The modern-day city of Split is centred around the beautiful Ancient Roman palace, protected by UNESCO since 1979. When in Split, the first place most tourists visit is the palace, always lively and with something going on. Within its walls, you’ll come across many fine restaurants, bars and cafés, little shops and boutiques. But how old is the palace, who built it and why?
Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus was born near Salona, the then capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Today, this is the modern-day town of Solin, situated very close to Split in Croatia’s region of Dalmatia.
Diocletian became the Roman Emperor on November 284 AD. He will always be remembered in history as the ruler who established the new form of administration: tetrarchy. Some believe this move secured the later survival of the Eastern Roman Empire and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire. It is considered that the period of Late Antiquity began with Diocletian.
Tetrarchy (Greek: tetrarchia, τετραρχία) literally means the leadership of four people. It was a form of government that involved two senior emperors (Augustus) and two junior emperors (Caesar). One pair was ruling in the West, and another in the East. Diocletian and his co-emperor, Maximian, gave up their thrones in 305, allowing their Caesars to be elevated to Augustus.
In his retirement, Diocletian came to Split where he previously built the large palace.
The Peristyle, Diocletian’s Palace
It took around ten years to build the palace. The beautiful white stone was transported from the nearby Island of Brač, marble from today’s Italy and Greece. Egyptian sphynx statues can be seen inside the palace walls as well.
This complex covered the area of around 30 000 square meters and had four different gates, among them the Golden Gate (Porta Aurea) and the Silver Gate (Porta Argentea). Cardo and Decumanus are the two main streets, linking the centre of the palace with the four gates. The palace also featured a factory for making the robes for the Emperor, his family, administration and the army.
The beautiful Peristyle, probably the most attractive part of the palace, is situated at the crossroads of the Cardo and Decumanus. This is an open court with colonnade, a heart of the palace.
The Diocletian’s Mausoleum, a remarkable octagonal building, was later reconstructed and made into a Christian church – the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. This is quite ironic if you take into account that Emperor Diocletian ordered the so-called Great Persecution, which was the last and probably the most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Diocletian’s palace – original appearance
Today, mostly walls and gates remain from the Diocletian’s era; many buildings have been added later throughout history.
Diocletian wanted to be able to enter the palace on a ship, so the lower parts of the palace were once covered with water. This enabled Diocletian to sail into the palace without leaving the deck. Architecturally, the palace was a mix of an imperial villa and military camp, built in the shape of an irregular rectangle with many towers. The Emperor’s chambers were located in the southern parts of this vast complex.
Most tourists enter the palace through the substructures or the palace cellars. The small door leading to the cellars was called the Porta Meridionalis, or the Brazen Door. These cellars were built to raise the level of imperial chambers on the upper floor and to approach the ships. In the time of Diocletian, food and wine was kept here.
Today, the cellars are full of little stalls selling handmade jewellery, paintings and homemade products.