Diocletian ended the Crisis of the Third Century when he restored stability to the Roman Empire. The empire descended into crisis in the early part of the century. The series of invasions, civil wars, economic downturns, and social chaos ended with his elevation to emperor. As emperor, Diocletian initiated a number of reforms designed to reinvigorate the Roman Empire. He focused on political, military, and economic solutions to Rome’s ills with varied success. In the end, Diocletian’s reforms stabilized the empire, which existed for another two centuries in the west.
Political instability helped lead to the collapse in 235 A.D. As a result, Diocletian focused on ways to strengthen the political system. He established a tetrarchy of four emperors. Two resided in the west and two in the east. Each ruled from their own capitol city with an established hierarchy amongst the four. He created two senior emperors called Augustus and two juniors dubbed Caesar. Diocletian designed this arrangement to fix problems with succession, eliminate the incessant civil wars, and make it easier to govern the empire. Diocletian became the senior Augustus in the tetrachy. The senior Augustus weakened the senate and strengthened and increased the bureaucracy to aid administration and move Rome toward a dictatorship or absolute monarchy. Diocletian’s political reforms did not last long after his retirement. Constantine the Great eventually restored the rule of one for a time, but the empire occasionally employed multiple emperors until its end.
Diocletian’s political reforms led to the absolute monarchy, while his economic reforms had little effect. The economy collapsed in the third century after the government debased the currency. The currency’s collapse led to taxation through requisition. Basically, the government took what it needed from the people. Diocletian encoded this policy into law. Additionally, he instituted price controls and tried to restore the currency to battle inflation. Both efforts failed miserably. In the end, the western economy did not recover until the late 8th century.
The new economic program failed, but the military effort helped Rome stave off extinction for two centuries. Diocletian dramatically enlarged the army. By about 300, the number of men in arms increased from 4% of the populace to nearly 7%. The increased army led to a larger budget. The emperor turned to requisition to pay the troops. Meanwhile, he enlarged the cavalry to act as a rapid reaction force. As a result, each of the four emperors commanded a large, mobile military designed to move quickly to counter any threat. This arrangement served emperors well.
Diocletian assumed control of the Roman Empire in 284 A.D. He recognized the problems inherent in the third century and moved to correct for them. The emperor attempted to create a stable political and economic system backed by a strong military. This meant undercutting traditional power in lieu of the bureaucracy and autocratic emperors. His tetrachy dissolved, but its principles continued on, the economic reforms failed, but the military effort definitely helped the empire. Diocletian’s thoughts ranged far and his energies directed toward the empire. In the end, his efforts helped the west survive until 476 A.D.