Episode 49 – Vladimir the Great versus Diocletian

Today, we head on over to the Leaders bracket starting with a man who converted the people of the Rus to Christianity, the first man to earn the sobriquet the Great in Russian history, Vladimir. He is pitted against the man who many a historian claims to have, at least temporarily, saved the Roman Empire and created the tetrarchy to rule over the vast lands, the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. 

My primary sources for Vladimir are, A History of Russia by Riasanovsky and Steinberg, Vladimir the Great by Vladimir Volkoff and hopefully my soon to be published book, Understanding Russia: An Insight into an Enigmatic Country. For Diocletian I used Emperors of Rome by David Potter, Rome: An Empires Story by Greg Woolf and Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre.

Vladimir the Great
Vladimir the Great

Before we get into the life of Vladimir, I need to provide you with a little background of the world before he would take control of the Land of the Rus. First off, as my listeners of the Russian Rulers History podcast know, much of the information we have about the times that Vladimir and the first rulers of the lands come from one source the Primary Chronicles. To be honest, it is a very subjective work, produced in the year 1113, some hundred years after the death of Vladimir. Several identified chronological issues and numerous logical discrepancies that have been pointed out by historians over the years about the Primary Chronicles or Russian Chronicles, also known as the Tales of Bygone Years.

What we do know is that the line that Vladimir comes from begins with a man named Rurik, who is his great grandfather. According to the Chronicles, Rurik, a Viking, was invited by the Slavic people to rule over them. This is the rather dramatic description by the ancient text. “There is no law among them, and tribe rose against tribe. So, they went overseas to the Vikings who were known as the Rus. The tribes of the Slavs said unto the Rus, ‘Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Com, rule over us as princes.’ Three brothers were selected and the eldest, Rurik of Rus, located himself in Novgorod. From him, the Russian land – Rus – received its name.”

To get a sense of Vladimir, I want to share Vladimir Volkoff’s thoughts from his book on the man.

“It’s hard not to warm to Prince Vladimir. From the depths of medieval Russia, he appears to us as a man of contradictions and flawed humanity, who nonetheless manages to do the right thing. He is a man at first rejected, then feared, and ultimately loved; a shining hero of Russian folk legend. His memory has been venerated for a thousand years.”

He further goes on to write, “Vladimir made a brief appearance on our western radar screens in 1988 when the world commemorated the thousandth anniversary of Christianity in the Russian lands. We tipped our collective hat to the man who made it the national religion. But otherwise, Vladimir remains little known in the West.

And in many senses, he is an enigmatic figure: Slav or Viking; Russian or Ukrainian; a paragon of virtue or raper and pillager. The concept of ‘Russian Vikings’ is the legacy of a period roughly a century before Vladimir’s time.”

We also need to get a geographical lesson now. The Lands of the Rus we are talking about are actually Ukraine. Kiev, the seat of the Rulers of the Rus, is now the capital of Ukraine. Still, both nations, Russia and Ukraine, share a common ancestor. This is why it is such a geopolitical hot spot today.

As is common in medieval history, when a father died, his sons vied for control of the kingdom left to them. It was no different with Vladimir and his brothers Yarolpolk and Oleg. In the ensuing fighting, Yarolpolk killed Oleg and defeated Vladimir, taking control of Novgorod and Kiev. Well, Vladimir went back to Scandinavia and enlisted some of his relatives, along with a band of Varangians, returned to the land of the Rus and defeated Yarolpolk, killing him. The year is 980 and Vladimir set himself to the task of unifying the lands around Kiev and Novgorod. But first, let’s go back to his beginnings.

Vladimir Svyatoslavich known to us as Vladimir the Great or Volodymyr as the Vikings would call him, was born in 958 as a result of a liaison between his father, Sviatoslav I and a housekeeper Malusha. Vladimir’s mother has been described in the Norse sagas as a prophetess who lived to the age of 100 and was brought from her cave to the palace of Sviatoslav to predict his future. Malusha’s brother, Dobrynya, was to be Vladimir’s tutor and advisor.

At the time, the Varangian rulers of the land of the Rus would have multiple wives and thereby numerous children. Many historians believed that this was done because of the high rate of mortality of young children of the age. They also were not bound by Judeo-Christian morals but instead followed a so-called pagan religion led by the God Perun.

