The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 43
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on Emperor Galerius.
Galerius was born in about 250 in a little village near Florentiana. It appears he worked as a herdsman before joining the army. Once in the military, Galerius enjoyed a successful career, rising to be a senior officer during the reign of Diocletian.
In 293, at the establishment of the tetrarchy, Galerius, together with Constantius Chlorus, was chosen from the senior military leaders to be Caesar. Being the eastern Caesar, he fell under the authority of Diocletian and was entrusted with rule of the powerful Balkan provinces. Naturally this meant his most important task was to guard the Danube frontier against the Goths. And so, for the years 294 and 295, he busied himself by repelling any incursions by Goths, who were increasing their pressure on the frontiers again.
In a more eccentric move of Galerius’, the northern half of the province of Lower Pannonia was divided off and formed into an altogether new province called Valeria, the name of his wife. In 296, Diocletian then called his Caesar to the east to help deal with the Persians. Galerius appears to have clearly underestimated his Persian foe and so he suffered a severe defeat and needed to withdraw. In doing so, he lost the province of Mesopotamia to the enemy. It is traditionally said that Diocletian punished Galerius for his failure in an act of dire public humiliation by forcing him to walk a mile in front of his chariot while dressed in his imperial robes.
In 297, Galerius made a second attempt to defeat the Persians. This time well prepared with a strong army, he marched into Armenia and crushed the force, capturing an enormous amount of booty and even the harem of King Narses. Moving into Mesopotamia, Galerius’ advance had the defense collapsing before him and he conquered the Persian capital. Badly mauled, the Persians opted for peace. In 298, the province of Mesopotamia, together with territory from across the Tigris River, was restored to Rome.
The decisive defeat of the Persians raised Galerius’ standing immensely. It is believed that his influence with Diocletian grew to the extent that there was even some suggestion that the harsh persecution of the Christians by Diocletian might actually have been due to Galerius’ influence. Much points toward Galerius in this respect, as his mother was said to have been a fanatical paganist. Having grown up under the influence of such religious zealotry, it is well possible that Galerius’ feelings were hostile toward other religions. The fourth and harshest edict of Diocletian against the Christians is widely believed to have been entirely the work of Galerius.
In 305, Diocletian and Maximian abdicated. The Caesars Galerius and Constantius thereby became Augusti and Severus II and Maximinus II acceded to the vacant positions of Caesar. Galerius was theoretically the junior of the two Augusti, but seemed more like the senior. He controlled the greater territory of the Empire and he could count on the loyal support of both Caesars. Furthermore, Constantius’ son Constantine was a guest at Galerius’ court and so acted as a virtual hostage to ensure Galerius’ supremacy. Sure enough of his position, Galerius eventually agreed to return Constantine back to Constantius when his colleague embarked to Britain to repel incursions by the Picts.
While in Britain, Constantius died, leaving Galerius as the undisputed senior Augustus. He raised Severus II to the rank of co-Augusus to fill Constantius’ position and elevated Constantine to Caesar. However, Maxentius, the son of Maximian, was not prepared to allow his expectations of an imperial position to be ignored any longer. And so he revolted in Rome, declared himself Augustus and recalled his father Maximian to rule with him as joint Emperors. Severus II and Galerius tried to oust the usurpers from Italy without success. Plagued by desertions among their troops and faced with the authority of an Emperor previously Galerius’ senior, Severus II lost his life and Galerius suffered a severe blow to his authority. His reputation damaged, Galerius appointed his friend Licinius the Augustus in place of Severus II.
In 311, preparing for his 20th anniversary celebration as Caesar and Augustus, Galerius was believed by some to be planning to abdicate, with the intention of raising his illegitimate son Candidianus to the rank of Caesar. However, Galerius was suddenly overcome by a serious and awfully gruesome disease.
From his death bed on April 30, 311, Galerius issued an edict, which was confirmed by his fellow Emperors, cancelling the persecution of the Christians. Much has been made of this change of mind. Religious leaders have attributed his horrendous illness to the ‘wrath of god.’ Others believe that the illness, combined with Galerius’ guilty conscience might have led him to think he was suffering some form of divine retribution. Again, other theories point toward Licinius or Constantine for having been the true initiators of the edict, Galerius only having confirmed it.
It is very likely that Galerius did in the end conclude that his policy of persecution had failed. Rather than suppress the Christian faith, their fate had won them sympathies throughout the Empire. After only a few days following the signing of the decree to stop Christian persecution, Galerius succumbed to his illness.