Split is a city flung onto a piece of rocky coast along the Adriatic sea. It was established by Diocletian, one of the few Roman rulers to drag himself up from the gutter. He worked his way up from a relative nobody to head of the Roman Empire. Leap-frogging from infantryman to commander of the cavalry, to Emperor of Rome.
A friend and I stayed at Solin (his birthplace) in a very well maintained Airbnb, a short bus ride away from Split (his death place). Diocletian was one of the first Roman Emperors to retire (rather than die on the job) although it is said, he was strongly coerced into doing so by the ambitious young Galerius. He lived out his retirement in the palace, tending to his vegetable garden which sounds rather lovely, but I wonder how much of his later years felt like exile.
Diocletian’s legacy was arguably something which he could look upon with pride. He is said to have stabilised the Empire by defeating its enemies at the edges of its borders. This sounds quite bloodthirsty to our modern sensibilities, although I’m sure it would have been respected as an act of necessity at the time. And that was nothing compared to some of Diocletian’s far darker acts. Some of which were deeply criticised and unsupported even a few millennia ago. Take one winter’s night in Nicomedia….
The feast was over and Diocletian sat in his chamber poring over some of his latest correspondence. The merriment hadn’t buoyed his spirits, but it had left him with an overwhelming feeling of contentment, which he was desperate to hold onto. And because of this, he didn’t want to sleep. He feared it would wash away all that he had achieved throughout the day. So he read instead, on the couch, blankets around him, and a fire lit before him.
A chill was in the air at Nicomedia and he was waiting for dawn. Waiting for a time when his psyche could find no more excuses to hold onto consciousness; until the heat of the magisterial sun would burn away the sentimentality of the night; until the voices inside him hushed. But for now, he was content to watch Selene pull the moon across the sky. Content to watch the night; feel it, even, upon his skin.
‘May we speak?’ A voice grated upon his revere. He inclined his head to see Galerius standing upon the threshold of the door. The guards were clearly visible, but never the less, given the hour, Diocletian didn’t feel too comfortable.
‘We may,’ said Diocletian. ‘Although, if you don’t mind being quick – I want to watch the moment Helios harnesses his chariot.’
‘We have time yet,’ Galerius replied, apprising the night. ‘It is a straight forward matter.’ The younger man was a formidable force. He captivated the men with his enthusiam, but he was no Diocletian. Diocletian was filled with the authoritative gravitas and choler of a true ruler.
‘Your requests are rarely simple when examined,’ reapproached the elder with a knowing look.
Galerius cleared his throat and seemed to straighten his shoulders. ‘I think we need to extend our ideology.’
‘I am not an ideological man,’ said Diocletian, a little peeved.
‘I mean the Manichean sentiment,’ said Galerius.
Diocletian frowned. ‘Those heathens at Alexandria?’ he asked, puzzled. Galerius nodded. Diocletian roughly remembered having most of them killed, burning their scrolls and slaving the rest.
‘But this time, we need to rid the Empire of Christians,’ interrupted Galerius.
‘I see,’ said Diocletian, carefully. ‘That’s the one with the crucified gentleman and the cannibalistic rituals, isn’ it? Well, I am inclined to agree…’ he said, taking a deep breath. ‘But it will cause more trouble than it’s worth. Before it begins to salve, I mean, and I don’t have the appetite for it, if I’m quite frank.’
‘When has that ever stopped us,’ he hurried. We’re planning for the future not appeasing!’
Hard work isnt something to shirk.’
‘I do not need to be reminded of my own position and responsibilities. Ruling isn’t just a matter of doling out rule – regardless of how much you want it to be – people, you see, have minds of their own. And most are ingrates and short-sighted fools. But even fools can take up arms.’ Diocletian took a breath and stared deep into the fire’s flames. ‘We will ban them from offices of importance and the barracks.’
‘I think it best if I prepare the gallows,’ replied Galerius.
Diocletian snorted in laughter, surprised at how quickly Galerius escalted the issue. ‘They’re good slaves; leave them be with their indignities.’ He shifted in his seat around the fire. ‘The Gods need to feel their importance, Galerius, and they can only do that when there are others that show them how high they stand.’
‘They will feel great knowing their enemies are in the afterlife!’ replied the younger.
‘Their enemies?!’ answered Diocletian, outraged. ‘They are our enemies – and but ants to the Gods. I have agreed as much as I wish. Their suffering will be a warning against betraying the rights and traditions of our hallowed pantheon.’
‘But surely they must be destroyed in their entirety!’ cried Galerius. ‘We do not want to risk the anger of the Gods.’
‘Let’s ask them then – shall we?’ said Diocletian. He turned around to look out through his window and realised that day had dawned and any semblance of contentment he had once felt was bleached from his very being. ‘To the temple of Apollo,’ he said curtly, nodding his head. ‘Awake the Priests. We’ll do this now.’
Without replying Galerius turned and left the chamber. And after one sad look at the rising sun – Diocletian left also.
Christians of the empire did not fare well under the rule of these two xenophobes. Within the next few weeks the newly built church of Nicomedia was destroyed, all scriptures burnt and assets seized. Seems Apollo was in favour of the destruction of this relatively youthful religion after all.
Following many unnecessarily gruesome murders – the pair then fled the city. Their edicts were largely unsuccessful at the time and did not have much longstanding effect on the popularity of the religion. Diocletian’s name, however, became synonymous with evil. In Serbian mythology, Diocletian is even seen as a Satan like figure. One who, apparently, stole the sun from the sky and was only tricked into returning it by St John, a Christian hero.
Here in Spilt, his Palace stands centre stage. Tracking steps underground, we traipse through some of the main halls. Hidden in these cool subterranean spaces are stalls and eager vendors. We follow the tourist trail onwards – looking at art, postcards, bunches of lavender, plates and soap. All things the minimalist in me shuddered to imagine taking home. My souvenirs are tickets, photos and memories only.
It was hot. I’m glad we’d turned up for a wander in the evening, but then so did everyone else; so tired they were of spending the daylight hours under the aircon.
Split was Venitian for many years, and looking at the architecture (especially now I’m home and whilst not having to wipe sweat out of my eyes) I can very much see its influence upon the buildings. The ruins were a play of light and dark upon small alleyways and wide squares, and it very much reminded me of the watery playground of Venice. It felt safe, even if it was just too hot to commit any crimes.
I spotted a solitary Roman soldier haunting the streets, out of time, but looking to hustle some kunas from tourists. Was he Diocletian in his youth?