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 Diocletian’s system of succession however a truer representation of the meritocracy system. It completely rejected the hereditary system that had grown before it and it opened up the emperorship to anyone should they be deserving. The decision to ignore Constantine and Maxentius was certainly a bold one and was an unprecedented mark on its time. The chosen successors, Maximinus Daia and Severus II, were both equally scrutinised at the time and to this day. Severus, it seems, had no family relation to any of the tetrarchs when he was appointed Caesar. Lactantius has Galrius describe Daia ‘a relation of mine’ however whilst the author of ‘Epitome de Caesaribus’ marks him as the son of Galerius’ sister.[footnoteRef:2] Despite the apparent confusion of the sources it is certain that many authors were surprised at the lack of dynastic succession and that kinship may certainly have been a reason for exclusion from the imperial collegiate (as we see with Constantine and Maxentius). The attempt to create a family link between the tetrarchs and Daia most likely comes from the return of dynastic claimants to the purple in the coming years and a general lack of understanding as to how the tetrarchy was intended to continue. [1: Jones 1975, 29] [2: Hekster 2014, 288]
Coinage played a significant role in sculpting the public image of the Roman imperial family. For the centuries preceding Diocletian’s tetrarchy there was great emphasis placed on the wider family, these familial type coins were often used to proclaim ancestry or secure succession. Augustus minted coins with his adoptive sons Lucius and Gaius Caesar on the reverse of one of his coins (fig 1) as a clear indication of their future as successors to him. Likewise, Septimius Severus minted coins with images of his sons Caracalla (198-211) and Geta (209-211) to strengthen their dynastic image as rulers of the empire (fig 1). In contrast, Diocletian and the tetrarchs ignored using images of family – they preferred flaunting the Gods. The fact that only a small number of deities were chosen on the coins out of the huge pantheon of deities to choose from highlights another point. The tetrarchy was concerned with imagery and how to present themselves. With dynastic connections rejected the coins had to represent their tetrarch correctly and so each emperor had his own god to associate with. Of the coins minted by Diocletian and Maximian during their rule, the vast majority featured depictions of Jupiter and Hercules respectively.[footnoteRef:3] The co-emperors suited their depictions well; Diocletian, like Jupiter, had the role of staying where he was to oversee the empire whilst Maximian, like Hercules, was the wandering hero who was fought the many threats to the empire on the battlefield. Coins were one of the main ways that many people would see their emperors and so the imagery on them is hugely representative of the emperor and his choices. By replacing family portraits on coins with gods, the tetrarchy enforced their rejection of dynastic succession subtly onto everyone who came into contact with them. [3: Hekster 2014, 209]
Figure 1 (Clockwise from top-left): Augustan coin featuring Lucius and Gaius Caesar, Diocletian's coin 291/292 featuring Jupiter, Septimus Severus and Caracalla, Geta and mother Julia Domna.
A striking point that is clearly noticeable during this period is the lack of reference to imperial women on all forms of coinage, sculpture and epigraphy. We know that up until the year 306 not a single coin was minted that showed a female member of the imperial family. The absence of mothers can be explained by the unremarkable ancestry of the tetrarchs, as Olivier Heskter points out, but the absence of wives and daughters was remarkable for the time and should certainly be linked at the attempt to make emperorship non-dynastic.[footnoteRef:4] Even in the preceding decades there had been imagery featuring women; Magnia Urbica, the wife of Carinus (283-285), was featured on around 10% of the coins produced. The distinct lack of women on the tetrarchic coins would have been very noticeable and another obvious attempt to distant the new regime to dynastic themes. [4: Hekster 2014, 210]
Ever a fan of building projects, Diocletian was responsible for the famous tetrakionia or ‘four columns’ that were scattered in cities across the empire. In Syria and Egypt, existing buildings were demolished to make place for the gargantuan podiums that each held a statue of the tetrarchs.[footnoteRef:5] They were acknowledged for seeming to make each tetrarch similar to one another. The famous porphyry granite sculptures now found in Venice manage to highlight the unity of the tetrarchs and the attempt to curb individualism further within imagery.[footnoteRef:6] Each emperor is identical in height and appearance, stressing togetherness over dynastic continuity. This physical similarity between the emperors was common in their sculptures and surely planned to some extent by the imperial collegiate. Although there are still many presentations of the tetrarchs that show a distinct hierarchy among the group. The Arch of Galerius at Thessaloniki shows this best, the north pier featured both Augusti standing next to their Caesars, with Diocletian being “recognisably more majestic” whilst Galerius on the opposite south side is clearly shown as superior to his peers.[footnoteRef:7] Hekster argues that the homogeneity of the tetrarchic image is not absolute and identifies the lack of a single, central power as a reason for the conflicting images that appear – due to each tetrarch operating in a different ‘capital’ it would be very difficult to co-ordinate imperial messages.[footnoteRef:8] This is dissimilar to emperors before him where distinct characteristics were used to readily distinguish between emperors – thus you could easily identify the imperial family. It’s another subtle way that Diocletian could emphasise his distaste in dynastic principles. As Rees points out – ‘what is certain is that dynastic succession was not the determining principle in tetrarchic appointment’.[footnoteRef:9] [5: Mitchell 2006, 59] [6: Mitchell 2006, 57] [7: Hekster 2014, 281] [8: Hekster 2014, 282] [9: Rees 2004, 7]
For all of the attempts to curb individualism and reject dynasty however, there are discrepancies that would offer the answer that Diocletian was not as concerned with it as we think. Diocletian is often said to be the first emperor to ‘successfully’ abdicate his seat of power, choosing instead to retire to his palace in Split, Croatia. I would question whether his abdication was successful though as the months following his leave are commonly characterised by a dynastic power struggle to gain control. Ultimately Constantine would go on to win the approval of the army (who naturally favoured a dynastic ruler as it led to stability) and the principles of the tetrarchy disappeared. As Diocletian was still alive to see a lot of his work being undone we must question whether his confidence in his system was absolute from the beginning or whether the emperor simply had a constantly adapting idea of tetrarchic power. The latter would suggest that a rejection of dynastic principles was a theme that slowly evolved with the tetrarchy, but that it was not a significant enough idea to warrant Diocletian consider his own abdication a failure.
In conclusion it can be said that Diocletian’s tetrarchy featured many characteristics that made it openly hostile to dynastic principles. Through the representation of the imperial collegiate and the attempt to remove the ‘imperial family’ from public images all contributed to the new system of rule. The successions that promoted meritocracy were important to consider also whilst the makeup of the tetrarchy itself also was incredibly non-dynastic in its imagery. Diocletian’s reaction to the breakdown of his system does offer the point that dynasty may not have been central to the tetrarchic way of thinking, but the evidence for this is slight. The tetrarchy’s birth from the crisis of the century before it also was a substantial moment in the need to emphasise a lack of dynastic themes. Diocletian’s ability to stabilise the empire after this period can be definitively attributed to his attempts at curbing dynastic principles at court and attempting to secure succession for years to come through his new system.
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