Split! Croatia’s second biggest city, a hub of activity during the summer travel season, a place that is fun and friendly, a good location for fine dining, and the ideal starting point for exploits in the Dalmatian islands…
That’s the image of Split I see and read all over the place, and it is entirely correct. Split is all of those things. But all of it is kind of missing the point. Split has become what it is now because it has been the destination of travellers from far afield since long before the advent of modern mass tourism (not to mention its most recent incarnation, party tourism), and it has been so for a very specific reason.
Split is an ancient city, and the modern city’s centre, the place where both locals and visitors hang out and enjoy the fullness of modern high life in a Croatian setting, is an incredibly important and virtually unique ancient monument. I suspect that many of the modern revellers who enjoy Split remain largely ignorant of that importance, and that’s a pity – for them.
Salona, Spalatum and Roman Dalmatia
Split is ancient Spalatum. Its origins go back to a distant and hazy past, when a first settlement may have been founded by Greek settlers from the nearby islands that had been colonised by Greeks in the fourth century BC. During the first two centuries AD, Split appears to have been insignificant, overshadowed by nearby Salona (modern Solin), the capital city of the Roman province of Dalmatia.
Split might have been a small fishing village at that time; it was certainly nothing of any importance and was never referred to in the written record before the fourth century AD. It entered history in a unique fashion. An enormously respected individual, the Roman emperor Diocletian, who ruled what was then the world’s largest empire from 284 to 305 AD, chose the place as his retirement home. We know this for two reasons, namely that historical sources tell us so, and also that the evidence of Split’s special role is still visible, still standing, still extraordinarily impressive.
Diocletian was what is sometimes called a Barracks Emperor, a military man who had risen from a humble background and eventually found himself, supported by his loyal troops, in the position of controlling the then vast entity that was the Roman Empire, encompassing all the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to Syria and from Syria to what is now Morocco, but also most of northwestern Europe all the way up to Britain and to the Rhine and Danube frontiers, extending into the Balkans, including part of the Middle East and Egypt.
His given name was, apparently, Diocles, or rather Diokles, which is Greek. It is an indication of the complexity of his era: he was Dalmatian, i.e. from a Latin-speaking part of the Empire, bore a Greek name, held office in what is now Romania, spent time fighting in Syria and the East. Oddly enough, although we know he went to Italy, we are not sure whether he ever entered Rome, even as emperor.
His age was not a peaceful one, with thirteen emperors in just three decades before his rise to power, and his own career was dominated by conflict. He took the purple (meaning the rule of the empire) in a period of immense troubles, and he did manage to stabilise it for some time, ending the Crisis of the Third Century and thus the era of Barracks Emperors. To do so, Diocletian found new solutions to the empire’s many problems, part of which were caused by its sheer size: he divided it into two halves, west and east, appointing Maximian as a second emperor (Augustus) to rule the western half (he himself chose to look after the east). In AD 293 he instituted the tetrarchy, or rule of four, supplementing himself and his western co-ruler with a Caesar each, a kind of assistant emperor.
Apart from that stabilisation of the empire, Diocletian is remembered for a number of things, some more successful, some less so. They include his mostly vain attempt to reign in the Roman currency crisis and also his violent persecution of Christianity, also a failure: just a generation later, the new faith became the Roman Empire’s dominant religion. In Rome herself, he is also commemorated by the wondertful baths that bear his name and part of which is still standing, but those were actually commissioned by Maximian, his co-emperor.
An unprecedented imperial retirement and its venue
The other thing that makes Diocletian unique is his actual decision to retire, to give up power and return to private life, rather than staying emperor until death (most of his immediate predecessors had died in power, and most of them violently). It is said that he was ill when he made that decision, but perhaps he also wanted to demonstrate that he had established a stable system of governance, as nothing could have underlined this success better than a powerful emperor withdrawing to private life. Even ignoring the unrestful period immediately before his rule, Diocletian was the first Roman Emperor ever to officially retire from office.
