The long-suffering people of the third-century Roman Empire had the distinct misfortune to live in interesting times. For three centuries before Constantine’s birth, Roman architects, engineers, and soldiers had crisscrossed the known world, bringing order and stability to the barbaric, diverse lands beyond the frontiers of Italy. In the wake of the mighty Pax Romana came more than fifty thousand miles of arrow-straight, graded roads and towering aqueducts, impervious alike to the mountains and valleys that they spanned. These highways were the great secret of empire, providing access to markets, ease of travel, and an imperial mail system that could cover more than five hundred miles in a single day. Graceful cities sprang up along the major routes, complete with amphitheaters, public baths, and even indoor plumbing—a visible testament to the triumph of civilization. But by the third century, time had ravaged the empire’s glory, and revolts had stained its streets with blood. Those impressive Roman roads that had so effectively exported the empire now became its greatest weakness as rebel armies and barbarian hordes came rushing in. No one—not even the ephemeral emperors—was safe in those uncertain times. In the first eight decades of the century, twenty-nine men sat on the imperial throne, but only one escaped murder or capture to die a natural death.
Apathy and enervation seemed to be everywhere, sapping the strength of once solid Roman foundations. The military, too busy playing kingmaker to maintain itself, fell victim like everything else to the sickness of the age. In 259, the proud Emperor Valerian led his soldiers against the Persians, and suffered one of the greatest humiliations in Roman history. Captured by the enemy, he was forced to endure the indignity of being used as a footstool by the gleeful Persian king. When the broken emperor at last expired, the Persians had him flayed, dyeing the skin a deep red color and stuffing it with hay. Hanging the gruesome trophy on a wall, they displayed it to visiting Roman ambassadors as a constant reminder of just how hollow the myth of the invincible legions had become.
Such public humiliation was galling, but Roman writers had been lamenting the decay of the national character for years. As early as the second century BC, Polybius blamed the politicians whose pandering had reduced the republic to mob rule, Sallust railed against the viciousness of political parties, and Livy—the most celebrated writer of Rome’s golden age—had written that “these days … we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.”*
Now, however, a more ominous note crept in. The predictions of disaster gave way to glowing panegyrics celebrating the greatness and permanence of emperors who were plainly nothing of the sort. The men on the throne seemed like shadows flitting across the imperial stage, an awful confirmation that the gods had turned their backs on humanity. Barbarian enemies were gathering like wolves on the frontiers, but the generals sent against them more often than not used their swords to clear a path to the throne. The army, once a servant of the emperor, now became his master, and dynasties rose and fell with bewildering frequency.
The chaos of nearly continuous civil war made it hard to tell who the emperor actually was, but the tax collectors came anyway, with their unceasing demands for more money. The desperate shadow emperors tried to save money by reducing the silver content of their coins, but the resulting inflation crippled the economy, and most of the empire reverted to the barter system. Terrified by the mounting uncertainty men took refuge in “mystery religions” that taught that the physical world was fleeting or evil, and put their hopes in magic, astrology, and alchemy. Life was full of pain, and the more extreme refused marriage or committed suicide to escape it. The very fabric of society was coming apart, and rich and poor alike prayed for deliverance.
Salvation came, unexpectedly enough, from Dalmatia. A tough soldier named Diocletian from that backward, rugged land of craggy peaks and lush forests rose up to claim the throne. Assuming power in the usual way by assassinating his predecessor and climbing over the bodies of rival armies, Diocletian was pragmatic enough to admit what others had only dimly suspected. The empire was simply too large to be successfully governed by one man in these troubled days. Its vast territory embraced the entire Mediterranean, stretching from the damp forests of Britain in the north to the blazing deserts of Egypt in the south, from the Rock of Gibraltar in the west to the borders of Persia in the east. Even if he spent his entire life in the saddle, Diocletian couldn’t possibly react quickly enough to stamp out every crisis, nor could he dispatch surrogates to fight on his behalf; recent imperial history provided too many examples of such generals using their armies to gain the throne. If the wobbling empire were to be preserved at all, Diocletian needed to somehow shrink its enormous size—a task that had overwhelmed all of his immediate predecessors. Few leaders in history can have started a reign with such a daunting job, but the pragmatic Diocletian found an unorthodox solution: He raised an old drinking buddy named Maximian to the rank of senior emperor, or Augustus, and split the world in half.
