Misconceptions about Diocletian

Oct 2018
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Hi all,

I was perusing some of the old threads on Diocletian, and I thought I'd bring up in a new thread some of what I perceive to be misconceptions about the emperor that appear in some of those threads. By doing so I will avoid necromancy and provide readers of this forum with a contrasting thread.

Cheers,
Dibty.
 
Oct 2018
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In reference to Rating Diocletian::

This thread includes the idea that Diocletian initiated the division of the empire into east and west. However, the history of collegiality among Roman emperors is a bit more complicated than that. During the First Tetrarchy (293-305) Diocletian's Augustus in the west, Maximian, could make political decisions separate from Diocletian, and their two Caesars, Constantius and Galerius, likewise could make independent political decisions in their quandrants of the empire, albeit of generally lesser importance than the Augusti, but it is questionable whether there were official divisions between the territories of the four Tetrarchs. Diocletian made the most important decisions in the empire on behalf of his colleagues (e.g. the prices edict, the persecution of the Christians, and actually every known imperial edict [as opposed to legal letter or rescript] except one [a possibly local edict from the court of Galerius] stemmed from the court of Diocletian). Two different people in the west are known to have petitioned Diocletian instead of Maximian, including the proconsul of Africa (on what to do with the Manicheans). If there was no official division, it would mean that imperial rule was in part based on proximity; that is, a Gaul would petition Constantius since he was the nearest Tetrarch. Bill Leadbetter (Galerius and the Will of Diocletian) and David Potter (Constantine the Emperor) have argued that the first time there were hard divisions between emperors' spheres of control was actually after Diocletian's abdication, during the Second Tetrarchy (305-306), when Constantius was the first-ranking Augustus and the powers of the junior Augustus (Galerius) and the two Caesars (Severus and Maximinus) appear to have increased, creating a harder fourfold division of the empire.

But before the First and Second Tetrarchies, the concept of having two Augusti had existed before (Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, Severus and Caracalla, Caracalla and Geta, Gordian I and II, Pupienus and Balbinus, Philip I and II, Decius and Herennius, Gallus and Volusian, Valerian and Gallienus, Macrianus and Quietus, Tetricus I and II, Carus and Carinus, Carinus and Numerian). Various Augusti had ruled with Caesars (e.g. Decius & Herennius had Hostilian, Valerian & Gallienus had Valerian II and later Saloninus, Marcus and Verus had actually ruled for three years with two of Marcus' sons as Caesars, thus establishing an earlier 'Tetrarchy' of sorts). Between 209 and 211 there were actually three Augusti: Severus, Caracalla and Geta. A system of two or more emperors, using various combinations of Augustus and Caesar, became the norm after Diocletian, but the number of emperors varied. After the Tetrarchy, Constantine reigned with multiple Caesars, and for much of his reign ruled alongside the Augustus Licinius (and for a couple of years Maximinus as well). The succession to Constantine entailed four Augusti, which quickly became three, and after three years became two. After the death of Constans, Constantius II officially ruled as the sole emperor for only a year or so, and then appointed a Caesar as a junior colleague (Gallus and then Julian). Julian and Jovian were the last emperors to rule as sole Augusti. For three years Valentinian and Valens ruled as a duo, but with the promotion of Valentinian's son Gratian to Augustus in 367 the imperial college became a triarchy once again (Valentinian I, Valens, Gratian - Valens, Gratian, Valentinian II - Gratian, Valentinian II, Theodosius I - Valentinian II, Theodosius I, Arcadius - Theodosius I, Arcadius, Honorius). In 395, with the death of Theodosius I, the arrangement whereby there was officially one emperor in the west and one in the east became the norm.
 
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Rating Diocletian::

This thread includes the idea that Diocletian was a brutal ruler on account of his empire-wide persecution of the Christians. He was undeniably one of the most ambitious persecutors in the history of Christianity, re-introducing the persecution of the Christians on an unprecedented scale, but I will add some nuance.

