If there is one day in the year when it is positively encouraged to be down on the Roman Empire, it would have to be today, Good Friday. I recall seeing an oil painting reproduced in a children’s Bible, which showed Pontius Pilate washing his hands in a jewel-encrusted golden bowl; a beaten, bleeding Christ was prostrate at his feet. Crucifixion, I was told, was a punishment the Romans reserved for the worst of the worst; given that they did this to the Son of God, what kind of people were they?
Even after Christ died, rose and ascended into Heaven, the Romans behaved no better: St. Paul was executed. St. Peter was crucified upside down. Nero made the Christians into the scapegoat for the fire which engulfed Rome. From a Christian perspective, Rome was a menace, a brute, up until Constantine arrived and turned the Empire into a force for the propagation and preservation of Christ’s message.
Diocletian, who reigned from 284 to 305, was not a friend of the Christians. He arranged for the last major persecution of the faith; to this day, he is remembered by the Serbians as “Dukljan, the adversary of God”. It is perhaps because of this, and the fact that Constantine’s reign was shortly after his, that he has been mostly forgotten, relegated to being a trivia question, if he’s recalled at all. This is too bad, for he has as much to teach us as Julius Caesar or Augustus: given the endurance of much of his achievements, perhaps more.
When Diocletian came to power, the Roman Empire was surrounded by enemies (including the Sarmatians and Persians), and was fraught with internal issues: its tax system was irregular, the provinces were badly managed, and it was lurching from crisis to crisis. Worse, the empire was suffering from a problem of manpower: for example, the Germanic tribes which threatened Rome had a tradition of “every man is a also a warrior”. Rome’s relative sophistication had created a society of specialists: it was not reasonable to expect a Senator or tax collector to suddenly pick up a spear and wield it usefully.
Diocletian’s response to inheriting this messy, dysfunctional system was interesting, and leads to his first management secret: you can’t run everything, even in a crisis, so delegate.
Diocletian was a soldier, and thus he had a pool of talented people with whom he had served to choose from. He chose a fellow officer, Maximian, to assume the title of co-emperor, or more specifically, “Caesar”. While the idea of ruling with others was an old concept in Rome (the Roman Empire began with a series of “triumverates”), this rejection of power in order to preserve the nation was unprecedented. Indeed, it was a recognition on Diocletian’s part of his own limitations: while he had sufficient guile and intelligence to become emperor, he did not believe himself to be all-powerful.
Humility worked well; indeed, the empire was divided again, thus yielding a Tetrarchy. Much depended upon the co-emperors’ willingness to agree, but while Diocletian was alive, the system held. Diocletian took the concept further within his own court by creating what could be called a “cabinet”, with departments (called scrina) responsible for specific issues. Again, he realised the limits of his knowledge, and thus created a mechanism whereby decision making could be transferred to an appropriate level.
Having created a formula for leadership, Diocletian’s reforms moved in another direction: he decided to base his authority on a religious obligation as opposed to continuing to rely upon his influence in the army. This decision yields a second lesson: might won’t make right.
It had been a tradition among Roman emperors to proclaim themselves gods; Diocletian could have gone in this direction, but rather, he went for a humbler designation, that he and his fellow emperors were merely the representatives of the gods on Earth. This is a subtle distinction but nonetheless an important one: rather than proclaim divinity, he proclaimed himself a man albeit one with a divine charge to keep. It may very well be this decision which was the first few pebbles in the eventual avalanche which took out the divine right of kings.
The shorter term effect of this decision, however, was to remove the army as the arbiter of who was emperor and who was not. Diocletian obviously believed that its might was far too shaky a foundation for his rule, no matter how much brutality he could summon them to do. After all, another general could happen along, win the support of the army and take him and his co-emperors out, if the previous principle persisted.
As important as these decisions were, Diocletian still had to stamp down the overriding administrative chaos and furthermore, deal with problems of taxation.
One of the commonalities between ancient Romans and modern Western citizens is their dislike of taxes, and their willingness to evade those taxes in whatever way they can. However the Diocletian experience is very interesting: if rules are clear, fair and accompanied by appropriate transparency, people tend to follow them.
Diocletian reformed taxation to be based on heads (e.g., the number of people employed by a landowner) and land size. He also stressed that everyone had to pay taxes, whether they were poorest or the richest. He also supplemented the system by putting tax records into the public domain, so that everyone could see how much their neighbours were paying. This clever reform also likely acted as a deterrent to fraud.
Consistency in the administration of taxes was also important; Diocletian ensured that the rules that applied in Mediolanum, also were in effect in the most remote border town. This added coherence to the functioning of the Empire, and likely assisted in supporting its overall identity.
That said, perhaps the greatest lesson Diocletian has to teach comes from how he departed the scene. Unlike most of the Emperors, he did not die in office, either through natural causes or at the hands of an assassin. He knew:when you no longer have the will to lead, don’t lead any longer.
Diocletian fell ill in 304. The following year, he addressed a crowd at Nicomedia, telling them he needed to rest and thus had to retire. He then proceeded to his palace in what is today Split, Croatia. He enjoyed a six year retirement before his death in 311, in spite of being begged to return to power. He reportedly told one such petitioner: “If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”
While the Empire was not fully secure due to Diocletian’s work, he had many reasons to be satisfied: the administration had improved, the frontiers had stabilised. Diocletian had managed to secure peace with the Persians after a bloody war, and had held the line in the Balkans and Egypt. Things were not perfect, but they were better. Yes, the Western Roman Empire collapsed less than two hundred years after his death; however the division of the empire that came out of his reign, between East and West, meant that there was a basis for the East carrying on in the same tradition. That empire, later referred to as the Byzantine Empire, survived until the fifteenth century, in no small part thanks to the reforms they inherited from Diocletian.
None of this is intended to disguise the more horrific aspects of the Roman Empire; Diocletian was an autocrat presiding over a brutal regime that relied upon slavery. It was no beacon of progressive ideals in most respects. The Empire’s (and Diocletian’s) virtues mainly reside in comparison to what existed before, and what was spawned later on, namely an intellectual basis which eventually led to modern, Western progressive thought. However the Diocletian experience shows that even amidst the gloom of such a Social Darwinian atmosphere, small gleams of wisdom still were able to penetrate. We know that power corrupts, we know that the worst kind of manager or leader is the one that takes too much control, we know that rules should be clear and fair, we know that there is a time to let go. The problem is that this knowledge doesn’t always translate into action. With Diocletian, to his credit, it did.