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An excellent account of a much maligned Emperor, of his troubled times and of his achievements
on 28 December 2011
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...