The Rise Of Gothic Diocletian’s Roman Empire

Michael Kulikowski
Michael Kulikowski

Attempts at explaining Gothic foundations has often taken us a very long way from the ancient world, and into a discussion of contemporary intellectual history. Observing the way contemporary accounts of Gothic migration, whether they claim to be established by historical, archaeological or linguistic evidence, are all in one way or another echo of Jordanes’ sixth-century Getica. Consciously or not, contemporary narratives of Gothic migration are rooted in the very old quest for Germanic origins, a quest to give northern Dollarspe a past independent from Roman history. Unfortunately, as we have seen, contemporary evidence supports neither migration stories nor any narrative derived from Jordanes. On the contrary, it suggests that — like the Franks and the Alamanni further west along the frontier — the Goths were a commodity of the Roman frontier itself. That outcome not only makes sense in the evidence of the late third century, it also fits in well with the much better-understood evidence of the fourth-century.

In the first three decades of the fourth-century, as we shall see in this and in following articles, the Goths became the indisputable masters of the lower Danube, from the eastern edge of the Carpathians to the fringes of the Caucasian steppe lands. The language itself began to acknowledge these facts. Thus, by the 320s, the lower Danube was known as the ripa Gothica, the Gothic bank. Soon thereafter, we find the Greek word Gothia designating the tract of land beyond the Danube, a word that was imported into the Gothic language as Gutthiuda, the Goths’ word for their own lands. This tremendous extension of Gothic power was not inevitable. Instead, the Goths were encouraged to become so powerful because it was useful to the political schemes of successive Roman emperors for them to do so. In other words, just as the Goths themselves were created by the political pressures of life in a Roman frontier zone, so Roman emperors made the fourth-century Goths what they were. The revolutionary reign of Emperor Diocletian marks the turning point.

In the course of the 290s, Diocletian transformed the Roman empire beyond recognition. A governmental revolution grew out of the emergency measures which Diocletian undertook piecemeal in order to keep himself secure on his throne. The cumulative effect of such measures was enormous. It removed many of the systemic causes of disorder that had plagued the third-century empire and thereby created the powerful Roman state with which the fourth-century Goths had to deal with. As we have seen, the first important step that Diocletian took was to appoint Maximian as his fellow Augustus, or co-emperor, in 285. The point of this measure was to multiply the imperial ability to deal with many different threats at one time. An emperor who was on point and seen to be fulfilling his role was a powerful disincentive to usurpation by a local governor or general.

Diocletian took this principle still further, by appointing two junior emperors, called Caesars, as a complement to the two senior Augusti. Together, these four emperors would form an imperial college in which the actions of each emperor would symbolically be the actions of all four: a law issued by one emperor was circulated in the name of all four, and when one emperor won a victory, all four took the victory title associated with it. This college of four emperors is known to scholars as the tetrarchy (“rule of four” in Greek). For as long as it lasted, the new Tetrarchy of Diocletian and Maximian, with their Caesars Constantius and Galerius, ensured that an emperor was on hand in nearly every trouble spot of the empire, ready to suppress a looming threat and thereby discourage any local response that might challenge the hold of Diocletian and his colleagues on their thrones. The tetrarchic system also meant to ensure a smooth succession, as a Caesar would be waiting to succeed a senior Augustus should the need arise.

Diocletian’s reform of the imperial office was accompanied by an elaborate religious ideology that assigned to the ruling emperor’s divine descent from Jupiter and Hercules, those gods that were most ostentatiously Roman in the traditional pantheon. The tetrarchy also insisted on renewed attention to the imperial cult – the worship of past, deified emperors and of the genius, or protecting spirit, of the living emperor. Both measures were designed to ensure that the gods would smile on and protect the empire.

The famous Diocletianic persecution of Christians, widely known as “The Great Persecution,” was a consequence of this tetrarchic ideology, because Christians refused to worship any god but their own and by doing so might endanger the health of the state. If religion was one basis on which Diocletian rested his authority, he took other measures as well, reforming the currency, expanding the army, and re-enforcing the elite guard units that travelled with the emperor. Most importantly, he broke up the very large provinces of the early empire into more than a hundred smaller provinces, while also separating the military and civilian hierarchies in the imperial government.

The first measure dramatically reduced the scale of any one official’s command, while the second meant that the officials who collected taxes and disbursed state salaries to the soldiers were not the same officials who commanded the troops in the field. Together, both measures undermined the ability of either military or civilian officials to claim the imperial throne for themselves. As we have said, the various Diocletianic reforms were ad hoc measures, meant to deal with the many different problems that had afflicted the third-century empire. Yet as a group, they were revolutionary: they not only allowed Diocletian to hold his throne for more than two decades, they also produced a system of government that remained effective even after the tetrarchy itself broke down. In other words, the type of imperial government originally outlined by Diocletian and the tetrarchy was, in essence, the same one with which Alaric had to deal with a hundred years later.

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