Role of Religion during Diocletian reign

Religion was an integral part of the Roman empire right from its conception. It was mostly a blend of Greek and Egyptian mythologies. They believed in Pietas (priests) maintaining relations with the Pax deorum (Gods). However, different rulers tackled religion differently during their reign. The following analysis begins at what the historians refer-to as the end of the Golden Period i.e the late 200 AD.

Despite having better opportunities like good communication and transport, lack of integrity and the absence of a powerful and reliable ruler who could withstand the threats posed by Persians and Germans worried the Roman populace. It was at this time that a cavalry commander called Diocletian took the brave step of going up the hierarchy on his own to become the ruler of the great Roman Empire following the death of Emperor Carus. But he was faced with the following problem — Given the precarious nature of the Roman Empire at that time, how could he prevent a potential coup d’état?  Someone else could as easily proclaim the throne as he did.

Diocletian had the following choices.

  • Following the path of Augustus and calling himself “The First Among Equals” and then establish a friendly relation with his subjects. But he was a too suspicious to follow this method. He knew that this idea hasn’t worked out successfully for all his predecessors. So, he abandoned it.
  • Tyrannical Rule – Though the ultimate objective of every plan was to establish dominance, suppression had its own problems. Firstly, it could give rise to another civil war and secondly, Diocletian didn’t want to break the legacy of his forerunners by being the suppressive of sorts and being called a tyrannical ruler. With that, he eliminated tyranny.
  • Consecrating the position of the emperor by coming up with an ingenious plan.

The third plan was harmless to his regime as well as his subjects’ interests. But then…how could he do that?  He could. If he introduced the element of Religion. So he made himself a God — a self proclaimed God and started taking sacrifices, too many of them. He made many of his pagan subjects believe that his ascendancy to the throne was governed and prescribed by divinities themselves. He seldom went out and whenever he did, he made sure that a thick blanket of the smoke from the frankincense demarcated the ‘mere mortals’ from his Highness adorned with ornate accouterments. Meanwhile, he also made himself politically strong by dividing the empire to East and West and giving the West to Maximian, a long time friend of his. Just when he thought he needed more dominance, he received help in the form of problems — High taxation and Christianity. On the one hand, high taxation caused civil unrest as all the money was being used to meet the kings’ ends and in organizing sacrifices. On the other hand, Christians who then made 10% of the Roman populace, started denouncing the act of sacrifice as evil and anti-christ. A Christian named Romanus, who was brave enough to point this out, had his tongue cut-off. He then wrongly felt that Christians had the potential to wobble his already rickety rule. The emperor needed a cause to suppress the Christians. For this, he set fire to his own palace and accused the Christians. He then started his notorious religious persecutions. He forbade Christian assemblies and destroyed churches. Many Christians were made to die in public arenas.

Diocletian suffered with a sense of insecurity throughout his rule. Despite being an able ruler, this insecurity made him create chaos from order and ultimately made him a tyrannical ruler. This brutal persecutions continued till the year 305 where he publicly gave up the throne he once loved, owing to his emaciated form and poor health. The sacrifices or the brutal killings of Christians were not lost in vain. Christianity would bounce back with all its might to its former glory. It would be made the official religion of the Roman Empire under the leadership of the great Constantine. But…how did that happen? For that, we would have to study the reign of Constantine…and that comes later.


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