In that unprecedented context, his choice of a provincial site for his retirement is also intriguing: it is mostly accepted that he was from the area, either from Salona or even from Spalatum itself, which might explain why he chose it as his final base, rather than Rome, still the Imperial Capital, and rather than any other major centre. Eventually, it is unclear why he made his choice: the location, far away from the central struggles of the troubled empire, would reduce his immediate influence (lines of communications being much slower than today) and would thus prevent him from direct impact on political happenings. On the other hand, it would keep him away from the troubles and dangers that a more central location might entail, so perhaps he simply picked it as a reasonably safe refuge in a familiar area?
Diocletian did not pick Split casually: his retirement there was well-planned. Diocletian’s palace is an enormous complex, certainly one of the most elaborate and most immense undertakings in Roman architecture of its time. A vast amount of resources was invested in construction at Split/Spalatum long before his retirement: years must have been spent on building the Palace, and further years must have been spent on planning for it before. This raises all kinds of questions regarding the exact nature of Diocletian’s envisaged golden years – was he really looking for a quiet retirement?
Although Diocletian’s Palace, as we will describe below, was probably not a defensible structure, it certainly had ample room for an emperor, his lifestyle and his court and staff. It was fed by a specially-constructed aqueduct, much of which survives today, and the capacity of which must have been more than enough for a small city. Also, Split is located conveniently between the western and the eastern part of the Roman Empire, so perhaps it was not quite as out of the way as one might think. It suggests that he was aiming for an unprecedented role as an ‘elder statesman’, a person of indispensable and ultimate authority, to be consulted when necessary, and indeed he was seen as such at least in the early years of his retirement.
There is a story that Diocletian, attending a summit at Carnuntum (now in Austria) in the role described above, and being petitioned to return to the throne, just a few years after his retirement, replied as follows:
“If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”
One wonders whether this statement means literally what it says, a happy and bucolic and modest retirement, or something more metaphorical: Diocletian’s plans for post-career prosperity working out just as he had hoped? In any case, it was not to last: he died at Split in 312 BC, after only six or seven years of retirement, at the age of 66, having seen his system of rule for the Empire usurped and destroyed, his former co-emperor Maximian forced into suicide and (temporarily) banished from public memory, and his former enemy and later protégée, Constantine, rising to unrivalled power. It is even suggested that Diocletian himself committed suicide to avoid whatever fate might have been in store for him.
Perhaps the project that led to the existence of the palace at Split should be understood as one that failed, and that was superseded by Constantine’s successful establishment of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as a new imperial city and capital for the East. Diocletian’s architecture at Split certainly survived, as did some kind of imperial property there, but the concept of a power base for former emperors certainly did not. Much of the stabilisation that Diocletian achieved is now credited to Constantine, who used some of his forebear’s ideas, dismissed others, and implemented his plans more ruthlessly in effect and more diplomatically in tone, accepted Christianity and made eventually much more substantial changes to the Roman Empire.
But let’s look at Diocletian’s Palace itself, and let’s look closely, because this vast structure is partly hidden between much later structures. Parts of the palace are obvious, but much of it only reveals itself to those who look for it. The best way to locate the Palace within the city’s fabric is to look at it from above, an option we don’t have when visiting, but one that Google conveniently provides:
Arguably reflecting Diocletian’s background as a military man, the Palace outline resembles that of a Roman fort. Its general shape was defined by four massive limestone walls (over 2.1m/ 6.9ft thick and up to 20m/66ft tall), still nearly fully preserved, forming a not-quite square of 190m/625ft length and 175m/575ft width, enclosing well over 30,000 square metres or more than 7.5 acres.
The walls include monumentalised gates on the northern, eastern and western sides (the last is obscured by later buildings). The gates were flanked by pairs of octagonal towers, six in total, while another ten square towers marked the corners and all the walls except the southern one, which faced the sea. Most of the towers are now lost to medieval and later quarrying, only three of the square ones, at the northwest, northeast and southeast corners of the complex, still stand. If all that survived were this external enclosure, we would almost certainly interpret the structure as a Roman fort – and as things are, it remains possible that it was meant to at least make the impression of being defensible. The two well-preserved gates (the Silver Gate to the east and the Golden Gate to the north) certainly look like the gates of a proper fort, but lack some of the practical details a military function would require.
