Diocletian’s Character: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 13 Part 3

The Palace of Diocletian at Split

From when he became president to his resignation, we know virtually every word that Richard Nixon said.  Acres of print have been covered in writing about him.  Many of his staff and close friends are still alive and have talked about him freely.  And yet the man is an enigma.  We don’t feel we know him or what motivated him at all. Some people just seem to have opaque characters no matter how much you know about them. On the other hand,  Diocletian lived centuries ago and many of his actions were deliberately aimed at obscuring what is true thoughts and intentions were.  Despite this Gibbon is able to paint a detailed portrait of the man and we feel that we are getting to know him well.  Unlike Nixon, everything he does seems to express his character.

So what was he like?  Above all he was a realist and a pragmatist.  In the last episode we saw Galerius smash the power of the Persians. It must have been tempting to push on to the complete destruction of their empire and extend Roman power to the borders of India.  That was after all what the otherwise highly sensible Trajan did.  But Diocletian knew overstretch when he saw it and pulled back.

He was content to extract from the Persians a highly advantageous settlement that left the Romans with more territory, enhanced prestige and with secure borders and the prospect of a reasonable period of peace.  Tiridates was back as king of a new and larger Armenia. His heroic efforts had paid off in the end, though in the event it was Roman might rather than his personal courage that had actually secured him his throne. In fact he could just as easily have spent the whole time in Rome and just made up the stuff about the earlier campaign for all the difference it made. But as it was things turned out pretty well for him.  He went on to become an opulent and respected sovereign, and he is still remembered by Armenians as one of their greatest kings.

Back to Diocletian.  There is a real air of competence about all his actions.  He got things done.  But he wasn’t a micro manager. His most characteristic achievement – the tetrarchy – reflected his sober realisation that one man could not be everywhere and could not do everything. His choice in associates shows a good judge of character. You don’t get many men like Maximian. He was able enough to run a large chunk of the empire and to lead troops effectively and was clearly ambitious.  But his loyalty to Diocletian was constant. Likewise the choices of Constantius and Galerius were highly suited to the roles he selected them for. Finding a reliable deputy is a tough enough job.  Finding capable men to both exercise a lot of power in the short run and have the potential for the top job later is tougher still.

He was also highly organised and planned methodically. When he awarded himself a well deserved triumph on the twentieth anniversary of his accession to power. You can’t help but wonder if he had actually had this event on his schedule for the whole of the preceding twenty years. It covered a lot of ground from a long and successful reign. Britain, the Moors, Egypt, the Alemanni, the Franks and the Persians were all well aware of the military prowess of Diocletian and the able team behind him.

A triumph so long anticipated and celebrating events from so long ago must have seemed rather more retrospective than triumphant. And after twenty years it was probably obvious that Diocletian would not be around that much longer. I imagine the mood among the crowds was rather more backward looking than would normally have been the case for this kind of event. It might well have seemed a bit like a celebration of a passing era, one that given the age of Diocletian was likely to be pass quite soon.

Nobody in the crowd could have guessed that this was to be the last triumph to be held in Rome. A tradition that stretched back probably a thousand years was, though nobody could know it, ending.  But it was at least worthy of the name.  It would have been a pity if triumphs had become so commonplace that they ceased to have any meaning.  As it was, the last triumph was celebrated by an able emperor marking real and solid achievements. This was perhaps the last moment when Rome could be considered as the undisputed centre of imperial events. The emperors were soon to cease conquering and Rome itself was to be replaced as the first city of the empire.

The triumph of Diocletian was a very rare sighting of Diocletian in Rome itself.  It is even possible that it was his first and only visit.  He certainly didn’t go there often.  The average Roman citizen had a better chance of seeing Halley’s comet.  This was very much a conscious decision, part of his plan to change the nature of being an emperor. He spent most of his free time in the city of Nicomedia, which he had settled on as the capital of his own portion of the empire. It was half way between the two potential trouble spots of Syria and the Danube. Simply by choosing not to make an appearance in Rome he was signaling that he was not beholden to the Senate. He had no use for that venerable but outdated institution and simply ignoring it was about the most contemptuous attitude he could adopt to it.

Maximian, as ever, followed the lead of Diocletian and administered his area from a strategically important spot, namely Milan. Being based in Italy he was obliged to pay a bit more attention to the Senate. But that attention principally took the form of trumping up charges against the wealthier members as an excuse for taking their property away from them.

This was a big break.  Augustus and the men who followed him went to some trouble to hide the fact of their power and to pay lip service to the fiction that their powers were simply devolved from the Senate.  The fiction was important and had some real consequences.  It meant the emperors were not accorded any more esteem in the city of Rome than any ordinary Senator would expect.  The very title of emperor meant, at first, no more than a military commander.  The authority, the legitimacy even, of the throne came from being the first citizen among equals.  Whatever else the emperor was, he was not a king.

In the Latin half of the empire, the emperors never dared to assume the title of Rex.  But in the Greek half there was not so much prejudice against regal titles.  Early on the emperors came to be known in Greek by the Greek word for king.  That word was Basileus, and later it was to become the title of the Eastern Roman emperors.  Diocletian was more interested in the Eastern half of his empire, and in the East monarchs ruled by show and ostentation.  This was the model the Diocletian decided to adopt.

