Diocletian Biography

Diocletian, a Roman emperor who ruled from 284 to 305 CE, played a crucial role in shaping the history of the Roman Empire. His reign marked the end of the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’ and prevented the collapse of the empire. Diocletian implemented significant reforms, including the establishment of a bureaucratic government and the reorganization of provincial divisions. He also appointed co-emperors to rule different regions of the empire, forming a tetrarchy. These reforms and stabilizations ensured the empire’s integrity for the next 150 years. In a remarkable move, Diocletian voluntarily stepped down from his position in 305, making him the first Roman emperor to do so. He spent his later years tending to his vegetable gardens in his palace.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Diocles
  • Died At Age: 66
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Prisca
  • Born Country: Roman Empire
  • Died on: December 3, 311
  • Place of Death: Split

Childhood & Early Life

Diocletian, originally named Diocles, was born on December 22, 244, near Salona, Dalmatia (present-day Croatia). There are conflicting records about his father, with some sources stating that he was the son of a scribe and others claiming that his father was a freedman under a senator named Anulinus. Diocletian joined the military and eventually became the commander of Emperor Carus’ elite cavalry force. He participated in Carus’ Persian campaign in 283.

Rise to Power

After Carus’ death, his sons Numerian and Carinus assumed power in the eastern and western provinces respectively. However, Numerian was found dead by the soldiers in November 284. A prefect named Aper attempted to seize power, but Diocletian was unanimously chosen as the emperor of the eastern provinces. He avenged Numerian’s death by killing Aper in front of the army. Diocletian then entered into conflict with Carinus, which culminated in the Battle of the Margus where Carinus was killed. After Carinus’ death, Diocletian was acclaimed as the emperor by both the eastern and western provinces.

Rule & Reforms

Shortly after becoming the sole emperor, Diocletian appointed Maximian as the co-emperor. In 293, he appointed Constantius Chlorus as the caesar of the western provinces and Galerius as the caesar of the eastern provinces. This formed a tetrarchy to divide the empire administratively. Diocletian also implemented military reforms, increasing the number of men in the army and navy. He focused on securing the Danube region by building forts and defensive structures.

Diocletian also made significant bureaucratic and provincial reforms. He increased the number of bureaucrats and provinces, dividing them into twelve dioceses. The governors of these provinces had increased responsibilities, including tax collection and supervision of town councils. Diocletian also implemented a new tax system to support the growing military, introducing taxes on land and individuals.

Christian Persecution

Diocletian’s reign was marked by the severe persecution of Christians, known as the “Great Persecution” or the “Diocletianic Persecution.” In 303, a series of edicts were issued revoking the legal rights of Christians, ordering the destruction of Christian churches, and forbidding Christian worship. Many Christians were executed during this time, and the persecution continued until Constantine became emperor in 306 and revoked the edicts.

Abdication & Death

In 304, Diocletian fell ill and refrained from appearing in public. In 305, he called for a meeting and announced his decision to retire, becoming the first Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate his title. He returned to his homeland and spent the last years of his life in his palace gardens. Diocletian passed away on December 3, 312, and was buried in his palace. His tomb was later converted into a church, known as the Cathedral of St. Domnius.

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