ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fourth Century

Section 2: Building a New Roman Empire

Steven Muhlberger


The emperor Diocletian's reign (284-305) marks a new start for the Roman Empire. He began, however, as a typical usurper of the late third century. A Dalmatian soldier from an obscure background, he rose through the ranks until the mysterious death of the Emperor Numerian on the way back from a Persian expedition gave him an opportunity to seize supreme power. According to the historian Eutropius,

Diocletian's first act was to swear in front of an assembly of the soldiers that Numerian had not died from any plot of his. Then, because the praetorian prefect Aper, who had been intriguing against Numerian, was standing there next to him, Diocletian with his own hand struck Aper down in sight of the whole army.

Such ruthlessness in imperial circles was not rare, before or after Diocletian. What makes Diocletian important was that he was able to turn his control of Numerian's army into a long-lasting dominance of the entire empire.

The chief reason for Diocletian's success was his willingness to share power with co-emperors, and his talent for picking appropriate partners. It had been a long time since one emperor had been able to rule the entire Mediterranean basin, by using armies recruited from Italy to terrify everyone else. Rome was no longer an Italian empire. The soldiers who maintained the imperial boundaries came from all over, and the armies themselves, based in widely separated areas, were the true centers of power. These armies were the chief threat to an emperor's life and throne if he was not on the spot to keep an eye on the commanders. The civil wars of the third century were an extended demonstration that one emperor could not be everywhere at once, could not hold the entire empire together. A team of emperors was necessary. Diocletian was not the first man to realize this truth. He did, however, assemble a cohesive and very successful team. His Tetrarchy (a junta of four members, Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius) held together for nearly twenty years, giving Roman politics a continuity it had not had for a long time.

ILLUSTRATION: Two portraits of Diocletian.

Diocletian's reign, however, was not a time of peace. Central authority did not come naturally to the large area imperialists thought of as Roman territory. It had to be enforced. Rival emperors had to be destroyed; armies had to be brought under the control of the Tetrarchy, and rebuilt; local leaders had to be brought into submission; barbarians had to be punished for their attacks on Rome, and Persian aggression repulsed. There were very few years when the Tetrarchs were not at war, either within or without the notional boundaries of empire.

The restoration of the empire was an extremely expensive process. Diocletian's regime depended on successful taxation as much as it did on military success. The old tax system had been ruined long ago by inflation and disorder. Third-century emperors had been forced to make do with large-scale requisitions of supplies. Diocletian and his partners created a new system in which every piece of land and every rural inhabitant of the empire was, at least in theory, counted and recorded. Units of land were assessed for their ability to produce and supply grain, wine or oil, and were taxed in kind, while countryfolk were registered for a monetary head- tax in their village or estate of residence. (Urban resources were less heavily and less systematically taxed.) Great registers were compiled which allowed the emperors to see what and where their primary resources were, and who specifically was responsible for paying taxes on them.

This was just one of many ambitious measures by which the Tetrarchy sought to make its authority a reality in every part of the empire. Diocletian and his colleagues were true believers in the virtues of central authority, which was seen as divine (an emperor was addressed as "lord and god"). The divine will was implemented by discipline: every subject's duty to the emperors was clearly defined in law.

It is doubtful that Diocletian's system ever worked very efficiently. Twentieth-century governments, with many more officials and technological advantages, are never able to enforce their will as well as they wish. But the demands of the imperial government had a great impact on the ordinary subject. Brutal measures were taken to ensure that farmers and workers in essential occupations stayed where they belonged; town councillors were held strictly accountable for the taxes of their localities; new officials were created to supervise provincial governors. Those in authority gained dramatic powers over those subject to them. Diocletian set the tone for a century in which landlords were permitted by law to chain their tenants, and governors to flog mayors.

The Great Persecution of the Christians, the most famous of Diocletian's policies, is a good example of the thinking and the techniques of his regime, and the limits of its success. The superhuman scope of the task they had set themselves made the Tetrarchs insistent on absolute obedience. They were, after all, the instruments of divine order, servants of the Roman gods who had made the Roman people great once and who would do so again if properly worshipped. The Christians, who denied the emperors' ultimate authority and scorned the traditional gods were thus dangerous dissidents: they were violators of "the ancient laws and public discipline of the Romans," people who broke the "peace with the gods" that was the true foundation of imperial prosperity. In 303 Galerius Caesar, Diocletian's imperial associate in the eastern provinces, convinced the senior emperor to move systematically against the Christians. The first imperial orders merely mandated the destruction of church buildings and Christian books, and deprived Christians of standing in the law courts. Over the next few years, Galerius issued progressively harsher edicts until in 306 he required that everyone should sacrifice to the gods. Names were checked against the tax roles by officials to catch evaders, who were subject to torture and execution.

The imperial orders were carried out -- in some places with enthusiasm -- but the goal of forcing Christians back into the ancestral religion was not achieved. Many Christians went through the motions of obediance to avoid punishment; others, willing martyrs, helped stiffen resistance among their fellows. Among pagans, even within the imperial court, the whole policy became increasingly unpopular. The turbulence of persecution was one more burden laid by a harsh government on a long-suffering population. In this respect, as in others, the government of the Tetrarchs could muster impressive force and determination, but there were limits to its effective power. Persecution was being abandoned for purely political reasons even before the advent of Constantine as the first Christian emperor.


Next Section.

Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.


Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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