No weather can make the Northern Dalmatian coast look anything but drear. The dreariness is so extreme that it astounds like luxuriance, it gluts the mind with excess of deprivation. The hills are naked. Tracks lead over this naked rock, but it is hard to believe that they lead anywhere; it seems probable that they are traced by desperate men fleeing from barrenness, and doomed to die in barrenness. And indeed these bald hills mean a great deal of desperation. The rainfall sweeps down their slopes in torrents and carries away the soil instead of seeping into it and fertilizing it. The peasants collect what soil they can from the base of the hills and carry it up again and pack it in terraces; but there is not enough soil, and the terraces are often swept away by the torrents.
The human animal is not competent. That is the meaning of the naked Dalmatian hills. For once they were clothed with woods. These the earliest inhabitants of Dalmatia, the Illyrians and Ottomans, axed with an innocent carelessness; and the first Slav settlers were reckless too, for they came from the inexhaustible primeval forest of the Balkan peninsula. Then for three hundred years, from about the time of the Norman Conquest to 1420, the Hungarians struggled with the Venetians for the mastery of this coast, and the nations got no further with their husbandry. Then the Venetian Republic established its claim, and thereafter its administrators showed the carelessness that egotistic people show in dealing with other people’s property.
They cut down the Dalmatian forests to get timbers for their fleet and piles for their palaces; and they wasted far more than they used. Venetian administration was extremely inefficient, and we know not only from Slav complaints but from the furious accusation of the Republic against its own people that vast quantities of timber were purloined by minor officials and put on the market, and that again and again supplies were delivered at the dockyard so far beyond all naval needs that they had to be let rot where they lay. After this wholesale denudation it was not easy to grow the trees again. The north wind, which blows great guns here in winter, is hard on young plantations; and the peasant, as he got poorer, relied more and more on his goat, a vivacious animal insensible to the importance of afforestation. The poor peasant is also sometimes a thief, and it is easier to steal a young tree than a fully grown one. So, for all the Yugoslavian Government can do, the mainland and the islands gleam like monstrous worked flints.
Bare hills, and young men that shout—both the product of human incompetence, of misgovernment. That is the immediate impression given by North Dalmatia. We met our first young man very soon after we got to Susak. We strolled for a time round the port, which has a brown matter-of-fact handsomeness, and then we drove off to Trsat, a village two or three miles up on the heights behind Susak, which is visited for the sake of the church and the Frankopan castle.
The castle is a compost of round and square towers, temples and dungeons and dwelling houses packed within battlements, under an excess of plants and creepers due to neglect rather than luxuriousness. The earliest masonry that has been found is Illyrian, and much is Roman, of the time of Julius Caesar. We climbed a Roman tower to see Susak lying brown by the blue sea, and the dark ravine that runs up from the town to split a mountain range on the high sky line.
We numbered seven, the little party that was exploring the castle: ourselves; a middle-aged Frenchman and his blonde soprano-ish wife; a German honeymoon couple, aggrieved and agonized as Germans often are nowadays at contact with foreigners; and a darkly handsome young man, a Dalmatian on holiday from some town farther down the coast, who had early detached himself and was seen only occasionally in the distance, a silhouette on the edge of the round tower after we had left it, or a shadow treading down the brambles at the entrance to the dungeons. We forgot him totally in a great wonder that came upon us when we were looking at the dwelling house made in the castle by an early nineteenth-century Austrian general of Irish birth, Marshal Nugent. The Nugents had the custom, like the English who live in the West Indies and the early settlers in the Southern States, of burying their dead on their premises. But whereas those other exiles buried their dead in their gardens, the Nugents put theirs in niches of the house, above ground, their coffins set upright behind slabs of marble.
That I found puzzling. The only people I have ever heard of as being buried upright are the ancient Irish, whose monotony of mind made them wish to be discovered at the Day of Judgment ready to face their enemies; but the Nugents are English by origin, and never saw Ireland till the days of Queen Elizabeth. But we soon forgot that bewilderment in another. The gardener was telling us that there was buried among the Nugents a stranger, a—something that he described in a rapid phrase which we could not at first grasp. Incredulously we repeated his phrase. “La zia de Signor Bernard Shaw?” “Si, signore.” We still felt a need for verification, and repeated it in other languages. “La tante de Monsieur Bernard Shaw? Die Tante von Herr Bernard Shaw? Tetka Gospodja Bernard Shaw?” This was the hour for which Ollendorff has waited a hundred years. Always the gardener nodded; and there, on the tomb, which indeed had a blue-veined elegance not inappropriate to Bernard Shaw himself, was carved “Jane Shaw.” But before we could find out how she came to be there the dark young man was suddenly amongst us again, shouting at the top of his voice.
He had found, it seemed, a notice behind some creepers on a wall, stating that the price of admission to the castle was five dinars, and we had all been charged ten. A dinar is about a penny; and I fancy that there was some reasonable explanation of the incident—the tariff had changed. But the young man was terribly enraged. All the resentment that most people feel in their whole lives is not greater than what he felt on this one point. “Zehn dinar!” he cried, speaking in German so that we might understand and collaborate with him in fury. “Zehn dinar ist zu viel, zehn dinar ist zu teuer, ist viel zu teuer!” He switched back to Serbo-Croat, so that he could make his accusation against the gardener with the unhampered vigor of a man using his native tongue. “You are an Austrian!” he screamed at him. “You are an Italian!” Rage ran through his whole body and out of his tongue. It was plainly an exercised gift, a precious function proudly developed. His gift mastered him; he could not endure the iniquity of this place; he had to leave us. Shouting protests to an invisible person, leaping higher and higher as if to keep in contact with his own soaring cries, he rushed away from us, away from the castle of the Frankopans.
“Maniac!” exclaimed the Frenchman. “Frightful!” said his wife. “Savage!” said the German couple. They were wrong. He was simply the product of Dalmatian history: the conquest of Illyria by Rome, of Rome by the barbarians; then three hundred years of conflict between Hungary and Venice; then four hundred years of oppression by Venice with the war against Turkey running concurrently for most of that time; a few years of hope under France, frustrated by the decay of Napoleon; a hundred years of muddling misgovernment by Austria. In such a shambles a man had to shout and rage to survive.
