Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

Reigns of Diocletian and Constantine

No one who thought for a moment about the state of the empire could have helped seeing that remedies must be found at once for at least two of its troubles. In the first place, the lives of the emperors must be protected so they should not be slain at the whim of the soldiers. Second, the barbarians who were pressing upon the boundaries must be thrust back. Diocletian saw this, and discovered, or thought he had discovered a certain remedy. Whether certain or not, it was surely an original one. He chose three generals to aid him in the government. To one of these he gave the title of Augustus, which he himself bore. The other two were called Caesars. His plan was that the four should work together, each ruling a division of the empire. When an Augustus died, a Caesar was to be promoted to take his place and another Caesar to be chosen.

There were three reasons why this arrangement seemed to Diocletian a most excellent plan. One was that the succession to the throne was provided for. The second was that the four men could divide the realm among them, and so it would be well cared for and protected. The third was that it would prevent assassination, for the murder of one or two or even three of the four would not change the government in the least; and it would not be easy to plot to kill four men in different parts of the vast empire at the same moment.

All went on smoothly for a while, but it was soon found that keeping up four courts and four sets of officials was an expensive matter. Diocletian had taken Egypt, Asia, and Thrace for his share, and had chosen Nicomedia, near the Bosphorus, as his capital. Here he lived in the utmost luxury and splendor. The emperor Augustus had gone about among the people in familiar fashion, had lived simply, and had dressed like other well-to-do Romans. The emperor Diocletian dressed in robes of silk and gold and even ornamented his shoes with the most precious gems. Instead of the people's meeting their emperor easily and familiarly, there were numerous officials to be passed before anyone could reach the presence chamber. There the visitor was required to throw himself upon the ground at the feet of the ruler. Moreover, this ruler wore a crown, a thing which neither Julius nor Augustus would have ventured to do. Augustus had kept up all the old forms of the republic and had done his best to make the people feel that they were the real rulers, and he was only one of themselves. Diocletian dropped the old forms and did everything to remove himself from the people and induce them to feel that he was not a mere man, but a creature far above them and of finer clay than they.

To keep up this expensive court, and those of the other rulers, required money, as has been said before, and money must be obtained by increasing the taxes of the people. These taxes were already severe, and soon there was rebellion on the part of the peasants in Gaul. These peasants were subdued by arms, but they felt that they were burdened beyond what was just and right, and they were angry and discontented.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Diocletian was inclined to permit the Christians to carry on their worship as they would, but Galerius, one of the Caesars, was strongly opposed to them. At length Diocletian yielded to him and passed severe laws against them. Their churches were leveled to the ground, and they themselves were tortured, thrown to wild beasts in the arena, or put to death in other ways.

While this persecution was still going on, the Roman world was amazed to learn that both Diocletian and Maximian, the second Augustus, had given up the throne and intended to spend the rest of their lives as private citizens. Diocletian withdrew to Dalmatia, and there on the shore of the Adriatic Sea he built himself a palace. Maximian soon regretted his abdication and wrote to Diocletian to ask if they could not by working together get possession of the sovereignty again. Diocletian gave him little comfort, for he replied, "Were you but to come to Salona and see the vegetables which I raise in my garden with my own hands, you would no longer talk to me of empire."

The persecution of the Christians continued for seven years after the retirement of Diocletian. Galerius finally published an edict putting an end to it. He was then in his last sickness, and it is said that in his sufferings he besought the Christians to pray to their God for him.