It wasn’t quite as revolutionary a decision as it sounded, especially because the empire was already divided linguistically. Long before Rome had dreamed of world conquest, Alexander the Great had swept east to India, crushing all who stood against him and forging the unwieldy territories into an empire. In his footsteps had come Hellenization, and though Alexander’s empire had crumbled with his death, Greek culture seeped in and took root. Rome had spread from the west like a veneer over this Hellenized world, superior in arms but awed by the older culture’s sophistication. Latin was spoken in the eastern halls of power, but not in its markets or homes. In thought and character, the East remained firmly Greek.
Handing over the western areas of the empire, where Latin was the dominant language, to Maximian, Diocletian kept the richer, more-cultured Greek east for himself. In theory, the empire was still one and indivisible, but each half would have a drastically different fate, and the rough line that was drawn between them still marks the divide between eastern and western Europe today. The full ramifications wouldn’t become clear for another two centuries, but Diocletian had effectively divided the world into Roman and Byzantine halves.
Sharing power with another man was a dangerous game for Diocletian to play since it ran the obvious risk of creating a rival, but Maximian proved to be an extremely loyal colleague. Pleased by the success, and aware that two men were still not enough to stem the tide of invaders streaming over the frontiers, Diocletian divided power again by appointing two junior emperors (Caesars). These men were given full authority to lead armies and even issue laws, and greatly eased the burdens of administration by the senior rulers. Four men could now claim an imperial rank, and though for the moment they were remarkably efficient, only time would tell if this “tetrarchy” (rule of four) would be a team of rivals or colleagues.
Diocletian, meanwhile, was just getting warmed up. The lightened workload enabled him to carry out a thorough reorganization of the cluttered bureaucracy. Replacing the chaotic system with a clean, efficient military one, he divided the empire into twelve neat dioceses, each governed by a vicar who reported directly to his emperor* Taxes could now be collected with greater efficiency, and the money that poured into the treasury could better equip the soldiers guarding the frontiers. With budget and borders in hand, Diocletian now turned to the monumental task of stabilizing the crown itself.
The emperor understood better than any man before him just how precarious the throne had become. Numerous revolts had made the army loyal to the personality, not the position, of the emperor, and such a situation was inherently unstable. No one man, no matter how powerful or charismatic, could keep every segment of the population happy, and the moment some vulnerability was spotted, civil war would erupt. In earlier days, the royal blood of long-lived dynasties had checked ambition, but now that any man with an army could make himself emperor, something more was needed. To break the cycle of rebellion and war, Diocletian needed to make the position of emperor respected regardless of who occupied the throne.
This was the great struggle of the ancient world. Stability was needed for an orderly succession, but often such stability could only be achieved by a tyrant, and every dictator who justified his seizure of power further undermined the principle of succession. In any case, the idea of elevating the concept of the throne flew in the face of established tradition. The past five decades had seen emperors drawn from among the army, men who went to great lengths to prove that they were just like the men they commanded. They ate with their troops, laughed at their jokes, listened to their worries, and tried their best to hold on to their loyalty. Such a common touch was necessary; without it, you could easily miss the first flickers of unhappiness that might ignite into civil war, but it also reinforced the idea that emperors were just ordinary men. Mere mortals could be killed and replaced at will; Diocletian had to prove that emperors were something else entirely. If he failed to change that, then all that he had accomplished would be undone the moment he fell from power.
The Roman Empire had a long tradition of masking its autocracy behind the trappings of a republic. The first emperor, Augustus, had declined to even carry the title of emperor, preferring instead the innocuous “first citizen.” For more than three centuries, the Roman legions had proudly carried standards bearing the legend SPQR, as if they served the will of the people instead of the whim of a tyrant.* Now, however, Diocletian wanted to change all that. No longer would the imperial authority be masked behind the worn veneer of the long-dead republic. Displays of naked power would awe the populace, whereas pretending to be the “first among equals” had tempted them to revolt.
