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on January 3, 2016
The Emperor Diocletian is only belatedly getting his due, with Stephen Williams's 1985 book being the first biography in English. His era, of course has been much written about in works such as A.H.M. Jones's The Later Roman Empire, but the man himself has been generally ignored despite the fact that he was practically a second Augustus, completely reforming the Roman Empire after a period of near-chaos. One suspects that it was the great persecution of Christianity that occurred under his watch that consigned him to history's shadows, but now it is possible to reconsider the man and his accomplishments.

After the assassination of Severus Alexander in 235 there followed a period in which the frontiers collapsed leading to numerous barbarian invasions that even included seaborne Goths crossing the Black Sea to raid Anatolia and Greece and which caused a depopulation of many areas. Large chunks of the Empire broke away when the center seemed no longer able to protect them. The succession, never really assured under Augustus' settlement became a winner take all contest of short-lived Ilyrian generals resulting in the reign of over twenty Emperors in a fifty year period. During this time the currency was degraded to virtual worthlessness and the economy practically collapsed.

Then came Diocletian in 285 who in his twenty year reign, managed to create stability and gradually construct a new kind of Roman Empire that would survive for another two centuries in the West and much longer in its Eastern half. He did this methodically, starting with the reestablishment of secure frontiers to create the basic security and order that was necessary for an effective State, then went on to reorganize the provinces, separate civil and military career paths, reform finances and taxation, and create a new form of Imperial government that attempted to secure the succession in an orderly fashion and which raised the Emperor to an absolute divine-right ruler surrounded by great ceremony and awe.

Professor Williams covers all of this in great detail, area by area, every reform and attempt at reform even those that did not work. By the time he is finished you can clearly see that Diocletian was like a second Augustus, even with parallels like having an able and loyal general to do the military work while he did the work of organization, Maximian being his Agrippa. It was truly amazing, given the vastness of the Empire, the slow speed of communications, and the general lack of economic theory, that one man could grasp the problems and their solution in areas: military, governmental, economic and social. One wonders at how an obscure, rough provincial with little known background had the mind to comprehend all this and put it into action. He was certainly the very man Rome needed at that particular moment. Though he built on the accomplishments of Emperors like Aurelian and Probus, most of his ideas were radically new and original. Like many reformers Diocletian was an idealist and failed to see the human considerations that would undermine his concept of the Tetrarchy, but most of his other ideas worked.

After explaining and analyzing all of this, subject by subject while continuing to follow the reign chronologically, Williams goes on to describe the religious issue in great detail and the Great Persecution itself, which occurred in four stages, each created by an Edict. Here the fact that Williams has his Ph.D in Philosophy comes to the fore, and he writes one of the clearest expositions on Roman religion I have ever read, including changes in Philosophy that led to the success of Neoplatonism. He then describes the growing confrontation between Christianity and the Empire with its traditional religion, though it is never quite certain why the Christians made such an issue of a pinch of incense for the Emperor when there were clearly theological ways out. The religious issue issue gets its own section, as it looms so large in Diocletian's career and has besmirched his legacy. Williams cannot exonerate Diocletian since he was the senior Augustus and all was done under his name. However he does go so far as to say that only the First Edict was consistent with Diocletian's usual methods and policies and that rapidly declining health and the growing strength and fanaticism of Gallerius must be taken into account. He notes that even the Christian Lactantius, a major source for the period who was not well-disposed to Diocletian, describes the situation as being mainly the work of Gallerius.

Two final sections add to the narrative. He analyses the reign of Constantine to describe how that Emperor completed Diocletian's work while changing some major parts of it. The necessity of a second stable reign after that of a great innovator is made quite clear and one can't help but remember Augustus being followed by Tiberius who was an able administrator of the Empire despite some personal flaws. A chapter "In the Long Run" looks at everything again in the decades to come. Stephen Williams also wrote "Theodosius: the Empire at Bay" and is very well-studied in the later Empire. It is unfortunately true that often the correctives of one era create their own problems in the future, and he goes into detail here including his explanation of why the West fell and the East survived.

This book is written in a clear and readable style that retains the dramatic sense of a chronological narrative even while discussing issues of organization or abstract ideas. It can be enjoyed by the casual reader but is factual and informative enough to be of interest to historians as well.
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on December 24, 2014
More than just very easy-to-read, this book is packed with accurate data and thoughtful interpretations authored in style. This book stands far apart from many, particularly British, historical and biographical writings for its lucid and compelling prose. The author also provides just enough background detail to tell the story better, and just enough "what happened after" discussion to illustrate the importance of the subject-matter. The main data relied on is a rich mix of full primary and good secondary sources to which Williams has added a great many interpretations worth considering, and which are probably often accurate.