When Vladimir was able to take control from his brother Yaropolk, the lands around Kiev were wracked by years of civil war. After Vladimir seized the city of Kiev, a band of Varangian mercenaries demanded payment of one pound of silver for each citizen of the town. Vladimir, recognizing this as the first and most dangerous threat to his hold on power, used his power of persuasion to convince the Viking band that they should turn to Constantinople instead as the riches there were far more significant. This ability to negotiate and influence people would serve Vladimir well over the years.

Vladimir is known throughout history as the man who brought Christianity to his country, but he was not initially a pious man. Oh no, Vladimir was anything but. He was thought to have had over 700 concubines as well as countless wives. His selection of wives included Vikings, Slavs, Czechs, Greeks, and Bulgars. His royal consort who stayed with him for many years was Rogned, the daughter of the Viking prince of Polotsk, Rogvolod. This marriage was to produce, Yaroslav I, also known as Yaroslav the Wise.

It was at this point that Vladimir began to wonder about his chosen religion. He remembered the teachings of his grandmother Olga and asked his advisors to start bringing him emissaries from the major religions of the world to present their case.

Kiev, the heart of Russia was a teeming city with many religions already present. There were Khazar Jews, Byzantine, and Catholic Christians, Muslims and of course, Pagans. Often times, Vladimir would meet with elders of these various religions not only for personal reasons but also for his people.

Vladimir was asked by Byzantine Emperor Basil II to help crush a rebellion led by rogue General Bardas Phocas. Vladimir sent 6,000 of his finest and fiercest warriors who were to be crucial to the war. There was a catch, and yes, you guessed it, it involved another woman. Princess Anne, Basil II’s sister, was what Vladimir wanted. 

Anne, of course, was appalled by the thought of marrying this barbarian and moving to Kiev after living in the grandest city in the world. In 988, Vladimir, no doubt influenced by the teaching of his grandmother and soon to be Russian Orthodox saint Olga, was baptized causing the reluctant Princess Anne, sister of Basil II, to leave the comfort of Constantinople and join Vladimir in the relative backwater city of Kiev. To make the marriage work and the alliance with Byzantium continue, the leader of the Rus agreed to shed his other wives and convert to Orthodoxy. The tale of how he selected the religion is one that is a long tale, one I covered in my Russian Rulers Podcast in episode two. 

Not only did he convert, but he also had to make his people follow Orthodoxy as well. Vladimir went about the forced, although not difficult conversion of his people. All pagan statues, many of which were built by his order back in 980, to celebrate his ascension to the Princedom of Kiev, were removed, destroyed, and cast into the Dnieper River. What made it easier was that relatively few people actually idolized the pagan statues. Also, it was apparently easier to convert than to feel the wrath of the temperamental Vladimir. 

What he did next was nothing short of sheer genius. Grand Prince Vladimir decided that religious services for his newly found faith were not to be held in Greek but in native Russian. This made the religion much more accessible to the people as opposed to the Catholics who held their services in Latin, not the native language of the people. Since there were already many Russian speaking priests in Kiev and Constantinople gladly provided bilingual priests, the conversion process moved forward. Over time, because of Vladimir’s decision to Russify his church, Russian Orthodoxy would shed much of the Greek influence to become a genuinely unique religion world Constantinople. 

The next reformation that Vladimir took on was the building of schools and the promotion of reading in the native Slavic language. He also wanted to strengthen ties with European leaders marrying a daughter of Otto the Great after his wife Anna died. When Vladimir died on July 15, 1015, he left his lands in a peaceful state. Unfortunately, this was not to last long as his sons began to fight amongst themselves for control of the Land of the Rus. The son who won the civil wars after murdering the future Orthodox saints Boris and Gleb was Sviatopolk, known as Sviatopolk the Accursed.

Time to move back a bit in time to our second contestant, the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. 

Emperor Diocletian
Emperor Diocletian

Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus, known to us today as Diocletian was born in 244 in Salona in Dalmatia now known as Solin in modern-day Croatia. Very little is known about his early life; actually, little is known about the first forty years of his life. About his father, the Roman historian Flavius Eutropius wrote, “he is said by most writers to have been the son of a scribe, but by some to have been a freedman of a senator called Anulinus.”

