Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (244–311), known as Diocletian (284-305), was born in Dalmatia and began his military career as a simple soldier, later serving as commander of Numerianus’ personal bodyguards. After the short reign of Emperor Carus and the death of his son Carinus, Diocletian was proclaimed emperor by the Roman army. At first, the emperor faced what historians today call the Crisis of the Third Century.
What was this Crisis of the Third Century? After the death of Emperor Alexander Severus, last of the Severan dynasty, in AD 235, Rome would suffer a tumultuous period of fifty years in which the Empire had to deal with both external and internal threats, in addition to suffering a great economic crisis. This period is known as the Crisis of the Third Century(235-284 AD).
In these years, and until the rise to the throne of Diocletian in the year 284 AD, twenty-six emperors occupied the throne, some were so ephemeral that they were never one year in the position.
Various authors make a subdivision between military anarchy (235-268AD) and the Illyrian emperors (268-284AD).
Instability in the Roman Empire led to excessive military spending, inflation, and an imminent economic disaster. To these are added the attacks of barbarians launched against the Roman Empire.
Emperor Diocletian undertook a series of administrative, military, financial, and political reforms, which would prolong, but not save the life of the Roman Empire. The most important political and military policy was the establishment of a new form of government, the absolute monarchy of divine right, known as the „Dominate”, instead of that of the Principate, which lasted from Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus reign(27 BC-14 AD) until 284 AD.
The reforms implemented by Diocletian and later his successor, Constantine, represent the breaking point from the system of government founded by Augustus and permanently modified by his successors.
The emperor, as previously mentioned, now called Dominus, no longer participates directly in military campaigns, is most present in the imperial palace, therefore the most important members of the Court gained immense prestige and influence.
As a consequence, everything related to the Dominus is sacred, many customs of the imperial court are of Oriental inspiration.
The emperor was no longer an ordinary human being, he was considered a demigod. Of course, we must mention that this behavior was not introduced by Diocletian, many Roman emperors from the I-II centuries AD had similar tendencies.
I. Administrative Reforms
In 297AD, Diocletian also carried out an administrative reform seeking to weaken the authority of the prefects, seeking to introduce control of central power over the provinces. Rome ceased to be the imperial residence, the authority of the Senate was almost abolished, and the privileged position of Italy from an administrative point of view was nullified.
From an administrative-territorial point of view the Empire was divided into four prefectures:
• Orient, with the capital at Nicomedia (Asia Minor);
• of the Illyrian, with the capital at Sirmium (today Mitrovica, former Yugoslavia);
• of Italy, with the capital at Mediolanum (today Milan, in Italy);
• of Gaul, with the capital at Trier (today Trier, Germany).
The prefectures were divided into twelve dioceses:
I. Oriens (Syria, Egypt, Cyrenaica)
II. Pontus (East Asia Minor),
III. Asiana (West Asia Minor)
IV. Thrace (Lower Moesia),
V. Moesiae (Macedonia, Epirus, Ahaia and Crete)
VI. Pannoniae (Dalmatia, Noricum)
VII. Italy (with Rhetia),
VIII. Africa (west of Syrta Mare),
IX. Hispaniae (Mauretania Tingitana),
X. Viennensis (southeastern Gaul),
XI. Galliae (the rest of Gaul, with the two Germans)
XII. Britanniae (divided into four provinces).
The dioceses, in turn, were divided into ninety-six of provinces.
The prefecture was ruled by a praefectus praetorio, diocese or diocese by a vicarius or exarch and the province by a proconsul (praesides). Diocletian increased the authority of the representatives of the vicars, making them the true rulers of the provinces, who depended directly on the emperor before which they accounted. The vicars fixed the taxes that the so-called praesides needed to collect, and in the military field they also gave provisions for the organization of the limes.
