Spreading the Rule on many Shoulders: How Diocletian 'cloned' himself into Tetrarchy in order to stabilize the Empire – Coins from Pavia, 295 AD


How do you reign an empire without being equipped with telephone and internet? Share the work! Like Diocletian did. He created the tetrarchy and ruled the Roman empire very successfully with a little help of his colleagues.




Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Roman Ticinium, modern-day Pavia. We are in the year 295 AD.


The Roman Empire was huge, damn huge. It was so huge that it became impossible for only one man to defend it. What could he do when the Parthians invaded from the east while he was fighting Germanic tribes at the northern frontier?


Wherever the soldiers believed that their emperor did not give their frontier the proper attention, they proclaimed a counter-emperor, who first repulsed the enemies and then turned his steps towards Rome in order to win the empire in its entirety. How many resources have been wasted simply because the Romans did not fight against enemies from outside but against each other!


To please everybody, the emperor would have had to clone himself. Sons were not an option. Most of them were too young or too incompetent. How to spread the great task on many shoulders then?


Oops, what have we got here? It is not one emperor who sacrifices in front of the camp but four at once. All look alike. They wear identical garments, they are all the same size, nothing marks one of them as being of superior rank.


That is exactly how the four men look like who are immured in a corner of the Venetian St. Mark’s Basilica. All of the same size, all clad in the same way, all holding the same magnificent sword and all exhibiting the same facial features. The cloned emperor. Four for the price of one. Or, as the historians call it: tetrarchy.


The man who managed to share his power with three other men was called Diocletian. He came from a humble background. The only thing we know about the first forty years of his life is that he joined the army and made a career there. On 20 November 284, his fellow soldiers proclaimed him Roman Emperor.


Diocletian had to solve the same problems as his predecessors. The Quadi and the Marcomanni had crossed the Rhine frontier, and the Sasanians would do the same in their part of the world soon. There was trouble in Britannia, revolts in Germany, and these were only the more important hotspots.


Other rulers had had relatives to delegate tasks to. The ones appointed usually turned out to be unable to cope. Diocletian had no one. He could choose his assistants freely. Diocletian was great at that. He shared his power with capable men who were willing to subordinate to him.

His first helper was called Maximinianus. He too had made a career in the army and it is highly possible that Diocletian knew him well.


Diocletian divided the empire. He took care of the east, Maximian of the west. They weren’t on an equal footing, of course. Diocletian had the final say. As it is made abundantly clear on the gold coins. They were intended for the upper class that was to be made aware of where the real power in the empire lied.


While Diocletian associated himself with Jupiter, he assigned Hercules to Maximian. Being the son of Jupiter, Hercules was clearly inferior in rank. Here we see Hercules fighting the Hydra. The story is well-known: the Hydra was a beast that grew two heads for each cut off. Diocletian and Maximian may have felt much the same. There was no end to their day. For every victory two new riots erupted.


And so two additional emperors joined the team: Galerius whose coin we see here, and Constantius Chlorus. And they all looked alike. An illiterate person had no chance of telling which emperor he saw on a coin.


That was policy. The minting was done in the entire empire, mostly in those places where the army had to be paid.


All mints struck coins for all four emperors. The portraits were harmonized to such a degree that they stopped exhibiting any individual traits.


The coins of the different mints likewise were almost impossible to distinguish. The die cutters were given clear specifications as to what the obverse and the reverse had to look like.

Our specimen comes from Ticinum, the modern city of Pavia in Northern Italy.


Its depiction is not that different from a contemporary coin from Thracian Heracleia, Syrian Antiochia or Gallic Trier.


The illustrations became interchangeable, as did the man at the top.

It is hardly surprising that, after 21 years, Diocletian thought that he had worked long enough and decided to retire. He considered himself replaceable.


That was a mistake. The unemotional support of the most capable military leaders stopped at once because his colleagues had begot children.


They wanted to be succeeded in office by their offspring. The next civil war was only a matter of time. Much blood was shed until the most ruthless of all tetrarchs’ sons re-united the Roman Empire in his hands.


Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.

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