Let me try to understand the plight of this people—because this is a story that no Westerner can know of himself, no Englishman, no American. Let us consider what the Frankopans were. They are said to have been of Italian origin, to be affiliated with the Frangipani family of Rome, but that is almost certainly a late invention. They were typical Dalmatian nobles: of unknown origin, probably aliens who had come down on the Slavs when they were exhausted by barbarian invasions, and who were themselves of barbarian blood. Certainly they owed their ascendancy not to virtue or to superior culture, but to unusual stead-fastness in seeing that it was always the other man who was beheaded or tossed from the window or smothered. They lived, therefore, in an agony of fear. They were liable to armed attack by Vienna or Hungary if ever they seemed to be favoring one rather than the other. Their properties were temptations to pirates. Their followers, and even their own families, were themselves living in continual fear, and were therefore apt to buy their safety by betraying their overlord to his strongest enemy, so he could trust nobody. We know a great deal about one Count Ivan Frankopan, in the fifteenth century. He was the eldest of nine sons; the other eight all conspired against him. To protect himself he used a device common in that age of legalist division: he made the Venetian Republic his heir. Thus it was not to the advantage of his brothers or any other private person to assassinate him. But when he seized the fortresses of two of his brothers he found that they were protected by a similar testamentary precaution: they had made the Count of Hungary their heir. He fled across the sea to an island named Krk, which was his. Then he went mad. He conceived the idea that he must have an infinite amount of money to save him from disaster; he robbed his peasants of their last coins, and murdered refugees who landed on his island, in flight from the Turk, for the sake of their little stores. The Venetian Commissioner was ceded the island by its horrified inhabitants on condition that the poor lunatic be taken away.
The bare hills around the castle told us what followed: four centuries of selfish exploitation. Then, with the French occupation, there was hope. The gardener showed us with pride a neat nineteenth-century neoclassical temple, built with the fidelity to antique classicism that does not deceive the eye for an instant, so obvious is it that the builders belonged to a later civilization that had learned to listen to orchestral music and to drink tea from fine cups. There is a cross at the apex of the pediment and two well-bosomed matrons sit on its slopes, one decapitated by an idiot bomb dropped by one of D’Annunzio’s planes when he was holding Susak’s neighbor, Fiume.
Across the frieze of this temple is written “Mir Yunaka,” which I translated to my husband perhaps more often than was absolutely necessary, for I am delighted with my minute knowledge of the Serbian language. “Peace to the Heroes,” it means. This temple was erected during the French occupation which gave Dalmatia a peace for eight years. Eight years out of all time—no longer.
For in 1806 Napoleon had still much of his youthful genius. It made him take over this territory after he had defeated Austria, and found the two provinces of High and Low Illyria, which comprised Croatia and Dalmatia and Slovenia, as well as the Slav districts behind Trieste that are now Italian. He had the idea of forming a civilized Slav state, to include in time the Christian provinces of Turkey, which should make Southeastern Europe stable, pacific, and pro-French; he made Marshal Marmont the governor of these Illyrian provinces, and it was an excellent appointment. Marmont was an extremely competent and honorable man, though a self-satisfied prig, and he loved Dalmatia. His passion for it was so great that in his memoirs his style, by nature dropsically pompous, romps along like that of a boy when he writes of his Illyria. He fell in love with the Slavs, and defended them against their Western critics. They were not lazy, he said, indignantly; they were hungry. He fed them, and set them to build magnificent roads along the Adriatic, and crowed like a cock over the accomplishment. They were not savages, either, he claimed; they had had no schools, and he built them plenty. When he saw they were fervent in piety, he fostered their religious institutions, though he himself conceived faith as a buckram to stiffen the Army Regulations.
Marmont would have spent all his life in paternal service of Dalmatia had his been the will that determined this phase of history. But he could achieve less and less as time went on, and when he resigned in 1811 the commerce of the country was in ruins, the law courts were paralyzed by corruption, the people were stripped to the skin by tax collectors, and there was no sort of civil liberty. For he was only Marmont, a good and just and sensible man whom no one would call great. But none denied the greatness of Napoleon, who was neither good nor just nor sensible.
There is a school of historians today who claim with semi-erotic ardor that Napoleon’s benevolence and wisdom never failed. It is hard to know how this view can survive a reading of his correspondence with Marmont on the subject of the Illyrian provinces. The style of his letters is curiously frivolous and disagreeable. By this time he had forgotten everything about his Empire except the crown. He showed complete indifference to the welfare of the French troops he had left in Dalmatia, and refused to sanction the expenditure Marmont insisted was necessary to keep them healthy in this barren coast of extreme weather, and he was completely unresponsive to Marmont’s desire to build up a virile and loyal population and bring it into the fold of civilization. As time went on, he ignored Marmont’s letters altogether, and his Exchequer grudged every halfpenny sent to Dalmatia. Finally, for no other purpose than pure offensiveness, he redrafted the constitution of the provinces and reduced the post of governor to a mere prefectship. Marmont could do nothing but resign and go back to the army. Yet he was a born colonial administrator, and this is one of the rarest forms of genius.
The men Napoleon sent to Dalmatia to replace Marmont prove his odd sluttishness. First was General Bertrand, who was later to share his Emperor’s captivity on St. Helena. He deserved it for his treatment of the Dalmatians. To a race of mystics, who had been granted a special revelation of Christianity because they had had to defend it against Islam, he applied the petty and shallow prescriptions of French eighteenth-century anticlericalism. On these same mystics—who were also, though the West lacked the scholarship to know it, accomplished jurists, dowered with laws and customs springing from ancient tradition and beautifully adapted to local necessities—he forced the new legislative cure-all, the Code Napoleon. But Bertrand was far better than his successor. Junot, the Duke of Abrantes, brought his career to its only possible climax at the Governor’s Palace in the delightful Slovenian town of Ljubljana. He gave a State Ball and came down the great marble staircase, under the blazing chandeliers, stark naked and raving mad.
But there was yet to come Fouche, the Duke of Otranto—one of the most pitiless butchers of the revolution, and in his capacity as Minister of Police the worst of all traitors, Judas only excepted. He loathed Napoleon yet loved him, was never loyal to him yet could never bring himself to betray him finally. There was here some nasty coquetry of spirit, some purulent corruption of love. Because his master was by then a beaten man, Fouche came out to Dalmatia in a yeast of loyalty, and indeed was inspired to glorious courage. In this far country, while Napoleon’s future crumbled in the West, Fouche acted all day the secure administrator and dawdled through the routine of governorship, and by night worked with frenzy on the plans for evacuation. “Step by step, therefore, without losses,” writes one of his biographers, “he withdraws to Venice, bringing away intact or almost intact from the short-lived Illyria its officials, its funds, and much valuable material.” All very Marvelous; but not by any accountancy could it be judged honest to withdraw “funds and much valuable material” from that hungry country, which had beggared itself saving the West from the Turkish invasion.
