What did Diocletian feel when all this was happening to him? Agony, of course. It is an emotion that human beings feel far more often than is admitted; and it is not their fault. History imposes us. There is no use denying the horrible nature of our human destiny. Diocletian must have felt one kind of agony because he was a healthy peasant, and his bowels must have slid backwards and forwards like a snake when he doubted the safety of his daughter; another because, though he had been born a peasant, he had been born a peasant into a civilized world, and faculties developed in civilization are revolted when they have to apprehend experiences provided by barbarism; and another because it is always terrible to advance from particular success to particular success and be faced at last with general defeat, and he had passed from achievement to achievement only to see the negation of all his achievements decreed by impersonal forces which, if he had been truly imperial and the right object of worship by the common man, he should have anticipated and forestalled.
After his death he remained corporeally in possession of the palace, his tomb resting in the centre of the mausoleum. Thirty years or so later, a woman was put to death for stealing the purple pall a from his sarcophagus, a strange, crazy crime, desperate and imaginative—a criticism in which he would by now have concurred, for the walls of the Empire which he had failed to repair had fallen and let a sea of catastrophe wash over his people. The Adriatic was ravaged by Vandal pirates, and Rome had been sacked by the barbarians three times in sixty years; the Huns had devastated the Danube, and Salona was crowded with refugees. But this was for the meantime a little ledge of safety, and ordinary life went on and seemed to prove that there was some sense in the idea of building a palace for shelter. Illyria had always been noted for its textiles. There is a statue of the Emperor Augustus in the Capitoline Museum at Rome which has on its shield the figure of an Illyrian; he is wearing a knee-length tunic, beltless but with sleeves, and ornamented by bands running from the shoulders to the lower hem. This is our first knowledge of the dalmatic. In the third century the Pope ordered that all martyrs should be buried in it, and it is still worn by deacons and officiating bishops in the Western Church, and by English kings at their coronation. No matter what bestial tricks history might be playing, there were always looms at work in Illyria. A considerable corner of Aspalaton was taken up by a large factory, operated by female labor, which turned out uniforms for the Roman army as well as civilian material.
For about a hundred and seventy years the sarcophagus of Diocletian was visible, firmly planted in the middle of the mausoleum, described by intelligent visitors. Then it suddenly was not there any more. It is suggested that a party of revengeful Christians threw it into the sea; but that is an action comprehensible only in a smouldering minority, and Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire since the time of the Emperor’s death. Nor can it be supposed that the sarcophagus was destroyed by the Avar invaders, for they did not reach the coast until a couple of centuries later. Probably the occasion of its disappearance was far less dramatic.
The everyday routine of life persisted in Aspalaton, however many barbarians committed murder; in the textile factory the shuttles crossed and recrossed the loom. Without doubt it continued to be necessary that Diocletian’s mausoleum should be cleaned and repaired, and one day the owner of a yard near by may have said, “Yes, you may put it down there,” and watched the sarcophagus reverently, wondering that he should be the guardian of such a holy thing. It may be also that the workmen who laid it down did not come back, that there was a threat to the city from land or sea which called them and the authorities who employed them and the owner of the yard himself to the defense. Soon it might be that people would say of the sarcophagus, “I wonder when they will come and take it back”; but continued unrest might make it advisable that the treasures of the temples should be kept dispersed. Not so much later it might be that a break in a chain of family confidences, due to violent death or flight or even natural death, if it were sudden, would leave the sarcophagus unidentified and only vaguely important. Some day a woman would say of it, “I really do not know what that is. It is just something that has always been here; and it is full of old things.” She spoke the truth. It was full of old things: the bones of Diocletian the man, the robes of Diocletian the Emperor, the idea of a world order imposed on the peoples by superior people, who were assumed to know because they could act. Aspalaton, the palace of the great Restorer of the Earth, had passed away. It had become Split, a city lived in by common people, who could establish order within the limits of a kitchen or a workshop or a textile factory, but had been monstrously hindered in the exercise of that capacity by the efforts of the superior people who establish world order.
I have no doubt that one day Diocletian’s sarcophagus will turn up in the cellar of an old and absent-minded family of Split; and in the cellar of the Dalmatian mind, the foundation on which its present philosophy is built, the old Emperor is to be found also. We in England have an unhistoric attitude to our lives, because every generation has felt excitement over a clear-cut historical novelty, which has given it enough to tell its children and grandchildren without drawing on its father’s and grandfather’s tales. In all these impressive events the central government has played a part which was, at any rate, not tragically disgraceful, at least so far as our own country is concerned, and was often very creditable. We think of the national organization that controls the public services throughout the country as ambitious on the whole to give the common man every opportunity to exercise his ability for keeping order in his own sphere.