Diocletian's persecution of the Christians should be viewed through the lens of the imperial problem-solving that characterized his reign. The Christians were travelling the empire, converting people to their faith. They taught that it was wrong to sacrifice to idols. Most people in the empire, regardless of their favoured gods/private religious preferences, could engage in the public religion, because polytheistic Mediterranean religion was syncretistic. Someone's Baal Hammon was another person's Saturn. Someone's Amun was another person's Jupiter. And so on. But Jews and Christians could not. There could only be one God for them. As time wore on, the Jews appear to have become somewhat protected by the antiquity of their beliefs. The Romans respected old traditions, and most Roman emperors appear to have tolerated the traditions of Judaism. The fact that the Jews were a distinct ethnic group and weren't going around converting people would have helped as well. But in the tumultuous world of the late third century, a time of crises, many Romans no doubt thought that the gods were angry. It does not surprise me at all that Galerius, Hierocles, Porphyry and the Oracle at Didyma were pushing Diocletian to take action. In 301 Diocletian tried to stem inflation through his ambitious prices edict, and this effort led to further inflation. In 302 he persecuted the Manicheans, whom he declared to be impious and a Persian fifth column to boot. In 303 the persecution of the Christians began. The context of Diocletian the problem-solver, a man who was working within the context of what he thought he knew about the world, does much to explain the persecution.
 
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Rating Diocletian::

Within this thread Diocletian's college of four, referred to by modern scholars as the 'Tetrarchy', cops some flak as a short-sighted arrangement of power. Certainly, the arrangement did not succeed in becoming an enduring solution to imperial instability since it ultimately required Diocletian's personal influence to hold it together. But we should also give credit where it's due, and the Tetrarchic arrangement brought much needed stability to an empire that for the past fifty years had been ravaged by usurpations, civil wars and foreign incursions. It was an ambitious measure, to be sure. It shared actual power between four adult men, as opposed to, say, the earlier 'Tetrarchy' of Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and the child Caesars Commodus and Annius Verus, in which case only Marcus and Lucius had actual power. These four men were career soldiers, and under the overall leadership of Diocletian (who must have been an exceptionally imposing figure with an unusual capacity to influence others) their college functioned remarkably well. The Tetrarchic system helped against both the problem of foreign incursions and the threat of military rebellion (the officers and soldiers of each frontier wanted a present emperor to look after their affairs). Diocletian and Maximian also presented themselves as brothers despite being unrelated in any legal sense, the first emperors to do so, which, I would argue, was intended to appeal to the soldiery, for whom metaphorical fraternity was important.

The spirit of innovation present within the Tetrarchic arrangement and the employment of metaphorical fraternity was replicated in the succession, namely through abdication (Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, and Galerius supposedly intended to abdicate in 312, but died in the previous year) and the rejection by Diocletian and Galerius of hereditary claims (in 293, 305, 308 and 311). Having been planned sometime beforehand, the abdication of the Augusti was possibly intended to fulfil the expectation that the Caesars would become Augusti, and to allow Diocletian to supervise the succession. The rejection of hereditary claims in favour of the co-option of generals may have been influenced by problems with hereditary succession during the third century, and was perhaps partly intended to appease troubled military units desirous of emperors with strong military credentials. By the year 305 Diocletian also appears to have wanted to set up Galerius as his de-facto successor (as opposed to Constantius, the senior-ranking Caesar), and thus wanted to appoint Caesars who would toe the line for Galerius. In the case of the succession in 305, whereby Constantine and Maxentius, both now adults, were overlooked in the co-option of the new Caesars, this approach to succession was a failure. Presumably Diocletian underestimated how much trouble the snubbing of these sons would cause. This opinion may have been influenced by decades of seeing imperial sons slaughtered by soldiers, and the contrasting success of non-dynastic claimants like Aurelian and Probus.

That said, Diocletian's Tetrarchy was regardless a dynastic arrangement. While he and Maximian were metaphorical brothers (admittedly a novel approach to dynasty), they made the generals Constantius and Galerius into their sons-in-law and then, upon co-option, adopted them as their sons. Maximian's son Maxentius then married Galerius' daughter Valeria Maximilla.

