This is certainly one of the best biographies of a Roman Emperor that I have ever read, but it is also much more than that. It is also an account of the age of Diocletian - the late third and early fourth century - and a well-researched and unbiased account of his huge achievements and his few mistakes. In addition to being the first biography of Diocletian in English, it is also probably the best of all.
One of the main merits of this book is to set Diocletian's record straight. This Emperor has been one of the most maligned and many of his achievements have been either minimized or "confiscated" by and attributed (wrongly) to Constantin. This was essentially the work of the early Christian authors (mostly bishops) who, understandably, never forgave Diocletian for persecuting the Christians. Even to this day, this is what most of those that have ever heard of him know him for.
Another author mentioned this persecution as one of his "two significant mistakes". I beg to differ. Seen from a Roman Emperor's perspective, this was anything but a mistake: no Emperor at any time could tolerate to have some of his citizens refusing to swear the oath of fidelity or to have some of his soldiers refusing to fight on religious grounds. This was entirely unacceptable. In Roman eyes, it was in fact the cardinal sin against the State and Empire, whom the Emperor embodied according to Imperial ideology. It simply equated to high treason and warranted the death penalty. So Diocletian's reaction and harsh treatment of the Christians, which followed in the steps of a number of his predecessors, was both unsurprising and perfectly well-deserved. Historically, and within the context of his reign, his persecutions were probably much more limited and more efficient that they were subsequentely portrayed to be. That the Empire finally became Christian was entirely due to Constantin's political opportunism and this happened after Diocletian's death.
As for Diocletian's achievements, they are numerous, starting with the army and the frontiers, which he re-established and re-fortified, and the Empire's finances, which were in a terrible state when he came to power. To achieve such a restoration, he had to mobilize all energies and resources and set up what was in effect a rigid, authoritarian command-and-control economy and dictatorship. He also had to rely on subordinates, hence his "invention" (no quite an invention because there had been a few precedents) of having two Augustus, and then two Augustus assisted by two younger Caesars which would eventually succeed their elders and each promote their own deputies. He was essentially a pragmatist, an excellent organizer and strategist (meaning that, within the limitations of his time, he always say the "big picture") and, above all, a man of duty that did whatever it took to do the job, however harsh the solution had to be. At times, he seems to be, in my eyes, a mature Octavius Augustus cast into the Third Century or the embodiement of some of a Roman's traditional "virtues" (we might say characters streaks). This was particularly true of his energy and his relentless.
It is rather incorrect to state that he was unable to make his reforms outlast himself. Most of his reforms did outlast him and were even amplified by Constantin, who tried to take all the credit for them, such as those affecting the army, which was expanded, throughly reorganized and redeployed and the defense-in-depth system that Diocletian was one of the first to set up (see the Strate Diocletiana, for instance). This army and system managed to defend the Empire against all comers and despite multiple invasions for most of the 4th century and, when it failed (mainly in the West), this was not because it had been misconceived.
However, there were huge limits (rather than "mistakes") to Diocletian's achievements. One was certainly the Edict of maximum prices, or rather the underlying belief that, provided you had the willpower and energy to do so, you could regulate and control. The other was that he did not recognize the inherent flaws in his Tetrarchic system or, to be more accurate, to what extent the whole system relied on his own person and his unchallenged supremacy. In a way, he didn't realize just how exceptional he was until, having peacefully resigned (and forced his colleague Maximin to do so with him!), he saw his system crumble and new civil wars erupt as the ambitions sons of his former colleagues (Constantin and Maxence) made their bid for power.
Although certainly not a "nice and lovable" character, by the end of this book, I couldn't help feeling both sympathy and empathy for this exceptional Emperor who gave all he had to restore the greatness of ever-lasting Rome and who almost succeded. He was unfortunate enough to witness, before his death, a return of the harmful behaviors leading to civil wars and that he had tried so hard to suppress...