I did not wonder that the young man shouted as he ran down the road, shouted as if he must go mad, did not the world at last abandon its bad habit and resolve into mercy, justice, and truth.
THE next morning we woke early. Scowling, I went on the little steamer that was taking us and twenty other passengers, and as many cattle and sheep, southwards to the island of Rab, and we set off in a cold dither of spray. The bare hills shone like picked bones. I fell asleep, for we had risen at six. Then my husband shook me by the shoulder and said, “You must come on deck. This is Senj.” I followed him and stared at the port, which was like many others in Spain and Italy: from the quay-side high buttoned-up houses, washed in warm colors, and two or three campaniles struggled up a hill towards a ruined fortress, the climbing mass girt in by city walls. Senj was the home of the Uskoks. These were not animals invented by Edward Lear; they were refugees. They were refugees like the Jews and Roman Catholics and Liberals driven out by Hitler. They found, as these have done, that when one door closed on them others that should have been open suddenly were not. They were driven out of their homes, out of the fellowship of Christendom, out of the world of virtue into an accursed microcosm where there was only sin. They were originally Slavs of blameless character who fled before the Turks as they swept over Bulgaria and Serbia and Bosnia, and formed a strange domestic army, consisting of men, women, and children, who fought many effective rear-guard actions over a period of many years. Finally they halted at the pass over the Dalmatian mountains, behind the great port of Split, and for five years from 1532 they held back the Turks single-handed. Then suddenly they were told by their Christian neighbors to abandon it. Venice, which had just signed a pact with Turkey and was a better friend to her than Christian historians like to remember, convinced Austria that it would be wise to let Turkey have the pass as a measure of appeasement.
Then the Uskoks came down to the coast and settled in this little town of Senj, and performed a remarkable feat. Up to that time they had displayed courage and resolution of an unusual order, but they now showed signs of genius. Some of them were from the southern coast of Dalmatia, down by Albania, but most of them were inland men. In any case they can have had few marine officers. But in a short time they had raised themselves to the position of a naval power.
This was not a simple matter of savage daring. The Uskoks had unusual talent for boatbuilding. They devised special craft to suit the special needs of the Dalmatian coast resembling those which the ancient Illyrians used to vex the Roman fleet: light boats that could navigate the creeks and be drawn up on a beach where there was no harbor. They also developed extraordinary powers of seamanship which enabled them to take advantage of the situation of Senj. Just here the channel between the mainland and the island of Krk widens to ten miles or so, making a lovely fairway for the north wind, and it meets a channel that runs past the tail of the island to the open sea; thus the seas run rougher here than elsewhere on the coast. It was so when we came into Senj; a wave larger than any we had met before slapped against the quay. The Uskoks developed a technique of using this rough weather as a shield against their enemies, while they ran through it unperturbed. Therefore they chased the Turkish ships up and down the Adriatic, stripped them and sunk them; and year by year they grew cleverer at the game. This success was amazing, considering that they numbered at most two thousand souls. If the Venetian fleet had been directed by men of the quality of the Uskoks, the Turks might have been driven out of European waters, which would have meant out of Europe, in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Venice, however, was in her decline, which was really more spiritual than economic. Her tragedies were due to maladministration and indecisive politics rather than to actual lack of means.
She tried to placate Turkey in another way: she stopped attacking her at sea. To the Uskoks this capitulation of the great Christian powers must have seemed the last word in treachery. They had within the memory of all those among them who were middle-aged or over, been driven from their homes by the Turks in atrocious circumstances; and they had believed that in harrying the Turks they were not only avenging their wrongs but serving God and His Son. They had often been blessed by the Church for their labors, and Gregory XIII had even given them a large subsidy. But now they were treated as enemies of Christendom, for no other crime than attacking its enemies. And not only were they betrayed in the spirit; they were betrayed in the body. How were they to live? Till then they had provided for themselves—quite legitimately, since the Turks had dispossessed them of their homes—by booty from Turkish ships. But now all that was over. The Christian powers had no suggestions to make. The plight of a refugee, then as now, provoked the feeling that surely he could get along somehow. There was nothing for the Uskoks to do except defy Venice and Austria, and attack their ships and the Turks’ alike.
It seems certain that to see the story of the Uskoks thus is not to flatter them. For nearly thirty years they lived in such a state of legitimate and disciplined warfare that they attacked only Turkish ships. It is not until 1566 that there is the first record of an Uskok attack on a Christian ship. Thereafter, of course, the story is very different. They became gangsters of the sea. They developed all the characteristics of gunmen: a loyalty that went unbroken to the death, unsurpassable courage, brutality, greed, and, oddly enough, thriftlessness. Just as a Chicago racketeer who has made an income of five figures for many years will leave his widow penniless, so the Uskoks, who helped themselves to the richest loot the sea ever carried, always fell into penury if they survived to old age. Also they were looted, as thieves often are, by the honest. It is said that they bribed the very highest Austrian officials, even in the seat of government itself at Graz; and that a Jewish merchant might recognize there on a great lady’s breast a jewel which he had seen snatched by a robber’s hand on the Adriatic. Because of this traffic, it is alleged, the Austrians did little to restrain the Uskoks after they had become pirates. In any case it is certain that Venetian officials often bought the Uskok’s prizes from them and marketed them at a profit in Vienna.
In a very short time the moral confusion of these people was complete. At Christmas and Easter every year there were expeditions financed by the whole of Senj. Everybody, the officials, the soldiers, the private families, the priests and monks, paid their share of the expenses and drew a proportionate share of the booty. The Church received its tithe. This would be funny if murder had not been a necessary part of such expeditions, and if barbarity did not spread from heart to heart as fire runs from tree to tree in a forest in summer. Some of the later exploits of the Uskoks turn the stomach; they would knife a living enemy, tear out his heart, and eat it. Not only did the perpetrators of these acts lose their own souls, but the whole level of Slav morality was debased, for the Dalmatian peasant knew the Uskok’s origin and could not blame him. And the infection spread more widely. All the villains of Europe heard that there was good sport to be had in the Adriatic, and the hardier hurried to Senj. It testifies to the unwholesomeness of Renaissance Europe that some of these belonged to the moneyed classes. When a party of Uskoks were hanged in Venice in 1618, nine of them were Englishmen, of whom five were gentlemen in the heraldic sense of the word, and another was a member of one of the noblest families in Great Britain.
