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How Diocletian lost the hearts and minds of his fellow Dalmatians

How Diocletian lost the hearts and minds of his fellow Dalmatians

By Tamara Gamulin

There is something almost poetic in the fact that one of the most notorious of all Roman Emperors decided to abdicate just to retire close to his place of birth.

After 20 years of successful governing the empire and at the peak of his power as a divine person in Roman pantheon (as Jupiter), Diocletian willingly left his position to enjoy sites from his childhood.

What he saw then and what we see today is a bay in which lies the modern day city of Split. It’s fun to think about the Roman Emperor as a common person from this part of the world, know since ancient times as Dalmatia.

And Diocletian was really that. A poor kid born as a commoner of Illyrian origins whose only way to escape poverty and have a steady income was probably to join the army.

He was born in shaky times as the great Roman Empire was declining to its end soon enough, and what Diocletian did was very fortunate for the Empire. Historians believe his way of ruling prolonged the empire’s life for another hundred or two hundred years.

Historians believe Diocletian, born as Diocles and by the end of his life known by his full divine name Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus, was born in 244 somewhere around the ancient town of Salona, the then capital of the Roman province Dalmatia.


Roman ruins in Salona (Solin)

He abdicated on 1 May 305 and was the first Roman Emperor whoever did that. By then he already had an important palace with a view of the bay and surrounding islands built for him, from which ancient Split grew.

Before his egregious abdication, he did something else he’s famous for – to celebrate twenty years of his ruling he had made the largest baths the Roman Empire had ever seen at that time.

Today, Diocletian’s baths are one of the must-see ancient sights in the modern city of Rome. The fun fact is that this was his first time ever in Rome.

He ruled from Nicomedia in Anatolia, which he made the eastern capital city of the Roman Empire in 286 when he introduced the Tetrarchy system. Seems like he always despised Rome and this was his final slap in its decadent face.

Laureate head of Diocletian (Photo: G.Dallorto under CC attribution)

That was almost 2,000 years ago and it seems like Diocletian’s masterpiece could stand there for another few thousands more. What is known today as the center of the city of Split and the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace, once was his place of retirement and final resting place after he spent almost 40 years fighting all over huge territories such as the Roman Empire was, and then 20 years more ruling in continuity, keeping peace inside its borders and successfully defending from barbarian invaders who were hovering from all over Roman limes like Dortrakhi from Game of Thrones.

Diocletian in retirement (Photo: Mary Charlotte Yonge/Public domain)

I came across Diocletian’s biography written by renowned Split-born author Jasen Boko, who, being an amateur historian and a great fan of his ancient fellow Dalmatian, wrote this biography in an attempt to promote the Dalmatian Emperor’s legacy which he finds to be forgotten and even forbidden from taking deserved place in local history (by the Catholic church) since (he claims) people from Split and Dalmatia despise Diocletian on the account of a false belief that he killed their favorite Patron saint – Saint Domnius.

If you know anything about Split then you must have heard of this guy, Saint Domnius. Legend and the Catholic church say he was a Christian martyr strangled to death by Diocletian himself. According to Boko, this claim has no connection to reality since these two could have never met since they didn’t even live at the same time in history. Boko and other historians also believe Domnius never existed at all but was another (blasphemous) story.

Old image of Diocletian’s Palace in Split

There is another reason why Diocletian was demonized throughout history, and globally not just in Split, as he is considered to be the last great persecutor of Christians and in Church writings is described almost as notorious as Neron himself.

Jasen Boko and other historians that he refers to say this has little ground with reality and that the scale of prosecutions in his time was minor, or at least not as massive as the Church wants us to believe.

At least having in mind how presenting him as pure incarnation of pure evil helped to support the image of unimaginable sufferings of early day Christians when Jesus believers were just a small-numbered religious sect. All in all, historians have a more positive image of Diocletian since from their perspective he was a very interesting ruler, avant-garde in many ways trying to preserve a declining Empire.

He is famous for his Edict of Maximum Prices and certainly for his experimental ruling structure called Tetrarchy system (rule of four Emperors), the last being considered the main reason why the Roman Empire could stand for a little bit more before departing into two parts after first Christian Emperor Constantine’s death.

How Diocletian lost the hearts and minds of his fellow Dalmatians

Diocletian’s Palace today

Along with tetrarchy as a whole new concept of ruling which served as concept of distribution of power between different rulers and strengthening their power at the same time, Diocletian tried to consolidate the empire’s finances to be able to keep it in one piece and defend it’s external borders and for that he needed a big and strong army.

The old tax system had to be scrutinized and the emperor ordered a new census to determine how many lived in the empire, how much land they owned and what that land could produce. In order to raise money and stem inflation, Diocletian increased taxes and revised the collection process.

Diocletian’s Palace today

View from the air of Diocletian’s Palace today

Individuals were compelled to remain in the family business whether that business was profitable or not. To stop runaway inflation he issued the already mentioned Edict of Maximum Prices – legislation that fixed the prices of goods and services as well as wages to be paid which was revolutionary justly, almost socialistic for today’s point of view.

This is all ancient history but Diocletian’s biggest masterpiece still stands where it was two thousand years ago and his tomb is now the Christian church, the Cathedral of St. Domnius.

Cathedral of St. Domnius

Today we can still pass through Peristyle, what use to be central square of his Palace, and just enter into the heart of everyday life of modern Split. I think that’s just so superb and grandiose.

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So, best advice when visiting Split, that crazy Mediterranean city, go explore Diocletian’s Palace, I bet the touch of his breath is still there. After spending some time with my divine fellow Dalmatian, I must admit I keep thinking that he must have done all of what he did just to go back in peace and enjoy the view.

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