Some of the most telling moments in history are when we look back and see people in a vastly different world behaving exactly as people do today. From 286 to 305 Diocletian, one of Rome’s most powerful and consequential emperors, tried to fix the political and economic systems which he inherited and were teetering on the brink of collapse. In doing so, he made mistakes remarkably similar to those made by people in government today.
The world Diocletian inherited was staggering out of the Crisis of the Third Century, a 50-year period that saw 26 claimants to the imperial robes, most of whom seemed guided by nothing more than personal greed and ambition. Relatively speaking, Diocletian brought stability and good intentions to the Roman state and helped it persist for another 150 years.
But virtually all of Diocletian’s individual reforms sought a stronger imperial state that exploded in both bureaucracy and godlike pageantry in an attempt to engineer prosperity from the top down. The astonishing part is that after more than 1,700 years, after the development of economics as a field of study, and under the auspices of liberal democracy, governments today proceed with largely the same instincts.
Is Four Greater Than One?
The man who would become known as Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus was born in present-day Croatia in the year 244. He first came to power as many emperors did, with an army under his command proclaiming him as such, and ultimately defeating other military rivals.
Diocletian realized that his vast empire was too large and complex to be ruled by a single man. This insight about the limits of top-down control may have been forward-thinking, but his solution shows how deeply important the elites of his time viewed a strong centralized state. By 293, Diocletian had fully formed the tetrarchy, where two junior and two senior emperors bound by a set of marriages would each rule a quarter of the empire.
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