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Old April 3rd, 2012, 07:35 AM   #1

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A Boar and a Druidess - the Rise of Diocletian


The second in a series of essays on the Tetrarchy I wrote a while back, enjoy

It was said that the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, took walks in Rome during the final years of his reign, speaking freely with the common people. Half a century later, Nero engaged in similar activities, drinking in the same taverns as the urban mob. Even when the Empire was at its absolute peak in the early 2nd Century, the Emperor was a visible and remarkably approachable individual. There is the famous incident in which Hadrian was beseeched by a poor woman calling for justice, but hurried past her, telling her he had no time. She called out “then stop being Emperor!” and Hadrian promptly turned back and listened patiently to her complaint.

Though he understood better than most the true nature of the Roman Empire, Augustus had created the attractive fiction of the Roman emperor being the ‘First among Equals’. It was a fiction that most of his successors managed to maintain for the better part of two centuries. From the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE until the ascension of Diocletian a century later, however, the fiction died a slow death. Commodus’ megalomania and the civil wars after his death resulted in the deaths or disgrace of many of Rome’s finest families. In the half century of anarchy in the middle of the 3rd Century, emperors were often made and unmade on the frontiers, by the armies, without the consent and sometimes even without the knowledge of Rome herself. Emperors who were quick to grasp the true nature of the situation made little effort to even maintain a presence in Rome.

By the end of the 3rd Century, the secrets Augustus had tried to conceal were clear for all of see. Rome was no longer the focal point of the Empire. Hardly the ‘First Man in Rome’, the emperor expected to be viewed as a distant, untouchable god. In reality he was neither – he was a dictator and a warlord, prepared to use any methods of quashing any real or perceived threat to his delicate regime, from ambitious generals to the growing Christian community. The ‘First Man’ who had been easily accessible to even the lowliest of his subjects had become a ‘Lord and God’ in whose presence the Empire’s mightiest generals and nobles were made to grovel.

The change in the attitude towards the Emperor, his person, and his function, was wrought by no one more than Diocletian. Yet another name in a long line of military emperors from the Danubian provinces, Diocletian assumed the throne in the summer of 284 in what had become the traditional fashion – coming out on top in a brief civil war. At that time, few would have suspected that this grizzly, murderously ambitious military officer would shape the course of Roman history with very nearly as much decisive intensity as Augustus had two-hundred years before.


A Boar and a Druidess

The child who would become the Emperor Diocletian was born on December 22nd, 245 CE (some sources place the year of his birth slightly earlier, in or around 240). His birth name was Diocles; whether he bore the nomen of Aurelius before his ascension as emperor is unknown. His father’s name is unknown, but some sources claim he was a slave; nothing is known of his mother accept that he was presumably named in her honor – her name was Dioclea. Both of his parents were Dalmatian Illyrians, perhaps hailing from a village outside of Salona. Illyria and Dalmatia had long contributed soldiers to the Roman army, but Diocles would grow up to be a rather typical member of a ‘military aristocracy’ that arose in Illyria in the second half of the 3rd Century; members of this cadre of Illyrian officers, spanning several generations, would rule the Empire from 268 up to the era of Constantine and his sons.

Typical of the Illyrian emperors, we know that Diocles joined the army young and rose through the ranks, presumably due to merit rather than connections. Likely he would have enlisted, perhaps in a legion, in the early 260s and would have marched under Gallienus. Nothing is known of his precise experiences except that he participated in fighting on the Danube frontier, and must have displayed tremendous abilities as a leader and a fighter. Whether he was personally acquainted with Aurelian, Claudius Gothicus, Probus, or the other great Illyrian generals of the day is unknown; the image of them all sitting around a table in a tavern, drinking, boasting, and arguing after a hard day’s barbarian-fighting is not only cozy, but distinctly possible.

We also know very little about Diocles as a human being in his early years; based on his time as emperor we can assume that he was a ruthless, ambitious, highly intelligent, creative, and extremely devout young man, conservative in his views of the religious and social issues of his day. At some point, probably in the 260s, Diocles married. His young bride’s name was Prisca. She was said to have been a Christian, but obviously not one so devout that she had qualms about marrying an observant ‘pagan’.

