|A gold solidus of Diocletian (left) and a bronze follis of Galerius (right)|
Late Antiquity is full of epoch-making, history-changing events, but up there among the most momentous was the voluntary resignation of Diocletian Jovius and Maximian Herculius from the height of imperial power to private life in AD 305. The announcement of this occurrence must have sent shockwaves throughout the Roman world, particularly considering both men had together celebrated their Vicennalia, or 20th anniversary of their reign, less than two years before. This made them the longest reigning Roman emperors since Antoninus Pius who ruled nearly 150 years previous. And considering how short, miserable, and bloody the reigns of their predecessors of the third century had been, the longevity and relative stability of the joint reigns of Diocletian and Maximian were accomplishments truly worthy of note.
Why Diocletian chose to abdicate has been a matter of speculation since ancient times. Aurelius Victor, writing in the later 4th century AD, said that Diocletian had received an augury of disasters threatening to disintegrate the Roman state and, as a result, decided to retire while still in good health. Furthermore, he convinced Maximian to likewise step down, but only with the greatest difficulty. Adding his own opinion, Victor dismisses other theories and attributes the abdication to Diocletian’s lack of ambition and excellence of character. [See Bird: De Caesaribus, Chapter 39, page 46]
Similarly, Eutropius writing at about the same time as Victor, praises Diocletian’s decision, saying:
"He alone of all men, since the foundation of the Roman empire, voluntarily returned from so high a dignity to the condition of private life, and to an equality with the other citizens. That happened to him, therefore, which had happened to no one since men were created, that, though he died in a private condition, he was enrolled among the gods." [Eutropius: Breviarium, Book IX, Chapter 28].
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Leading up to this dialogue, Lactantius offers a description of the Vicennalia of Diocletian as celebrated at Rome, and the subsequent long illness suffered by that emperor which nearly led to his death in AD 304. Indeed, Lactantius reports that on December 13, AD 304:
There was heard in the palace sorrow, and weeping, and lamentation, and the courtiers ran to and fro. There was silence throughout the city [Nicomedia], and a report went out of the death and even burial of Diocletian. But early on the morrow, it was suddenly rumored that he still lived. At this the countenance of his domestics and courtiers changed from melancholy to gay. Nevertheless, there were those who suspected his death to be kept secret until the arrival of Galerius Caesar.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVII].
It wasn’t until March of AD 305 that Diocletian again appeared in public. Lactantius says that the man who was displayed appeared so thin and haggard that he was hardly recognizable. Furthermore, he reports that Diocletian was never again of sound mind, appearing sometimes sane and sometimes insane.
It was at this point that Galerius arrived in Nicomedia to discuss the future of the empire with the now partially recovered Diocletian. Sensing the old man’s weakness, Galerius suggested that Diocletian and Maximian leave the government of the empire to younger, healthier men. According to Lactantius, Diocletian balked, arguing:
It was unfit for one who had held a rank eminent above all others and conspicuous to sink into the obscurity of a low station. Neither indeed was it safe because in the course of so long a reign, he must unavoidably have made many enemies. [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII]
Galerius, however, was tired of playing games. He had reigned as Caesar, or junior emperor, for nearly 15 years and was anxious to obtain the exalted rank of Augustus, or senior emperor, promoting other men to do the dirty work associated with defending the vast frontiers of the Empire. He was ready to enjoy the privileges of pre-eminent power and was not about to take no for an answer. According to Lactantius:
On hearing his discourse, the spiritless old man [Diocletian] burst into tears and said, “Be it as you will.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII]
And with that, the way became clear for the Caesars, Galerius and Constantius, to be promoted to Augustus while Diocletian and Maximian embarked upon an honorable retirement. Receiving Diocletian’s assent, Galerius now turned the conversation toward which candidates to promote as Caesars. Diocletian had some suggestions and recommended that the advice of Maximian and Constantius be considered. But it turned out that Galerius had already made up his mind. Lactantius records this fascinating conversation as follows:
“But,” said Galerius, “why ask the advice of Maximian and Constantius, since they must needs acquiesce in whatever we do?”
“Certainly they will,” replied Diocletian, “for we must elect their sons.”
Now Maximian Herculius had a son, Maxentius, married to the daughter of Galerius, a man of bad and mischievous dispositions and so proud and stubborn withal, that he would never pay the wonted obeisance either to his father or father-in-law, and on that account he was hated by them both. Constantius also had a son, Constantine, a young man of very great worth and well meriting the high station of Cæsar. The distinguished comeliness of his figure, his strict attention to all military duties, his virtuous demeanor and singular affability, had endeared him to the troops and made him the choice of every individual. He was then at court, having long before been created by Diocletian a tribune of the first order.
