In Search of Diocletian

Adrian Higham


How was it that an ordinary business man in the second half of the twentieth century became so obsessed with a Roman Emperor who had flourished seventeen hundred years ago - so obsessed that he was reduced to writing a fictional biography of him, and that in verse? He had been a successful book publisher yet he did what he had advised others so many times never to do, that is he wrote his book without first finding a publisher prepared to publish his work. He was compelled to write. When asked on the final publication of Diocletian: The Tale of a Singular Man did he like the man, he found this an impossible question. It was like asking 'Do you like your right arm?'

I will try to explain. Like so many other non-classicists I came on my hero in the pages of Edward Gibbon. I saw him first through his eyes. In the opening sentence of Chapter XIII of Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire he puts down a marker - 'As the reign of Diocletian was more illustrious than of any of his predecessors, so was his birth more abject and obscure.' I had hardly heard of Diocletian at that time and here was Gibbon stating precisely that he was 'more illustrious' and that his origins 'more abject and obscure' - both a hero and a romantic hero at that. Then later in the same chapter Gibbon writes:

His abilities were useful rather than splendid - a vigorous mind improved by the experience and study of mankind; dexterity and application in business; a judicious mixture of liberality and economy, of mildness and rigour; profound dissimulation under the disguise of military frankness; steadiness to pursue his ends; flexibility to vary his means; and above all, the great art of submitting his own passions, as well as those of others, to the interest of his ambition, and of colouring his ambition with the most specious pretences of justice and public utility. Like Augustus, Diocletian may be considered as the founder of a new empire.

In Gibbon's eyes then, if Diocletian was a hero, he was not a conventional hero. He did not possess 'the daring and generous spirit of a hero'. But to me, an ordinary business man in mid career his attributes seemed to be those of a very modern hero. He had what we all need to succeed.

It is interesting re-reading Gibbon to realise that he originally tells the story of Diocletian without any reference to the Christians. He deals with that later in Chapter XVI. This means that the story concentrates on his great reforms, his struggle to maintain the frontiers, the establishment of the tetrarchy, his reign of twenty years, his eventual exhaustion and collapse, and his consequent retirement. No Emperor had retired before; in fact as in so much that he did, he was an innovator. It was this aspect of the man which originally caught my interest. Only later did I have to accommodate the fact that he had instigated the last great persecution of the Christians.

It is clear in Lactantius' De Mortibus Persecutorum that Diocletian, by then an old man, was worn down by his younger colleague, Galerius. The graphic conversations between the two men may be fiction but it is contemporary fiction. Lactantius was a Christian and served for a time at Diocletian's court. The need for the Christians to be made to conform, and the threat they presented to the reforms to which Diocletian had dedicated his whole life, become increasingly evident as Lactantius develops his very different thesis: that all persecutors eventually come to a bloody end.

I should say at this point that I have very little Latin, most of it long forgotten, and no Greek. Most of the sources which are essential in the search for Diocletian exist in translation and that is where I found the evidence and in many cases just mere hints to indicate what made Diocletian such a singular man.

Having been hooked I then delved further. As an amateur I could follow my own bent and it was the romantic tales which originally appealed. For instance, Diocletian on being proclaimed Emperor calls for Aper, the Praetorian Prefect, to be brought forth in chains in front of the Army for he is suspected of the death of the previous emperor Numerian. But had there been a plot? After all Diocletian had been the commander of the bodyguard. Gibbon describes Diocletian speaking: '"This man", he said, "is the murderer of Numerian;" and without giving him time to enter on a dangerous justification, drew his sword, and buried it in the breast of the unfortunate prefect.' Romantic enough - the basis of a good who-done-it, but there is more.

Gibbon's footnote somewhat disconnectedly reads 'The reason why Diocletian killed Aper (a wild boar) was founded on a prophecy and a pun, as foolish as they are well known' and reference is made to the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. Having looked there we find a different version of the scene. On killing Aper he declares 'At last I have killed my fated boar.' And to explain the significance of these words the writer tells the story which he says his grandfather related to him, having heard it from Diocletian himself:

When Diocletian, he said, while still serving in a minor post, was stopping at a certain tavern in the land of the Tungri in Gaul, and was making up his daily reckoning with a woman, who was a Druidess, she said to him, "Diocletian, you are far too greedy and far too stingy," to which Diocletian replied, it is said, not in earnest but only in jest, "I shall be generous enough when I become emperor." At this the Druidess said, so he related, "Do not jest, Diocletian, for you will become emperor when you have slain a Boar (Aper)."

Now Diocletian always had in his mind a desire to rule, ... Then, however, reticent, as was his wont, he laughed and said nothing. Nevertheless, in his hunting, whenever there was an opportunity, he always killed boars with his very own hand.

It will not surprise you that in my book I follow the more dramatic version even starting with the child's alphabet book

A is for Aper. Aper the boar.
It is as wild a beast as ever you saw.

