Began Great Persecution, Divided Roman Empireby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
"Then the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'"1 Ever since the first temptation of power in humankind's history, all men have desired it. Diocletian, the 106th emperor of Rome2, was no exception. Unlike many others, he actually achieved major power. What led to him achieving such immense authority, and what did Diocletian do with it?
The first step on Diocletian's road to power was to actually be born. This occurred in the year 245 when he was given his original name of Diocles. Diocles was born into a poor family in the region of Illyria, Dalmatia province; the region is located in today's Croatia. Like many of his status, his highest education was learning how to read. As a young man he married a woman named Prisca and had a daughter, Valeria.
As Diocles grew up, the Roman Empire grew into a state of disorder. In fact, between the years of 235 and 284, up to twenty-five emperors claimed the title. That averages to about an emperor every two years!3 This period was known as "The Crisis of the Third Century". Soldiers, obviously not very loyal any longer, would create rivalries between their generals. Thus, many civil wars were fought, leaving the Empire vulnerable to hostile enemies. Diocles worked his way up the ranks of the Roman Army, first defending borders, then becoming commander of the cavalry of the imperial bodyguard, until he became consulate in 283. He became emperor by a series of peculiar events. In 284 the emperor, Carus, was killed in Persia, leaving the empire into the hands of his two sons, Numerian and Carinus. Not long after, Numerian disappeared and, on November 20, 284, Diocles took his place. It was then and there that Diocles changed his name to Diocletian. Then, Carinus was assassinated in Belgrade in 285 and gave Diocletian complete authority over the Roman Empire.
Much of Diocletian's work was dedicated to reforming the fractured military system of Rome. The Empire consisted of around fifty provinces until Diocletian split them all in half, doubling the number to one-hundred. This allowed governors to focus more on a smaller part of territory, rather than worrying about maintaining large lands. "He institutionalized the policy of separating civil and military careers."4 This occurred by splitting the army in two. The first group was the "border troops", a collection of citizens that would defend their cities and provinces. The second group was the "palace troops", the actually-trained military forces that would fight battles, led by their emperor. Diocletian fought in all parts of his empire, defeating Germanic tribes and Persian warriors, in addition to internal rebels.
Here is where Diocletian's head bloated along with Rome's economy. He instituted an autocratic monarchy, did not go out in public, and it was a great pain for anyone to be allowed to even speak with him. One could not be in the same room as him without having to lie down on one's stomach and never look at the emperor. Diocletian also changed the emperor's title. Before him, rulers were called Princeps, or "First Citizens," but Diocletian named himself Dominus et Deus, "Lord and God".
However, even Diocletian was worn out by the trans-empirical battles he fought. He realized that the Empire could never be sustained by only one man. So, he humbled himself and split the Empire into two parts. This occurred in 285 by drawing a line straight down the middle of the territory and then appointing a man named Maximianus to rule the western half. Actually, he established the concept of "Tetrarchy", which means "Rule by Four". Each half-ruler, or "Senior Emperor", would also appoint a "junior ruler", called "Caesars". So, instead of one man, there were now four men ruling all of the Roman Empire. This also solved the problem of choosing succeeding emperors. Before, there was much trouble and civil war over choosing the next emperor. Some people thought the emperor should adopt his heir, others thought it should be biological, and others thought they should be elected. With the Tetrarchy, the Caesar would take the place of the Senior Emperor and appoint his own Caesar, and so forth. So, Diocletian chose Constantius and Maximianus chose Galerius as Caesars, and all was well once more. for a while. When Maximianus and Diocletian were no longer emperors in 305, the military and Senate propped up their candidates for Caesar. They fought each other and Constantine began a civil war a year later. Once Constantine controlled the western side, he eventually gained control of the eastern side as well. He united the empire once again, so the Tetrarchy only lasted about twenty years.
As stated earlier, the economy of the empire was in a dire state. The currency became bloated and practically worthless. Diocletian tried to reissue more coins, but there was not enough gold and silver, so that failed. In 301, he established the "Maximum Price Edict", an edict that fixed prices and wages fairly and stated that unfair merchants could receive the death penalty. The Edict failed, and Diocletian finally gave up attempting to salvage the economy.
Diocletian is also a very important figure in history because he begun what is known as the "Great Persecution" of Christians in 303. He invented four very harsh laws that were intended to force Christians to join the "imperial cult"5. "Church leaders were dragged off and tortured to death. Christian books and scriptures were burnt. The rack, the scourge, slow fires, crucifixion and every other barbarity was employed against the leaders of the church. Many died deaths of great courage."6 Though Diocletian was harsh towards believers, Galerius was even harsher, influenced by his pagan mother7, although even Galerius eventually ended his persecution.
Partly from fatigue and near-death and partly to see the Tetrarchial system be put to work, Diocletian retired from being Dominus et Deus in the year 303, at the age of fifty-nine. He convinced Maximianus to do the same, and Maximinus and Severus became the new Caesars with Galerius and Constantius the new Senior Emperors. Diocletian retreated to his property on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, becoming the only emperor to step down from office. He died at his home on December 3, 316.
Diocletian was overtaken by the desire for power. With this power he, of course, came to think of himself as god. He was clearly deceived, for there is only, "one God, and one mediator between God and men."8 Although Diocletian's reign was not exactly as successful as that of a god's, it was certainly eventful and historic.
up6NA. "February 23, 303. Yield or Suffer Torture Said Diocletian." Christian History Institute. <http://chi.gospelcom.net/DAILYF/2001/02/daily-02-23-2001.shtml> (June 01, 2005)