What is a Tetrarchy?

Image Credit: Nino Barbieri

Tetrarchy, the joint rule of four Roman emperors, was the brainchild of Diocletian. Born out of necessity, its purpose was to defend the Roman Empire from conflicts on multiple fronts. To facilitate his administration, Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into the East and the West. Each division would have an Augustus (senior emperor) and a Caesar (junior emperor). Each emperor had his own court and region to administer. The Eastern Augustus was the most senior ruler in the Tetrarchy. Every twenty years, the Caesars would replace the Augusti who would retire. Merit and ability determined the appointment of new Caesars. In this article I shall explain the creation and the successes of the Tetrarchy. 1

Why was the Tetrarchy necessary?

In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire stretched from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. The defence and administration of such a vast empire was difficult. But the outbreak of several disasters compounded the problem. 2

Firstly, there was an epidemic outbreak. The epidemic claimed many lives, reducing the military and financial power of the empire. Secondly, its enemies chose this opportune moment to attack the weakened empire. Foreign barbarians repeatedly raided the provinces. During this period, the greatest threats came from the invasions of the Sassanid Persians in the east and the Germanic tribes from the north. Lastly, in the midst of these difficulties, Roman generals engaged in a civil war for control of the empire. The civil war dragged on for decades sapping the strength of the Roman Empire. 3

How Diocletian laid the foundation for the Tetrarchy

In 284, Diocletian seized the throne of the Roman Empire for himself. Having risen through the ranks of the army, he had a keen awareness of the problems that plagued the empire. Diocletian concluded that the Roman Empire was too vast for one man to defend effectively. So he divided the imperial domains into East and West. 4

Initially, he made his old comrade Maximian Caesar and then Augustus, charging him with the defence of the West. Meanwhile, Diocletian retained seniority over Maximian as Augustus of the East. Each Augustus had his own court, administration and army. This arrangement allowed them to manage the problems they faced in their domains. 5

The successes of the Diarchy

The Diarchy, joint rule of two emperors, helped to alleviate the ills that plagued the Roman Empire. From his capital at Milan, Maximian pacified the unrest in Gaul and skilfully defended the Rhine frontier from the Germanic tribes. But he had difficulty suppressing the rebellion in Britain. 6

In the east, Diocletian also had some successes. He defeated Sarmatian raiders and negotiated a temporary peace with Persia. Diocletian needed this breathing space for a few reasons. Firstly, he needed to introduce military, financial and bureaucratic reforms for the Roman Empire. These reforms required time to implement and would serve as the backbone of the Tetrarchy. Secondly, he also needed time to strengthen the defences of his eastern frontiers. But Diocletian realized that the Diarchy had room for improvement. 7

How the Diarchy became the Tetrarchy

In 293, Diocletian decided to appoint another two Caesars. Like the Augusti, military experience determined the appointment of the Caesars. Constantius Chlorus, the son-in-law of Maximian, became Caesar of the West. His assignment was to suppress the revolts in Britain and Gaul. To manage these conflicts, Constantius set up his capital at Augusta Treverorum; modern day Trier. 8

Meanwhile Galerius, the son-in-law of Diocletian became Caesar of the East. Suppressing the conflicts in Syria and Egypt became his primary task. For the moment, Galerius set up his base at Antioch. With this arrangement, Diocletian was able to give his full attention to dealing with the troubles in the Balkans. 9

The successes of the Tetrarchy

Diocletian’s Tetrarchy proved to be an effective remedy for the ills of the Roman Empire. In the West, the Caesar Constantius smashed the revolts in Britain and Gaul. Meanwhile, the Augustus Maximian re-established peace in Africa through a bloody but successful campaign. 10

In the East, Diocletian stayed on in the Balkans till 296 to stabilize the region. Meanwhile Galerius struggled to cope with the situation in Syria and Egypt. When the Persian king Narseh defeated Galerius in Syria, Diocletian arrived in Egypt to aid Galerius. With the capture of Alexandria after a long siege, Diocletian restored order to Egypt. In the meantime, Galerius raised a new army, defeated the Persians and forced them to sign a peace treaty. And so, by 300, the Tetrarchy finally brought peace to the Roman Empire. 11

With the Roman Empire at peace, Diocletian placed Galerius in control of the Balkans. Meanwhile, Diocletian himself assumed control over the Middle East. Maximian and Constantius continued to manage their respective domains. The empire however still suffered from occasional raids in the Balkans and in the West. But this was manageable compared to the invasions that preceded the Tetrarchy. Diocletian chose to abdicate in 305 at the height of the Tetrarchy’s power and success. 12

Image Credit: Aurelius787

Reflections of the Vizier

When Diocletian became Augustus in 284, the Roman Empire was in disarray. His solution was to implement the Tetrarchy to resolve the difficulties. By the time he abdicated in 305, he had restored peace and stability to the Roman Empire. What are your thoughts about the Tetrarchy? Could Diocletian have improved it? Was this the only way to restore order to the Roman Empire?

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References:

Grant, Michael. The Emperor Constantine. England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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  1. Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine (England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998), 17-20; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 33-35; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 13-27. []
  2. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 7. []
  3. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 7. []
  4. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 17; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 13-14. []
  5. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 18; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 13-14. []
  6. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 18; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 17. []
  7. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 15-17. []
  8. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 18-19; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 17. []
  9. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 18-19; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 17. []
  10. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 23. []
  11. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 18-20; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 22-23. []
  12. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 20; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34-35; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 23-26. []
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One Comments Post a Comment
  1. The Vizier says:

    Hi Piter,

    Yeah, the blog is my hobby. Thanks for the compliment!

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