Prisca was an individual testimony to a wider phenomenon that had become very noticeable by the middle of the 3rd Century. While still a minority subjected to sporadic discrimination, the Christians had increased enormously both in numbers and in influence. They were to be found in the elite of the Empire’s society and military; there was nothing unusual at all about a Danubian legionary officer taking the daughter of a Christian family as a wife, and presumably making no attempts to dissuade her from her family’s faith. Nonetheless, Diocles was no friend of Christianity. He was very much a ‘hard core’ pagan, loyal to the old gods of Rome. History has not remembered the private discord that must have plagued the Emperor’s household several decades later, when he became the author of the final major persecution of the Christians of the Roman Empire.

Only one story from Diocles’ early years has come down to us, and it is in fact of dubious authenticity. Supposedly Diocles once entered a tavern, and was confronted by a druidess – a female Celtic seer. In conversation the notion of Diocles becoming emperor was mentioned, and the young soldier laughed scornfully. The druidess replied that he would, in fact, become emperor, after he had slain a boar. Diocles was naturally perplexed by this, but his superstitious respect for the gods was such that he made a point of remembering this conversation, many years later. Or so the legend goes.

Diocles had risen very high by the early 280s. In 283 he was appointed commander of the protectores domestici by the Emperor Numerianus. Diocles had participated in the invasion of Persia mounted by Numerian’s father Carus, which had resulted in resounding successes but also in the death of Carus in July of 283. Now, as the Roman army returned from Mesopotamia, Diocles found himself the commander of a unit of officer cadets intimately attached to the Emperor’s person. On campaign they probably operated as a mounted bodyguard unit, an alternative to the cavalry element of the Praetorian Guard (which by this point seldom operated outside of Rome). Diocles had seemingly risen to the pinnacle of the career of a poor provincial soldier; as an intimate guard to the Emperor his new post carried with it both respect and responsibility.

The Roman retreat from Persian territory in 283 is mysterious. Some historians believe that the Romans may have very well suffered a defeat at Persian hands that has gone unrecorded in our written sources. Most likely the death of Carus – whether by old age, lightning strike, plague, murder, or death in battle (all these options have been theorized) – simply rendered his son and successor’s position sufficiently precarious that Numerian felt the need to return to Roman territory as soon as possible. The Historia Augusta, ever a source of tantalizing half-truths and regurgitated gossip and deceptions, claims that Numerian’s Praetorian prefect encouraged the retreat, for unknown but undoubtedly sinister reasons of his own. The prefect, Arrius Aper, was also Numerian’s father in law, but appears to have been nursing Imperial ambitions for himself. Numerian had not proven to be a strong personality thus far, and a sickness of the eyes – supposedly brought about by lack of sleep – had rendered him unable to even be in the sunlight for long periods of time; an unfortunate affliction indeed for the commander of an army traversing the Middle East.

Numerian died outside of Nicomedia, Bithynia, at some point in 284 CE. Apparently he was murdered or died of neglect on account of Aper, who then made an attempt to conceal the demise of the young emperor while he tried to consolidate his own position as successor. Numerian had been popular with the soldiers however, and many of them demanded to see him. Aper was able to drive them back at first, claiming the Emperor’s condition was so horrible he couldn’t stand to leave his litter at all. But finally the smell of his rotting corpse gave the truth away.

The result was an uproar in the camp. The soldiers did not want to recognize Numerian’s older brother Carinus – ruling the Western provinces from Rome herself – as emperor. Carinus had become unattractive in the eyes of the army as he had lived in a state of self-indulgent luxury in Rome while his father and brother had led wars on the Danube and in Mesopotamia in person. Aper, taking advantage of this discontent, tried to force himself on the army as emperor. But instead, amidst chanting and wild cheers, the soldiers brought forward Diocles. Handsome, fairly young (probably approaching his thirty-ninth birthday), and with undisputed bravery, Diocles had also risen through the ranks, making him a hero and a role model to the common soldiers.

Diocles mounted a platform and stood by Arrius Aper, while the soldiers gathered around and declared him their Imperator. Having accepted their oath of allegiance, and his own formal claim on the Roman Empire, Diocles turned to the matter of imperial justice. He loudly declared that Aper was responsible for the death of Numerian. Even as Aper’s protests and the roars of the offended soldiery began to pierce the air, Diocles drew his sword and thrust it deep into the prefect’s stomach. Aper’s blood-soaked body collapsed at the feet of the new Emperor, and the soldiers looked on with shock. This was not an Emperor to be trifled with.