Interestingly, despite the long-term failure of this experiment, Constantine appears to have organized the succession to himself in a not entirely dissimilar manner, appointing his three sons (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and nephew (Dalmatius) as Caesars and also adding another figure to the mix, appointing his nephew Hannibalianus as 'King of Kings and of the Pontic Peoples'. Of course, if Diocletian can be accused of mismanaging the succession, so can Constantine. Although Diocletian's approach to heredity was misguided, at least he appears to have attempted to supervise his own controversial succession. Despite a reign of 31 years, Constantine never got around to promoting any of his Caesars to Augustus, thereby failing to establish a hierarchy for the imperial college that would follow. Upon his death in 337, none of his Caesars ventured to declare themselves Augustus until Constantius II had slaughtered Dalmatius, Hannibalianus and almost every other male member of that side of the family. Three years later (340) Constantine II was then killed attempting to assert his seniority over Constans, and the resulting joint rule of Constans and Constantius II included a period of cold war during the mid-340s. Constans also failed to fully win over the officers and military units that had served under Constantine II, and in 350 these officers assassinated him, thus precipitating the destructive civil war of 350-353. The deaths of 337, 340 and 350 helped to set up the eventual end of the Constantinian dynasty, whereby in 363 Julian died with no male successor.
 
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Rating Diocletian::

It is suggested in this thread that Diocletian did little to restore order to the imperial college during the troubles of 306-311. It is true that he refused to return to active power when asked by Maximian and Galerius (who, at this point, were competing for the position of senior-ranking Augustus), famously replying (Epitome de Caesaribus 39.6): '"If you could see at Salonae the cabbages raised by our hands, you surely would never judge that a temptation." But he nevertheless did intervene from a backseat position. At the beginning of 308, at the height of the crisis, Galerius made Diocletian his co-consul, signalling Diocletian's support for his authority. Then, in the latter part of that year, Diocletian consulted with Galerius and Maximian, and a) persuaded Maximian to return to retirement, and b) supported Galerius' new arrangement of power, whereby Licinius was made the new Augustus in the west, Constantine and Maximinus were re-confirmed as being legitimate Caesars (with Constantine having previously been snubbed by Galerius as a legitimate member of the imperial college), and Maxentius was confirmed as being a usurper.

As for whether, in 308, he should have just returned to being an active emperor, this would have upset his existing plans even more and would have probably mattered little to combatting the ambitions of Maxentius and Constantine. Diocletian had not ruled in the west since his appointment of Maximian as co-ruler in 285, and since then had only visited the west twice (288, 303). The city of Rome, under the rule of Maxentius, is unlikely to have had much love for Diocletian, since, incredibly, he had only visited the city once or twice (303, maybe 285). Maxentius and Constantine would not have had much love for Diocletian either, having been snubbed by him in 305 and, in Maxentius' case, also earlier in 293.
 
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sparky

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Would it be wrong to think of the Tertrarchy as as an executive arrangement rather than a legislative one ?
 
Oct 2018
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:

It is noted in this thread that Diocletian strengthened the imperial government and enhanced the prestige of the position of emperor. This is certainly true. Diocletian and then Constantine helped to expand the imperial bureacracy. From R. Smith (2011: Measures of Difference: The Fourth-Century Transformation of the Roman Imperial Court, American Journal of Philology 132: 125–51) 135-136: 'The sheer human size of the late court is also telling, and here, too, Diocletian's reforms are a hinge. The doubling of the number of the empire's provinces to around one hundred, grouped into a dozen newly created "dioceses," fuelled a boom in the number of its administrative offices; and over the fourth century, the banding of dioceses within territorial praetorian prefectures would create still more offices. In the mid third century, it has been estimated, there had been around three-hundred salaried senior civil servants to administer the empire, working with clerical assistance of (at most) 10,000 slaves and freedmen of the imperial household. Estimates of the total size late fourth century, by contrast, put it at around 35,000, of whom perhaps as many as 6,000 held "upper-level" posts that presupposed senatorial status or automatically conferred it (Heather 1998: "Senators and Senates”. In CAH2 13: 184-210, p. 189).'