It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk. Both Venice and Austria used the degradation of these men as extra aces in their cheating game. The Austrians pretended to want to suppress them, but possibly liked to have them to harry Venice. Venice sacrificed them to her friendship with Turkey, but that friendship was a sham; she never really wept over those Turkish ships. Also she liked to have a legitimate source of grievance against Austria. The insincerity of both parties was proved by their refusal to grant the Uskoks’ demand, which was constantly presented during a period of fifty years, that they should be transported to some inland place and given a chance to maintain themselves either by tilling the soil or by performing military duties. Again and again the poor wretches explained that they had no means of living except by piracy, and that they would abandon it at once if they were shown any other way of getting food. But Venice and Austria, though one was still wealthy and the other was becoming wealthier every day, haggled over the terms of each settlement and let it go. Once there was put forward a scheme of selling the forests of pine and beech that in those days still grew round Senj, and using the proceeds to build fortresses on the Austrian frontiers which would be manned by Uskoks. It fell through because neither power would agree to make an initial payment amounting to something like fifty pounds. At the same time the Uskoks were not allowed to go to any country which was prepared to make room for them. They were strictly forbidden to enlist in foreign services They were shut up in piracy as in jail by powers that affected to feel horror at their crimes.
In the end their problem was settled in the course of an odd war between Austria and Venice, in which the Uskoks were used as a pretext by several people who wanted a fight. This war, which was nothing and led to nothing, lasted three years and must have brought an infinity of suffering to the wretched Dalmatian peasant. But mercifully, as it was supposed to be about the Uskoks, the peace treaty had to deal with them. A good many were hanged and beheaded and the rest were transported, as they themselves had requested for fifty years, to the interior. But the method of their transport was apparently unkind. There were no stout fortresses built for them or hopeful villages, for no certain trace of them can be found. Some say their descendants are to be found on the Alps at the very southern end of Austria; others have thought to recognize them on the slopes of a mountain in North Italy. It is to be feared that their seed was scattered on stony ground. That is sad, for the seed was precious.
We went down to the little dining saloon and had a good, simple, coarse, well-flavored luncheon. Opposite us sat a young man, handsome and angry, the very spit and image of the one at Trsat who had cried out to his God about the ten dinars; and indeed they were of the same breed. For this one thrust away his plate as soon as it was brought to him with a gesture of fury. “This soup is cold!” he shouted, his brows a thick straight line. “This soup is as cold as the sea!” But he was not shouting at the soup. He was shouting at the Turks, at the Venetians, at the Austrians, at the French, and at the Serbs (if he was a Croat), or at the Croats (if he was a Serb). It was good that he shouted. I respected him for it. In a world where during all time giants had clustered to cheat his race out of all their goods, his forefathers had survived because they had the power to shout—to reject cold soup, death, sentence to piracy, exile on far mountain slopes.
THE sea was green and hard as glass; the crests of the waves were chevaux-de-frise between us and a horizon of pure, very pale green light and dark bronze islands. Our destination, the Isle of Rab, lay before us, its mountains bare as Ark, its shores green as spring itself. As we came closer to it my husband said, “It is only scrub, of course, low woods and scrub.” But a little later he exclaimed, “Only scrub! Only scrub, indeed! Well, I have heard of this, but I never quite believed it.” It was still distant by half a mile or so, but the scent of myrtle and rosemary and thyme was as strong and soothing a delight as sunshine. Through this lovely invisible cloud we rode slowly into the harbor of Rab, and found ourselves in one of the most beautiful cities of the world.
It is very little. One can see it all at once, as if it were a single building; and that sight gives a unique pleasure. Imagine finding a place where one heard perpetually a musical phrase, which was different every time one moved a few steps, and was always exquisite. At Rab something comparable happens to the sight. The city covers a ridge overlooking the harbor. It is built of stone which is sometimes silver, sometimes at high noon and sunset rose and golden, and in the shadow sometimes blue and lilac, but is always fixed in restraint by its underlying whiteness. It is dominated by four campaniles, set at irregular intervals along the crest of the ridge. From whatever point one sees them these campaniles fall into a perfect relationship with each other and the city. We sat under a pine tree on the shore and ate oranges, and the city lay before us, making a statement that was not meaningless because it was not made in words. Then we undressed and swam out fifty yards, and we stopped and trod water, because the town was making another lovely statement. From every yard of the channel that divides it from its neighbor islands, from every yard of the roads that wind among the inland farms and olive terraces to the bald mountains in the centre of the island, the city can be seen making one of an infinite series of statements. Yet it achieves this expressiveness with the simplest of means: a grey horizontal oblong with four smaller vertical oblongs rising from it. Euclid never spoke more simply.
This island is within sight of the barbarized home of the Frankopans, is set in a sea polluted by the abominations of the Turks and the Uskoks. It is therefore astonishing that there is nothing accidental about the beauty of Rab; that in the fissure of this bare land there should be art and elegance of the most refined and conscious sort. Though Rab is no larger than many villages, it is a city, a focus of culture, a fantasy made by man when he could do more with his head and hands than is absolutely necessary for survival. There is a noble white square by the harbor, where balconies are supported by tiers of three lions set one upon another, pride upon pride, and facades are aristocratic in their very proportions, being broad enough to be impressive yet not too broad for respect towards neighboring properties. From this square, streets run up to the ridge of the town or along its base; and the richness of the doorways and windows and columns makes each seem a passage in some private magnificence.
There is the same sense of private magnificence about the Cathedral of Rab. On the ridge there is a little square, with bastions and cliffs falling deeply to the shore on the farther side; between the tall soldierly flowers of the olives and the swords of their leaves the eyes fall on the sea and its scattered islands. Here stands the Cathedral, built of rose and white marble in alternate courses, ornamented with blind arches of a lovely span. It is no bigger than many a private chapel; and it has an air as if it did not know what strangers are. That was the theory: without, the horror, the pirate, the Turk; within, an enclosed community within an enclosed community, a small city upon an island. One arranges one’s house with a certain lavishness and confidence when one believes that it is going to be visited only by familiars, and this cathedral is therefore at once domestic and elegant.