When Diocletian and Maximian gave up the throne, Galerius and Constantius became Augusti. So far the plan of Diocletian had worked smoothly; but when Constantius died, the soldiers put aside all Diocletian's plans and declared that their commander, Constantinus, or Constantine, should be emperor. There were, however, several other claimants to the throne, of whom the most active was Maxentius. It was several years, therefore, before Constantine became the undisputed ruler of the empire.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Instead of persecuting the Christians, Constantine took the cross for his standard. He declared that one day at noon, during his struggle with his rival, Maxentius, he saw a cross in the sky above the sun, and on it was written, in Greek, In this sign thou shalt conquer, or, as it was translated into Latin, In hoc signo vinces. On the following day, he displayed a cross to his soldiers. From its shorter beam hung a banner of purple silk, flashing with jewels and showing images of him and his children. On the top of the upright beam was a golden crown marked with an X overlaid with a P, the Greek letters which stand for the cross and also for the Ch-r of "Christ." On this day he fought with Maxentius the battle of Milvian Bridge, one of his most important engagements, and won a great victory. Henceforth his army followed the cross in all their battles. One year later, Constantine published an edict (the Edict of Milan) allowing everyone in his realm to practice whatever religion he might choose. Little by little he gave the Christians more rights. Their numbers increased rapidly, for few people had now any faith in the gods, and they had suffered so much that they were glad to learn of a God in whom they could believe.

So it was that the empire gained a new faith. It was not long before it gained a new capital, for Constantine decided to take Byzantium on the Bosphorus for his chief city. He was a wise man, and he had several good reasons for doing this. Perhaps the strongest of all was that he meant to rule the empire without paying any attention to the Roman senate or the nobles; and this would be much easier to do in the East where people had always been accustomed to bowing down to their rulers. Another reason was that in Byzantium the emperor would be nearer his most dangerous enemies, the barbarians north of the Danube and the Persians. He would also be nearer the mass of his people. Now that Rome ruled Greece and Asia Minor, Byzantium was in a most excellent location for carrying on trade, since all the commerce of the countries around the Black Sea must pass through the Bosphorus. The new city was given the name of Constantinople, or city of Constantine. It is said that more than twelve million dollars was spent on walls, porticoes, and aqueducts alone. Baths, theatres, forum, circus, churches, palaces, all sprang up within a short time. The city was adorned with the works of the greatest artists, for the builder was the master of the world, and he took from the cities of Greece and Asia Minor the finest statues and most perfect ornaments that were in existence.

The next thing to do was to make the government as strong as possible, or rather, to prevent anyone's interfering with what Constantine thought best to do, for he himself proposed to be the government. He had decided that the surest way to prevent revolts was not to allow any one man to have too much power. Therefore he made many generals and gave each one fewer soldiers than had been the custom; and he divided the provinces into small districts. This way of ruling prevented rebellions, but it was expensive, for there were very many officials to be paid, and therefore the taxes of the people rose still higher. Those who had fertile lands far enough from the frontiers to be well protected could generally pay what was demanded; but men near the boundaries whose fields were sometimes devastated by barbarians could not pay, and gradually they abandoned their lands. The result of this was that after a while the country at a safe distance from the boundaries was cultivated; but that which was near the borders of the empire was left wild.

After Constantine's death, first his sons and then his nephew ruled the empire. This nephew was Julian. He is called "the Apostate," because he gave up Christianity and tried to bring his people back to the worship of the old gods. The days of the persecutions had passed, but Julian gave the chief offices to those who would carry on the old worship. He forbade Christians to teach in the schools, and he made them rebuild the temples that had been ruined. He made several campaigns against the Persians, and in one of these he was fatally wounded. His successor was a Christian. With Julian died the last imperial worshipper of the gods.


It had become necessary to protect the emperor and keep back the barbarians. Diocletian shared his power with three others. This was very expensive, and the increase of taxes resulted in rebellion. The Christians were persecuted. Diocletian and Maximian abdicated. At the death of the Augusti, the soldiers made Constantine emperor. His vision of the cross and his success at Milvian Bridge led him to take the cross for his standard. He granted religious freedom. Byzantium, or Constantinople, became the capital and was most richly adorned. To prevent rebellions, Constantine divided the army and the provinces into small districts. Taxes were increased, and land near the boundaries was abandoned. Julian the Apostate tried to restore the worship of the gods.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • What a Roman thought of Diocletian's division of the imperial power.
  • A visit to the emperor Diocletian.
  • Diocletian writes to Maximian about the pleasures of his life in the country.