This is one of the best Roman history books I have ever read and I have read a lot of them. It analyses in great, yet never exhaustively boring, detail, what a fundamental innovator accomplished to save the Roman Empire during a period of precipitous disintegration and chaos. Not only did he turn around the unfolding collapse, but he established a system of government that served as a template for all governments that followed in the middle ages. It is astonishingly lucid and, however dry the administrative details may be, absolutely essential to understand the history that followed, to the present day.
The book starts with the tail end of the golden age of the Empire, during the relatively peaceful, populist reign of Marcus Aurelius. He had stabilized Rome with a perimeter defense, with outposts that protected the borders against barbarians that refused or were out of the reach from domination by the Roman system of governance. The barbarians at that time were essentially small tribes that were poorly organized and easily pitted against each other. Furthermore, since the time of Augustus, administration was haphazard, the privilege of senators closer to Rome and military men on the fractious outer reaches. Administrative functions were a mix of military competence, aristocratic privilege, and luck.
After the catastrophic reign of Commodus, the Empire entered a period of accelerating chaos - civil war at every passage of political power (i.e. the military and the Praetorian Guard came to the fore), increasingly organized barbarian tribes (they were mastering Roman military tactics), and a society and economy in downward spiral - that appeared to herald the end of Rome. The borders were no longer secure, necessitating desperate measures to defend the core of the Empire, essentially by requisition from those near the field of battle. The economic system began to break down in this period, with taxes no longer collected, trade shrinking by more than 75%, and the cities degenerating from vital centers into delapidated backwaters. The population shrunk, supplies were requisitioned by fiat and circumstance, impoverishing local populations and eroding the polity and community belief in the state.
The military coped as best it could. Key to this time was the rise of a new elite, the Albanian military men. Unlike the Roman educated aristocracy, they were all military, lacking classical finishing and manner, but tuned in to the necessities of permanent mobilization on a war footing. They were disciplined and hardened to the realities of power after 50 years of grinding uncertainty. This was where Diocletian came from, observing carefully and awaiting his opportunity to do better as he arose to generalship. Once declared emperor by his troops, he fought a brutal civil war and almost lost.
Aside from the persecution of Christians, Diocletian is remembered predominantly for the creation of a kind of tetrarchy, with co-emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesars). He did this to stabilize the empire and its power arrangements, dividing responsibilities geographically and by specialty. It was a shrewd move, freeing him from the necessity to scramble to answer every crisis as they occurred in person and enabling him to think strategically. This took, of course, extraordinary political skills to make it work, not only in choosing the right partners, but in keeping them happy and legitimate in the eyes of all citizens. He also changed the image of the Emperor in a more separated individual, with special links to God in the mold of the "oriental despot"; in this way, he was Zeus and his co-Augustus was Herakles, to whom absolute loyalty was sworn (which Christians refused to do).
The tetrarchy, as the book demonstrates, only just scratches the surface. Diocletian also professionalized the administration of the Empire with the creation of a bureaucracy, a more equitable tax system, and a revamped military strategy. In the process, the senatorial aristocracy lost the last vestiges of its privileges, opening the bureaucracy to talent, complete with career routes but also the systematic development of specialties for the first time (in the West, at least). I was simply astonished at how modern his ideas appear.
The most important part of this was the separation of military from other administrative functions. Moreover, the Praetorian guard lost its political role. This was an innovation so fundamental that it cannot be overestimated. Whereas competent administration depended to a great degree on luck in the confused mixing of aristocratic privilege, military position, and political career, it now became the provence of professionals. It also added stability because of the stricter division of labor - lacking experience, military men were far less likely to enter politics via coup. Finally, specialization encouraged the development of expertise for the bureaucracy. While this is the origin of the term "byzantine" to connote excessive bureaucracy, it was also a necessary step.