Diocletian, the subject, is vividly drawn and the portrayal is consistent with the record. The Illyrian ruler of Rome and its possessions at the end of the 3rd century AD/CE comes across perhaps most reminiscent of the fictional Godfather of the Mario Puzo mafia novel and related movie. Ruthless and cunning, yet almost quaintly old-fashioned, Diocletian is sincerely concerned about the well-being of the world he has built up for his underlings, and he finds himself facing the difficulties of how to choose a system for succession.

And then he retires to gardening while that world turns to solve the issue on its own.

Substantively, the only bias of the book I would complain about is simply the near-universal bias of most historians, history readers, and history academics in general. It is present in the author's unquestioned assumptions, and that of readers and reviewers. That bias is the presumption in favor of centralization of institutions. Perhaps - few consider, but probably more should consider -- the world and the West would have been better off if the Roman Empire *had collapsed* in the third century instead of leaving behind the quasi-totalitarian, progress-devouring, spread-thin monster-state Diocletian established. Those institutions fostered a feudal West, an authoritarian East, and too-closely entwined religion and state, defining centuries of dark ages.

Despite that fundamental difference of perspective, this reader still gives this a five star rating. If you are a history nerd and want to know how the West was one, this is as good as it gets.
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on November 18, 2013
This is one of the best Roman history books I have ever read and I have read a lot of them. It analyses in great, yet never exhaustively boring, detail, what a fundamental innovator accomplished to save the Roman Empire during a period of precipitous disintegration and chaos. Not only did he turn around the unfolding collapse, but he established a system of government that served as a template for all governments that followed in the middle ages. It is astonishingly lucid and, however dry the administrative details may be, absolutely essential to understand the history that followed, to the present day.

The book starts with the tail end of the golden age of the Empire, during the relatively peaceful, populist reign of Marcus Aurelius. He had stabilized Rome with a perimeter defense, with outposts that protected the borders against barbarians that refused or were out of the reach from domination by the Roman system of governance. The barbarians at that time were essentially small tribes that were poorly organized and easily pitted against each other. Furthermore, since the time of Augustus, administration was haphazard, the privilege of senators closer to Rome and military men on the fractious outer reaches. Administrative functions were a mix of military competence, aristocratic privilege, and luck.

After the catastrophic reign of Commodus, the Empire entered a period of accelerating chaos - civil war at every passage of political power (i.e. the military and the Praetorian Guard came to the fore), increasingly organized barbarian tribes (they were mastering Roman military tactics), and a society and economy in downward spiral - that appeared to herald the end of Rome. The borders were no longer secure, necessitating desperate measures to defend the core of the Empire, essentially by requisition from those near the field of battle. The economic system began to break down in this period, with taxes no longer collected, trade shrinking by more than 75%, and the cities degenerating from vital centers into delapidated backwaters. The population shrunk, supplies were requisitioned by fiat and circumstance, impoverishing local populations and eroding the polity and community belief in the state.

The military coped as best it could. Key to this time was the rise of a new elite, the Albanian military men. Unlike the Roman educated aristocracy, they were all military, lacking classical finishing and manner, but tuned in to the necessities of permanent mobilization on a war footing. They were disciplined and hardened to the realities of power after 50 years of grinding uncertainty. This was where Diocletian came from, observing carefully and awaiting his opportunity to do better as he arose to generalship. Once declared emperor by his troops, he fought a brutal civil war and almost lost.

Aside from the persecution of Christians, Diocletian is remembered predominantly for the creation of a kind of tetrarchy, with co-emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesars). He did this to stabilize the empire and its power arrangements, dividing responsibilities geographically and by specialty. It was a shrewd move, freeing him from the necessity to scramble to answer every crisis as they occurred in person and enabling him to think strategically. This took, of course, extraordinary political skills to make it work, not only in choosing the right partners, but in keeping them happy and legitimate in the eyes of all citizens. He also changed the image of the Emperor in a more separated individual, with special links to God in the mold of the "oriental despot"; in this way, he was Zeus and his co-Augustus was Herakles, to whom absolute loyalty was sworn (which Christians refused to do).

The tetrarchy, as the book demonstrates, only just scratches the surface. Diocletian also professionalized the administration of the Empire with the creation of a bureaucracy, a more equitable tax system, and a revamped military strategy. In the process, the senatorial aristocracy lost the last vestiges of its privileges, opening the bureaucracy to talent, complete with career routes but also the systematic development of specialties for the first time (in the West, at least). I was simply astonished at how modern his ideas appear.

The most important part of this was the separation of military from other administrative functions. Moreover, the Praetorian guard lost its political role. This was an innovation so fundamental that it cannot be overestimated. Whereas competent administration depended to a great degree on luck in the confused mixing of aristocratic privilege, military position, and political career, it now became the provence of professionals. It also added stability because of the stricter division of labor - lacking experience, military men were far less likely to enter politics via coup. Finally, specialization encouraged the development of expertise for the bureaucracy. While this is the origin of the term "byzantine" to connote excessive bureaucracy, it was also a necessary step.

