To what extent was Diocletian’s Tetrarchy characterised by a rejection of dynastic principles?
The notions of dynasty and hereditary rights were some of the cornerstones of Roman society from the earliest times. The view that clients, property and influence (among a great deal of other things) were inherited via your family was central to life in the empire. Since the initiating of the principate with Augustus in 27 BC, the emperors were carefully selected for succession based on their family links. Although it was during the time of Diocletian where the principles of dynastic rule were drastically ignored through his system of leadership. Diocletian shared the rule of the empire with three colleagues – it later became known as the tetrarchy. The tetrarchic system characterised its rejection of dynastic principles firstly through its system of ultra-meritocracy (the rule for succession was strictly non-family related) and secondly through its exhaustive propaganda and imagery that sought to shift how people saw and thought about the imperial collegiate.
The clearest way that Diocletian sought to reject the dynastic principles of previous rulers was through his famous ‘tetrarchic’ system of rule. Rome had long been associated with the power of two – the consuls held office together as did some emperors by forming a dyarchy whilst the city itself was founded by a duo, the legendary Romulus and Remus. Diocletian’s expansion to a tetrarchy was unprecedented and set apart a new era in the system of Roman rule. It’s expanding into four separate capitals and splitting the empire apart was clearly a huge rejection of the idea of a dynasty and the dangers that come with one-man rule. By its very nature the new system fully rejected the years of dynastic principles that had come before it. Diocletian came to the purple at a time of extreme frailty for the future of the empire, the crisis of the preceding century had left a lasting effect on the economy, the army and the administration of the empire. It would seem that the foundation of the diarchy and later tetrarchy was a pragmatic solution from Diocletian in response to the failures he had witnessed within the imperial college that had stemmed from dynastic claimants and bloody civil war. In linear terms the tetrarchy is metaphorically and literally born out of the dynastic principles of the years preceding it, managing to personify a complete rejection of its past.
The system of succession in the tetrarchy itself was the clearest example of a removal of dynastic principles from Rome. It chose a system of meritocracy, whereby the most qualified man for the job would outrank the man closely related to the emperor (both Constantine and Maxentius were rejected as Caesars in May 305).[footnoteRef:1] Meritocracy was not entirely new, it had generally been in practice for a while, emperors would simply choose to adopt their chosen successor into their family if they were not related already. I’d prefer to call...