Religion gave him the perfect outlet for his new political theory. Power and legitimacy didn’t flow up from the people, it flowed from the gods down—and Diocletian was more than just a representative of Jupiter, he was a living god himself. Those who were admitted to see him were made to prostrate themselves and avert their gaze from the brilliance of his presence. It was an impressive spectacle, and Diocletian made sure to dress the part. There would be no more simple military clothes for the divine master of the civilized world. A splendid diadem adorned his head—he was the first emperor to wear one—and a golden robe was draped around his shoulders. Cloaked in elaborate ceremonies borrowed from the East, where traditions of divine rulers ran deep, Diocletian now removed himself from the sight of ordinary mortals, a god among men, surrounded by the impenetrable layers of the imperial court.
Propping up the wobbly throne with the might of Olympus was a stroke of brilliance that had nothing to do with arrogance or self-importance. In a world of chronic revolts, there was nothing like the threat of a little divine retribution to discourage rebellion. Now revolts were acts of impiety, and assassination was sacrilege. At a stroke, Diocletian had created an autocratic monarch, a semidivine emperor whose every command had the full force of religion backing it up. Though the faith behind it would change, this model of imperial power would be the defining political ideology of the Byzantine throne.
The pagans of the empire accepted it all willingly enough. They were pantheistic and could easily accommodate a divine emperor or two—they had in fact been deifying their dead rulers for centuries. Unfortunately for Diocletian, however, not all of his citizens were pagan, and his claims of divinity brought him into sharp conflict with the fastest-growing religion in the empire.
It wasn’t in the least bit surprising that Romans were abandoning the traditional gods. The recent reforms of Diocletian had undoubtedly made things somewhat easier, but for the vast majority of citizens, life was still on the whole miserably unjust. Oppressed by a heavy tax burden, made worse by the corruption of half a century of chaos, the common man found no protection in the tainted courts and had to watch helplessly as the rich expanded their lands at his expense. Crushed into hopelessness, more and more people took refuge in the different mystery cults, the most popular of which was Christianity.
Against the arbitrary injustice of the world all around them, Christianity held out hope that their suffering wasn’t in vain; that the seeming triumph of their grasping tormentors would be reversed by an all-powerful God who rewarded the just and punished the wicked. They weren’t alone in a dark and fallen world, but could be nourished by the hand of a loving God who sustained them with the promise of eternal life. This physical world with all its pain was only fleeting and would pass away to be replaced by a perfect one where sorrow was unknown and every tear was wiped away. The old pagan religion, with its vain, capricious gods and pale, shadowy afterlife, could offer nothing so attractive.
When the imperial officials showed up to demand a sacrifice to the emperor, most Christians flatly refused. They would gladly pay their taxes and serve in the army or on committees, but (as they would make abundantly clear) Christianity had room in it for only one God. No matter how powerful he might be, the emperor was just a man.
This rejection of Diocletian’s godhood struck at the very basis of imperial authority, and that was one thing the emperor wasn’t prepared to tolerate. These dangerous rebels—godless men who denied all divinity—had to be wiped out. An edict demanding sacrifice to the emperor on pain of death was proclaimed, and the Roman Empire launched its last serious attempt to suppress Christianity.
The effects were horrendous, especially in the east, where the edict was enforced with a terrible thoroughness. Churches were destroyed, Christian writings were burned, and thousands were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. But despite the fervor with which they were carried out, the persecutions couldn’t hope to be successful. Pagans and Christians had been more or less coexisting for years, and the suffering of the church was met with sympathy. There were the old stories, of course, the whispered tales of cannibalism and immorality, of Christians gathered in secret, eating their master’s flesh and drinking his blood, but nobody really believed them anymore. Most pagans refused to believe that a religion that encouraged payment of taxes, stable families, and honesty in trade could be full of dangerous dissidents, threatening the security of the state. Christians were neighbors and friends, common people like themselves, struggling as best they could to make it in a troubled world. Christianity in any case couldn’t be swept under the rug or persecuted out of existence. It had already spread throughout the empire and was well on its way to transforming the world.
