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Diocletian and the New Empire

Diocletian’s name turns up frequently on this blog. It was he, after all, who — more than any other Roman emperor — made martyrdom widely available to the greatest number of Christians. But pity the man, at least for a moment.

Diocletian saw the empire suffering repeated civil wars, and he knew that something was wrong in the basic structure of the Empire itself.

First of all, in order to restore the respect for the Emperor that had been tattered by the years of uprisings, he decided to imitate Eastern kings. Instead of presenting himself as one of the people, Diocletian magnified himself into a god, an awful figure who could be approached only with fear and trembling — and through a system of etiquette that was painfully complex. He wore splendid robes and surrounded himself with ceremony every hour of the day. He also made sure that the ancient Roman religion was restored to its former dignity — and unlike most upper-class Romans, he seems to have really believed in the old gods.

But restoring respect for the Emperor was only the beginning of his plan. Diocletian came up with a brilliant scheme to end the civil wars forever. The problem, as he saw it, was that there was no set way to choose an emperor. Usually whoever had the largest part of the army behind him became emperor, but often different emperors were proclaimed in different parts of the Empire, and civil war was the inevitable result.

So Diocletian decided to scrap the whole system and start over. Instead of one Emperor for the enormous Roman Empire, there would be four — two Augusti and two Caesars. Each Augustus would rule for twenty years and then retire. During those twenty years, he would choose his Caesar, someone whose ability he trusted, and when the Augustus retired the Caesar would become a new Augustus. The elder of the two Augusti would be the head of the whole Empire. This way, there would be no doubt about who was to become the next emperor. And an ambitious Caesar wouldn’t be tempted to rebel, because he knew he would become Augustus when the current Augustus retired. Diocletian picked his other Augustus and the first two Caesars carefully — they were men who had shown exceptional ability as military leaders, and they seemed to be loyal to him and to his dream of a restored Roman Empire. Diocletian installed himself in the city of Nicomedia, southeast of where Istanbul is now, and the other Emperors chose the capitals that seemed most convenient for administering their sections of the Empire.

Diocletian was quite tolerant of the Christians. In fact, some of his best friends were Christians — even his wife and daughter were at least Christian sympathizers. His court was filled with Christians, and he seemed to trust them more than he did anyone else except the pagan priests. For most of his reign, the Church was left at peace, and it continued to grow.

But the pagan priests saw the writing on the wall. If Christianity continued to flourish, they would all be out of jobs. Diocletian was completely devoted to their pagan superstitions. But Diocletian was getting to be an old man, and according to his own system he was scheduled to retire soon. Here was their last chance to get rid of the Christians before the Christians got rid of them. The priests were supported by other pagan fanatics in the court. Chief among them was Galerius, Diocletian’s designated successor. He was a fanatical hater of Christians, and he was determined to reign in a Church-free Empire. Galerius, in turn, was urged on by his mother, who was even more hateful and more fanatical than Galerius was.

But what could be done about the Christians? Diocletian wanted peace more than anything else, and he wasn’t about to start a war against a large portion of his own people. But Diocletian made every decision by consulting the omens, as interpreted by the pagan priests. That gave those priests incredible power, and they decided to make the most of it.

One day Tagis, the chief priest, was offering a solemn sacrifice before the Emperor. As usual, the future of the Empire depended on the omens revealed in the sacrifice. The whole court was there, including the Christians. When the priest killed the sacrificial animal, the Christians crossed themselves—as they always did to show that they had nothing to do with sacrifices to idols.

But this time something unheard-of happened. Tagis announced that the omens hadn’t appeared in the entrails of the sacrifice. He ordered the priests to make another offering, but still no omens appeared. Drawing himself up and frowning with all the awful dignity of his office, Tagis pointed his finger at the Christians.

“The gods refuse to appear,” he shouted, “because these profane men are keeping them away with that sign, the sign that the gods hate!”

That was enough to convince Diocletian. But he still didn’t want to go down in history as a cruel tyrant. He had worked all his life to bring peace to the Empire. The Christian Church must be brought down, he agreed, but no blood must be shed.