The interior continues to reflect a Roman fort in one regard: it features the typical orthogonal set of two main streets linking the gates from north to south and west to east, a standard organisational principle in Roman military architecture.
That, however, is where the resemblance ends: the structures inside the Palace are very different from those inside a Roman fort. We only understand the interior of the Palace in a fragmented way, because much of it was obliterated or modified by its reuse in the Middle Ages and later; the entire complex as we see it now has been reused and recycled again and again, and most of it is is still in use and inhabited, now forming the touristic centre of Split. Thus, especially the structures in the northern half remain somewhat unclear: their reconstruction relies on fragments incorporated into later buildings and thus remains somewhat conjectural. That said, the main elements of Diocletian’s Palace, particularly in the southern half, were so monumental in their conception and execution that they survive to the present day. As a result, throughout its long history, the core of Split was never able to escape from its Roman plan.
Monuments inside the Palace complex
The central crossroads in the heart of the Palace, where the two main streets, both of which still run on their fourth century courses, meet , is monumentalised to the utmost by the astonishing Peristyle Square. In Diocletian’s day, it was lined by enormous Corinthian-style columns bearing arcades, most of which still stand (incorporated into buildings on the western side of the square), and fronted by the splendid façade of the southern residential complex, combining Corinthian columns, overblown Ionic dentils and a central arch. The square is overall modelled on Roman forums and it is splendid to this day, one of the best-preserved examples of Late Roman monumental architecture. Many tourists amble through it every day without stopping to realise that they are literally walking in a 1,700-year-old architectural design and still experiencing the spatial impressions of that time.
Most of the buildings that stood within the palace enclosure are now lost – but not all of them. The Mausoleum of Diocletian, octagonal on the outside and circular on the inside, presumably designed with input from the man himself as his final resting place, is now the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It stands immediately next to the Peristyle and is surrounded by its own pillars on the outside, most of them still standing. It features perhaps the finest preserved monumental Roman interior after the Pantheon in Rome, with perfectly-preserved architectural refinements and a perfectly-preserved dome, at 13.25m (44ft) one of the ten widest Roman domes still to exist. Diocletian’s remains must have been laid in an elaborate sarcophagus, which is now lost (presumably it was destroyed when the mausoleum was converted into a church), but fragments of imported (Egyptian?) porphyry now in the garden of the Archaeological Museum of Split are almost certainly what remains of it.
The other building to survive more or less completely, since it was also converted into a church, is the (probable) Temple of Jupiter. It still presents itself as a typical Roman temple, standing on a pedestal and approached by steps, with a well-preserved façade, its columns now lost. Inside, the barrel-vaulted coffered ceiling is fully preserved and is one of the best Roman temple ceilings we can now see anywhere. Each coffer is ornately carved, with a mask at the centre. Two circular temples stood in the same area, but only some of their foundations are preserved, visible within more recent buildings.
The (post-)imperial residence
The part of the palace that is assumed to have been the actual residence of Diocletian and his court, i.e, the southern wing, survives mainly as façades above ground level, especially impressive where it faces the Peristyle to the north (within the complex), but also preserved to its full height on its entirely length to the south (the external side), where it features a long row of engaged columns, topped by decorative arches at the centre and both ends. The only part of the interior that survives substantially above ground is the vestibule facing the peristyle, usually assumed to be an audience room for the retired emperor, topped by a fantastic brick-built dome, just a little smaller than that of the mausoleum. The scale of this structure certainly suggests something more than a provincial retirement base for the former ruler.
The residential wing formed an enormous structure, three or more floors high, on a footprint exceeding 8,500 square metres, well over two acres! The interiors, presumably finely decorated originally, are entirely lost and now mostly replaced with medieval architecture. We are, however able to gain an impression of the monumental spaces that must have existed here, as much of the basement level is accessible and in an excellent state of preservation, making it one of the most spectacular Roman sights in Europe. They form a labyrinth of corridors, passages, rooms (some domed) and enormous halls, built of brick and stone with wonderful precision. Their proportions mirror the grander and more important spaces that they once supported and that stood above them, offering an idea of the grandeurs that once made up the ground floor of the palace proper. They also include parts of a fine Roman bath, the only part of the imperial apartments that was at basement level (for reasons of the weight of water, they had to be). Clearly, Diocletian and his architects designed a proper imperial palace, with a succession of multiple reception spaces, dining rooms, private apartments and so on.