It would not be so, however, if the last clear-cut event in English history had been the departure of the Roman legionaries in 420, and if there had followed a period of internal disorder which the Battle of Hastings perpetuated to our own day, by inaugurating a series of attempts at invasion and settlement by imperialistic Continental powers. We should think of kings and statesmen as mischief-makers whose failure drove us from time to time out of our houses into ditches, to feed on roots and berries. The difference in our attitude can be computed if we try to imagine what our reaction to the word “queen” would be if we had had no Victoria or Elizabeth, or even Anne.
So it is with the Splitchani, and indeed with all Dalmatians. They are aware of Diocletian’s failure to restore the earth, and what it cost them. Therefore their instinct is to brace themselves against any central authority as if it were their enemy. The angry young men run about shouting. But they have Illyrian blood as well as Slav; they are of the same race that produced Diocletian and the other restitutores orbis They are profoundly sensitive to the temptation of power. Therefore they cannot break their preoccupation with the central authority. The young men cannot sit down and get angry about something else. The stranger will be vastly mistaken if he regards this attitude as petulant barbarism. It is an extremely sensible reaction to their experience, and it has helped them to protect their rights under the rule of empires which were indifferent or hostile to them. It might yet be of enormous service to humanity if the world were threatened by an evil domination.
The steamer which makes the hour’s journey from Split to Trogir was full of Germans, and I wondered more and more at the impossibility of learning the truth. I have been given to understand, partly by what I have read and heard and partly by parades I have seen in Germany, that Germans are a race of beautiful athletes tense with will, glossy wish efficiency, sinister with aggressiveness. The German tourists who had surrounded us in every hotel and on every steamer since we got to Dalmatia were either pear-shaped fat or gangling thin, and in any case wore too much flesh packed on the nape of the neck, and were diffident, confused, highly incompetent as travelers, and not at all unkindly. There was, I suppose, no contradiction here, only proof that Germany has been divided into two nations—a pampered young pretorian guard and the badgered, undernourished, unregarded others. These were the others. But they also were of Hitler’s Germany; for the steamer dawdled along the coast from portlet to portlet, and on each landing stage there were standing a crowd of Dalmatians, tall, lean, upright in pride of body. The tourists stared at them and spoke of them as if they were odd and dangerous animals. The German hatred of the Slav had been revived and reenforced.
Across a milk-white sea, with two silver hydroplanes soaring and dipping to our right and left, we came to the town of Trogir, which covers a minute island, lying close to the coast, in the lee of a larger island. It is one of those golden-brown cities: the color of rich crumbling shortbread, of butterscotch, of the best pastry, sometimes of good undarkened gravy. It stands naked and leggy, for it is a walled city deprived of its walls. The Saracens leveled them, and the Venetians and the Hungarians would never let them be rebuilt. Now it looks like a plant grown in a flowerpot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together. On the quay stand Slavized Venetian palaces with haremish latticework fixed to screen the stone balconies, to show that here West meets East, brought thus far by Byzantine influence and perpetuated by the proximity of the Turks.
Trogir was an inveterately heretic city. In its beginning it was a Greek settlement and later a Roman town, and then it was taken over in the Dark Ages by wandering Paulicians. In the twelfth century, however, the town was sacked by the Saracens, and the inhabitants were dispersed among the villages in the mainland. That, however, did not break the tradition of heresy, for when the king of Hungary collected them and resettled them on their island they soon fell under the influence of Catharism. One wishes one knew how this heresy compared with orthodoxy as a consolation in time of danger.
Our friendly guide took us on from the Cathedral to see the scene of one of the narrowest escapes from annihilation that are written in all history. We walked out of the city on to the quay through a gate which still keeps the handsome stone lion of Saint Mark that was the sign of Venetian possession, surmounted by the patron saint of Trogir, Saint Giovanni Orsini. A bridge crossed a channel hemmed with marble and glazed with the reflection of many cypresses, and joined Trogir to a mainland that showed us a little level paradise under the harsh bare limestone hills, where the pepper trees dropped their long green hair over the red walls of villa gardens, and Judas trees showed their stained, uneasy purple flowers through wrought-iron gates. “You see, it came very near, so near that it could not have come any nearer,” said our guide.