Diocletian is also credited with pushing imperial ceremonial further into the realm of quasi-divinity. For example, Aurelius Victor (Liber de Caesaribus 39.2-7) states: '(Diocletian) was, in fact, the first who really desired a supply of silk, purple and gems for his sandals, together with a gold-brocaded robe. Although these things went beyond good taste and betrayed a vain and haughty disposition, they were nevertheless trivial in comparison with the rest. For he was the first of all after Caligula and Domitian to permit himself to be called “Dominus” in public and to be adored (adoratio) and addressed as a god.'

Eutropius 9.26, who uses the same lost source as Victor: 'He put ornaments of precious stones on his dress and shoes, when the imperial distinction had previously been only in the purple robe, the rest of the habit being the same as that of other men.’

Ammianus 15.5.18 (the context is that Constantius II is allowing Ursicinus back into his inner circle): 'And when (Ursicinus) had been summoned by the master of ceremonies (which is the more honourable way) and had entered the council chamber, he was offered the purple to kiss much more graciously than ever before. Now it was the emperor Diocletian who was the first to introduce this foreign and royal form of adoration, whereas we have read that always before our emperors were saluted like the higher officials.'

It is also notable that Diocletian and Maximian adopted the theophoric signa Jovius and Herculius respectively, suggesting a close relationship to Jupiter and Hercules (they later passed these signa onto their Caesars).

Rather than betraying a vain disposition, as Victor suggests (Victor had a strong bias against non-senatorial emperors), such developments may reflect the increased need to surround the imperial position with a protective aura against trigger-happy soldiers and generals.

Moreover, this approach to emperorship did not begin with Diocletian. Rather, Diocletian represents a memorable step in this direction within a broader third-century trend. The Historia Augusta claims that Gallienus dressed in gold and jewels (Two Gallieni 16.4), which Julian satirizes in The Caesars (313c). Gallienus is also the first emperor to be depicted on coins with a diadem (although Severus Alexander had earlier appeared with a diadem in a statue). In contrast, the Epitome de Caesaribus claims that Aurelian used gold and jewels to a degree almost unknown to Roman custom and (contra the evidence) was the first to wear a diadem (35.5). Malalas claims that Aurelian wore a diadem decorated with a star (p. 299 (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 32)). See also A. Watson (1999: Aurelian and the Third Century) 180 on the title of Dominus: 'It is most commonly associated with the period which began towards the end of the third century, until recently known as the ‘Dominate’, when autocratic rule allegedly became the accepted norm. In practice, the title had always been applied to emperors in common parlance and literary works; during the course of the second century it became an established part of the imperial titulature on inscriptions. Its first appearance on the imperial coinage under Aurelian must therefore be understood as part of a gradual trend rather than a radical step towards autocratic representation. Inscriptions to Severina likewise accorded her the title domina.'
 
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Rating Diocletian::

Within this thread Diocletian's college of four, referred to by modern scholars as the 'Tetrarchy', cops some flak as a short-sighted arrangement of power. Certainly, the arrangement did not succeed in becoming an enduring solution to imperial instability since it ultimately required Diocletian's personal influence to hold it together. But we should also give credit where it's due, and the Tetrarchic arrangement brought much needed stability to an empire that for the past fifty years had been ravaged by usurpations, civil wars and foreign incursions. It was an ambitious measure, to be sure. It shared actual power between four adult men, as opposed to, say, the earlier 'Tetrarchy' of Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and the child Caesars Commodus and Annius Verus, in which case only Marcus and Lucius had actual power. These four men were career soldiers, and under the overall leadership of Diocletian (who must have been an exceptionally imposing figure with an unusual capacity to influence others) their college functioned remarkably well. The Tetrarchic system helped against both the problem of foreign incursions and the threat of military rebellion (the officers and soldiers of each frontier wanted a present emperor to look after their affairs). Diocletian and Maximian also presented themselves as brothers despite being unrelated in any legal sense, the first emperors to do so, which, I would argue, was intended to appeal to the soldiery, for whom metaphorical fraternity was important.

