Dr. Murray Eiland is an archaeologist and the Managing Editor of Antiqvvs Magazine.
The Adriatic is the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean Sea. The coastline is rocky, high, and jagged. There were few hills, which was largely prevented by the region’s limestone geology, which promoted the formation of many islands and deep coves. Along the beautiful coast of Croatia, a group of people called Illyrians lived in the third century of the common era. They were one of the three main Paleo-Balkan populations, along with the Thracians and Greeks. Their language is disputed and survives basically in the names of things. The language, along with Thracian, as likely extinct by the 5th century although traditionally, the Albanian language might be identified as the descendant of Illyrian dialects.
As people lived and died in Dalmatia for their entire lives, the soft yet impactful call of a seagull could be heard. The sea was seemingly endless, but it linked the Illyrians to the seat of the Roman Empire in Rome. The winds could be furious and intimidating, but just a little inland, crops could be grown, and animals could be raised to support a magnificent civilization formed before the arrival of today’s Croats.
Some of those who lived there then were born with exceptional feats of strength, intelligence, and courage. Some were cunning and deceiving, some were bold and brave, and others just lived their ordinary lives and were picked by the ruling elite for whatever task might await them. The truth is that most of them worked in the fields and took care of farm animals. This region was so prosperous that, in time, it would eclipse the old center of the Roman Empire, but that future could not be foreseen at the beginning of the story.
A child born in the year two hundred and forty-five to an ordinary family would, in time, take care of farm animals. Survivors were tough people who lived daily, yet that was their strength. People gain absolute power from living when they have nothing to lose yet everything to gain, especially during the age of Emperor Philip the Arab, an emperor not originally from Rome. Rome was the first empire of its kind, whose leaders were not usually chosen by race or region but by their powers and cunning. From Rome’s humble beginnings, from the day Aeneas migrated to Italy due to the Trojan War, Rome was an idea rather than a tribe. The empire that would arise later was, at times, great and, other times, horrid. Anything could happen. Best friends can kill and be killed, like in the case of Julius Caesar. Fathers could raise vipers, as Commodus, the son of the great Marcus Aurelius, was one of the worst the empire had seen.
And so, in Roman Dalmatia, a boy, was born… A child of ordinary parents, workers, and survivors. His name was Diocles, and he was the son of a slave. To be born under those circumstances was hard enough, yet life later came with even more hardships. Diocles childhood was defined by what would later make him a strong leader. One of the greatest that the Empire will see. But just as Rome had rocky beginnings, his own life also did.
One of the first tasks young Diocletianus (as he would be called later) had was raising and herding pigs. The Romans considered pork the supreme domestic animal. The meat could be eaten as pork chops, bacon, and various sausages eaten by the rich and poor. No other animal had so many Latin names (e.g. sus, porcus, porco, aper) or was the ingredient in many ancient recipes outlined by the Roman author Apicius (called the author of the world’s first cookbook). There were several domestic varieties of pig, but the most widespread was a long-legged variety covered with bristles. These animals were likely domesticated from European wild boars and not from Near Eastern domestic pigs, but the genetics are still being determined.
Dealing with even smaller boars was a potentially dangerous job for a child. They can be heavy and moody. Diocletian walked alongside animals not as docile as sheep or lambs. While they may roll in the mud, they needed to be taken into the plains and the forest for a variety of foods.These animals could injure or, even worse, mortally wound him. Diocletian was born and likely lived in a relatively lively community of Salonae. Salonae was part of an ethnically diverse empire. Whatever the Romans built and founded was made in the image of the city of Rome. So, in Salonae, alongside Illyrians, lived another group of people, well integrated but with their own beliefs and faith. This ancient community followed one god, the Jewish people. Their belief system was very different than that of the pagan Romans or, for that matter, that of the Illyrians. The pig was deemed dirty and unsanitary for consumption by Jews, and so the narrative begins.
Diocletian no doubt ate pig meat and was comfortable around swine. The sun shone bright, and the days were hot. A small group of young Jewish boys approached Diocletian while he was working. They belonged to the higher class of free men, as neither their parents nor they were slaves.
“Are you a swineherder?”
One of them asked, and this question, to which Diocletian replied positively, started him on a journey he never forgot. The boys slowly embraced the provocative questioning that was speedily followed by insults. Even the idea of a young man working with such vile creatures was incredibly filthy to them. Those swine that the boys dubbed “A disgust of the world” keep Diocletian’s entire family alive.
The second encounter was some weeks later. It was the same group of young Jewish boys, but one of them was angrier than usual on that particular day, and his short temper took over. Diocletian had enough of insults, and as he burst into tears, the world turned red for a few moments. All that he could see was rage as he was confronted with a task that suddenly made everything in the world disappear except the job itself. He was suddenly in front of another young man, about to exchange blows. If Diocletian loses, the abuse will only worsen, and perhaps he will have to engage in more and more altecations as time passes. If he wins, he certainly will gain some respect, but hatred comes with respect too. So, in the beginning, he was lucky enough to land a successful strike with his right hand, and the boy dropped to the ground. But what took place after that was a group beating the young swineherder received from the bulk of the Jewish boys.
