Emperor Diocletian began his reign as ruler of Rome on November 20th 284 AD. In 305 AD he did the unthinkable for a Roman Emperor; he retired. He expressed a desire to live in his estate and grow cabbages. He was very proud of his cabbages. The modern Croatian town of Split is centred on the villa of Diocletian.
Diocletian rose to power in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century” when Rome was falling apart as one general after another competed for the top job. Diocletian established a system called the Tetrarchy, four rulers, as a means to stabilise the empire.
Both Eastern and Western Empire had a senior Augustus and a junior Caesar. His new system worked successfully until the rise of Constantine the Great, who became another Augustus, founding New Rome in Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, and now Istanbul.
Diocletian was the only Emperor I know of to retire. Emperors died in office, were assasinated or forced to abdicate. The only other Roman I can think of who retired, without being forced to leave, was Sulla. In 78 BC Lucius Cornelius Sulla astoundingly retired from his Lifetime Dictatorship to write his memoirs and live a life of luxury on his country estate. His departure from power is celebrated as his moment of ultimate glory in the verse from Byron below.
That Diocletian retired was a mark of his commitment to peaceful succession. The ultimate failure of his system, within mere decades, underlines how difficult it is to have power hungry leaders give up the reins of power. Democratic systems succeed only if they prevent a return to family dynasties.
Donald Trump likes to float the notion, from time to time, of a presidency for life. Vladimir Putin has gone further and established one using some smoke and mirrors. In North Korea the cult of the leader has entirely undermined socialist principles of meritocracy by establishing a 3 generation dynastic rule.
Great leaders are great until they go bad, and then they become really terrible. Limit your leaders. Give them a maximum time limit. They may suggest a candidate to follow them, but don’t let them choose one.
From the “Ode to Napoleon Buonoparte”; by George Gordan, Lord Byron
The Roman, when his burning heart
was slaked with blood of Rome,
threw down the dagger — dared depart,
in savage grandeur, home —
he dared depart in utter scorn
of men that such a yoke had borne,
yet left him such a doom!
His only glory was that hour
of self-upheld abandon’d power.