The spirit of innovation present within the Tetrarchic arrangement and the employment of metaphorical fraternity was replicated in the succession, namely through abdication (Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, and Galerius supposedly intended to abdicate in 312, but died in the previous year) and the rejection by Diocletian and Galerius of hereditary claims (in 293, 305, 308 and 311). Having been planned sometime beforehand, the abdication of the Augusti was possibly intended to fulfil the expectation that the Caesars would become Augusti, and to allow Diocletian to supervise the succession. The rejection of hereditary claims in favour of the co-option of generals may have been influenced by problems with hereditary succession during the third century, and was perhaps partly intended to appease troubled military units desirous of emperors with strong military credentials. By the year 305 Diocletian also appears to have wanted to set up Galerius as his de-facto successor (as opposed to Constantius, the senior-ranking Caesar), and thus wanted to appoint Caesars who would toe the line for Galerius. In the case of the succession in 305, whereby Constantine and Maxentius, both now adults, were overlooked in the co-option of the new Caesars, this approach to succession was a failure. Presumably Diocletian underestimated how much trouble the snubbing of these sons would cause. This opinion may have been influenced by decades of seeing imperial sons slaughtered by soldiers, and the contrasting success of non-dynastic claimants like Aurelian and Probus.

That said, Diocletian's Tetrarchy was regardless a dynastic arrangement. While he and Maximian were metaphorical brothers (admittedly a novel approach to dynasty), they made the generals Constantius and Galerius into their sons-in-law and then, upon co-option, adopted them as their sons. Maximian's son Maxentius then married Galerius' daughter Valeria Maximilla.

Interestingly, despite the long-term failure of this experiment, Constantine appears to have organized the succession to himself in a not entirely dissimilar manner, appointing his three sons (Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans) and nephew (Dalmatius) as Caesars and also adding another figure to the mix, appointing his nephew Hannibalianus as 'King of Kings and of the Pontic Peoples'. Of course, if Diocletian can be accused of mismanaging the succession, so can Constantine. Although Diocletian's approach to heredity was misguided, at least he appears to have attempted to supervise his own controversial succession. Despite a reign of 31 years, Constantine never got around to promoting any of his Caesars to Augustus, thereby failing to establish a hierarchy for the imperial college that would follow. Upon his death in 337, none of his Caesars ventured to declare themselves Augustus until Constantius II had slaughtered Dalmatius, Hannibalianus and almost every other male member of that side of the family. Three years later (340) Constantine II was then killed attempting to assert his seniority over Constans, and the resulting joint rule of Constans and Constantius II included a period of cold war during the mid-340s. Constans also failed to fully win over the officers and military units that had served under Constantine II, and in 350 these officers assassinated him, thus precipitating the destructive civil war of 350-353. The deaths of 337, 340 and 350 helped to set up the eventual end of the Constantinian dynasty, whereby in 363 Julian died with no male successor.
I should add that Diocletian deserves credit for managing to rule for 21 years and then abdicating to live a peaceful retirement. That is an impressive feat. Over the past fifty years around fifty different people had claimed the imperial titles of Augustus or Caesar, before being cut down by their own soldiers or those of a rival emperor. Diocletian thus had little reason to believe he would survive for very long. And yet he did, and in the process he gave the empire a chance to pull itself out of the troubles of the third century.
 
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In this thread it is accepted that Carinus, the emperor whom Diocletian overthrew, was a lazy tyrant who spent his time in Rome while his father Carus and brother Numerian fought campaigns against Persia and on the Danube. But what needs to be understood is that the image of Carinus the rapacious womanizing tyrant consists of cliches with which Roman writers condemned 'bad' emperors. It probably owes itself much more to Diocletianic propaganda than to reality. Carinus was no slouch. He campaigned against Germans on the Rhine and the Quadi on the Danube. Diocletian and the Tetrarchs naturally vilified the emperor whom Diocletian ousted from power, and this vilification would have persisted throughout the fourth century by virtue of sources consulted and also the fact that the Constantinian dynasty originated with Constantius, a Tetrarch. In fact, Constantius was the governor of Dalmatia during the reign of Carinus. He would soon receive a prestigious military career under Diocletian and his future co-emperor Maximian, receive a marriage alliance with Maximian in c. 288, and in 293 would be co-opted into their imperial college as Caesar, before being promoted to Augustus in 305. Could it be that Constantius made a friend of Diocletian (and Maximian) by switching sides during the civil war with Carinus? If Constantius had switched sides as the governor of Dalmatia, this would be useful since Dalmatia was very near to Moesia, where the Battle of the Margus, between Diocletian and Carinus, was fought. It seems likely. Indeed, Constantius eventually named a son of his Dalmatius, seemingly in honour of the appointment he held around the time of this civil war.

