The women in Diocletian’s life? The Gecko explains …

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The women in Diocletian’s life – wife Prisca and daughter, Galeria Valeria

Very little is known of the women in Diocletian’s life and the early life and background of his wife, Prisca. A carving bearing her likeness is placed alongside that of Diocletian in a frieze that runs between the first and second row of columns in the Imperial Mausoleum, transformed in the early Middle Ages into the Cathedral of St Doimus (in Diocletian’s palace area) in Split.

When Diocletian retired to Spalatum (now Split) in 305, Prisca stayed with her daughter, Galeria Valeria and son-in-law, Galerius in Thessalonica, Greece. It seems Diocletian wanted a break from all aspects of his previous life!!! The story of both women is a tragic one of two empresses whose lives and deaths were totally dictated by the politics of the period.

During the late Third and early Fourth Centuries, the political moves of Diocletian and the Tetrarchy determined who the emperors would marry and politics took total control of the lives and futures of the women to whom they were married. In A. D. 293 Diocletian chose Galerius, another Illyrian general to help him rule the huge Roman empire, for he realized that it had become too large for one man to rule successfully. Diocletian ruled in the West and Galerius became his co-emperor in the East. Galeria Valeria was Diocletian’s daughter and, to cement the alliance between Diocletian and Galerius, Valeria was married to Galerius.

It appears that this was not a very happy marriage. Galeria Valeria was sympathetic towards Christians during this time of severe persecution and it is possible that she was actually a Christian herself though like her mother this has not been confirmed. The imperial couple (Galerius and Galeria Valeria) were not blessed with any children during their eighteen year marriage. After Galerius died in A. D. 311, Galeria Valeria and her mother went to live at the court of Maximinus Daia, the caesar who became emperor of the East upon the death of Galerius.

Maximinus proposed marriage to Valeria soon afterward. He was probably more interested in her wealth and the prestige he would gain by marrying the widow of one emperor and the daughter of another than he was in Valeria as a person. She refused his hand, and immediately Maximinus reacted with hatred and fury. Diocletian, by now an old man living in Split, begged Maximinus to allow the two women to come home to him. Maximinus refused and had Valeria and her mother banished to live in a village in Syria.

During the civil war that erupted between Maximinus and Licinius, Valeria and Prisca disguised themselves and escaped, trying to reach the safety of Diocletian’s villa in Split. In the meantime, Diocletian had died, leaving the women without a haven of safety to which to run. For fifteen months the two royal fugitives travelled from one city to another, always living in fear of being discovered and in search of a little peace.

Finally, they were recognized by someone in the Greek city of Salonika. They were hastily taken to a square in the city and beheaded before a crowd of citizens who had once revered them as empresses. The bodies of Valeria and her mother were afterwards thrown into the sea.

Coin portraits of Galeria Valeria depict a strong, almost masculine face with a large jaw and prominent chin. She probably did not look much like her portraits, though. The style used for imperial coin portraits showed all four Tetrarchs and their later caesars and co-emperors with thick necks, large jaw and prominent brows and that went for the moment too!!!!!

See all this and much more on Geckos historical tours of Split and surrounding areas:
Split palace and markets foodies tour
Split walking tour
Salona, Klis and Trogir