(? - AD 315)
A medallion bearing her likeness with an enigmatic hairstyle 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.
Nothing is known of her origin, but she clearly had a peaceful family life with Diocletian, when not a word was said on this score against this most bitter persecutor of the Christians by any of the later writers who were so little inclined to him.
Prisca was, many writers have concluded from circumstantial evidence, a crypto-Christian.
From some time after Diocletian’s abdication in 305 it seems that she was permanently living with her daughter Valeria. She was married to Galerius, who was first Diocletian’s Caesar and then Augustus; on his deathbed in Salonica in 311, Galerius confided them to the care of his heir Licinius, who demanded from the widow the wealth that she had inherited.
From him they fled to Maximinus Daia (Galerius’ whilom Caesar and nephew) who, however, wanted to back up his ambitions to the throne by marrying Valeria, daughter of the still authoritative Diocletian, the creator of the tetrarchy.
The response of this constant wife is recorded: “she cannot talk of marriage in her widow’s weeds while the ash of her husband, his father, is still warm; and it would be disgraceful of him to drive out a faithful wife, which he would probably do to her; finally, it would be improper for a woman of her name and rank, not heeding customs and examples, to accept a second husband”.
When she had refused him, then, mother and daughter were imprisoned in some little populated region of Syria, in spite of the pleas that Diocletian repeatedly but vainly wrote to Maximinus from his palace in Split.
Mother and daughter wandered the last fifteen months of their lives in disguise through various provinces until finally at the end of 314 or the beginning of 315 they were recognised and arrested in Salonica. They were publicly beheaded, and their bodies cast into the sea.
“Ita illis pudicita et condicio exitio fuit” – And so their rank and their modesty were their downfall, concluded Lactantius, witness of this watershed time and writer of the famous work De mortibus persecutorum (On the deaths of the persecutors).