It is a part of an older church, a thousand years old, built in the time of Slav independence, of the utmost elegance imaginable. Its six supporting columns are of fine cipolin marble, and its canopy is carved from one great block of stone but is weightless as a candle flame because of the exquisiteness of its design and execution. Round its six arches are garlands carved more finely than the emblems on the patricians’ doorways in the town below, which is as it should be, since this is the palace of the patrician above all patricians. The pyramided roof of the baldachino is painted a tender red, the vault above it a tender blue, just such colors as grace the festivities of a much later Venice in the paintings of Paolo Veronese. The community that built this cathedral was so civilized that it could conceive a God who would be pleased not by the howlings of His worshipers and the beating of their breasts, but by their gayety, by their accomplishment, by their restraint and dignity. At one time the island of Rab paid an annual tribute to the Doge of ten pounds of silk. In this building it paid a tribute of silken elegance to the Doge of Doges.
Because it was noon they came to close the cathedral. We went out blinking into the sunlight, which for a moment was falling strong between thunderclouds; and a group of women smiled at us and gave us some greetings in Italian, though they were visibly not Italian, for they were completely lacking in Latin facility. They had that flat, unfeigned, obstinate look about the cheekbones which is the mark of the Slav, and their bodies were unpliable. But they were not of a harsh race that had usurped the home of gentler beings perished through gentleness. These people, and none other, had made Rab.
Out in the country round the city of Rab there are no revelations. There is a mystery. It is formulated also in stone, but not in worked stone—in the terrible naked stone of Dalmatia, in the terrible earth that here lies shallow and infirm of purpose as dust, and in the terrible faces of the people, who are all like crucified Christs. Everywhere there are terraces. High up on the bare mountains there are olive terraces; in the valleys there are olive terraces; in the trough of the valleys there are walled fields where an ordinary crop of springing corn or grass strikes one as an abnormal profusion like a flood. On these enclosures black figures work frenetically. From a grey sky reflected light pours down and makes each terrace and field a stage on which these black figures play their special drama of toil, of frustration, of anguish. As we passed by on the stony causeway, women looked up at us from the fields, their faces furrowed with all known distresses. Sometimes we met people on these causeways who begged from us without abjectness, without anything but hunger. Their lean hands came straight out before them. Their clothes asked alms louder than they did, making it plain that here were the poorest of creatures, peasants who had not the means to make a peasant costume to proclaim that in their village they had skill and taste and their own way of looking at things—they were undifferentiated black rags.
The poverty of the island was made plainer still to us the next day. Our first expedition had been over the northern part of the island, which is more or less protected from the north wind by high ground; but this time we walked to the south, where there is no shelter from the blast that rakes the channel between Rab and its neighbor island. Here are a land and a people that are not only grim but desperate.
At the dark open door of one home, which seemed to let out blackness rather than let in light, a boy of seven or eight, with flowers in his hand, waited for the tourist. My husband thrust down into his pocket, brought up three dinars and one half-dinar, and peered to see what they were. The child shuddered with suspense, broke down, put out his little hand and snatched, and ran into the house. But he had not snatched the four coins. He had snatched just one dinar; his fear had been lest my husband should give him the half-dinar. Later we passed a blind beggar, crouched on a bank with a little girl beside him. To him we gave ten dinars—that is, tenpence. The little girl shook him and shouted into his ear and gave him the coin to feel, and then shook him again, furious that he could not realize the miraculous good fortune that had befallen him; but he went on muttering in complaint.
The reason for the island’s melancholy lies not in its present but in its past. It is only now, since the war, [The First World War. This account was written in 1937. — EDITOR] since Dalmatia became a part of a Slav state, that it has had a chance to enjoy the proper benefits of its economic endowment; and since then there have been such overwhelming catastrophes in the world market that no community could live without tragic discomfort unless it could fall back on accumulations which it had stored in earlier days. That Rab has never been able to do. Some of the factors which have hindered her have been real acts of God, not to be circumvented by man. She has been ravaged by plague. But for the most part what took the bread out of Rab’s mouth was Empire. The carelessness and cruelty that infect any power when she governs a people not her own without safeguarding herself by giving the subjects the largest possible amount of autonomy, afflicted this island with hunger and thirst. Venice prevented Dalmatian fishermen from making their profit in the only way it could be made before the day of refrigeration: the poor wretches could not salt their fish, because salt was a state monopoly and was not only extremely expensive but badly distributed. Moreover, Venice restricted the building of ships in Dalmatia. It was her definite policy to keep the country poor and dependent. She admitted this very frankly, on one occasion, by ordering the destruction of all the mulberry trees which were grown for feeding silkworms and all the olive trees. This law she annulled, because the Dalmatians threatened an insurrection, but not until a great many of the mulberry trees had been cut down; and indeed she found herself able to attend to the matter by indirect methods. Almost all Dalmatian goods except corn, which paid an export duty of 10 per cent, had to be sold in Venice at prices fixed by the Venetians; but any power that Venice wanted to propitiate—Austria, Ancona, Naples, Sicily, or Malta—could come and sell its goods on the Dalmatian coast, an unbalanced arrangement which ultimately led to grave currency difficulties. All these malevolent fiscal interferences created an unproductive army of customs officials, which in turn created an unproductive army of smugglers.
This was cause enough that Rab should be poor; but there was a further cause which made her poorer still. It is not at all inappropriate that the men and women on these Dalmatian islands should have faces which recall the crucified Christ. The Venetian Republic did not always fight the Turks with arms. For a very long time it contented itself with taking the edge off the invaders’ attack by the payment of immense bribes to the officials and military staff of the occupied territories. The money for these was not supplied by Venice. It was drawn from the people of Dalmatia.
After the fish had rotted, some remained sound; after the corn had paid its 10 per cent, and the wool and the wine and the oil had been haggled down in the Venetian market, some of its price returned to the vender. Of this residue the last ducat was extracted to pay the tribute to the Turks. These people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broadminded, who will in pursuit of that end stretch their minds till they fall apart in idiocy, would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today. Their folly is certified for what it is by the mere sound of the word “Balkan,” with its suggestion of a disorder that defies human virtue and intelligence to accomplish its complete correction.
I could confirm that certificate by my own memories: I had only to shut my eyes to smell the dust, the lethargy, the rage and hopelessness of a Macedonian town, once a glory to Europe, that had too long been Turkish. The West has done much that is ill; it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist; but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire. From this the people of Rab had saved me: I should say, are saving me. They were in want because the gold which should have been handed down to them had bought my safety from the Turks. Impotent and embarrassed, I stood on the high mountain and looked down on the terraced island where my saviors, small and black as ants, ran here and there, attempting to repair their destiny.
