The Name of the Devil
What do a Roman Emperor, a medieval Balkan nation, the devil, and 2020 have in common?
Depending on the person doing the talking, Emperor Diocletian (who was born in what is now Solin, Croatia), was either terrible in his murderousness or a successful reformer of bureaucracy who abdicated rather than overstay his welcome as Emperor.
Those who fall into the “terrible” camp tend to rely on one major (albeit long term) incident during Diocletian’s reign: the Diocletian Persecutions.
The last persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, it was particularly strong in the Balkan provinces of Illyricum and Thrace. Sirmium, the modern Serbian city of Sremska Mitrovica, sustained the largest number of martyrdoms. Among the dead was the first Christian bishop of Sirmium, Saint Iranaeus.
The body count and terror of the Diocletian Persecutions echoed through the centuries in Serbia, and the name Diocletian became associated with evil. Eventually, rather than just being seen as evil, Diocletian became evil incarnate. In short, Diocletian became the manifestation of the Devil.
By this time, however, the Latin-speaking Romans had been swept out of the Balkans and replaced by the Slavs. The Slavic tongue, unable to get around the pronunciation of Diocletian, slavified the word to Dukljan.
Dukljan was the Devil. Stories entered the popular folklore about him.
There was a problem, though. Diocletian, like most Roman rulers, wasn’t particularly creative in his naming conventions. One of the important crossroad cities in what is now the capital city of Podgorica in Montenegro was also named after Diocletian, because it was built during his reign.
Doclea became Duklja. And Duklja became a kingdom.
An emperor, the devil, and a kingdom; but how does this all connect to 2020?
One of the stories that is told about Dukljan (the devil) in Serbia has to do with keeping him from running rampant through the world with his evil. Dukljan is chained in the Morača River, near the Vizier’s Bridge. All year he gnaws at his chains, desperate to get out. Every year at Christmas he is able to break them, but is kept imprisoned by the work of four Roma blacksmiths who reforge the magic needed to keep Dukljan imprisoned and out of the world.
Given the events of 2020, momentous by anyone’s measure, whispers are starting to be heard around the Balkans – perhaps the blacksmiths were unable to reforge the chains this year. A pandemic, murder hornets, a more active hurricane season, and global financial collapse would be exactly the sort of thing the devil named Dukljan would gleefully set in motion.
Roman History in the Balkans