On the tax front, Diocletian began a comprehensive regime of census taking as a way to determine what citizens "owed" in taxes. Essentially, a percentage of labor was required of everyone, as determined by the needs of the Empire. The burden could be heavy, depending on circumstances, but everyone knew what they had to pay and that they shared it. This served to legitimize the Empire, enabled people to plan again, and contributed to the revival of the economy, though the population decline necessitated the use of German troops. Now, this makes for some pretty dry reading at times, but again, it is an innovation so far-seeing that it is a wonder, truly a work of political genius.
Finally, the military dimension. Building on the mobile cavalry that his predecessors created, Diocletian moved the military bases to strategic, fortified points - the forerunner of the chateaux forts that emerged in the 9thC CE - deeper within the borders, where they could service multiple points in a matter of days rather than weeks or months. The strong forts were staffed with disciplined professional forces, real military men like Diocletian. Nearer the borders, Diocletian developed a kind of peasant army, the cannon fodder that would absorb the brunt of attacks. It worked over the next 100 years.
Of course, in spite of these accomplishments, there were limits to Diocletian's vision and accomplishment. Like many military men, he viewed the economy as an irritation, and attempted to set up a command economy by setting prices by decree. It was an embarrassing failure. He also waged, perhaps reluctantly, a war against monotheistic religions, starting with the Manicheans, who were viewed as agents of the Persian Empire; the fight with Christianity originated with similar fears of revolutionary subversion. Far worse, his tetrarchy barely survived him. Not only did one of his original co-emperors initiate a civil war at the moment that Diocletian retired to a massive castle in Split, where he was an impassive and impotent observer, but the sons of original tetrarchy members (Constantine and Maxentius) fought each other and destroyed the system entirely.
I have few criticisms of the book. It may be focused too tightly on Diocletian, attributing too much to his foresight. He also goes a bit easy on his role in the persecution of Christians, placing the blame on a co-emperor when Diocletian was clearly the top dog. Nonetheless, this is a book that I will have to re-read every so often.
Though Williams is not a professional academic, his book is a masterpiece of popular history. If at times the prose is somewhat spare, the book is so dense with ideas and subtlety that it is a constant delight. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on 4 July 2011
Diocletian is largely a stranger to English Language academia, many of the principal studies of his reign, the tetrarchy and his economic policies have largely been in French and German works. This makes Stephen Williams work, highly welcome. William's displays a solid control of the source material, overcoming the bias of the primary sources (Lactantius and Eusebius are both hostile) as well as good knowledge of archaeological evidence, inscriptions and numismatics.
The book is more than a narrow biography and is as much about Diocletian the man as it is about his time period. Although it is a brief work, the content is placed in five superbly structured parts. These blend an insightful narrative history with some genuinely excellent thematic chapters, in particular Williams' discussion of military policy (loosely derived from Luttwak but well supported by good use of archaeological study), economic policy and also religious policy are well thought out with sound arguments. These chapters in particular would be very useful to anyone writing an essay on the Later Roman Empire (the appendicles are also very useful for academics).
Many arguments presented in the book provide real food for thought, Williams drives his reader towards some interesting conclusions, as well as reappraising the nature of the tetrarchy as a more collegiate system than arbitrarily territorial. Likewise he places Diocletian's rule in a more Roman mould, rather than seeing his rule as a product of Oriental Despotism he sees how it fits into the Roman respect for the law. Identifying, perhaps that the principal difference between Augustus' rule at the start of the Empire differed from Diocletian's rule more in the fact that whilst Augustus subtly held monarchical power Diocletian made this power explicit. Equally Williams makes a persuasive argument for acknowledging Constantine's debt to Diocletian, in the same way that much modern scholarship seeks to acknowledge Alexander the Great's debt to Philip II.
The tone of the work is considered, Williams is unlike some historians seeking to provide a rose tinted view of their subjects. He recognised Diocletian as a forceful character who stabilised the empire, but who was unable to make his reforms outlast himself and who made at least two significant mistakes (His edict on maximum prices and his persecution of the Christians). Williams comparison of Diocletian with Oliver Cromwell is very apt. For its size (230 pages) it is a very accomplished work.