The Return to Polytheism

Old conservative religious values impelled Diocletian (284-305 C.E.) to reinstitute a more traditional polytheism. He may have hoped that by moving away from Aurelian's Sol Invictus cult and reinvigorating the worship of the traditional gods of the state that he could reverse the political turmoil that had thus far characterized the third century. If properly performed, the worship and ritual sacrifices to the revered gods of the state would ensure the gods' favor in return. But preserving the uniform traditional Roman religious practices meant that local religious activity had to be suppressed. Diocletian did not oppose this, as his harsh edict against the Manicheans in 296 C.E. illustrates (see Primary Document 3.1). An ascetic Persian cult that followed the dualistic doctrine of the prophet Mani, Manicheism was a syncretism of Judeo-Christian and Indo-Iranian doctrines that had spread throughout the empire and threatened to undermine Diocletian's religious reforms. Because their leaders had deserted the ancient worship of the Roman gods and goddesses, Diocletian ordered them to be burned alive with their scriptures and he ordered their followers to be killed by sword or sent to the mines.

Diocletian's coinage also reflected his traditional religious morality. His new gold coins replaced depictions of the virtues with images of the Roman gods as guardians of the state. The silver coins featured the sacrifice to the gods and the virtues of loyalty and harmony. The ubiquitous bronze coins carried the inscription "To the Genius of the Roman People" and bore the figure of Jupiter holding a sacrificial dish in one hand and the cornucopia in the other. These numismatic images of peace and plenty in the hands of Jupiter were meant to invoke his earthly representative, Diocletian, under whose providence his worshippers would flourish.

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