I love a good thunderstorm, and the one that came through the city yesterday morning was dramatic enough to make me wish I’d made my will. I thought lightning was going to strike the tree that shades the house, and I would be crushed in my bed and then incinerated. My imagination was all inflamed by the untimely death of Carus, on the banks of the Tigris in 283 A.D., just as he was poised to conquer Persia. Gibbon quotes a letter from the imperial secretary: “Carus, our dearest emperor, was confined by sickness to his bed, when a furious tempest arose in the camp. The darkness which overspread the sky was so thick that we could no longer distinguish each other; and the incessant flashes of lightning took from us the knowledge of all that passed in the general confusion. Immediately after the most violent clap of thunder we heard a sudden cry that the emperor was dead; and it soon appeared that his chamberlains, in a rage of grief, had set fire to the royal pavilion, a circumstance which gave rise to the report that Carus was killed by lightning." Carus had two sons, Carinus and Numerian, to carry on when he was gone (though the Romans were too superstitious to pursue the invasion of Persia). If lightning struck in Rockaway, who would carry on for me?
The storm passed, and with it all thoughts of mortality. I was on the A train platform in time to score that elusive one-seat ride into Manhattan on the second-last express, at 7:39, but the train never came. Just before eight, the shuttle to Broad Channel hove into view, and we passengers, who had been left standing on the platform like fools, had to gamble on whether to hop aboard or wait now for the last express, at 7:59. “It’s not worth the risk,” I said to a woman who couldn’t make up her mind, and I hopped on the shuttle. The announcements were ominous: “There are no A trains going into Manhattan. Be prepared for a crowd at Broad Channel.” The station was not that crowded, but the A train was. Its windows were all steamed up. The conductor announced that this was a shuttle to Rockaway Boulevard. At Rockaway Boulevard, he said, “This train is going as far as Broadway Junction due to flood conditions." The flood seemed to be at Hoyt-Schermerhorn (pronounced Skimmerhorn), the antepenultimate stop before Manhattan. "If you have any other way of getting into Manhattan, get off the train,” the conductor said. Some people followed his advice, and their seats were immediately taken by those who didn’t. The spirit of adventure was upon us. There is a connection at Broadway Junction with the J and L lines, and we wanted to see what would happen. At Euclid, the conductor announced, “There is no J or L service at Broadway Junction. In other words, you will be stuck at Broadway Junction.” More commuters bailed out, freeing up more seats for the intrepid.
Broadway Junction was a classic bottleneck. A trains and C trains had emptied out there, and commuters thronged the platform and squeezed up the stairs, trying to get information (nobody knew anything) or get out on the street and catch a bus. I followed the signs for the L train, up a long ramp and a nonworking escalator. It was steaming hot out. This station, which is partly aboveground, is decorated with stained glass windows, and has digital signs, like the ones in Barcelona, announcing how many minutes before the next train. An L train was supposed to arrive in one minute. I didn’t believe it, but even misinformation was something to go on, so I crossed over to the Manhattan-bound side of the tracks and, incredibly, got a seat in an air-conditioned car on the Canarsie line. Two hours after the storm, I was in Union Square, late for my Pilates class but early enough to walk the rest of the way to work.
And so it came to pass that on the L train, in 285 A.D., Diocletian was invested with the purple. The son of slaves, he was probably originally called Docles, for his mother’s home town of Doclia, in Dalmatia. The name looks like a typographical error before its time. (It sounds like something Ned Flanders would say to Homer Simpson: “Oakley-doaklies!”) “He first lengthened it to the Grecian harmony of Diocles, and at length to the Roman majesty of Diocletianus,” Gibbon writes, in a footnote. Elsewhere, he calls Diocletian “the artful Dalmatian.”
Emperors come and go pretty fast on the subway. “Such was the unhappy condition of the Roman emperors, that, whatever might be their conduct, their fate was commonly the same. A life of pleasure or virtue, of severity or mildness, of indolence or glory, alike led to an untimely grave; and almost every reign is closed by the same disgusting repetition of treason and murder.” Just the other day, Carus's predecessor Probus had his troops draining marshes in Pannonia—which seems to correspond mostly with Hungary—on one of the hottest days of summer, when he was forced to climb a tower to escape a mutiny: "The tower was instantly forced, and a thousand swords were plunged at once into the bosom of the unfortunate Probus." But Diocletian, who reigned for twenty years, was still going strong last night on my way home, late, with the A train making all local stops and the shuttle sitting at Broad Channel, for six full minutes, because the bridge was up. It was a long, hot day for a stubborn commuter.