudes were shifting, proclaiming that it had failed in its attempts to bring Christians back to supporting the traditional gods. But it would be another 17 years after this, in 328 AD, until the Christian emperor Constantine would finally return all of the confiscated property to the Christians. He also made Christianity the primary religion of the Empire, which would no doubt have been an unimaginable event for Diocletian to witness, but he would not be alive to see it.
Illness, Abdication, Retirement and Death
At the beginning of the 4th century AD, Diocletian was now a man in his sixties. Unlike many previous emperors who would never even consider relinquishing power whilst they still drew breath, Diocletian had different ideas. He had constructed a grand, fortified palace in his homeland of Dalmatia (much of which can still be visited and seen today in the present-day city of Split, Croatia) for his retirement.
His final 12 months in power saw instances of ill-health, which no doubt made up his mind that the time to pass on the demands and responsibilities of being a Roman emperor was fast approaching. At the beginning of 304 AD he contracted a mild illness while on campaign against the Carpi (an ancient people who lived in an area that today is eastern Romania), but his condition worsened to such an extent that he had to carried in a litter. Later that year, he collapsed shortly after a public ceremony to open a circus beside his residence, and spent the whole of the winter inside hidden away, so much so that rumours quickly spread that he had died, sending the whole city into mourning. When he did finally reappear in March of the following year, he looked so ill and worn out that he was barely recognizable.
On 1st May 305 AD, Diocletian called his generals and legionary representatives from far and wide to the same hill near Nicomedia where he had been proclaimed emperor over two decades ago in 284 AD. Here, with tears in his eyes, he told them that it was time for him to resign and pass on the responsibilities of Empire to someone younger and stronger. He had also decided that Maximian was to abdicate on the same day.
After relinquishing power, Diocletian now retired to his new fortified palace in Dalmatia, tending to his gardens and growing vegetables. His tetrarchy form of government soon began to collapse, torn apart by the ambition and power struggles of those now in place. When it was created, it was acknowledged and accepted by all, however informally, that Diocletian was the one in ultimate control. With him now gone, and therefore no one man in a position of overall dominance, this form of government alliance soon began to unravel.
In 311 AD, deep in despair at what had become of the Empire and ravaged by illness, the former Roman emperor Diocletian died in his palace. Many historians believe that he may have taken his own life.