BMCR 2024.05.04

The Tetrarchy as ideology: reconfigurations and representations of an imperial power

, , The Tetrarchy as ideology: reconfigurations and representations of an imperial power. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien, 64. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2023. Pp. 382. ISBN 9783515134002.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


Filippo Carlà-Uhink and Christian Rollinger have brought together a stimulating collection of fourteen papers that approach the First Tetrarchy from new and diverse perspectives. Some chapters come from well-established scholars, others are authored by younger colleagues – all downplay the ideas of rupture, novelty, and top-down authority once endemic to scholarship on the tetrarchy in favor of situating the First Tetrarchy within a continuously negotiated and re-negotiated arc of imperial ideology. In this effort, the volume’s authors muster primary source evidence from a wide variety of media, proffer interpretations rooted in geographic specificity, and frequently describe moments of continuity with pre-tetrarchic imperial practices. The result is a cohesive, exciting multi-author volume that successfully questions familiar notions of tetrarchic ideology.

The editors open the volume with an introduction that unites the varied chapters under the concept of ‘ideology’. This may seem a rather broad theme, one easily sustained across fourteen individual studies, yet telling is the specific formulation of ‘tetrarchy as ideology’ (italics mine). In this view, the tetrarchy is conceived “as a discourse” in which an “assemblage of symbols” are “constantly redeployed … to reform and reshape imperial political … self-representation” (19-20). Thus, imperial institutions are considered as discursive, culturally mediated, performative actions rather than systems determined by juridical or legal means. In addition to setting out the volume’s theme and methodological lens, the introduction also includes a useful literature review recounting recent, largely European, scholarship on the First Tetrarchy.

The first three contributions focus upon the imperial college, specifically on the use of familial relationships among the tetrarchs; on the brotherhood of Diocletian and Maximian; and on their signa. Filippo Carlà-Uhink positions the ‘fictive’ familial relationships between tetrarchs within a long-established imperial practice; this offers a counterbalance to traditional narratives that find only novelty in the non-dynastic Tetrarchic system. Somewhat controversial is Carlà-Uhink’s stance that the familial bonds between tetrarchs, being discursive rather than juridical, cannot be understood to signal a legal adoption. Byron Waldron explores how Diocletian and Maximian are presented as brothers in panegyric texts, inscriptions, portraits, and coins. Waldron persuasively argues that the fraternal relationship between Diocletian and Maximian was conditioned by their shared military background and reflects the “brotherhood between commilitones (comrades)” (58). Anne Hunnell Chen considers the signa of Iovius and Herculius. Looking at gold coins and gift objects, she observes that the signa were almost exclusively used within the Western Empire to communicate with an audience of high-ranking officials. Her work brings geographic nuance to our understanding of how theophoric names were deployed under Diocletian and Maximian, and moreover, serves as a welcome reminder of the dangers inherent in making broad, empire-wide generalizations about imperial practices.

The next three chapters explore the ephemeral performance of power as manifest in imperial garb, ritual practices, and bureaucratic procedures. Christian Rollinger begins with footwear – purple, jewel-studded, thigh-high boots – and works outward to consider court ceremonial as a mechanism to establish and maintain imperial authority. In Rollinger’s account, the shift under Diocletian towards greater luxury and increased reverence due the emperor serves to homogenize and equalize the once stratified Senatorial elite and thereby facilitate the adoption of Diocletian’s bureaucratic reforms. Fabio Guidetti focuses upon the ways in which Augusti and Caesares interact during public rituals such as the adventus, with especial attention to the use of animal-drawn vehicles as a means to communicate imperial authority. Guidetti’s detailed readings of visual representations of imperial adventus on public relief sculpture in Nicomedia and Thessaloniki, souvenir ceramics produced in Olbia, and gold medallions issued in Rome offer insight into the garments worn, regional variations in the ritual, and the ways in which modes of transportation could mark obedience, subordination, or equality. Monica Hellström analyses inscribed monuments that celebrate Diocletian and his co-emperors erected by provincial governors and imperial officials. These honorific monuments work from the top down as well as from the bottom up: they manifest the presence of the imperial administration, while simultaneously establishing the patron’s status among the local elite. An appendix presents a “starter collection” (158) of inscribed honors to the Tetrarchs, organized by region.