Split, alone of all cities in Dalmatia, has a Neapolitan air. It recalls Naples because it also is a tragic and architecturally magnificent sausage machine, where a harried people of mixed race have been forced by history to run for centuries through the walls and cellars and sewers of ruined palaces, and have now been evicted by a turn of events into the open day, neat and slick and uniform, taking to modern clothes and manners with the adaptability of oil, though at the same time they are set apart forever from the rest of the world by the arcana of language and thoughts they learned to share while they scurried for generations close-pressed through the darkness.
Split presents its peculiar circumstances to the traveler the minute he steps ashore: the history of the place was on our right and our left. On the left was the marine market, where fishing boats are used for stalls; men who must be a mixture of sailor and retailer bring goods over from the islands, take their boats head-on to the quay, and lay out their wares in little heaps on the prows. Pitiful little heaps they often are, of blemished apples, rags of vegetables, yellowish boards of dried fish; but the men who sell them are not pitiful. They look tough as their own dried fish, and stand by with an air of power and pride. This coast feeds people with other things than food; it grudges them the means of life, but lets them live. On our right was a row of shops, the cafes and rubbishries which face any port; the houses that rise above them were squeezed between the great Corinthian columns in the outer gallery of Diocletian’s palace.
For Split is Diocletian’s palace: the palace he built himself in 305, when, after twenty years of imperial office, he abdicated. The town has spread beyond the palace walls, but the core of it still lies within the four gates. Diocletian built it to be within suburban reach of the Roman town of Salona, which lies near by on the gentle slopes between the mountains and the coastal plain; it was already the site of a Greek settlement, which was called Aspalaton, from a fragrant shrub still specially abundant here. In the seventh century, the Avars, that tribe of barbarian marauders who were to lead to a currency crisis in the Middle Ages because they looted so much gold from Eastern and Central Europe and hoarded it, came down on Dalmatia. They swept down on Salona and destroyed it by fire and the sword. The greater part of the population were killed, but some had time to flee out to the islands, which gave them the barest refuge. What they suffered in those days from cold and hunger and thirst is still remembered in common legend. In time they crept back to the mainland, where they found nothing left more habitable than the ruins of Diocletian’s palace. There they made shelters for themselves against the day when there should be peace.
They are still there. Peace never came. They were assailed by the Huns, the Hungarians, the Venetians, the Austrians, and some of them would say that with the overcoming of those last enemies they still did not win peace; and during these centuries of strife the palace and the fugitives have established a perfect case of symbiosis. It has housed them; they are now its props. After the war there was a movement to evacuate Split and restore the palace to its ancient magnificence by pulling down the houses that had been wedged in between its walls and columns; but surveyors very soon found out that, if these went, all Diocletian’s work would fall to the ground. The people that go quickly and darkly about the streets have given the stone the help it gave them.
“I should like to go into the palace at once,” said my husband, “and I greatly wish we could have brought Robert Adam’s book of engravings with us.” That thought must occur to many people who go to Split. Adam’s book on Diocletian’s palace is one of the most entertaining revelations of the origins of our day, pretty in itself and an honor to its author. He came here from Venice in 1757, and made a series of drawings which aimed at showing what the palace had been like at the time of its building, in order to obtain some idea of “the private edifices of the ancients.” The enterprise took a great deal of perseverance and courage, for all idea of the original plan had been lost centuries before, and he had to trace the old walls through the modern buildings and was often hindered by the suspicions of both the inhabitants and the authorities. The Venetian governor of the town was quite sure he was a spy and wanted to deport him, but the commander in chief of the Venetian garrison, who happened to be a Scotsman, and one of his Croat officers were sufficiently cultured to recognize Adam for what he was, and they got him permission to carry on his work under the supervision of a soldier.
The indirect results were the best of Georgian architecture, with its emphasis on space and variety and graceful pomp; often when we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia. The direct result was this book of enchanting drawings, some of them engraved by Bartolozzi.
“Yes,” I said to my husband, “it is disgusting that one cannot remember pictures and drawings exactly. It would have been wonderful to have the book by us and see exactly how the palace struck a man of two centuries ago, and how it strikes us, who owe our eye for architecture largely to that man.”
“Then why did we not bring the book?” asked my husband.
“Well, it weighs just over a stone,” I said; “I weighed it once on the bathroom scales.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because it occurred to me one day that I knew the weight of nothing except myself and joints of meat,” I said, “and I just picked that up to give me an idea of something else.”
“Well, well,” said my husband, “it makes me distrust Fabre and all other writers on insect life when I realize how mysterious your proceedings would often seem to a superior being watching them through a microscope. But tell me, why didn’t we bring it, even if it does weigh a little over a stone? We have a little money to spare for its transport. It would have given us pleasure. Why didn’t we do it?”
“Well, it would have been no use,” I said; “we couldn’t have carried anything so heavy as that about the streets.”
“Yes, we could,” said my husband; “we could have hired a wheelbarrow and pushed it about from point to point.”
“But people would have thought we were mad!” I exclaimed.
“Well, would they?” countered my husband. “That’s just what I’m wondering. In fact, it’s what made me pursue the subject. These Slavs think all sorts of things natural that we think odd; nothing seems to worry them so long as it satisfies a real desire. I was wondering if they could take a thing like this in their stride; because, after all, we feel a real desire to look at Adam’s book here.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but there is Philip Thompson standing in the doorway of our hotel, and we can ask him.”
Philip Thompson teaches English to such inhabitants of Split as wish to learn it. He is a fine-boned, fastidious, observant being, very detached except in his preference for Dalmatia over all other parts of the world, and for Split over all other parts of Dalmatia. We had morning coffee with him in the square outside our hotel, a red stucco copy of a Venetian piazza, with palm trees in it, which is quite a happy effort; and we put the question to him.
“Oh, but they’d think it very odd here, if you went about the streets trundling a book in a wheelbarrow and stopping to look at the pictures in it—very odd indeed,” said Philip. “You evidently don’t understand that here in Split we are very much on parade. We’re not a bit like the Serbs, who don’t care what they do, and shout at the top of their voices if they feel angry, and turn cartwheels in the street if they want exercise. That’s one of the reasons we don’t like the Serbs. To us it seems self-evident that a proud man must guard himself from criticism every moment of the day. That’s what accounts for the most salient characteristic of the Splitchani, which is a self-flaying satirical humor; better laugh at yourself before anybody else has time to do it. But formality is another result. I suppose it comes of being watched all the time by people who thought they were better than you—the Dalmatians, the Hungarians, the Venetians, and the Austrians.