On the tax front, Diocletian began a comprehensive regime of census taking as a way to determine what citizens "owed" in taxes. Essentially, a percentage of labor was required of everyone, as determined by the needs of the Empire. The burden could be heavy, depending on circumstances, but everyone knew what they had to pay and that they shared it. This served to legitimize the Empire, enabled people to plan again, and contributed to the revival of the economy, though the population decline necessitated the use of German troops. Now, this makes for some pretty dry reading at times, but again, it is an innovation so far-seeing that it is a wonder, truly a work of political genius.

Finally, the military dimension. Building on the mobile cavalry that his predecessors created, Diocletian moved the military bases to strategic, fortified points - the forerunner of the chateaux forts that emerged in the 9C CE - deeper within the borders, where they could service multiple points in a matter of days rather than weeks or months. The strong forts were staffed with disciplined professional forces, real military men like Diocletian. Nearer the borders, Diocletian developed a kind of peasant army, the cannon fodder that would absorb the brunt of attacks. It worked over the next 100 years.

Of course, in spite of these accomplishments, there were limits to Diocletian's vision and accomplishment. Like many military men, he viewed the economy as an irritation, and attempted to set up a command economy by setting prices by decree. It was an embarrassing failure. He also waged, perhaps reluctantly, a war against monotheistic religions, starting with the Manicheans, who were viewed as agents of the Persian Empire; the fight with Christianity originated with similar fears of revolutionary subversion. Far worse, his tetrarchy barely survived him. Not only did one of his original co-emperors initiate a civil war at the moment that Diocletian retired to a massive castle in Split, where he was an impassive and impotent observer, but the sons of original tetrarchy members (Constantine and Maxentius) fought each other and destroyed the system entirely.

I have few criticisms of the book. It may be focused too tightly on Diocletian, attributing too much to his foresight. He also goes a bit easy on his role in the persecution of Christians, placing the blame on a co-emperor when Diocletion was clearly the top dog. Nonetheless, this is a book that I will have to re-read every so often.

Though Williams is not a professional academic, his book is a masterpiece of popular history. If at times the prose is somewhat spare, the book is so dense with ideas and subtlety that it is a constant delight. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
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on March 10, 2015
Excellent detail
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on November 2, 2010
I like this book,gr8 analysis,i tried to search for the biography of the writer,but i couldn't find.
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on June 20, 2012
Because Paul's Greek meter in Ephesians 1:10 focuses on Diocletian as the cause of Constantine and Constantine as the cause of Roman Catholicism (long story why, I did Youtube and now vimeo videos on it, ggs11 channel nickname brainout) -- in December 2010 I suddenly had to get into post-Commodus Roman history. WHY was Paul focusing his TIME meter on that period? I didn't know.

No excuse for me not being interested in that period of Roman history, but I wasn't. So I didn't know basics like who was Emperor post-Commodus (other than Constantine, who interested me not at all), nor about the Crisis of the Third Century, etc. This, despite having an original 1776 Gibbon, and the 1876 edition, AND Gibbon on 3.5" floppies (so you know how long I've had them) AND abridged Mommsen AND Cary, etc. for lo 20 years+. And, the Military Encyclopedia by Dupuy and Dupuy. To make my wilfull ignorance worse, I HEARD about SPQR for over 30 years from my pastor exegeting Ephesians. Yikes. End Confession.

Big mistake. Now corrected, by surfing and surfing Google Books for the scholarship reading and reading and reading the books I have, and also getting this book by Williams, plus Bill Leadbetter's "Galerius and the Will of Diocletian", happily available on Kindle for rent or purchase.

What does Williams bring to the table, since so much (mostly not in English) has been written on Diocletian, both in the past, and now?

1. Williams is big-picture. He weaves together all the megatrends leading up to Diocletian, with a focus on the psychological impact the tumultous Crisis of the Third Century had on 'making' Diocletian.
2. Williams avoids the pedantic trap of getting all wound up with the ongoing scholarly debates over the facts, personalities, and who-did-what-when, and instead just presents an overview.
3. His overview is extremely incisive and insightful.
4. Writing flow and focus on the psychological impact of the period on pagans and Christians alike, is tight, easy to follow and understand.

In short, if you want ONE book to read on Diocletian and his times -- and you should, because doggone near everything about the Catholic Church is 'imported' from Diocletian -- pick this book. Then you can get into the windy tomes of the classic authors, for you will have the big picture, with all the right pieces to analyze in more detail. (There's another book printed in 1876, "The Persecution of Diocletian" by Arthur James Mason (available here at Amazon or Google Books), which is also helpful, but less so.)