When Diocletian ascended to the throne on November 20, 284, he would change the fundamental nature of the way Rome had been ruled for the past 300 years. Over the past 70 years, from the time of the cruel and violent Emperor Caracalla through the immediate predecessors of Diocletian, Numerian, and Carinus, the Roman Empire was a mess. Aside from the successful leadership of Alexander Severus and Aurelian, many of the rulers lasted for a year or less.  Pupienus and Balbinus each lasted three months. 

Rising through the ranks of the Roman army, Diocletian, then known as Diocles, became a successful commander in the region around the Danube. He served under the despised Emperor Carinus. Our friend Eutropius writes of him, “He put to death very many innocent men on false charges, seduced the wives of nobles, and even ruined those of his schoolfellows who had taunted him at school, even with trivial banter.” Given this, it is not surprising that when Carinus was murdered at the Battle of the Margus River, a fight between him and Diocles men, the dead emperors’ soldiers went over to Diocletian without hesitation. 

It is here we begin to see Diocletian’s brilliance. Rome was a vast empire, far too large to be run by any one man. It is because of its size that many of the generals out in the field, would try to usurp whomever it was that was the current Emperor. Diocletian decided to begin to split things up, naming himself Augustus and naming another man the new Caesar. The first choice was Maximian, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Over the years, the two men would work hand in hand to rule over the vast Roman Empire. Maximian would also never forget who the senior member of the pair was. Diocletian solidified the partnership when he had one of his daughters marry Maximian. 

Diocletian then surprisingly retired, letting his junior partner become Augustus. He still stayed as a consultant, someone whose decisions could supersede Maximian. They presented themselves to the people as the gods Jupiter (Diocletian) and his son, Hercules (Maximian). 

With their power absolute, Diocletian decided to overhaul the Roman administrative structure completely. He created a new bureaucracy as well as demoting the city of Rome as the only capital. Diocletian made it clear that the capital of the Roman Empire was wherever the Augustus chose it to be. This was the set up for Constantine the Great to name Constantinople as the capital years later. Diocletian so disliked Rome, that in the 21 years as Emperor, he only visited the city twice for a total of six months.

His reforms made many of the very wealthy despise him as he no longer favored the rich, he spread things around based on talent and not because of what family you were born into. 

A rebellion in Gaul and Britain led by the general Carausius, caused Maximian to head over there to squash the revolt. After initial success, Carausius was able to regain any lost land. To help combat the rebellion, Maximian decided to name a Caesar under him. This brought Diocletian out of his so-called retirement to retake the title of Augustus and appoint his own Caesar. This would be the birth of what is known as the tetrarchy.  

The system of tetrarchy is the rule of four. Two Augustus and two Caesar’s. It was understood that if an Augustus were to retire or die, the Caesar would assume his place. Sounds good right? Well, when you’re dealing with powerful men with big egos, you know something will go terribly wrong.

But before we get into that issue, we have to step back and look at the ramifications of Diocletian’s decision. At this point in Roman history, the seat of power was no longer in Rome, but in the court of the Emperor. Now with four such men, we have four courts, each with a different way of doing things. These courts were geographically based. These four rulers were more or less sovereign in their own lands, and they traveled with their own imperial courts, administrators, secretaries, and armies.

This separation from the other Roman rulers would eventually lead to the formation of nations in Europe. Nicomedia, modern-day Izmit in Turkey was the base of Diocletian. Sirmium, near Belgrade, Serbia was home to Maximinus. Medialnum, today’s Milan held the court of Maximium and Augusta Treverorum, modern day Trier, where my father was born, was the base camp of Constantius. Both Maximian and Constantius used Aquila, modern day York in England as a headquarters as well.

These uniquely separate courts would develop different customs that would have a very local smell and feel to them. Over the centuries, princes and dukes and local mayors would call open the times when these cities near them held court to the Roman Emperors.

A significant reason for the development of the tetrarchy was the need to try something new. Rome was in such a state of decay that its existence was in doubt. Heavy pressure from the Germanic tribes in the north and Persians to the east were not being dealt with adequately. The tetrarchy solved this problem by posting leaders near the hot spots. This worked out fabulously as territorial gains were made and held. All looked good militarily based on the system Diocletian had set up. His failure was economically.

