At the peak of its territorial expansion in the second century AD, the Roman Empire extended across the entirety of the European continent, throughout the Middle East, and into northern Africa. Then the trouble started. Historians tentatively agree that the year 111AD was the beginning of the collapse.
The third century brought widespread famine, peasant rebellions in the peripheral regions and civil unrest within the city of Rome, military anarchy, and plague. A man named Diocletian enforced administrative changes during his rein in the fourth century, and then a man named Constantine set about on a mission to “reunite Rome,” but instead relocated the capitol to Constantinople. Western Rome is said to have officially fallen in 476AD when the last emperor was deposed and the imperial insignia was delivered to Eastern Emperor.
I’ve not yet been to Rome or even to Italy, but I feel grateful for the opportunity to visit both Diocletian and Constantine’s homelands. In my mind, the Roman Empire was not very long ago, and its influence has organized our Western understanding of both the influence of religion, and the power of the political elite. It is indeed an Eternal City.
Split, Croatia and Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian was born to a lower-class family in the Roman Province of Dalmatia, which today is northern Albania and most of Croatia, with bits of inland Bosnia and Serbia. He worked his way up the military ladder to become Emperor in 284AD. This was a rough time for Rome and is comparable in many ways to what the US is currently experiencing. The Empire was unstable beneath the weight of economic depression, widespread famine and plague, and increasingly severe peasant rebellions. The People in the peripheral regions were tired, poor, and pissed off. The City of Rome was fat, and everyone else was hungry.
In an effort to stabilize resources, Diocletian selected a co-Emperor, and together they reigned the Eastern and the Western Empire. A few years later, he further delegated his authority. Selected two more junio co-Emperors, he divided the Empire into four quadrants. Each man ruled over a quarter of the Empire, and each quarter had its own administrative center. Through his “rule of four” and policies that standardized imperial taxation, Diocletian effectively ended the Crisis of the Third Century. Unfortunately, he also violently persecuted the Christians in an effort to enforce a land where everyone worshiped the Imperial cult of Rome.
Diocletian retired from office in 305AD after an illness. He is the first Empire to have voluntarily abdicate the position. In his retirement, he returned to Dalmatia and built a massive palace. This palace walls are now the city center in modern Split, Croatia, and the structure itself is still the best preserved Roman palace in the world.
In his book The Hidden Europe, Francis Tapon describes the palace and summarizes Diocletian’s years as Emperor, stating that, “it’s obvious that the retired Roman Emperor enjoyed his final years here, reminiscing about all the innocent Christians he gleefully slaughtered and executed.”
Before leaving for Croatia, I watched a popular travel vlog on YouTube. A young American couple vlogs about how they travel for free using credit card points and flyer miles, alongside corporate sponsorship. In one of their vlogs, they wandered the palace in awe, not knowing what it was or the historical significance of where they stood. One of them said, “It looks old and Roman-y.” I felt annoyed. She was referring to Diocletian’s palace.
Split today is a a beautiful coastal city on the Adriatic Sea. At the time of my travelling before the pandemic, the port was crowded with English-speaking tourists vacating their cruise ships, to wander the walls of the palace and eat gelato. But I absconded from the crowds to hike to the the top of Sustipan Park, and watched the sunset over the port. I might have seen the ghost of Diocletian, tending to his vegetables, and reflecting over his influential career as the most powerful man on Earth.
Nis, Serbia, and Constantine’s Homeland
During the time of the Tetrarchy, or “rule of four,” the junior co-Emperor of the West, Flavius Valerius Constantius, had a son, Constantine. Constantine was born in what is now Nis, Serbia, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend. Historically, he was a hero and is in fact called Constantine the Great. However, modern scholars and historians are unearthing primary sources that tell a more critical story of his reign. Politically, he is known for replacing Diocletian’s tetrarchy with dynastic succession. Dynastic succession is when children inherit the right to rule over a land.
Modern Nis, Serbia, is an active and bustling small city with a lively center and residents who love where they live. In his travel memoirs through Eastern Europe, Tapon joyfully describes his time in Nis:
We were going to Nis to stay with Nikola Trifunovic, our 27-year-old couchsurfing host. Nikola’s well-traveled friend, Nenad Stojanovic, picked us up. He told us that Nikola would join us at 11pm at a bar. Even though it was Sunday night, the bar was packed. Nenad yelled in my ear, “It’s because Serbia’s unemployment rate is 40 percent! In Nis, it’s 70 percent! And with young people, it’s close to 90 percent!
That would explain why the large family with whom I stayed during my three days in Nis did not seem to ever leave the house or the yard. They were very kind and open people, and I felt guilty for my annoyance at the long, loud hours of many cigarettes and raki late into the night. Everywhere throughout Serbia, I choked on cigarette smoke.
Very little remains from the Nis of Constantine, but archaeologists are actively excavating Mediana. Mediana is located just east of Nis, and was his villa between the years of 306-337. I happened to wander passed the dig on my way to scout out the bus station, and later learned that what I saw was Mediana.
Nis offers two more historical sites definitely worth seeing. The Fortress in Nis is from the 18th century and overlooks the Nisava River and an area of land that has been inhabited for two thousand years. It has been protected under Serbian law as a site of historical and cultural significance since 1948. Another that reveals a much darker history is Skull Tower, which the Turks constructed from the heads of the fallen Serbian rebels after the Battle of Cegar in 1809. Many Serbians now consider it a pilgrimage to head to Nis for Skull Tower.