Let's look closer at how Diocletian took power.

In November 284 in Asia Minor the imperial army in the east discovered their emperor Numerian dead and decaying in his litter. In the politicking that followed, the commander of Numerian's protectores domestici (bodyguard), Diocles, was declared emperor by the army and changed his name to Diocletianus (Diocletian). Standing on the podium before the assembled troops, the new emperor then accused Numerian's praetorian prefect/father-in-law Aper of having killed the emperor and immediately slew him with his own sword, an act without parallel in Roman history. Diocletian had possibly had a hand in the emperor’s death, since his command meant he had proximity to the emperor, and the ‘discovery’ of Numerian’s body had been suspiciously delayed. But thanks to Diocletianic apologetics, the sources attribute the murder and delay solely to Aper (admittedly, because of his proximity, it is certainly plausible that this man was also involved).This was all in spite of the fact that Numerian's brother Carinus was still emperor and was currently ruling in the west.

News of Numerian's death and Diocletian's usurpation travelled, and Carinus' praetorian prefect Sabinus Julianus took matters into his own hands, launching his own usurpation against his benefactor. Julianus' usurpation was a fleeting affair. He fought Carinus near Verona in Italy and was soundly defeated and killed. However, the usurpation of Julianus meant that Carinus needed a new praetorian prefect, and he appointed the equestrian-ranked Tiberius Claudius Aurelius Aristobulus to assume this role. Knowing he would need to face Diocletian in battle, Carinus sought to secure Aristobulus' loyalty. For the year 285 Carinus assumed the ordinary consulship and made Aristobulus his consular colleague. In receiving the office of consul, Aristobulus was also admitted into the senatorial order.

Carinus then marched against Diocletian, who had entered the Balkans with his army. Carinus was intimidating. He had already defeated two usurpers during his reign (Sabinus Julianus and, in 283, Marcus Aurelius Julianus). But Diocletian was not to be underestimated. By early 285 Diocletian had received recognition as emperor from the Roman Near East (a source of trained soldiers) and Egypt (the empire's most important source of grain, which was necessary for feeding the army). Moreover, Diocletian did not rely solely on armed combat in his war against Carinus.

When the armies of Carinus and Diocletian faced one another near the river Margus near Viminacium, Carinus' army gained the upper hand. Sources vary, but either Carinus won the battle or was in the process of winning the battle when he was struck down by one of his tribunes. The hostile sources, influenced by Diocletianic propaganda, claim that Carinus was killed because he had defiled the wives of his officers. Perhaps this is true, but it is a literary trope often applied by Romans to rulers whom posterity has decided were tyrants. In any case, the tribune that slew Carinus was not necessarily the only person involved in the conspiracy. Aristobulus appears to have betrayed his emperor. After Diocletian won the civil war, he allowed Aristobulus to retain the offices of praetorian prefect and consul. To allow Aristobulus to retain an office as powerful as the praetorian prefecture is telling. Aurelius Victor reports that this was because of the services (officia) that he had rendered (Liber de Caesaribus 39.14). It would appear that, despite Carinus' attempts at securing the loyalty of his new praetorian prefect, Aristobulus turned against his master in favour of Diocletian.

At some point before 290 Aristobulus ceased to hold the praetorian prefecture, but Diocletian did not cease to present him with honours. He held the prestigious proconsulship of Africa for an exceptionally long tenure of four years (290-294), and he was then rewarded with the urban prefecture (295-296). These two posts represent the pinnacle of honours that could be awarded to a senator short of giving him a second ordinary consulship (a rarity for anyone who wasn't an emperor or Caesar).
 
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Naomasa298

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Would you like to write us an article on Diocletian? It would need to have sources and references.

"Dibty", I like this. I shall call you this from now on.