“What is to be done?” said Galerius, “for that Maxentius deserves not the office. He who, while yet a private man, has treated me with contumely, how will he act when once he obtains power?”
“But Constantine is amiable, and will so rule as hereafter in the opinion of mankind to surpass the mild virtues of his father.”
“Be it so, if my inclinations and judgment are to be disregarded. Men ought to be appointed who are at my disposal, who will dread me and never do anything unless by my orders.”
“Whom then shall we appoint?”
“What! That dancer, that habitual drunkard who turns night into day and day into night?”
“He deserves the office, for he has proved himself a faithful paymaster and purveyor of the army. And, indeed, I have already dispatched him to receive the purple from the hands of Maximian.”
“Well, I consent, but whom else do you suggest?”
“Him,” said Galerius, pointing out Daia, a young man, half-barbarian. Now Galerius had lately bestowed part of his own name on that youth and called him Maximin, in like manner as Diocletian formerly bestowed on Galerius the name of Maximian, for the omen’s sake because Maximian Herculius had served him with unshaken fidelity.
“Who is that you present?”
“A kinsman of mine.”
“Alas!” said Diocletian, heaving a deep sigh, “you propose men unfit for the charge of public affairs!”
“I have tried them.”
“Then do you look to it, who are about to assume the administration of the empire. As for me, while I continued emperor, long and diligent have been my labors in providing for the security of the commonweal and now, should anything disastrous ensue, the blame will not be mine.” [On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chapter XVIII].
Following this rather contentious discussion, Galerius and Diocletian would go on to make their decision public with a solemn procession and ceremony that Lactantius likely witnessed himself. But that fascinating event and its fallout will be the subjects of a subsequent post.
Of course, many scholars consider this dialogue to be nothing more than a rhetorical reconstruction of what may have passed between Diocletian and Galerius, heavily colored by the author’s own biases—and that certainly may be the case. It should be remembered that when writing On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius was most likely residing at the court of Constantine in Gaul, some time around AD 316. Therefore, the likelihood is strong that his account reflects the official narrative of events put forth by Constantine’s supporters. It is not out of the question that Lactantius received this information directly from Constantine himself or other high-ranking officials in his circle as he served as the tutor to Constantine's eldest son, Crispus, at this time.
With that in mind, it should be noted that while Constantine is praised and Maxentius derided in the above dialogue, the words of praise are put into the mouth of Diocletian—one of the primary villains of Lactantius’s narrative. Were Lactantius merely a mouthpiece for Constantinian propaganda and not a subjective but faithful reporter of events as he remembered them, would he have done that?
Furthermore, the subsequent course of events as recorded in other sources meshes well with Lactantius’s take. Other contemporary historians agree that Severus and Maximin Daia were largely incapable and unworthy of imperial authority. Severus would soon be stripped of his armies and killed by Maxentius in Italy. Daia would live in the shadow of Galerius for a decade only to be defeated and killed by Licinius when the two grappled for supreme power in the East.
It is also interesting to note Diocletian’s last statement, warning Galerius that his ill-considered decisions would bring on disastrous results and thus washing his hands of them. This theme may have been picked up later by Aurelius Victor who, as noted above, mentions that Diocletian retired because he foresaw catastrophes in store for the empire in the immediate future.
Finally, Diocletian’s concern that he would be vulnerable in retirement proved valid as well. In later chapters, Lactantius would describe how Diocletian’s wife, Prisca, and daughter, Valeria, were persecuted by Maximin Daia, the old man being unable to protect them despite appealing directly to Daia. The now powerless Diocletian would apparently expire a short time later having witnessed the destruction of his monuments and in anxiety that he had aroused the ire of Constantine and Licinius.
See some other posts on Diocletian and Galerius from this blog as follows:
- "They Leveled that Lofty Edifice with the Ground" ~ The Destruction of the Church at Nicomedia and Commencement of the Great Persecution
- The Roman Emperor Who Had Books about “Chemeia” Burned in Alexandria
- "The Oblivion of a Silent Age" ~ The effort of Diocletian and Galerius to wipe out Christian literature during the Great Persecution
- "I condemn Agape and Chionia to be burnt alive." ~ April 3, AD 303