If the story of Diocles’ encounter with the druidess is true, we must wonder how conscious he had been of Aper’s cognomen since he had first met the man. “Aper”, after all, means “boar”. Diocles had slain his boar, and the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were calling him emperor. As was often the case, Diocles made some additions to his name. Aurelius Diocles (if he had indeed used the nomen Aurelius before) now became Caius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus. He exchanged a name that was almost embarrassingly provincial for one that sounded solidly Roman and exotically unique at the same time. He is the only man by the name of Diocletianus to be attested to, whether in written history or in inscriptions and other contemporary evidence. This bizarre, and perhaps newly-minted name, would become one of the most important names in Roman history even while the man himself yet lived.

Diocletian chose for his Praetorian prefect his old comrade and friend, Aurelius Maximianus. Maximian was the same age as Diocletian and hailed from the same region, apparently being born at Sirmium in or just after 240 CE. Also enlisting the army at a young age and rising through the ranks quickly, Maximian had become young Diocles’ closest friend. It is not unlikely that they shared many adventures together, on and off the battlefield, that have been lost to human memory. This friendship would now prove lucrative for Maximian.

The office of Praetorian prefect, by the second half of the 3rd Century, did not necessarily have much to do with the actual Praetorian Guard in Rome. The prefect served as a sort of ‘field marshal’ when the emperor was on campaign, and was also an informal ‘second-in-command’ to his liege. Arrius Aper was not the first Praetorian prefect to make a failed attempt to opportunistically seize his late master’s suddenly vacant throne. Maximian, however, had a much brighter future ahead of him that Diocles’ famous boar.

There was still much work to be done if Diocletian was to be the sole master of a unified Roman world. A son of Carus yet lived and ruled – Marcus Aurelius Carinus. Carinus does not appear to have been a very popular emperor; supposedly he was a sex addict who had ambitions to conquer little else than the wife of every one of his advisors and officers – hardly a trait that can endear a ruler to his underlings. Discontent with his reign was not limited to his immediate following, however; in the final months of 284 one Marcus Aurelius Julianus took control of the Pannonian provinces and began to mint coins bearing his portrait.

Carinus marched out of Italy at the head of an army, and by March of 285 he had defeated Julianus. By this point, Diocletian had felt sufficiently secure in his own position to advance into the Danube region, seeking a decisive encounter with Carinus. Neither made any attempt to negotiate with the other; this was nothing but a clash between two warlords, with the winner claiming a unified Roman Empire as his prize.

We are told that Carinus had his own wild promiscuity to blame for his failure to seize this prize. He had recently seduced the wife of his Praetorian prefect Aristoboulus, and the latter had been waiting for an opportunity to avenge his honor. The decisive battle took place along a branch of the Danube known to the Romans as the Margus, and it was here that Aristoboulus betrayed Carinus for Diocletian. It is unclear as to whether Aristoboulus killed Carinus before deserting, or if Carinus was executed afterwards. Either way, Carinus’ own army abandoned him for Diocletian, and the bitter clash of legionary versus legionary was abated. On April 1st of 285, along the banks of the Margus, Diocletian accepted Aristoboulus as his new Praetorian prefect (serving temporarily as a colleague to Maximianus), destroyed his only challenger, and assumed the position of sole master of the Roman Empire.
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Old April 5th, 2012, 03:01 AM   #2

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Enjoyed the reading, thank you!
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Old April 5th, 2012, 04:27 AM   #3

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Thank you Venator
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Old April 5th, 2012, 04:38 AM   #4

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Encoure, what happened next??? Was Maximianus angry at being replaced???
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Old April 5th, 2012, 05:02 AM   #5

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Lawnmowerman View Post
Encoure, what happened next??? Was Maximianus angry at being replaced???
I'll post the next part momentarily
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Old April 5th, 2012, 05:14 AM   #6

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The next part can be found here:
http://www.historum.com/ancient-hist...tetrarchy.html
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Old April 7th, 2012, 08:07 PM   #7

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Just had time to properly 'proofread' this now And what can I say? I'm running out of positive adjectives to describe your essays Look up 'excellent' in a thesaurus and choose one for yourself.

A question about his unique name: did he have any children? If so, what were they called?
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Old April 7th, 2012, 08:22 PM   #8

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Thanks pixi

To my knowledge he only had one child, a daughter, Galeria Valeria, who was probably a child or teenager when her father came to the throne (she married his junior co-emperor Galerius in 293).
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Old April 8th, 2012, 03:03 AM   #9

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Very good read, Salah, onto the next part!
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