But the Historia Augusta seems to have been written in Diocletian's own lifetime and the picture of the future emperor as mean and stingy if not flattering must have sounded convincing to contemporaries. This characteristic showed itself when he came to power in the reformed annual budget and five yearly review of the census, beautiful pieces of administrative machinery - mean and stingy maybe in the view of the ordinary man but also effective.

As my search developed for this singular man, increasingly there were practical questions which had to be answered. Diocletian had without doubt that great Roman virtue auctoritas, authority. How did he exercise this authority? How were instructions or advice and encouragement sent over the vast distances of the empire? What was the nature of their communications? How long did they take? Today with phone and fax and the internet it is difficult even to pose the question. Given my business management background this aspect particularly interested me. Diocletian is described as a man necessary for the state. That he survived for more than twenty years and could retire of his own free will is without dispute. But how did he actually operate? How did he do it?

There are two sources which help with the question of time and movement - the tyranny of distance. T.D.Barnes has in The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine recorded the Emperor's movements throughout his reign. This is based on the legal decisions which he gave which included date and place. Then there is the Itinerarium Burgdigalensis which lists the routes, principal towns and resthouses. (If that is not available the Atlas of the Roman World by Cornell and Matthews is a magnificent source book.) From these it is possible to estimate how long it took to send a message. It was very satisfying to read in John Richmond's article 'Ovid in Exile' in Classics Ireland vol. 2, 1995 that it took ten days from Tomis on the Black Sea to Rome -I had guessed the same time when writing my book. It just shows you never know when you will find an answer.

This tyranny of distance must have effected the detailed way Diocletian exercised his authority. Legal rulings have survived, and some panegyrics which present general policy but not, so far as I know, private written communications. He was a great reformer; he introduced many new ideas, and he established the tetrarchy to implement these reforms but the wonder is that he was able to lead the team of strong individuals to achieve a common policy.

The search then had established a man of great strength of character who knew what he considered needed to be done to save the empire and who was able to exercise his authority to put this in hand. But the search revealed a more general situation which is paralleled today. The established beliefs of society were under threat. Diocletian, our modern hero, committed himself to the defence of these established beliefs. He was exhausted in the struggle.

This question of the parallels of the past and the present is central to Iggy Pop's article in the recent issue of Classics Ireland. In a somewhat different way I too was fascinated in finding what seems to be an echo sounding beforetime.

Now with benefit of hindsight the triumph of Christianity was inevitable but at the time of course it must have seemed very different. The Christians were minimally an irritant in the system and as they gathered strength a threat - they were seen as a state within the state. We can still read the details of the clash of ideologies - the established system of the state and the new religion from out of the East. The Christians kept written records of the acts and last words of their martyrs. Some have survived in Musurillo's The Acts of the Christian Martyrs. They are vivid moving accounts of the interrogations in the courts. One is left with two dominant impressions - the stubborn bravery of the accused and the frustrated attempts of the magistrates to make the would-be martyrs go free. There is a complete lack of communication between the two parties.

It was after Diocletian died that Constantine finally became undisputed ruler of the Roman World. He allowed freedom of belief and encouraged the acceptance of Christianity and he developed many of Diocletian's reforms so that the Roman Empire in the East could last for many more centuries and last as a Christian empire. The established belief system had changed. It is an irony of history that so much which Diocletian contributed in his life was essential to the success of the new belief - Man proposes, God disposes - and Christianity having succeeded, Diocletian is remembered as the great persecutor. He was in fact a man necessary to the process - a very singular man.

But why in verse? The form allows for the introduction of many characters - those who lived close to him, those who loved him and those who feared and hated him. Here is the veteran who had been at his wedding; the merchant who supplied the Egyptian antiquities for the palace at Salona; Bishop Anthimus deciding to stay to risk martyrdom; the father telling his children the story of Diocletian's horse at the siege of Alexandria - how it slipped on the blood and he was saved; and on and on - the world of Diocletian. It also allows for a variety of style, much of it informal and immediate but there is the more formal too. The story opens with the Oracle speaking in traditional form fortelling the singular man.

The Oracle

The stench of burning homesteads lingered on,
As the old man slowly climbed the valley side,
The evening glow was fading into night.
He sought the oracle. He had to know
What would become of all he knew and loved.
Would the chaos of the present ever pass?
Drowned in the depths of despair you must wonder if you will recover. Into your world be assured there will come such a man who can save you. Only be quick to obey without question and follow no other, Carefully listen to him and eschew all those faults you are slave to. Look, he will come and straightway be ready to selflessly serve you. End now your doubts, for the time is at hand and these are the portents: There will be disasters and wars, and the plague, hidden deaths in high places; Into this chaos will come with authority one whose importance All will acclaim as he strikes down the boar and removes all the traces. None of your doubts or despair will remain; this man will preserve you.

* * *
For all these reasons I was compelled to write.

Diocletian: The Tale of a Singular Man, by Adrian Higham, is published by Whyke Road Press at [[sterling]]14.99 (ISBN 0 9526291 0 0)

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