Split on the Dalmatian coast of modern-day Croatia is home to one of the most unique Roman sites in the world.
Originally known as Aspálathos after its foundation by Greek colonists in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, Split rose to prominence in AD 305 when Emperor Diocletian choose the city for the site of his primary imperial residence.
Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Split remained an important population centre owing mainly to the way in which of Diocletian’s Palace had been constructed. Built directly on the shoreline in a square/rectangle format (reminiscent of legionary field camps), access to the palace was only possible via ship or through one of three land-based gates. In the turbulent years following the (proposed) sack of Salona, the nearby provincial capital of Dalmatia, in AD 639 the local populace gravitated towards Split and Diocletian’s Palace for its defensive qualities.
Whilst the modern city of Split has grown to become the second largest in Croatia, the outline of Diocletian’s Palace and several of its key features can still be seen and explored.
The most striking remnant of the palace to survive is the ancient heart of the Imperator’s residence; the Peristyle courtyard. In ancient times it was here where the staff of the Imperator, (and Diocletian himself at times) would have met to conduct business and socialise. These days, not much has changed – this is the liveliest part of the city still, with a huge number of locals and tourists congregating at any one time to marvel at the ancient and medieval architecture, as well as visit the bars and café lining the courtyard.
Tip: If you visit Split and want to fully appreciate Diocletian’s peristyle courtyard, the best time of day to visit is early morning around 6am when no tourists or locals are awake!
From the Peristyle you can quickly access Diocletian’s private temple to Jupiter, which was re-purposed as a baptistery to St. John in late antiquity. Still visible inside the temple is the original Roman ceiling decoration, and other features.
On the opposite side of the Peristyle courtyard, directly opposite the Temple of Jupiter is the Cathedral of Saint Domnius – easy to spot with it’s medieval bell tower that looms over the city. Consecrated at the turn of the 7th century AD, the site was in fact originally Diocletian’s final resting place, housing his imperial mausoleum. Fortunately much of the original mausoleum survives including structural elements such as columns, the brick domed roof, and decorative pieces including intricate miniature pillars taken from the emperors sarcophagus, reused on the medieval pulpit.
Whilst originally built directly on the shoreline, a combination of shifting geology and land reclamation means today the palace sits a short distance from the water’s edge. This means it is now possible to enter and exit the palace via the primary ancient entrance, without the need of a ship. Doing so will take you through the basement of the palace (now a market selling local produce and crafts) and enables access still to a sprawling labyrinth of rooms and corridors used in ancient times as kitchens, store rooms and living quarters (for slaves predominantly).
Once ‘outside’ the palace, trace the outline of the ancient residence by following the ruins; on all four sides remnants of the original structure can be seen embedded in to more modern buildings. Walking along the eastern, northern and western walls of the complex the Roman-era gates (known as the Iron Gate, Golden Gate and Silver gate respectively) can be clearly seen along with the remains of defensive towers.
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