When Roman General Diocletian was designated Emperor by his army in 284, he followed suit of many General-Emperors before him and engaged in war against the legitimate Emperor in place in order to replace him. This violent change of reign thus resembled most of those that characterized the Military Anarchy period of the Roman Empire during the third century. However, what differed this time was that the victorious Diocletian was now in the presence of a favourable socio-political climate that had not existed for 50 years.
Consequently, Diocletian had the opportunity to assert his qualities in the context of instituting a centralized monarchial regime dubbed the Dominate. By doing so, he was successful in establishing a legacy that would correspond to a rebirth of Roman military might and a return of an invigorating economic dynamism for the Roman world. One of Diocletian’s most significant contributions to the establishment of this new order was the institution of the Tetrarchy. This well envisioned experiment of a new system of government was instituted mainly with the intent of mitigating potential successions’ tribulations such as those that plagued the third century, yet if faced a demise less that 40 years later.
Statue head of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) Istanbul – Archaeological Museum (G.dallorto / CC0)
Enlisted at a very young age in the army, Diocletian stood out during the reign of Emperor Probus. This general of modest origins, a leader in the formidable army of Illyria, commanded the imperial guard after the death of Emperor Numerian in 284. After having been proclaimed Emperor by the armies of the East, Diocletian arranged for the execution of the supposed murderer of Numerian, the Praetorian prefect Arrius Aper. Diocletian, who may also have collaborated in the murder of Numerian, now had to fight his rival. Taking the lead of his army, he headed on to challenge the army of Emperor Carinus, the older brother of Numerian and Emperor in the West. The Battle of Margus, in Moesia (present day Serbia), which was turning in Carinus’ favour, ended when the latter was killed during the clash. Carinus’ army then joined Diocletian’s, who by this pure stroke of luck became the sole master of the Empire.
Unlike his predecessors, Diocletian was a man of government as well as a man of the sword. His personality was forged by intelligence and political sense as well as by feats in battle. Diocletian’s reign marked the beginning of what modern historians call the Dominate.
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Adapted excerpt from: Bartolini, M. 2023. Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire. Pen and Sword History.
Mario Bartolini has a master’s degree in political history from the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, and a second master’s degree in war studies, obtained at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of Roman Emperors: A Guide to the Men Who Ruled the Empire
Top Image: Battle Scene with a Roman Army Besieging a Large City by Juan de la Corta (17th century) (Public Domain)
By: Mario Bartolini
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