Tetrarchy of Diocletian
Diocletian (284 - 305) and Maximianus (285 - 305, etc, etc)
Back No next
Diocletian completely restructured the Imperial government, including formalizing the power sharing arrangement he made with his trusted general, Maximian, and developing a plan for smooth transition of power to hand-picked successors. Diocletian then became the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily "retire", then die of natural causes. Sadly, neither Maximian nor Diocletian's new government would come to such a happy end ...

Diocletian Antoninianus
About this coin: From relatively early in his reign, this coin is of the style of his predecessors. Along with his governmental reforms, he also instituted a complete restructuring of the monetary system, replacing these coins with others of a completely new look.

After working so hard (and, some say, treacherously) to obtain sole rule, Diocletian surprised everyone by appointing his trusted general, Maximian, to rule alongside him. With enemies pressing on many fronts, he put Maximian in charge of the west while he took charge in the east. Diocletian effectively battled various enemies of Rome on the Danubian front and in the east, including the Persians. With Maximian handling the defense of the western empire, Diocletian could focus his attentions on the east without fear of attacks from the rear.

Maximian Antoninianus
About this coin:

Maximian enjoyed a similar string of successes in the west, though there were a few glaring exceptions. Most notable of these was the rebellion by Maximian's naval commander, Carausius, who set himself up as Emperor in Britain. With a strong navy at his disposal, Carausius was able to thwart all attempts by Maximian to unseat him.

Meanwhile, Diocletian was thinking about the defects that had plagued the Imperial government over the past 50 years. Even such strong and able leaders as Aurelian and Probus had not been able to overcome these defects. He concluded that the problems were inherent in the system, not in the men who ran it. First, the empire was too big to be effectively ruled by one man; the successes of his joint rule with Maximian supported this. Second, the uncertainty of the succession was the root cause of much instability in the Roman government.

To solve both of these problems, Diocletian came up with the concept of the "Tetrarchy", or "rule by four". The Empire would always have two Augusti (senior emperors), one in charge of the west and one responsible for the east. Then, each Augustus would adopt a Caesar (junior emperor) as his helper and designated heir. This should lessen the temptation for would-be usurpers to murder the reigning emperors, since power would automatically pass to their Caesars. On March 1, 293, Maximian adopted Julius Constantius and Diocletian adopted Galerius Maximianus.

This worked quite well at first. With further frontier problems in North Africa and Persia, and the still unresolved issue of breakaway Britain, it proved quite useful to have four men with Imperial rank to deal with the problems. In fact, it was Constantius, who finally brought Britain to heel, and Galerius was the one who dealt with the Persians while Diocletian headed south to handle uprisings in Egypt.

Despite the remarkable (albeit temporary) successes of Diocletian's reforms, Christian writers of the time gave him consistently bad press. His successes were completely overshadowed in their eyes by the "Great Persecution", in which (apparently at Galerius's instigation) anti-Christian edicts were issued. In the west, under Maximian and Constantius, these edicts were mostly ignored, but in the east, they were enforced with vigor. Christians who refused to recant were tortured and killed.

But the most amazing thing about Diocletian's reign may well be how it ended -- that is, with voluntary abdication, followed by a (mostly) peaceful retirement. He had been quite ill through most of the year 304. Though he recovered, he became determined to test his plan for smooth Imperial succession. He convinced Maximian that the two of them should simultaneously abdicate, turning power over to their Caesars. Constantius and Galerius would then each appoint their own Caesars, and the system would continue to function. On May 1, 305, they carried out this plan.

Though the government that he had invented was thrown into disarray at his departure, Diocletian remained true to his word. Maximian, though, managed to get drawn back into the fray not once, but twice more.

The flaw in Diocletian's plan was that it eliminated the tradition of passing power from father to son, and both Maximian and Constantius had ambitious sons who were upset by being cut out. Without Diocletian's strong presence, the system descended into chaos. This provided the opportunity for Constantine to ruthlessly seize exclusive power, and to re-make the Roman Empire in his own image.

But that's another story ...


<-Previous Page (No Next Page)
Back To "Those Wacky Emperors"