Diocletian the Egyptian?


And when Diocletian the Egyptian became emperor, the army turned to give its

help to this impious man and persecutor of the faithful and the most wicked of

all men…

When I first stumbled upon this passage in the 7th-century Egyptian Chronicle of
John of Nikiu, I was not quite sure what to make of it. I knew that the Chronicle’s
tortured transmission, crossing two languages over a span of 900 years, could
often lead to strange incoherencies and lacunae. But this struck me as particularly
bizarre. There was no room for misinterpretation: the name was unambiguously
“Diocletian” in the Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopic) text (Diyoglətəyanos), and the entry
for his reign began with an account of his 298 CE siege of Alexandria.

After months of puzzling with this problem a few years ago, putting it aside and
returning to it again, I stumbled upon the answer while looking outside of
historiography to hagiography: there is an entire late antique Egyptian
hagiographic tradition that remembers Diocletian as an Egyptian apostate from
Christianity, and some of the passions even connect the emperor, in his youth, to
several other superstars of the Diocletianic persecutions, most notably Psote of

It appears that John, writing in the seventh century, after the Arab Conquest of
Egypt in 642 CE, saw it as necessary to integrate Egypt’s hagiographic traditions
into his history of the Roman Empire, and this was not the only part of the text in
which he would do this. Later, he explains that certain Egyptian holy men were
vital to the theological development of Anastasios I, who would be best
remembered for his lenient attitude towards monophysites throughout the empire.

I plan to use this text as a teaching tool for a graduate course on late antique
historiography. I find it particularly appealing as a way of getting away from the
notion that studying late antique or Byzantine historiography must necessarily
mean the study of those sorts of texts that fall within the narrowly defined limits
of the genre of “classicizing” history or “chronicle/chronography.” It will provide
me with a concrete example of how ancient people understood their own pasts and
what they believe constituted historical “truth.”

I also found it interesting that, as with many historians (and hagiographers!) of the
period and beyond, John is quite interested in integrating his home into the grand
narrative of the Roman empire. He endeavored to show his readers that while
Constantinople and Rome may have had a tremendous effect on Egypt, Egypt had
as much of an effect on the Empire.

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