Diocletian’s predecessors decided to debase the coinage which proved disastrous so the Emperor thought that by devising a new currency, he could fix things. Instead, Diocletian was faced with hyperinflation. He tried to fix that with an edict on maximum prices, but that was unenforceable and doomed to failure.

One other aspect of Diocletian’s time has drawn heavy criticism from a specific group, the Christians. His Great Persecutions cost the lives of thousands of the followers of Jesus with the idea of destroying the fledgling religion. It failed miserably with one of Diocletian’s successors, a man we will meet in episode 73, Constantine, freeing the Christians from persecution, paving the way for its emergence as the state religion.

Things continued to go smoothly for the tetrarchy while Diocletian remained as Augustus, but when he decided to retire to his estate in what is now Split, Croatia, the bond between the four emperors began to decay, and the fault lies right at the feet of Diocletian.

 The old Emperor was in bad shape physically. He addressed his people in Nicomedia, telling them of his illness, his need for rest, and his will to resign. Diocletian became the first Roman Emperor to abdicate his title voluntarily.  

Constantine and Maxentius, the only adult sons of reigning emperors, were the natural heirs, men who had long been preparing to succeed their fathers, were obviously going to be made Caesars.  In an account by the historian Lactantius‘, when Diocletian announced that he was to resign, the entire crowd turned to face Constantine, but that didn’t happen. Severus and Maximinus were declared Caesars. Maximinus appeared and took Diocletian’s robes. On the same day, Severus received his robes from Maximian in Milan. Constantius succeeded Maximian as Augustus of the West, but Constantine and Maxentius were entirely ignored in the transition of power. This did not bode well for the future security of the tetrarchic system.

Over the coming years, civil war broke out with the last two men standing being Constantine and Maxentius. This would culminate in the Battle of Milvian Bridge which we covered in episode 10. Constantine would come out on top and end the tetrarchy. 

While Constantine would continue with a number of the reforms that Diocletian put in place, the rule of four was done with.

When Diocletian died in 312, he left the Roman Empire in far better shape than when he took control. Unfortunately, he saw that the tetrarchy he believed so profoundly in was collapsing due to power grabs by the many claimants to a position of power, Diocletian’s people begged him to return. He replied, “If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”

Time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

First off, we have the 15 points for the length of the two men’s time in power. For Vladimir, we begin with his defeat of his brother Yarolpolk in 980 until his death in 1015 for a total of 35 years. As for Diocletian, he began his reign in 284 and ended with his retirement in 305 for 21 years. The Russian gets 15, the Roman 11.

The next is how they affected the rest of the world in their time. This one is a hand down win for Diocletian. He ruled over a vast empire from the shores of England to the Persian border. Anything and everything that Diocletian said or did affected the world around the Mediterranean. Vladimir concentrated mainly in the area around Kiev, but his Christianizing his people and alliance with Constantinople did have a more global effect than his predecessors. Still, the Roman Emperor gets 20 points with the Russian receiving 8.

Next up is their effect on world history. Here I have to give a bit of an edge to Vladimir. His conversion of his people to Orthodoxy would fundamentally change Russia for a thousand years as well as keeping his chosen religion viable, especially after the fall of Constantinople. Diocletian allowed the Roman Empire to survive another 150 years, but his long-term effect is quite minimal. I give the 25 points to Vladimir and 12 to Diocletian.

The big prize is the 40 points for how they affected their country for the better in their time. This one is a toss-up. Vladimir consolidated his people and gave them a single religion to bind themselves together. He defeated many of the external threats and solidified a bond with the superpower of the region, Byzantium. Diocletian basically saved the Roman Empire from itself and laid a base for which to survive another 150 years before moving over to Constantinople to go on for another millennium. It is this last achievement, the dropping of Rome as the seat of power that I think helped save the Empire. For these reasons, I give Diocletian a slight edge, 40 to 36.

In the end, the man who made it out on top by the slightest of margins, 84 to 83 is Vladimir the Great. He will move on to the second round to face off against the winner of the battle between the African ruler of Mali, Mansa Musa I against the ancient giver of laws, Hammurabi. 

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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