Diocletian: Saving the Roman Empire

Gaius Diocletianus – better known as Diocletian – was the first Roman emperor to retire from his position. He willingly gave up his power. And he was also the first one who people went to – begging him to come back.

The Roman Empire had witnessed 50 years of civil war, insanely high inflation, and foreign invasion from two sides. After emperor Severus Alexander was assassinated, more than 52 people had made claims to be the next Roman emperor over the next 50 years! Not one had lasted for more than a few months, until Diocletian took the reins in his hands.

Diocletian brought peace to the Roman empire. And ruled it for over 21 years before abdicating. He fixed a lot of issues the empire faced.

Septimius Severus had debased the silver coins. To fund his expensive wars, he had diluted and decreased the silver content from each standard Roman coin from 81% to 54%! And the emperors who came after him had debased the currency even further. By the time Diocletian came to power, the once mighty Roman coins were considered worthless. Good coins had disappeared out of circulation and prices of everyday things had shot up skyhigh. Hyper-inflation was killing the economy.

Diocletian saves Rome

Diocletian fixed this by issuing new coins with silver back to its 81% proportion. And by mandating maximum prices that could be set for many of the products sold in the empire.

But perhaps the biggest thing he did was break down the strong legions. He grew the number of legions from 1,000 to 6,000! But each legion now had fewer soldiers. This way, no general could be so powerful as to threaten the Roman empire with his might. With one stroke, he killed the system that had led to a lot of powerful generals causing multiple civil wars.

Diocletian further fortified the outer regions and made the empire stronger against enemy attacks. He started annual conscription which allowed him to grow the army from 390,000 soldiers to 580,000!

And to pay for all of this, the tax net was widened! People who could not pay tax in coin were allowed to pay in kind! To run everything smoothly, a lot of boards and commissions were set up!

In fact, realizing that the Roman empire had grown huge, Diocletian divided the empire into East and West. And created tetrarchy: a system where two senior emperors and two junior emperors ruled together. The four emperors marched to four different parts of the empire to clear up rebels as well as invaders – and brought peace to it.

All these ideas of Diocletian created a huge government. It led to a huge bureaucracy. Every rich Roman family had at least one person working in the government. And it was this bureaucracy that decayed the Roman empire from within. It was what led to the slow but sure downfall of the empire!

How does bureaucracy enter a system?

Diocletian didn’t have bad intentions. But that didn’t matter. As he expanded the government, he brought in a lot of rules and regulations. And these regulations stymied the empire. 

Bureaucracy enters the room with the best of intentions. And then starts rotting the system from within as it kills creativity and new ideas. 

Martin Lindstrom was a marketing consultant who was frustrated to see his good ideas get killed or go unimplemented time and again. And so he made it a point to study bureaucracy. And he found 6 ways bureaucracy enters a system:

  1. Rules and policies. Every new rule added helps in the present, but becomes bureaucracy in the future.
  2. Compliance and legal issues. Rules set by other institutions that you have to follow.
  3. Implementation of new technology – technology brings in efficiencies and saves time, but often at the cost of common sense.
  4. Excess meetings and presentations. It allows a few people to feel important but slows everyone else down.
  5. Politics. The more layers of hierarchy a system has, the worse the politics, and the bureaucracy it creates.
  6. Mismatched priorities. For eg: when a company caters to their shareholders instead of their customers.

In isolation, all of the above points are helpful. Technology is good. Managers are needed. Rules make things break less often. But when unattended and left unchallenged, they add up and slow you down. They decay you from within. 

All of the rules work for a time and make people happy temporarily, but fail in the end and add to their misery. 

So how do you get rid of bureaucracy?

The only way to get rid of bureaucracy is to think with empathy. Do what is right for the people, despite what the rules dictate.

Martin Lindstorm tells the story of when he consulted with a credit card provider. The executives were wondering why their clients seemed to be hating them. All the metrics that they tracked were positive. Except that their clients didn’t think of them highly. And they just didn’t know why.

People were using their credit cards a lot, but they hated the company. Weird no?

To fix this issue, Lindstorm got the senior executives personal credit cards to be blocked by the company. And then he sat back and observed their reactions. All of them were frustrated with the process of getting their credit cards working again!

Things were working as dictated by various processes. And these processes were set up because of hard experiences. But over time, they caused nothing but frustration. You needed a godly amount of patience to go through all the hoops present in the banking system. 

Once the executives realized what their clients had to go through when faced with any type of a problem, they understood why the company was hated. 

To fix bureaucracy, you have to see things from your users point of view. You have to understand their frustrations, and then adapt your policies accordingly.

Because otherwise, the system itself will decay and crumble. As Deocletian witnessed. After he abdicated his position, the Roman empire saw intense corruption and civil war. Grey markets popped up because of his price controls. The massive increase in the number of civil servants was intended to help the population keep things stable, but just led to massive bureaucracy and corruption.

And the idea that balance of power could be maintained by dividing rule between 4 emperors didn’t last long. Civil war started right away. People had to beg Deocletian to come and save them (which he refused).

And slowly, over the next few decades, the bureaucracy created by Deocletian seeped the soul of Rome away. While historians can’t agree on the exact date when Rome fell – as it never completely stopped existing, they all agree that the fall started right after Deocletian saved Rome!

Action Summary:

  • Your rules and processes need to remain fresh and relevant. Otherwise they will slow your company down and decay things from within. So become your own client and experience their frustrations – and fix your processes to make their lives easier.