He spoke of the time in 1241 when the Mongols, seeking to expand the empire made for them by Genghis Khan, conquered Russia and swept across Europe to Hungary, putting King Bela and his nobles to flight. While the king vainly petitioned the other Christian powers to help, the invaders swept on towards Vienna and then swung down to Croatia, burning, looting, killing. King Bela tried to stand firm at Zagreb, and sent his Greek wife and their three children to seek safety on the coast. These were ranging in panic between Split and the fortress of Klish, just behind it in the mountains, when the king joined them frantic with fear. It is doubtful if even our own times can provide anything as hideous as the Mongol invasion, this dispensing of horrible death by yellow people made terrible as demons by their own unfamiliarity. It is true that the establishment of the Mongol Empire was ultimately an excellent thing for the human spirit, since it made Asiatic culture available to Europe; but as Peer Gynt said, “though God is thoughtful for his people, economical that he isn’t!”
The king and a tattered, gibbering multitude of nobles and soldiers and priests, bearing with them the body of Saint Stephen, first king of Hungary, and many holy objects from their churches, trailed up and down the coast. Split received them magnificently, but the king struck away the townsmen’s greetings with the fury of a terrified child. The shelter they offered him was useless. They might not know it, but he did. He had seen the Mongols. He demanded a ship to take him out to the islands; yellow horsemen could not ride the sea. But there was none ready. He shouted his anger and went with his queen and his train to Trogir, which is within a short distance of many islands. He fled to a neighboring island, which is still called “The King’s Shelter.” Some of his followers went with him, but enough stayed in Trogir to carpet the place with sleeping men and women when night fell. Worn out by fatigue, by hunger, by fear, they threw down wherever they could on the floors of all rooms, in every palace and hovel, all over every church, on the flags of the piazza and the alleys, on the quays. Their treasure cast down beside them, they slept. Every boat too was covered with sleeping bodies and upturned faces, and the rocks of every island.
The Mongols came down on the coast. Nothing could stop them. But at the sea they met a check. They had thought the king must be at Klish or Split, and they were repulsed at both. The shelter offered by the Splitchani was not as negligible as the king had thought. The Mongols were used to unlimited space for their operations, and to attack fortifications from a terrain bounded by the sea or sharply broken ground presented them with a new problem. But they found their way to Trogir; and on to this bridge across the channel they sent a herald who cried out in a loud voice the minatory moral nonsense talked by the aggressor in any age: “Here is the commandment of the Kaidan, the unconquerable chief of the army: do not uphold the crimes of others, but hand over to us our enemies, lest you be involved in those crimes and perish when you need not.”
For the herald himself the delivery of this message must have been the supreme moment of his life, either for perverse joy or for pain, because those who heard him tell us that he spoke in Slav as a Slav. He must have been either a traitor or a prisoner. Either he was dooming his own people, whom he loathed, to their ruin, and his words were sweet as honey in his mouth; or he loved his people, and he found his words bitter as gall.
The guards of Trogir made no answer, for they had been ordered by the king to keep silent. Then we find—which is not common—history following a line to which we are accustomed in our private lives. We have all heard spoken tremendous words which must unchain tragedy, we have all recognized the phrase after which there can be nothing but love and happiness; and afterwards nothing has happened, life goes on precisely the same, there is the vacuum of the anticlimax. But in history the pushed boulder usually falls. In Trogir, however, it was not so. After this tremendous moment, nothing happened. The herald cried out his tremendous message, the guards kept silent; and presently the Mongols went home. It is thought that they were considering whether they should ford or bridge the channel when they received news that their supreme chief, Ogodai, the son of Genghis Khan, had died in Asia, and that the succession was in dispute. They went back at a trot, just taking time to sack and kill on their way through Southern Dalmatia, where they burned the lovely city of Kotor, and through Bosnia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.
Trogir breathed again. The king returned from his islet, and took his nobles and his armies and his priests and the dead Saint Stephen and the holy jewels back to Hungary. But the queen had to stay in Dalmatia for some time, till her two little daughters, Catarina and Margareta, died of a sickness they had contracted during their flight. Their tombs can be seen in Diocletian’s mausoleum at Split.
It is the kind of secret that time takes with it: whether the heretics of Trogir leaned on their faith and found it bore them, in those hours when the Mongol sword hung over their heads. But it can be deduced that in a general way it did them no harm, for they came out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance strong in art and gallant.
Part One: January 1941
Part Two: February 1941
Part Four: April 1941
Part Five: May 1941