- Oct 2018
I should have added that 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). I should have also specified that Diocletian and Maximian presented themselves as brothers to one another, not necessarily to the soldiery. Their propaganda constituted a somewhat paradoxical combination of messages including fraternity among military emperors, collegial harmony and symmetry, near-divine status, and the hierarchical supremacy of Diocletian.This will not surprise considering my username, but I submit Diocletian. For much of history, Diocletian was remembered above all else as the author of the Great Persecution. Indeed, among the few people who happen to be aware of Diocletian, the Persecution is still the main and sometimes only thing that comes to mind. However, beginning with Gibbon, and more so from the late 19th century onwards, scholars have increasingly recognized the stability, success and innovation that characterized his rule.
Diocletian had his faults. His ambitious Tetrarchic scheme of rulership was an extraordinary success with Diocletian at the helm, but it did not succeed in becoming an enduring solution to imperial instability since it ultimately required his personal influence to hold it together. His prices edict was a notable failure, but it nonetheless reflects the poor understanding of economics that existed in ancient times. But Diocletian was an innovative and incredibly hands-on ruler who was trying to find solutions to bring an end to the political, military and economic instability of his time, and in many key respects he succeeded. The Sassanians suffered a truly decisive defeat (and the humiliating Treaty of Nisibis) to the Romans, the taxation system was reformed to be more regular and equitable, a five-yearly census was introduced, the emperorship became more ideologically protected through the introduction of elaborate ceremonial and by being more closely associated with the divine, control over the provinces became more centralized, the imperial bureacracy was expanded, the frontiers were strengthened, law was compiled into codices for the first time, military support was successfully elicited after decades of rampant military rebellion (in part by emphasizing in propaganda that he and Maximian were brothers-in-arms), the power of individual governors and generals was weakened (reducing their ability to rebel), numerous barbarians were defeated, the power of the praetorian guard was diminished, the ten-year usurpation of the British emperors was defeated, the provincial cities of imperial residence were revamped with major building programs and the foundation of mints to become effective capital cities with more strategic significance than Rome, and the twenty years of Tetrarchic dynastic rule that Diocletian achieved (although that in itself did collapse into civil war after his abdication) paved the way for the political stability brought by Constantine and his dynasty, whose initial ascendancy came off the back of Constantius' legitimacy as a Tetrarch, thus helping to end the succession crisis of the later third century.
Diocletian's persecution of the Christians should be viewed through the lens of his problem-solving. In a time of great crisis, it is not surprising that there were people who thought that the gods were angry. The Christians were travelling the empire, converting people to their faith. They taught that it was wrong to sacrifice to idols. 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, but the persecution itself has done much to draw attention away from a broader appreciation of this unusual and successful emperor.