Diocletian

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Anon. (1594)


Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary


Fol. 10v (Greg I.20)

ye 16 of novmbʒ 1594 . . . ne . . Rd at deoclesyan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . liiijs
ye 22 of novmbʒ 1594 Rd at deoclesyan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xxxxiijs



Theatrical Provenance

Performed as a new play by the Admiral's Men at the Rose on Saturday 16 November 1594. Performed again on Friday 22 November.


Probable Genre(s)

Classical history (?) (Harbage); tragedy (?) (Wiggins, Catalogue #973).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Wiggins, Catalogue #973 suggests John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563; repr. 1583) as the most likely and accessible source text for the story of Diocletian. He also lists two more texts that might have yielded useful information, namely Richard Reynoldes's A Chronicle of all the noble Emperors of the Romans (written by 1562, printed 1571) and Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (tr. Meredith Hanmer, 1577, repr. 1585). Another source might have been the Historia Augusta (a collection of thirty imperial biographies that presents itself as having been written by six different historians but was probably written by one man at the close of the fourth century CE) – more precisely the chapter ‘Carus, Carinus et Numerianus’, allegedly written by a certain Flavius Vopiscus.

Needless to say, the plot must have revolved around the life of the soldier-turned-Emperor titular character, although it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether the play dealt with any particular moments of his biography, which it seems expedient briefly to sum up by piecing together the various accounts provided by Aurelius Victor, Eusebius, Eutropius, Lactantius, Orosius, Zonaras and the Historia Augusta.

After a remarkable career in the army, Diocletian (244–311 CE) was proclaimed Emperor by his officers in Nicomedia, when Numerian was killed by Arrius Aper. Diocletian executed Aper and was then attacked by Carinus, who, however, was killed by his own men. Diocletian then divided power with his loyal general Maximian, naming him Caesar and then Augustus. While Maximian beat the Alamanni and Heruli, and freed the coasts of Britain from Frank and Saxon pirates, Diocletian fought successfully against the Sarmatians and subdued a rebellion in Syria and Egypt.

In order to solve the problem of succession and prevent usurpations, he chose two of his best generals, Costantius and Galerius, and made them Caesars. Diocletian kept the East; Maximian, Italy, Raetia, Spain and Africa; Galerius, the Illyricum; Costantius, Gaul and Britain. While Rome remained the moral capital of the Empire, Diocletian established his seat in Nicomedia, Maximian in Mediolanum, Galerius in Antioch and Costanzo in Treviri; Diocletian, however, retained supreme authority in order to ensure the unity of the Empire.

While Galerius and Maximian fought successfully against the Goths, Sarmatians and Carpi, Diocletian subdued a revolt in Egypt and executed the usurper Achilleus. The Persians invaded Syria and defeated Galerius at Carrhae but were later crushed by him and had to acknowledge Roman control on Mesopotamia. In 303 CE, Diocletian celebrated a wonderful triumph in Rome.

The political and administrative transformation wrought by Diocletian was of extreme importance: he definitively established imperial absolutism, free from any control of the Senate, and accentuated the divine character of the sovereign in imitation of Eastern monarchies (also with regard to the custom of wearing the tiara and the nimbus). He also proceeded to a comprehensive reform of the structure of the Empire by dividing it into 12 dioceses, and those into provinces. The army was increased by one-third, to about 450,000 soldiers, and an army of manoeuvre was created to follow the Emperor; lines of fortifications were strengthened and the soldiers’ discipline reinforced. In an attempt to solve the economic crisis, Diocletian introduced a financial reform by means of a new tax system and a revaluation the currency of the Empire: his anti-inflation policy, however, was a complete failure.

As he considered Christianity very dangerous for the State, he fought bitterly against it since 303 CE: persecution raged mainly in the East and made countless martyrs. It was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In 305 CE, Diocletian yielded the throne to Galerius and retired to Salona, where he lived until his death (possibly by suicide).


References to the Play

None known.


Critical Commentary

Malone did not comment on this play (p. 296). Collier suggested that this play might have anticipated The Prophetess by Beaumont and Fletcher, either as "foundation" or merely as sharing "the same part of history" (p. 45, n.1). Fleay, BCED suggested a serial development in which this play, which he considered "[p]robably Dekker's," as subsequently "altered by Massinger to The Virgin Martyr, and having some relationship to a play offered in Germany, The Martyr Dorothea (2.301, #138).

Greg II, repeating Fleay's lineage of Dekker and Massinger, expanded commentary on the Dorothea play, which he called "a stock piece in Germany"; he discussed several theatrical associations with a German "Diocletian," calling that figure a stock piece also. Returning to the Admiral's 1594 play, Greg decided that it "was probably on the same subject as Beaumont and Fletcher's Prophetess, with the addition of the persecution theme more fully developed in Dorothea ((#60, p. 171).

Harbage (following Fleay, BCED and Greg II) suggested Thomas Dekker may have been the author of the play. His hypothesis rests on the fact that The Virgin Martyr (1620) by Dekker and Philip Massinger features Diocletian as a character. However, he gave no evidence that The Virgin Martyr is a revision of the earlier play.

Hunter (102) argues that the play was presumably a story 'of Christian triumph and pagan wickedness (like Ben Hur and The Sign of the Cross)'.

MacIntyre (102) contends that the play is "likely to have featured 'paynim' characters" probably using the same costumes used by "Persians, Turks, Egyptians, and Arabians" in plays such as the two parts of Tamburlaine and the lost "Tamar Cham".

For What It's Worth


"The Seven Wise Masters" features a character named Dioclesian, who becomes the emperor of Rome. The Admiral's men acquired this play in the spring of 1600.

The Prophetess (1622) by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger features Diocletian as one of the main characters, but it seems very unlikely that the two plays have any relationships, especially given that Fletcher and Massinger used as sources for their play texts that were published after 1594, namely Nicolas Coeffeteau’s Histoire romaine, contenant tout ce qui s’est passé de plus mémorable depuis le commencement de l’empire d’Auguste, jusqu’à celui de Constantin le Grand. Avec l’Épitome de Florus depuis la fondation de la ville de Rome jusques à la fin de l’empire d’August (Paris, 1621), and The historie of Iustine Containing a narration of kingdomes, from the beginning of the Assyrian monarchy, vnto the raigne of the Emperour Augustus. Whereunto is newly added a briefe collection of the liues and manners of all the emperours succeeding, vnto the Emp. Rodulphus now raigning. First written in Latine by that famous historiographer Iustine, and now againe newly translated into English, by G[eorge] W[ilkins] (London, [1606])

Works Cited

Hunter, George Kirkpatrick. "A Roman Thought: Renaissance Attitudes to History Exemplified in Shakespeare and Jonson." An English Miscellany: Presented to W. S. Mackie. Ed. Brian S. Lee. Cape Town: OUP, 1977. 93-118.
MacIntyre, Jean. Costumes and Scripts in the Elizabethan Theatres. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press. 1992.




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