Williams' Chapters 12 and 13 help you see the reason for the Great Persecution of 303. As you might expect, there are always two sides to the story, and unfortunately my fellow Christians of the third and fourth century were a scurrilious lot, never above lying -- and of course THEIR version of the story is mainly what survives. So you have to look elsewhere for a balanced picture. Williams provides that balance. So on the one hand, the pagans themselves were tiring of a too-superficial relationship to 'the gods', so gradually came to seek a 'universal' God idea above the centuries of warring, capricious 'gods'. Even the philosophers got religious that way. On the other hand, some of this 'universal' move (really, toward the henotes of Plato's Philebus), was more pragmatically designed to compete with the in-your-face, hate-the-establishment apostate 'Christianity' (not much different from its counterparts today), where everyone else was somehow an untermensch.

The Christians, for their part, were also coalescing, the centuries of schismatic warring gradually giving way to a very eclectic ROMAN STYLE (Diocletian-style) ecclesiastical expression. Williams thinks that ecclesiasm got underway in 200, but if you also buy Robert Lee Williams' "Bishop Lists" (no relation to Stephen, book is also here at Amazon, a gripping read, surprising for a doctoral thesis) -- you'll see that it was more a product of the 250's, aftermath of the Severans and persecution.

THAT is why Paul's meter wryly says (direct trans from the Greek), 'to result in the Filling-Up-of-Times Dispensation; to sum up under One Head, All (trial) matters in Christ; all (trial) matters in heaven, and [all matters] on earth, via Him;' That last "Him" is syllable=AD 283, advent of Diocletian. Now I know why, from the pagan end: they were COALESCING. I didn't know that, before. (To see why from the Christian end, get the Robert Lee Williams Bishop Lists Book. Caution: neither Williams advocates anything about Bible or Paul. I'm drawing those conclusions from their books.)

The rest, as they say, is history. Everything Diocletian crafted was adopted lock stock and barrel, right down to the terms, costuming, colors, and ceremonies -- by Constantine and the then-emergent, Catholic Church. The word 'catholic' wasn't used until the Severans, see the Robert Lee Williams 'Bishop Lists' book for that story. Stephen and Robert are not related, so far as I know.

Stephen Williams explains that parallel in his penultimate chapter, 'Constantine's Completion'. Suggest you get both Williams' books, to see import; or, at least see my review of Robert Williams' 'Bishop Lists', here in Amazon, maybe to save time. Truly, so much of modern Western history derives from this changeover; and especially, Roman Catholic dogmas, institutions, and .. ahem, persecutions.

Now, there are many points of contention about this period, still debated by scholars. When did Constantius and Galerius marry the Augusti daughters? Was Valeria Maximila really Diocletian's DAUGHTER's child? Why did Diocletian abdicate.. was it illness, part of a longstanding plan, or illness which occurred when he planned to retire anyway? And how strong was he, at that point? When did he really die? Was Galerius really as anti-Christian as painted, or was it more Diocletian? Did Galerius force Diocles to sponsor the persecutions, and then retire? Not to mention, the conflicting stories among the pagan or Christian writers of that distant time, re Maxentius, Maximinian, the marriage of Licinius and Constantia, Constantine's sister, and the aftermath of wars between the two new Augusti. Most perplexing still, is the account of what happened to Galerius' widow, Diocles' daughter, after Galerius died in 311. WHEN was the START of the '15 months' in Lactantius? Gibbon wondered about it, and so too everyone since.

Stephen Williams navigates between the contentions, comes up with his own conclusions, provides good footnotes to show why. Leadbetter's 'Galerius and the Will of Diocletian', available here in Amazon, complains that Williams' book is not 'satisfactory'. I couldn't disagree more. Leadbetter's book reads like dissertation draft notes; he contradicts himself after presenting strawmen 'scholars' who he seeks to refute; read five pages of his writing, and you have to walk away from his book in frustration. Frankly, Leadbetter makes many unfounded assumptions which trail off into nowhere land, never presents a comprehensive picture of the time. But Williams DOES create a comprehensive sensible picture from the same data. Sure, you can quibble about some of the details, but you know where he gets them. That IS satisfactory.

My quibbles are date corrections about when ecumenism got off the ground (should be the 250's), when Diocletian died (should be AD 316, see my Appendix II of my Ephesians1REPARSED.doc or htm, or its pdf version Eph1DecreeSyllables.pdf, all from; also, Williams' book has annoying end notes, rather than the more convenient, footnotes; so you must flip pages back and forth to read. Footnotes are far easier on the reader. These are all minor complaints; sure wish my complaints about my own stuff, were so minor. :)

And I sure wish Williams' book were on Kindle. It's worth reading, over and over, because his big-picture approach helps you realize that we learn nothing from history, so are condemned to repeat it. This period is indicative of a recurring trend in history, and its lessons go unlearnt.

So yessiree, I'd heartily recommend Williams' book. Worth several times the price. I'll seek other stuff he's written, as a result!
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