“Oh, of course not,” the pagan fanatics told him. “That won’t be necessary. The Christian religion has grown only because we were so permissive. Once they see we’re serious, the Christians won’t be willing to die for their faith.”

Of course, Diocletian’s advisors knew they were lying. But all they had to do was get the Emperor started, and then he wouldn’t be able to stop.

Immediately the persecution began. Early in the morning, a hand-picked squadron of imperial storm troopers swooped down on the beautiful church in Nicomedia — built during the decades of peace since the last persecution — and broke down the doors. They made a bonfire of the Scriptures, then destroyed the whole building. After that, they posted copies of the new edict from the Emperor: all the churches were to be torn down, and all the Christian books were to be burned. An upper-class Christian tore down one of the posters, and he was immediately captured, tortured, and killed. The bloodshed had begun.

Now the pagan fanatics had to keep it going. Everywhere they magnified arguments into riots and riots into rebellions. As long as the Emperor was convinced that the Christians were conspiring to plunge the Empire into chaos, he would go along with any persecution, no matter how bloody. The Emperor’s own palace caught fire twice, and of course the Christians were blamed—although there was good reason to suspect that the pagans had set the fires just to make the Emperor more nervous. All the Christians in the court were given a choice: sacrifice to the Emperor or die. Many of them died.

Soon the persecution had reached even the remotest provinces. Even children who refused to give up their faith were executed. But it was only beginning. More edicts came out in Diocletian’s name. The clergy were rounded up and imprisoned. Finally, all Christians of every sort were ordered to sacrifice to the idols.

The Emperor tried to make it easy for the Christians: even a single grain of salt sacrificed to the idols would do, if only they would make the sacrifice. Some did. But many heroic Christians held out. With ruthless efficiency, the persecutors surrounded whole towns, rounded up all the Christians, and called each one by name to sacrifice. The ones who refused were carried off to horrible tortures.

And always the option of sacrificing to the idols was open to them. Just a little pinch of incense, and the tortures would stop, and they could go home free. Only an incredibly stubborn fanatic could refuse such a reasonable offer. But thousands did refuse. Some died from the tortures; others — the lucky ones — were executed.

Meanwhile, Diocletian lay sick in his bed, his dream of a peaceful Empire torn to shreds. From Gaul came the news that Constantius Chlorus, one of the Caesars, was refusing to persecute the Christians. The four emperors were no longer acting as one. And Diocletian had to watch helplessly as the persecution raged into something worse than civil war. Meanwhile, the time had come when he had said he would step aside. Galerius, who desperately wanted to finish the war against the Church, practically pushed Diocletian out the door in 305, and the poor old man retired to his palace in what is today Croatia to watch the Empire disintegrate around him. At the same time, Maximian, the other Augustus, was more or less forced out. Galerius was left as the supreme Emperor.

Immediately he picked two Caesars who were remarkable mostly for their unflagging hatred of Christians. But Constantius Chlorus, who was now the other Augustus, had a son named Constantine who was dangerously popular among the army. And Maximian had a son named Maxentius who was just plain dangerous. When Constantius Chlorus died, the army (used to having its own way) picked Constantine to succeed him. Galerius was forced to accept what he couldn’t stop, and made Constantine the second Caesar, while everyone else moved up one notch in the ranks. But Maxentius thought he deserved to be a Caesar too, and the army in Italy recognized his claim. And then—as if things weren’t mixed up enough already — Maximian decided to revoke his abdication, and declared that he was still Emperor. Soon six emperors were claiming the title of Augustus. Once again, there were too many emperors, and civil war was inevitable.

With his life’s work in tatters, Diocletian came out of his retirement and made a futile attempt to paste the Empire back together. Instead of gratitude, he got death threats. Broken and sad, Diocletian saw that there was no hope. His dream of a restored pagan Rome would never come true. Already sick, and with nothing left to live for, Diocletian found a comfortable spot to lie down, and then took poison.

One thought on “Diocletian and the New Empire

  1. +JMJ+

    Thank you for telling the story. How sad it really was. For the martyrs, death was a day of glory; but for Diocletian, it was a day of despair.

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