Diocletian was fighting a losing battle against Christianity, and by AD 305 he knew it. A twenty-year reign had left him physically exhausted, and the glittering prestige of office no longer compensated enough. Nearing sixty and in declining health, the emperor had seen his youth slip away in service to the state and had no desire to spend what years remained under such a burden. Stunning his coemperors, he took a step unprecedented in Roman history, and announced his retirement. Typically of Diocletian, however, it was no mere abdication. It was, in its own way, as ambitious as anything he had ever attempted: a stunningly farsighted thrust to reverse the tide of history.
The ancient world never quite figured out the question of succession. The Roman Empire, like most in antiquity, had traditionally passed the throne from father to son, keeping control of the state in the hands of a small group of families. The great weakness of this system was that if the dynasty failed to produce an heir, the empire would convulse in a bloody struggle until the strongest contender prevailed. Whatever successive emperors might say about their divine right, the truth was that their legitimacy rested on physical strength, superior brains, or a well-placed assassination. Only in the written constitutions of the Enlightenment would political regimes find a solution to this basic instability. Without it, every reign was reduced at its core to the principle of survival of the fittest—or, as Augustus, wrapped up in the cloak of the republic, had more eloquently put it, “carpe diem”—seize the day.
Rome never really figured out a stable means of succession, but it did come close. Two centuries before Diocletian, in what must have seemed an idyllic golden age to the war-torn empire of his day, a succession of brilliant, childless rulers had handpicked the most capable of their subjects and adopted them as heirs. For nearly a hundred years, the throne passed from one gifted ruler to the next, overseeing the high-water mark of Roman power and prestige, and offering a glimpse of what could be accomplished when qualifications to high office were based on merit instead of blood. But this oasis of good government was only due to the fact that none of the adoptive emperors had sons of their own, and in the end heredity proved to be its Achilles’ heel. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “adoptive” emperors, had thirteen children, and when he died he left the empire to his aptly named son Commodus. Drunk with power and completely unfit to rule, the new emperor convinced himself that he was a reincarnation of Hercules, took the titlePacator Orbis (pacifier of the world), and renamed Rome and the months of the year in his honor. The Roman people endured their megalomaniacal ruler for twelve long years as his reign descended into depravity, before a senator finally took matters into his own hands and had the emperor strangled in his bath.* Once again, enlightened rule gave way to dynastic chance.
Diocletian’s final announcement, therefore, was a revolution nearly fifteen centuries ahead of its time. This was not simply the abdication of a tired old man; it was a full-blown attempt at a constitutional solution to the question of succession. Both he and Maximian would be stepping down at the same time; their respective Caesars, Galerius and Constantius the Pale, would become the senior emperors, appoint their own Caesars, and complete the smooth transfer of power. Not only would this ensure a clean, orderly succession without the horrors of a civil war, it would also provide the empire with experienced, capable rulers. No man could become Augustus without first having proven himself as a Caesar.
Laying down the crown and scepter, Diocletian renounced his power and happily settled down to plant cabbages at his palatial estate in Salonae, on the Adriatic coast.* His contemporaries hardly knew what to do with a retired god, and history has proved in its own way just as mystified about his legacy. He ended chaos and restored stability—perhaps enough to have earned the title of a second Augustus—but had the misfortune to be eclipsed—in every sense of the word—by the man who nineteen years later rose to power. Diocletian had cut the Roman Empire free from the moorings of its past, but the future lay with Constantine the Great.
*Ronald Mellor, The Historians of Ancient Rome: An Anthology of the Major Writings (New York: Routledge, 2004).
*When the early church was developing a hierarchy, it naturally absorbed that of the empire around it. Thus Diocletian’s reforms are still visible in the Catholic Church, in which bishops oversee a diocese and the pope is referred to as the “Vicar” of Christ.
*Senatus Poputusque Romanus (the Senate and the People of Rome).
*Among other depraved acts, Commodus amused himself by clubbing thousands of amputees to death in the arena.
*When begged to return as emperor, Diocletian responded wryly that the temptations of power couldn’t compete with the enjoyment of farming. The modern city of Split in Croatia is enclosed within the walls of his palace.