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5.0 out of 5 stars An absolutely first-rate popular history of a turning point, 23 Nov 2013
This review is from: Diocletian and the Roman Recovery (Roman Imperial Biographies) (Paperback)
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.
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