Diocletian started to behave much how an Eastern potentate would.  He surrounded himself with Eunuchs, ministers and courtiers.  To approach his person became increasingly difficult. Once you got to see him it was necessary to lay face down on the ground until summoned to speak.  Standard practice for a Persian king.  A new development for a Roman emperor. He also started to sport a diadem. Very eastern, not very Roman.  I’d love to know what it looked like.  Symbols like this still seem to be important even this long after the event.  If I imagine a light crown Diocletian still seems like a Roman emperor.  If he wore something more like the crowns of later European monarchs he begins to look like a figure from the Middle Ages in my mind.

(This coin gives a clue, though I wonder if the head gear depicted is supposed to be laurel leaves http://cdn2.iofferphoto.com/img/item/183/467/908/N00P.jpg)

It is very unlikely he was motivated by vanity. He had seen and understood men from all angles. He knew what made them tick. If he adopted the model of an inaccessible despot who overawed his subjects with his magnificence, he did it because he judged that approach most likely to succeed.

He made much more use of the notion that his appointment was divinely inspired and that he was Jupiter’s agent, or even that he was Jupiter taken human form.  The authority of Heaven now replaced the authority of the Senate in giving the emperor legitimacy.  This process was to be taken still further by the Christian emperors very shortly, but Diocletian started the process.

That he wasn’t under any illusions about the nature of power can be seen from this quote attributed to him.

It is the interest of four or five ministers to combine together to deceive their sovereign! Secluded from mankind by his exalted dignity, the truth is concealed from his knowledge; he can see only with their eyes, he hears nothing but their misrepresentations. He confers the most important offices upon vice and weakness, and disgraces the most virtuous and deserving among his subjects. By such infamous arts the best and wisest princes are sold to the venal corruption of their courtiers.

And that for sure sounds like the voice of experience talking.

Planner and strategist that he was, he tried to lay the best foundations for the future. The tetrarchy was a creative solution to the problem of succession. It might well have been a lot more successful than in the event it turned out to be. Unfortunately human nature can ruin the best of schemes. As a day to day form of government it worked well in the hands of its creator, but over time the drawbacks became more apparent.

Each of the four executives had large administrations around them centred on their courts. They also had their own military machines. The advantages of this apparent duplication of effort were quite large in the days of relatively slow communications. But there was a cost.  The citizens of the empire, or perhaps we should start to call them subjects, now had to support ostentatious courts and far more troops and administrators than before.

For all his ability, it is easy to imagine that Diocletian may well have had a blind spot when it came to economics. It wasn’t something that he would have needed to know much about during his rise to power. And as we have seen he had plenty on his plate when he got to power. The peace treaty he agreed with Persia has survived in some detail along with accounts of the negotiations. Interestingly the only point that the Persians objected to and which the Romans conceded was a detail about the establishment of trade. Did Diocletian let this go because he either wasn’t interested, or maybe just did not grasp its significance?

It is interesting because although he achieved military and political stability, he may well have presided over economic chaos. In one of the editions of Decline and Fall that I have read there is a contemporary editor’s footnote on this chapter drawing the reader’s attention to a newly discovered edict stipulating maximum prices for staple goods. Gibbon, who after all knew the father of modern economics Adam Smith, would have been extremely interested in this. The economic state of the empire at this time is a fascinating subject and I’d love to hear if anyone can suggest a good book about it.

But it is clear that for all the success of the reign of Diocletian, he had stored up problems for the future. Augustus had commented that the trick with taxation was to shear the sheep without skinning it. Diocletian doesn’t seem to have grasped this and may well have pushed expenditure and taxation beyond the ability of the empire to fund it – while having a very efficient system of collecting it. The result was to depress economic activity and weaken the very roots of the empire’s strengths.  There was no incentive to engage in productive activity if the state was going to take away all the proceeds. But it was his successors who had to cope with this.

But Diocletian was neither the first nor the last ruler who failed to grasp the significance of encouraging trade to ensure long term prosperity.  But this aspect is about the only one about him where he seems remotely ordinary.

It is a remarkable man who goes from being the son of a slave to leading a great empire. It is a remarkable man that makes a fundamental change to the empire he rules. But Diocletian has an even rarer claim to fame. Very few leaders in history have ever voluntarily given up their high office. Shortly after his 20 year triumph Diocletian resigned as emperor and retired. He had been ill and this was probably a big part of it, but you can’t help wonder if the great planner had always had this in mind. He certainly executed it with aplomb. Maximian was persuaded to resign at the same time. So in simultaneous announcements the Augusti handed over to their respective Caesars just as the new constitution required.

Diocletian retired to his native Dalmatia and built a villa close to what is now Split in modern Croatia. He took to private life with relish. At one stage Maximian tried to persuade him to return to the political stage. He famously replied that nobody would ask him to do so if he could see the cabbages he had grown with his own hand. He lived for another nine years. He can’t have been particularly happy about the events after he had left the stage, but I have a feeling his cabbages were adequate compensation.  If Diocletian understood anything, it was human nature.  And in the end I think he understood the true path to happiness.

If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning, and who wouldn’t, it starts with Augustus founding the empire.

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Diocletian’s Character: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 13 Part 3

  1. Calvus

    Do you know why the two Augusti had to resign simultaneously? I'm not quite clear on that. It seems like the Tetrarchy would work just fine, with one Augustus and one Caesar senior to the other two.

  2. I think that part of Diocletian's vision was fixed term emperors. So you get to Augustus level and you have 20 years to sort out your successor. His motivation was stability above everything else. But to be honest I don't really know.

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