At the base of Diocletian’s administrative and fiscal reforms were mainly military considerations. Thus, he paid great attention to strengthening the armed forces of the Empire, from defending the borders to supporting the imperial authority. In order to diminish the authority of the governors, who had repeatedly proclaimed themselves emperors during the Crisis of the Third Century, their civil powers were separated from the military ones in all provinces.
II. Military reforms
The conduct of civil affairs was entrusted to praeses, and military command passed into the hands of a Duke, military leader who led in one or several provinces. It had no interference in the civilian administration. The army was doubled, the number of legions increased from 39 to 60-70, and numerically exceeded 500,000 soldiers. To increase the number of soldiers, large landowners were forced to make available to the state a number of people, in relation to the number of slaves and settlers on their estates. Foreigners in the territory of the Empire were enlisted in the army as well as barbarians who were accepted to settle inside the borders (foederati).
The army was divided into two distinct categories of troops: fixed military units(milites ripenses or limitana), with stable garrisons on the fortified border (limes), led by a dux or praepositus limitis provinciae, and mobile central military units with garrisons inside the Empire (milites comitatenses). The latter made up the maneuvering army who was at the emperor’s disposal and could be sent anywhere according to the military situation. This army also included the Constantinople guard corps (scholae palatinae), led by a magister officiorum. At the head of the army were several magistri militum, directly subordinated to the emperor and subordinated to the commanders of the provinces, the duke. They formed a military hierarchy, distinct from the civilian one.
Diocletian showed great attention to the organization of the limes. At the borders of the Empire were built networks of fortifications, connected by roads, in order to ensure the protection of borders.
III. Economic Reforms
In the fiscal field, due to the expenses required by the army, the increased administrative apparatus, the large buildings in Rome and other cities, as well as the luxury of the Imperial Court, Diocletian was forced to initiate a series of reforms to increase state revenues. Thus, the main tax paid by the Romans, annona, was transformed into what was called capitatio-jugatio, representing the area of land that could be worked by a farmer with two oxen (approx. 5 ha).
To this were added various considerations regarding the quality of the land, the type of culture on it, the number of workers, the number of cattle, etc. Those who did not own cultivated land paid only the per capita tax (capitatio plebeia). This tax was compulsory for all the inhabitants of the Empire, and several officials of the governors were charged with its collection.
At the same time, taxes were imposed for the exercise of trade within the economic branches of the Empire (chrysargyron), levied in gold, hence its name, as well as the circulation and sale of goods (octave, siliquaticum).
The depreciation of the Romanian currency, the consequence of the alteration of the alloy and the decrease of its weight, imposed a monetary reform. Diocletian resumed the issuance of gold and silver coins, still minting the bronze coin.
Within the same measures, Diocletian issued in 301, an edict on prices (edictum de pretiis rerum venalium), which set maximum prices for all goods, including labor, prescribing severe penalties for offenders. Because it did not take into account the realities of the time (price difference between regions, movement of goods, etc.) the edict proved impractical, being repealed shortly after publication.
IV. Latin language and persecution of the Christians
Following his policy of Romanization, Diocletian tried to make Latin the only official language, and in 296 he put an end to the last autonomous Greek currency, that of Alexandria, the workshop here still issuing only Latin coins.
Diocletian sought to bring about some reforms to save the Empire. Paying close attention to the religious problem, he considered himself the restorer and protector of the good morals and piety of ancient Rome, zealously encouraging traditional Roman and foreign cults that had adapted. Following the model of the Eastern monarchies, he proclaimed the divine origin of imperial authority, Diocletian considered himself Jupiter the Great and Good (Jupiter Optimus Maximus) as his father and main patron, the source of his high power. Diocletian’s religious policy met with opposition from the Church. Christians, who became more and more fanatics among the lower classes of society, in the army, and even in the imperial family. Diocletian unleashed in 303-304 the cruelest persecution against Christians. – felt most in the East, while in the West, the four edicts against Christians found a much weaker application.
Following the reforms adopted, it can be said that both internally and externally, during the reign of Diocletian, the empire overcame the crisis of the third century.