“But all this,” he continued, “brings to light one very strange thing about Split. Did you notice how I answered you off-hand, as if Split had a perfectly definite character, and I could speak for the whole of its inhabitants? Well, so I could. Yet that’s funny, for the old town of Split was a tiny place, really not much more than the palace and a small overflow round its walls, and all this town you see stretching over the surrounding hills and along the coast is new. A very large percentage of the population came here after the war, some to work, some as refugees from the Slav territories which have been given to Italy. Do you see that pretty dark woman who is just crossing the square? She is one of my star pupils and she belongs to a family that left Zara as soon as it was handed over to the Italians, like all the best families of the town. Now Zara has quite a different history, and, from all I hear, quite a different atmosphere. But this woman and her family, and all the others that migrated with her, have been completely absorbed by Split. They are indistinguishable from the natives, and I have seen them in the process of conversion. It’s happened gradually but surely. It’s a curious victory for a system of manners that, so far as I can see, has nothing to do with economics. For people here are not rich, yet there is considerable elegance.”
This is, indeed not a rich city. Later we lunched with Philip in a restaurant which, though small, was not a merely bistro, but was patronized by handsome and dignified people who were either professional or commercial men. For the sweet course we were given two pieces of palatschinken, those pancakes stuffed with jam which one eats all over Central Europe. The Balkans passed the recipe on from the Byzantines, who ate these under the name of palacountas. We could eat no more than one, for the meal, as almost always in these parts, had been good and abundant. “Shall I put the palatschinken in paper for the Herrschaft to take home with them?” asked the waiter. We thought not. But the waiter doubted our sincerity. “Is it because they are strangers,” he asked Philip, “and do not know that we are always delighted to do this sort of thing for our clients?” Philip said resourcefully, “You see, they are staying at one of the big hotels, and they will have to dine there anyway, so that really the palatschinken would be of very little use to them.”
The waiter accepted this, and went away, but soon came back. “But if the Herrschaft took them away with them,” he insisted, “then they would not order a whole dinner. They could just take the soup and a meat dish, and afterwards they could go upstairs and have these instead of dessert.”
“Thank you very much for your kind thought,” said Philip. “I think, however, that my friends are en pension.”
“But it would be nice,” said the waiter, “if the lady felt hungry in the night, for her to be able to put out her hand and find a piece of cold palatschinken by her bed.” I shall never think he was right, but his kindly courtesy was something to be remembered, and his sense—not hysterical but quietly passionate of economy as a prime necessity. In Diocletian’s palace, throughout the ages, a great many very well-mannered people must have learned to draw in their belts very tight upon occasion; and certainly they would be encouraged to be mannerly by their surroundings, which even today speak of magnificent decorum.
It is not, of course, remarkable as an example of Roman architecture. It cannot hold a candle to the Baths of Caracalla, or the Forum, or the Palatine. But it makes an extraordinary revelation of the continuity of history. One passes through the gate that is squeezed between the rubbishries on the quayside straight into antiquity. One stands in the colonnaded courtyard of a fourth-century Roman palace; in front is the entrance to the imperial apartments, to the left is the temple which was Diocletian’s mausoleum, now the Cathedral, and to the right is the Temple of Aesculapius, just as a schoolboy learning Latin, and old ladies who used to go to the Royal Academy in the days of Alma-Tadema, would imagine it. Only the vistas have been filled in with people. A little less than one fifth of the population of Split, which numbers forty-four thousand, live in the nine acres of the palace proper; but the remaining four fifths stream through it all day long, because the passages which pierce it from north to south and from east to west are the most convenient ways to the new parts of the town from the harbor. The fifth that live within the palace precincts pack the sides of these crowded thoroughfares with houses set as closely as cells in a honeycomb, filling every vacant space that was left by Diocletian’s architects. One cannot, for example, see the Temple of Aesculapius as one stands in the fine open courtyard as it was intended one should do; the interstices on that side of the peristyle have been blocked by Venetian Gothic buildings, which project balconies on a line with the entablatures of neighboring columns and open doorways just beside their bases.
Yet there is no sense of disorder or vandalism. It would be as frivolous to object to the adaptations that the children of the palace have made in order to live as it would be to regret that a woman who had reared a large and glorious family had lost her girlish appearance. That is because these adaptations have always been made respectfully. So far as the walls stood, they have been allowed to stand; there has been no destruction for the sake of pilfering material for new buildings. It is, therefore, as real an architectural entity as evident to the eye of the beholder, as the Temple or Gray’s Inn. There is only one blot on it, and that is not the work of necessity. In the middle of the peristyle of the imperial apartments, this superb but small open space, there has been placed a statue by Mestrovich of a fourth-century bishop who won the Slavs the right to use the liturgy in their own tongue. Nobody can say whether it is a good statue or not. The only fact that is observable about it in this position is that it is twenty-four feet high. A more ungodly misfit was never seen. It reduces the architectural proportions of the palace to chaos, for its head is on a level with the colonnades, and the passage in which it stands is only forty feet wide. This is hard on the statue, for on a low wall near by lies a black granite sphynx from Egypt, part of the original decorations of the palace, but far older, seventeen hundred years older, of the great age of Egyptian sculpture; and though this is not five feet long, its compact perfection makes the statue of the bishop gangling and flimsy, lacking in true mass, like one of those marionettes sometimes seen through the open door of a warehouse in Nice, kept against next year’s carnival.
It cannot be conceived by the traveler why Mestrovich wanted this statue to be put here, or why the authorities humored him. If the step was inspired by nationalist sentiment, if it is supposed to represent the triumph of the Slav over Roman domination, nobody present can have known much history. For Diocletian’s palace commemorates a time when the Illyrians, the native stock of Dalmatia, whose blood assuredly runs in the veins of most modern Dalmatians, had effective control of the Roman Empire; it commemorates one of the prettiest of time’s revenges. Rome destroyed—for perhaps no better reason than that she was an Empire and could do it—the ancient civilization of Illyria; but when she later needed sound governors to defend her from barbarian invaders, Illyria gave her thirteen rulers and defenders, of whom only one was a failure. All the others deserved the title they were given, restitutores orbis—even though it turned out that the earth as they knew it was not restorable. Of these the greatest were Diocletian and Constantine; and many would say that Diocletian was the greater of the two.
