Wednesday 21 October 2009

Ave Imperator-in Praise of Diocletian

Many of the Roman emperors are worthy of note, including Marcus Aurelius, my personal favourite, and Julian the Apostate, who fought a tragic rearguard action on behalf of the old religion, being overwhelmed by the new faith. I would, however, like to make special mention here of Diocletian, arguably the last truly great pagan emperor.

So, why Diocletian, what makes him any more significant than, say, Trajan or Hadrian? It is simply this: the empire established by Caesar Augustus, properly known as the Principate, was an uneasy compromise between absolutist and republican ideals. The emperor himself was only considered to be primus inter pares-first among equals-and Rome was still nominally governed on the same basis since the last king had been expelled.

The system worked up to a degree, but only insofar as there was a degree of stability and consensus over the difficult issue of succession. The most stable period of all came in the second century, when a succession of ‘good’ emperors adopted the most able candidates they could as a potential successor. But this could not last. In the third century not just the Principate but the empire itself came close to total collapse for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the inherited structural weakness. Now any ambitious general, with a few legions behind him, thought he had as much right to rule as the emperor ion Rome. Anarchy and civil war were almost continuous from the murder of Alexander Severus in 235AD onwards. It was Diocletian who brought the whole crisis to and end.

At first he appeared as just another strong man, a bit like Aurelian before him. But he quickly recognised that the problems of the empire were, first and foremost, political in nature. The emperor, he concluded, should no longer be seen as ‘one of us’, even as primus inter pares; the emperor had to stand above all. In place of the Principate came the Dominate, with the emperor as an absolute and semi-divine figure. It was a system of government which was to evolve in a fully mature form into the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine may have been the ultimate beneficiary of these changes but the true honour belongs to Diocletian, who thus stands alongside Augustus as one of the two great architects of Imperial rule.

I was hoping to say a word or two about the Diocletian Persecutions, but this is getting too long. I’ll leave that for another blog. :)


  1. I think that civilisations die because they either run out of ideas or they lack the courage and stamina to pursue new ones. Poor Rome! The new idea was under their noses, but they never saw its virtue until it was too late.

  2. Ana

    As a frequent visitor to your "political" blog on "My Telegraph" over the past week or so, and to these pages in the last couple of days, I was genuinely surprised and delighted to discover that we share so many interests in common (although I would add that I do not own a horse, and have never experienced a great desire to play lacrosse).

    I have always found Diocletian an intriguing figure. His military and administrative reforms did much to arrest the disintegration of the Empire. The Tetrarchy, his bold and innovative scheme to subdivide the Empire into more manageable parts, and to solve the perennial problem of the succession, deserved better success than it had. All the same, the advent of the Dominate, and the Imperial Cult that went with it, did much to loosen the already weakened cultural ties of the court with the conservative senatorial class, and thereby hastened the decline of paganism and the arrival of Christianity as the state religion of the Empire.

    And, of course, it was the Western "Caesar", Constantius, who frustrated the ambitions of that opportunistic villain, the original Allectus, to rule as an independent "Augustus" in Britain.

    I shall certainly comment on your Thomas Charnock post. I should also like to comment on some older posts: is this worth my while, or are posts more than a couple of weeks' old forever consigned to some form of cyber oblivion?


  3. Jamie, it's largely owing to Diocletian that the Empire survived as long as it did, largely thanks to his political realism. We tend to forget that the people of the east never thought of themselves as 'Byzantines', a later invention, but as 'Romans', right to the end.

    Welcome, Alectus! I'm so glad to see you here. :-) Thank you for that interesting contribution.

    Yes, you are right, but the structure Principate had been one of the chief sources of the crisis of the third century. It simply could not go on as it had, the pretence of senatorial rule could not go on. Aurelian had tried to reform the political structure of the Empire, and paganism itself, by reviving the cult of Sol Invictus as a single, unifying God, a precursor to Constantine's adoption of Christianity. Please browse through my Roman Emperors and Roman Empire archive. There's lots I think you will find of interest.

  4. My very good poet friend Richard Tyrone Jones has penned a sonnet about Diocletian (his favourite Emperor). I can't find his book just now but I'll send it to you when I can get hold of the sonnet, or post it here.

  5. Found it lying in between a pile of old newspapers I've yet to read!

    Critical Switch.

    Titus Flavius Do ...

    Prbrf, I got mixed up. This is not Doicletian. it is Domitian, third and last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. Terribly Sorry, Ana! *hides*

  6. Wow, Domitian is his favourite? Now that's unusual. :-))