Later that day, as he returned to his father in complete despair, bloody, and with his spirit broken, a decision was made. His father sent him to another piece of land, further than the one he had worked on. This was the last interaction with that specific group of Jewish boys that Diocletian had in his life. But slowly, it spread, stories and rumors were going around the city, and in no time, the boy had his nickname – Diocles the Swineherd.
This name will be almost forgotten in time, for that same boy will become something far from a small-time country farmer. It did not take long, and in a few years, his courage and discipline Diocletian was pulled into the world of war. While in army camps, he gained notoriety for his extraordinary feats of strength and courage. Some tales say that he was known to be the biggest and strongest of soldiers. He could hurl tree trunks, and his fury in battle made him shock his enemies as well as his brothers in arms. But it was not just strength he showed.
One of the things Diocletian learned while serving in the Empire’s army was the art of speaking. Rhetoric was highly valued in Roman culture. He learned of it and its powers, which were, and still are, more significant than war. For it is those who speak well that win. And as time passed, Diocletian rose high up into the ranks of the highly structured Roman military machine. He was known as the strong and bold, the one who says what everyone else is afraid to even think. He was now the commander of a cavalry unit and served directly under the Emperor of Carus. Wars raged on as never before, and the crisis of the third century took over the entire Empire. Military losses were mounting, enemies were pouring in from all sides, and the currency was losing value. The Roman nation was in decline after many years of prosperity, and Diocletian caught like everyone else. But there was a chance for him; there was an opening. Emperor Carus and his son Numerian died on a military campaign against the Sasanians in Iran. It was such a time of crisis that troops proclaimed the new emperor. None was so strong in both body and soul as was Diocletian.
He ended the crisis of the third century. He slowly won battles and regained power, authority, and balance, but he also spent much time educating himself. A boy who once was a swineherd now became the single most powerful man in the world. Diocletian was wise, and he had an even temper. He surrounded himself with an elite drawn from the Mediterranean world. Yet he did not steer far from what he knew. Perhaps he understood that to survive, Rome must move beyond the city of Rome. As he started building significant buildings across the Dalmatian coast, for that was where he belonged. That was home. Diocletian built monumental structures and palaces, one of which still stands today. Today the city of Split in Croatia boasts one of the most imposing ruins in the world.
Diocletian’s Palace extends to a massive 30,000 square meters. The extraordinary complex is created from beautiful white limestone from Brač, Croatia, with marble imported from Italy and Greece, along with columns and sculptures such as sphinxes from Egypt. The ensemble occupies a total of 7 acres. It was built like a fortress to allow the Emperor all the comforts possible in his birthplace. Finally, the Roman Empire was at peace, yet there was still something the Roman Emperor wished to address. As he was home, he could still hear the rumors, or it was all in his head, of the name “Diocles, the swineherd.” He was still offended. Now, as a ruler, he had an obligation to clear his name from the filth and to teach the people a lesson. A lesson about Rome and the Empire. He sat alone for many hours, thinking about the problem when he came up with a solution. He gathered all the important names and elders from the Jewish community along the coast of Dalmatia.
It took some time for everyone to arrive at the majestic palace, and it took some time for them to enter it and embrace it completely, for it presented something they had not yet seen. This was entirely a different emperor. He was clearly a man of determination, discipline, and order, a ruthless military leader who used his powers to the full. He inspired loyalty and was prepared to trust those who had proved their worth. But this instilled fear into the Jewish community too. For he grew to not like any religion other than his own. He was savage against perceived threats. Once persuaded that newer mystical religions could undermine political stability, he ordered the persecution of everyone who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, resulting in the relentless persecution of Manichaeans and Christians.
The highest-ranking Jewish community members arrived at the palace. They all knew why he called the meeting. Their fear could be felt in the air, even those who did not know the boy named Diocles. He could see them walk in, and he looked at them thoughtfully before breaking the silence and asking if they knew why they were called into the meeting.
Some looked down, some looked into the distance, and only one was brave enough to speak.
“Yes, Emperor, we do!”
The Emperor asked him to elaborate.
“You have summoned us here, not only to show us how great you are and how strong your feats of Empire are but to have us apologize, for it was us who called you that name many years ago.”
Diocletian leaned in as the meeting went as he wanted it to. He asked them:
“And so, what have you to say in your defense?”
To which he replied:
“I can speak for all of us. We have no defence and ask for mercy. Some of us, when boys, have teased and even badly treated Diocles. We respect Diocletian, the Emperor, and whatever orders he gives us. We have made a great error.”
The Emperor was clearly happy with the reply as a slight smirk crept up. He then stood up and proclaimed, with his hands risen and his voice loud:
“No one shall ever treat a Roman citizen or a slave any worse than they would treat their mother. For it is the Roman Empire that allows men like me to become great. You must show respect even to the smallest of the Romans because you can never know which one of us will rise to greatness. Never forget that Romulus was an infant, born out of sinful intercourse, thrown into a river, fed by a she-wolf, and yet he built the greatest city the world had ever seen. My name is Diocletian, and I am your Emperor!”
Prose in this post: © Murray Eiland
Published with the permission of Murray Eiland