Diocletian was declared a Roman emperor in the year 284, although only a few regions such as Asia minor and Syria recognized him as emperor. It wasn’t until 285 when the recognized master of the empire was assassinated, that he took his place as emperor. Like most important figures from this long ago, Diocletian’s history is obscured by legend and unreliable documentation.
What is known is that over his 20 years of rule he pulled the empire out of chaotic times with his political and financial reforms.
Now let’s explore some facts!
1. He created a new form of government
Diocletian created the Tetrarchy, which is like a monarchy, but instead of one ruler, there were four rulers. He divided the four rulers into two categories: Caesars and Augusti. Caesars were junior emperors and Augusti were senior emperors. The four of them divided up the empire so they each had fewer people to look after, an interesting fact about Diocletian.
2. His rise to power was foretold
Greek and Roman myth in this time period was filled with gods, fortune tellers, and chosen mortals. Diocletian believed he was one of these chosen mortals, as his rule was predicted by a fortune teller who said he would become emperor on the day he killed a boar.
When the recognized master of the Empire died, Diocletian accused a man named Aper, which means “boar” in Latin, of the late emperor’s murder. Aper was innocent, the previous emperor had died of natural causes, but Aper was killed for the crime. Having killed his boar, Diocletian took his place on the throne.
3. He came from the army, but he wasn’t actually a soldier.
Diocletian seemed to come from nowhere, but, in fact, he was brought to power by the military. Most of his life was spent in military camps, where he gained a following. An interesting fact about Diocletian is that once he was in power, he did his best to remove the army from politics, so a similar leader wouldn’t assassinate him.
Diocletian’s strength lay in his administrative abilities, and he didn’t want to deal with military matters, so he appointed people to suppress the near constant revolts on the outskirts of the empire.
4. He had a flair for the dramatic
Diocletian believed that it was the will of the gods that he rule over the Roman Empire, and so he came up with several titles for himself and the other rulers of the tetrarchy. They called themselves the princes of the world, they called themselves sons of gods, and creators of gods. They even changed their names to those of gods to let people know they had been chosen to rule with divine wisdom and heroic energy.
5. He was Conservative
Diocletian was an administrative man whose politics resembled that of a Conservative. He was concerned with tradition, family taking care of each other, respecting the laws of marriage, respecting authority, and private property rights. He took power away from any one individual in government by dividing up provinces, which also allowed the leaders to be more connected with their people.
Under Diocletian, the Empire became more bureaucratic and relied more on written law than individual people. Diocletian also made things easier for his military, exempting soldiers from duty after 20 years of service, and lowered the cost of living for them.
6. He Created a New Coin
Along with his domestic reforms, Diocletian made several financial reforms. He reinstated the use of silver and gold coins, as well as creating a new type of bronze coin for day to day usage, a fun fact about Diocletian. He increased the amount of coins being made, which may have caused the coins to become worthless, but Diocletian also passed laws to fix wages and set maximum prices for certain commodities to combat this. However, there wasn’t really any way to enforce those rules, and they were later revoked.
The coins made during this time, as well as statues made in Diocletian’s image, are the only way we know his appearance.
7. He lied to his Christian subjects about not killing them
Diocletian just happened to reside over the last great persecution of the Christian people. He followed the traditional Roman religion with its multitude of gods, and wasn’t a big fan of this relatively new religion with its single god. Diocletian was surrounded by anti-Christian advisors. He wanted to make sure the empire was united, and having everyone follow the same religion was the way he chose to create that unity. After unrest among the Christian citizens of the Empire, Diocletian wrote a document promising he would not spill their blood.
But he lied.
8. He was the Man his Empire Needed
Diocletian wasn’t the most exciting emperor, despite his flare for the dramatic. He took control of the Empire during a time it was completely chaotic, on the verge of collapse, and he did what he needed to in order to revive it. He created two new taxes, one for land ownership and one for the amount of productivity on the land. Every five years there was a reevaluation on all the peoples of the Empire, to see how much they would need to pay. Nobody was able to skip out on the bill, even the people of Italy, who, up until then, had enjoyed having no taxes. The Italians weren’t happy about the new taxes, but the Empire needed money to rebuild itself.
Although the Roman Empire did collapse later on, Diocletian became who he needed to become in order to keep it going for a little while longer, an interesting Diocletian fact.
Diocletian (full Latin name: Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus) ruled for 20 years, saving the Roman Empire from the brink of ruin and laying the foundation for the Byzantine Empire, and yet, he is rather forgettable. After his rule, which he readily gave up, he retired to a large palace and then died. His death went almost unnoticed by the world, but we thank him today for his contributions.
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