A living monument, a cluster of monuments
The interior of the palace complex is otherwise that of a medieval and post-medieval town – a very beautiful one! – that is forced to follow the strict spatial alignments of the Roman building it sits within. There are traces of Roman architecture visible here and there, and also of other refinements, such as the dozen or so sphinxes Diocletian had imported from Egypt, two of them still sitting in situ in the peristyle and outside the Temple of Jupiter, others to be found as fragments incorporated into later structures. Beyond that, there are examples of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, mostly residential in nature (including the 16th-century Papalić palace, now home to the very fine city museum), but also including a number of chapels from various eras, and countless juxtapositions of different historical styles. The medieval centre soon outgrew the palace proper, and there is much to discover outside, especially to the west.
More than seventeen centuries after its construction, Diocletian’s Palace is not a pristine Roman monument, nor should it be: much of it is modified and in many places, later buildings have been placed against, onto, or over parts of it, including the splendid filigree belltower outside the mausoleum/cathedral, another church tower sitting atop the western gate, or the humble dwellings nestling under the monumental southern façade. The complex is now a palimpsest of architectures, including Roman, Early Medieval, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and more, a reflection of its long history, and of Split’s role in medieval times, and its changing fates under Slavic, Venetian, Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslav (etc) rule.
An influential monument
Western European travellers rediscovered the Palace quite early. Parallel to the first detailed studies of Temples in Sicily, the Acropolis of Athens or countless monuments in Turkey, they came to study what was left of the Palace. Already in 1764, the Scottish architect Robert Adam, following a visit to Split (then also known as Spalato) during his grand tour in the previous decade, published a major illustrated study of the palace. Adam was an extremely influential man, and it is due to him that Diocletian’s Palace became a very major and original influence on the architecture we now call Neoclassical, dominating monumental construction in the Western World during the late 18th and entire 19th centuries, not just in Britain, but also in the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, Central Europe and so on.
We have no idea who was Diocletian’s architect or who were his architects, but their work resonated for a very long time and arguably still does. From a current point of view, the palace is very much a Late Roman pastiche of Greek and Roman architectural styles, quite garish in its combination of elements like straight lines and arches, a little careless in its proportions and imprecise in its application of architectural detail. In older terminology, one might have called it decadent. These qualities , however, permitted the immense freedom that European and American Neoclassical designs of the 18th and 19th centuries richly used, modified, enhanced and altered in so many ways.
How to approach Diocletian’s Palace
To see the Roman Palace by itself, the visitor needs to peel away the many historical layers, not without appreciating them, as they are themselves part of the rich tapestry of Croatian history and as they are what preserved it in the first place. It is facile to complain about later additions spoiling the vista of the original structure, as we have pointed out before both for Split and for other remarkable ancient buildings: much better to enjoy these sites in the fulness of their long life, with every extra element as a bonus. My favourite among those bonuses at Split is the superb chapel of Saint Martin, set in the interior of the great palace wall just above the Golden Gate, with its perfectly preserved early medieval interior, now part of a Dominican convent – what a place! The real joy in visiting a multi-phase monument like Diocletian’s Palace is not just to peel away all the modifications and additions, so as to visualise the original structure, but after doing so, to carefully replace them, layer by layer and century by century, to truly understand the life and history of the place, how it has changed over time and how it has come to be what it is now.
Diocletian’s Palace has been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage since 1979 and it deserves it richly, as one of the most spectacular Late Roman monuments to survive, and certainly the best example of its kind. It deserves much more than the casual glance most modern visitors cast on it, much more casual than the attention usually paid to the Athenian Acropolis or the monuments of Imperial Rome. One of its key attractions should be how it is still an active and inhabited place, and how so many layers of history have built up against it, on it and in it. The best way to do the peeling-away of historical layers the site requires, by the way, is to visit Split with an expert guide and – guess what? – that’s what we offer on our cruises from Split to Dubrovnik or from Dubrovnik to Split! It is also easy to add a visit to our other cruises in Dalmatia.