The third section of the volume includes papers on the army, Diocletian’s relationship with the Senatorial class, and tetrarchic stelae from Egypt. Mark Hebblewhite explores tetrarchic messaging towards the army. Common third-century numismatic legends featuring virtus or invictus are abandoned in favor of victoria. Military victory also shapes imperial titulature, as iterative titles naming a conquered people or region were shared across the tetrarchic college, emphasizing the idea of collective victory. The ritual of acclamation is presented as a mechanism for the army to create and acknowledge imperial legitimacy. Throughout, Hebblewhite emphasizes the centrality of the army and the symbiosis of military prowess and imperial power in the First Tetrarchy. Nicholas Hächler asks whether Diocletian’s anti-Senatorial reputation is well-deserved. Hächler stresses that the senatorial experience under Diocletian continued trends already visible in the earlier third century, such as the Senate’s operation under absentee emperors and the loss of military officinia to equestrian officeholders. Hächler concludes that “there were no radical transformations regarding senatorial careers under Diocletian” (193) and notes that the increasingly hierarchal and formal ceremonial interactions between senators and Augusti only occurred outside of Rome. Two appendixes summarize and organize data on 86 Senatorial officeholders under Diocletian. Nicola Barbagli closely examines three late imperial funerary stelae for the Buchis bull and his mother from Hermonthis, Egypt. Two stelae use familiar imagery and a long-established, generalized imperial titulature, which Barbagli takes to demonstrate the essential continuity of imperial ideology under the Tetrarchs. Interestingly, the third employs an anomalous dating system which may represent a top-down change imposed by the imperial administration.

The next section focuses upon representations of enemies and deviants under the First Tetrarchy. Adrastos Omissi looks at the roles barbarians and usurpers fulfill in panegyric texts. Using time-tested tropes, the emperors of the First Tetrarchy are presented as dominant over barbarians and usurpers, thus preserving Roman order amidst enemy forces. Distinct however are the emphases on imperial collegiality across a united Roman world, and on the tetrarchs as military leaders who brought war to an end, and by doing so, restored the Empire. Marc Tipold argues that the long shadow cast by Valerian’s defeat in 260 required panegyrists in 289 and 291 to justify the inactivity of Diocletian and Maximian in the east. Only after Galerius’ Persian victory in 298 does the messaging shift, such that the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki relates his Persian campaign with emphases on imperial concordia, collegial military victory, and the restoration of the Empire – familiar themes also recounted by Omissi and Hebblewhite.

The final section of the volume explores what comes after life as a Tetrarch: a tomb if they are ‘good’ or erasure from the monumental record if disgraced. Javier Arce presents an overview of tetrarchic tomb monuments: he recounts how each ruler died and what is known concerning their burial place.[1] Framing Arce’s discussion are broad assumptions about the tetrarchic system that stand at odds with the nuanced ideas espoused elsewhere in the volume. Rebecca Underwood critically examines the reworking of inscriptions as former emperors fell into political disgrace during the collapse of the tetrarchic system. The collegial nature of tetrarchic ideology complicates erasure, as captured on three examples: a statue base in Thessaloniki from which Maximian’s name was erased (CIL III suppl. 2, 12310; ILS 634); the Luxor frescoes where Maximian’s image was carefully rubbed away; and a dedicatory plaque for a structure in Italy from which names of four emperors were removed (AE 1964.235). In contrast are literary accounts of erasure and removal by Christians such as Lactantius and Eusebius, whose fervid appreciation of iconoclasm reflects their religiously motivated anti-tetrarchic bias rather than the material record.

To conclude the volume, Mark Humphries highlights several themes worth further elaboration. Yet the absence of substantial cross-dialogue between the contributing authors represents a missed opportunity. Common threads weave throughout the volume, making the siloed nature of each contribution regrettable.

As Carlà-Uhink and Rollinger set out in the volume’s introduction, debates over the First Tetrarchy too often center upon Diocletian’s role in devising and promulgating a new system of imperial government, a vein of scholarship they aptly label ‘intellectually sterile’ (14). Of lasting value in the essays that follow is their collective movement away from that myopic focus on innovation and novelty. In its place, the volume’s authors repeatedly acknowledge moments of continuity between the First Tetrarchy and mid-third century imperial ideology and practices. The First Tetrarchy certainly has unique aspects yet over-emphasizing its ruptures with imperial tradition introduces an unnatural homogeneity. A willingness to depart from top-down models, coupled with a widened lens of inquiry in terms geographic nuance and the range of media employed as sources, results in a narrative of tetrarchic ideology that offers a sophisticated understanding of complicated ideological spaces across the late-third-century Mediterranean.