Diocletian came to Rome when the rose of the world was overblown. In his palace of old oddments put together to look like new, this imperial expert in makeshifts must have had some bitter moments. His edicts show that he was far too intelligent not to realize that he had not made a very good job of his cobbling. He was a great man wholly worsted by his age. He probably wanted real power, the power to direct one’s environment towards a harmonious end, and not fictitious power, the power to order and be obeyed; and he must have known that he had not been able to exercise real power over Rome. It would have been easier for him if what we were told when we were young were true—that the decay of Rome was due to immorality. Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent. The exceptional person may be an ascetic or a debauchee, but the average man finds celibacy and sexual excess equally difficult. All we know of Roman immorality teaches us that absolute power is a poison, and that the Romans, being fundamentally an inartistic people, had a taste for pornography which they often gratified in the description of individuals and families on which that poison had worked.
Had general immorality been the cause of the decay of the Empire, Diocletian could have settled it; he was a good bullying soldier. But the trouble was pervasive and deep-rooted as concho grass. Rome had been a peasant state; it had passed on to feudal capitalism; the landowners and the great industrialists became tyrants; against this tyranny the bourgeoisie and the proletariat revolted. Then the bourgeoisie became the tyrants. They could bribe the town proletariat with their leavings, but the peasants became their enemies. The army was peasant, for country stock is healthier. Therefore, in the third century, there was bitter strife between the army and the bourgeoisie. Then came the Illyrian Emperors, restitutores orbis. Order was restored.
But Diocletian, the greatest of the Illyrian Emperors, must have known that this was not true; that, on the contrary, disorder had been stabilized. His edicts had commanded, in the peremptory tone of the parade ground, that every man in the Empire should stay by his post and do his duty, fulfilling this and that public obligation and drawing this and that private reward. There was genius in his plan. But it was a juggler’s feat of balancing, no more. It corrected none of the fundamental evils of Roman society. This could hardly be expected, for Diocletian had been born too late to profit by the discussion of first principles of which Roman culture had practiced in its securer days; he had spent his whole life in struggles against violence which led him to a preoccupation with compulsion. He maintained the Empire in a state of apparent equilibrium for twenty one years, but the rot went on. The roads fell into ruin. The land was vexed with brigands and the sea with pirates.
Agriculture was harried out of existence by demands for taxation in kind and forced labor, and good soil became desert. Prices rose, and currency fell; and to keep up the still enormously costly machinery of the central administration the remnants of the moneyed class were skinned by the tax collector. The invasion of the barbarians was an immediate danger, but only because the Empire was so internally weakened by its economic problems. Of these nobody knew the solution at the beginning of the fourth century, and indeed they have not been solved now, in the middle of the twentieth.
For some strange reason many have written of Diocletian’s resignation of imperial power and retirement to his native Illyria as if this were an unnatural step which required a special explanation. Some of the pious have thought that he was consumed by remorse for his persecution of the Christians, but nothing could be less likely. Immediately after his election as Emperor he had chosen to share his power with an equal and two slightly inferior colleagues, in a system which was known as the Tetrarchy; and it was one of his colleagues, Galerius, who was responsible for what are falsely known as the persecutions of Diocletian. But nothing could be more comprehensible than that he should, just then, have wanted rest and his own country. He was fifty-nine, and had been exceedingly ill for a year; and he had twenty-one years of office behind him. He had had a hard life. He had come from a peasant home to enlist in one of the two Dalmatian legions, and since then he had borne an increasing burden of military and legislative responsibility. Violence must have disgusted such an intelligent man, but he had had to avail himself of it very often. In order to be chosen Caesar by the military council he had had to whip out his sword and drive it into the breast of a fellow officer who might have been a rival. So often, indeed, had he had to avail himself of violence that he must have feared he would himself become its victim at the end. A society which is ruled by the sword can never be stable, if only because the sword is always passing from hand to hand, from the aging to the young.
In the halls of his palace, which must have been extremely cold and sunless, as they were lit only by holes in the roof, he cannot have found the peace he sought. The disorder of the world increased. The members of the Tetrarchy wrangled; some died and were replaced by others no less contentious. They split the Empire between their greeds, and suddenly, improbably, they dipped their fingers into Diocletian’s blood. He had a wife called Prisca and a daughter called Valeria, who were very dear to him. Both had become Christians. We know of no protest against this on the part of Diocletian. Valeria’s hand he had disposed of in circumstances that bring home the psychological differences between antiquity and the modern world. When he had been chosen as Emperor he had elected to share his power first with Maximian alone, then with two other generals, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. When these two were admitted to the sovereign authority, Diocletian adopted Galerius and Maximian adopted Constantius Chlorus, and each father gave his daughter to his adopted son, though this meant that each of the sons had to repudiate his existing wife.
The marriage of Valeria must have been sufficiently horrible; for Galerius was a brute whose violence precipitated him from disaster to disaster, and he was bitterly anti-Christian. But she found solace in caring for his illegitimate son, Candidianus, and at last Galerius died issuing on his deathbed an edict which put an end to the persecution of the Christians. She might have then enjoyed some happiness, had she not been left a very rich woman. This made Galerius’s successor, Maximin, want to marry her, although he had a wife. When she refused he brought fraudulent legal proceedings against her. All her goods were confiscated, her household was broken up, some of her women friends were killed, and she and the boy Candidianus were sent into exile in the deserts of Syria. (It is only in some special and esoteric sense that women are the protected sex.)
From these dark halls Diocletian appealed for mercy to the man whom his own invention of the Tetrarchy had raised to power. He entreated Maximin to allow Valeria to come back to Aspalaton. He was refused. But later it seemed that Valeria was safe, for Maximin died, and she and Candidianus were able to take refuge with another of the four Caesars, Licinius, who first received them with a kindliness that was natural enough, since he owed his advancement to the dead Galerius. It looked as if they would find permanent safety with him. But suddenly he turned against them and murdered the boy, it is not known why, except that he was a cruel and stupid man and bloodshed was fashionable just then. Valeria managed to escape in the dress of a plebeian and disappeared. To Diocletian, fond father though he was, this may have brought no special shattering shock. It may have seemed but one shadow in the progress of a night that was engulfing all. For Diocletian was receiving letters that were pressing him to visit Licinius and his ally, the Caesar Constantine. He excused himself, pleading illness and old age. The invitations became ominously insistent. He was in danger of being involved in a dispute among the Tetrarchs. Sooner or later one side or the other would have his blood. He died, it is thought by self-administered poison, sometime between 313 and 316. The earlier date is to be hoped for; in that case he would not have heard that in 314 his daughter was found in hiding at Salonica and there beheaded and thrown into the sea.
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
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.