Abdication of the Emperor Diocletian

The Roman emperor abdicated on May 1st, 305.

Aureus of Emperor DiocletianGaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus was sixty years old or so, had been Roman emperor for twenty years and had had enough. He decided to retire and grow vegetables in his home town of Split, on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic in Croatia. He had started life there in obscure circumstances – his father was said to have been a freed slave – but driving energy, force of personality and a genius for administration carried him up through a career in the army. By 284, approaching forty, Diocletian held senior rank in the force the Emperor Carinus sent against the Persians, led by the emperor’s brother and co-ruler Numerian. When Numerian was found dead in mysterious circumstances, his principal commander, Aper, was believed to have murdered him to seize power. The soldiers now acclaimed Diocletian as emperor and he drew his sword and killed Aper there and then. This neatly fulfilled a prediction that Diocletian would become emperor on the day he killed a boar (aper in Latin).

Carinus was assassinated the following year and Diocletian became master of the Roman world. It was too big for one man to manage and he well knew that the army was thoroughly out of hand. He picked an old comrade named Maximian, also of humble origins, and installed him in Milan as co-emperor while Diocletian established himself in the east, at Nicomedia in Anatolia. The effect was to divide the empire into western and eastern spheres, each with its own Augustus. In 293 each of them was given a Caesar as a right-hand man, Galerius in the east and in the west Constantius Chlorus, who ran Gaul and Britain and was the father of the future Constantine the Great. They again were self-made army men from obscure backgrounds and the arrangement worked, at least for as long as Diocletian was there. The army was brought under control, the barbarians kept at bay and the imperial administration centralized under a swarm of bureaucrats. Taxes went up, people prospered and Christians were persecuted as a subversive foreign sect.

Diocletian had built what has been described as, if not a new house for the empire, at least an emergency shelter. He also built himself a splendid palace at Split and perhaps his crowning achievement was to retire there and live out his days in peace. He said an emotional farewell to his soldiers and formally divested himself of his imperial purple cloak in an abdication ceremony at Nicomedia and Maximian reluctantly resigned the same day in Milan. At Split Diocletian enjoyed himself gardening and when Maximian returned to the political arena and wrote to suggest that Diocletian should do the same, he replied to the effect that if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion. Diocletian’s successors soon fell out, but apart from a brief, unsuccessful intervention in affairs in 308, he lived on quietly at Split until his death.