Imperial panegyrists may often extol a unified Empire, but the lived realities within the tetrarchic Roman world were far more diverse. The consistent attention to geographic specificity throughout the volume helps convey that vibrancy, which is often elided or omitted from discussion. Hunnell Chen documents a clear Western preference for the iconography of signa on gold objects for elite audiences. Barbagli describes the distinct titulature and dating systems utilized in Egyptian imperial inscriptions. Tipold recounts the ideological impact of Eastern campaigns against Persia in 260 and 298 as they ripple across time and geography. Rollinger, Guidetti, and Hellström all bring forward examples of rituals and practices that vary depending on location, with Rome frequently observing rites distinct from those carried out elsewhere in the Empire. Offering potential insight into the source of this difference is Hächler’s account of the senatorial class under the First Tetrarchy with its deep Italian roots and Rome-centric existence. The geographic specificity of these examples serves as a potent reminder that imperial ideology under the tetrarchs was neither uniform nor singular.[2]

The discursive approach fostered by Carlà-Uhink and Rollinger posits an imperial ideology shaped and communicated via diverse means. Accordingly, a rich variety of media are brought forward throughout the volume as primary source evidence. This approach, in turn, permits a level of nuance rarely seen in studies of the tetrarchy that prioritize literary sources. Though texts, especially the Panegyrici Latini, appear often, they are interpreted in conjunction with: numismatic legends and types; ephemeral ceremonies and rituals as described in texts or images; historical relief sculpture commissioned both by the emperors and Senate; imperial portraits; souvenir ceramic vessels; gold gift objects; honorific inscriptions; dedicatory building inscriptions; Egyptian religious stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions; prosopographic data; imperial titles; the list goes on. No one medium is privileged over another, and this ecumenical approach furthers the push towards a less standardized, more dynamic account of tetrarchic ideology. Regrettably absent from the volume is the serious consideration of architecture; though Arce addresses tetrarchic tombs, none of the chapters leverage the ability of architecture to convey and reinforce ideology through form and patronage.


Authors and Titles

Filippo Carlà-Uhink and Christian Rollinger, “The Tetrarchy as Ideology: An Introduction”


  1. Filippo Carlà-Uhink, “Quod omni consanguinitate certius est, virtutibus fratres Families and Family Relationships in ‘Tetrarchic’ Ideology”
  2. Byron Waldron, “Virtutibus fratres: The Brotherhood of Diocletian and Maximian”
  3. Anne Hunnell Chen, “The Tetrarchic Signa Reconsidered”


  1. Christian Rollinger, “These Boots Aren’t Made for Walking: Tetrarchic Court Ceremonial as a Language of Authority”
  2. Fabio Guidetti, “Public Rituals and Performance: The Ceremonial Staging of Imperial Authority under Diocletian”
  3. Monica Hellström, “The Monumental Bureaucracy of Diocletian”


  1. Mark Hebblewhite, “Fides Militum: Tetrarchic Messaging, the Army, and an Ideology of Collective Victory”
  2. Nikolas Hächler, “The ‘Hammer of the Aristocracy’? Diocletian’s Reign and Its Consequences for the Amplissimus Ordo
  3. Nicola Barbagli, “The Last Pharaohs: The Egyptian Reception of Late Roman Emperors”


  1. Adrastos Omissi, “The Enemies of the Tetrarchs: Barbarians, Rebels, and Usurpers in the Ideology of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy”
  2. Marc Tipold, “In the Shadow of Valerian: Galerius’ Persian Campaigns and the Communication Strategies of Tetrarchic Eastern Policy”


  1. Javier Arce, “Funerals, Funeral Rites, and Tombs of the Tetrarchy”
  2. Rebecca Usherwood, “Fracturing the Collective: Political Disgrace and Tetrarchic Communication”

Mark Humphries, “Concluding Remarks: Ideology Made and Unmade”



[1] Mark Johnson, The Roman Imperial Mausoleum in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press 2009) treats this topic in greater detail.

[2] While geographic variation is well captured, the extant source material offers regrettably few avenues to understanding the subaltern experience of tetrarchic ideology. Guidetti’s look at an image on a souvenir ceramic produced in Olbia (134-37) and Hellström’s description of the public spectacle created by the transport of building materials in Alexandria (150-51) could be developed in this direction, but this facet of tetrarchic ideology awaits further exploration elsewhere.