How the luxurious palace of the Roman Emperor became the second-largest city in Croatia.
When the retired Roman Emperor Diocletian came back to live the rest of his days in a luxurious palace near his hometown Salona, he was clueless that it would grow to be the second largest city of a country one day, with almost 200 thousand citizens.
Split’s old town with Diocletian’s Palace, is a UNESCO protected zone, thriving with colourful shops, Mediterranean restaurants, and locals enjoying sunbathing and Italian coffee on the central waterfront, Riva.
1700 years of history
During the Greek colonization in the 4th century BC, the first settlement was establishedexisted in the vicinity of today’s city of Solin, ancient Salona.
This is officially considered the beginning of the events that led to the creation of Split as we know it today.
The original settlement was called Aspalathos, named after the scotch broom flower that blooms in this area in springtime and is the origin of the name Split.
The arrival of Romans in the 1st century BC marked even further development of the area.
The original settlement evolved into Salona’s big town, located in a valley below mountains Mosor and Kozjak, naturally protected by the peninsula of Aspalathos.
Salona was home to many Ilirians that Romans brought to populate the newly established city. Legend says that in a family of Ilirian liberated slaves, a son was born, called Diocles.
At a young age, he joined the Roman army and started climbing the military ladder until he reached a general rank.
Using the turmoil that Roman Empire was going through in the mid 3rd century, general Diocles rose to power and officially became a Roman Emperor.
He reformed the economically devastated Empire, divided power into a tetrarchy, rule of four, and ruled from Nicomedia (Turkey) until his retirement in 305.
Luxurious Roman palace
In the meantime, he chose a peninsula protecting his hometown of Salona to be the place where his retirement palace would be built. Architects, and according to some, over 10 thousand slaves constructed the monumental building over ten years.
Many mysteries surround the palace, the way it was built, and who designed it. Many records suggest that it was designed by two Greek architects, Zotikos and Filotas.
From the walls and remaining layout visible today, it is known that the palace was surrounded by 16 towers and four walls, each 180m in length.
Three land gates and a secret south entrance guaranteed Diocletian’s safety as he had placed the Empire in the hands of the more famous Constantine and feared he might be the target of his former enemies.
According to local legends, historical records, and ongoing excavations in the Palace, it was a vast, luxurious structure with advanced architectural solutions.
The front part, the Emperor’s apartment, was elevated from the Adriatic Sea.
The lower level was flooded, and it was used to bring in goods by ships and boats while providing additional safety measures, acting as a moat.
The upper floor was home to Diocletian, his wife, and their daughter. They enjoyed a lavish life in more than 40 rooms. Some of them included a dedicated bath area with heated mosaic floors.
The royal apartment had a huge dining area where many annual events were held.
Strolling through the residential section, guests would use the main lobby, a room known as Vestibul, to enter and exit from the private and intimate areas of the Palace. This was also the connection to the impressive main square, Peristyle.
The square is a connection between the two main streets that run through the palace. Surrounded by luxurious columns and Sphynx brought from Egypt, it was the very heart of the palace. Both sides of the square were filled with temples dedicated to the supreme god Jupiter and Diocletian’s mausoleum, both still standing today.
The north section was designed less lavishly, as two huge sectors were used by staff, storage and served for the logistical operation of the palace.
The arrival of Croats
In the 7th century, as Croats reached the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, the people of Salona fled to safety. Many decided to hide in an abandoned palace until the danger passed. What started as a temporary solution quickly became a permanent one.
The palace served as a quarry to many that recycled expensive limestone. They began transforming the interior of the Roman structure to their needs. Those that occupied the residential part of the palace had no use of the lower, flooded floor.
As they struggled with waste management, the idea was to use the tides of the Adriatic. Slowly, house after house opened up holes in the floor and started disposing of anything that was not needed, including many valuable items from the Roman period.
Many buildings within the palace changed in use from the original purpose they had. The most famous is Diocletian’s mausoleum. Locals take pride in the story of revenge.
Diocletian was known as the biggest persecutor of Christians. Salona’s bishop Domnius, who was killed by Diocletian’s orders and buried in Salona was carried to the mausoleum in Split, as it got converted into an active cathedral.
The bishop became a patron saint, celebrated every year on May 7th, the day when Roman soldiers killed him. The cathedral got a bell tower in the 15th century, becoming the symbol of the city.
The palace, at that point, officially became a fast-growing city called Split. It had political autonomy and was part of the Byzantine Empire. Over the next few centuries, the town changed its rulers until it reached its independence with a city council and the first constitution in the 14th century.
The new world
Like many other cities along the coast, Split also fell under Venetian control in the 15th century, and this marked the new era and more extensive urban development.
For the first time, the city started expanding outside the walls of the Roman palace. New neighbourhoods were constructed. The front of the palace was landfilled, and the city got a famous waterfront, Riva.
The Venetians used the port of Split and the Ottoman territory’s vicinity as an ideal location to set up a trade. It was the first city that had a quarantine in times of plague.
The Venetians also promoted the arrival of Jewish refugees from Spain. Families that arrived brought new trades to the city, making Split one of the biggest ports in the Mediterranean.
The city blossomed during the Venetian period. They influenced local lifestyle and language, which is still visible today. The language used was a combination of Croatian and Italian, which forms a familiar local dialect.
Venetian power slowly declined until Venice’s fall in 1797, as the French administration took over the city. They continued expanding the old town, connecting smaller settlements outside the Venetian walls into a unified core of the city. This zone is considered a historical core of Split today, also part of UNESCO’s protection since 1979.
The latest significant expansion of the city happened in 1945. Good geographic location and infrastructure were the reason for rapid industrial development.
The city grew rapidly over 20 years, covering the whole peninsula. Gradually it became the second-largest city in Croatia, with approximately 200 thousand citizens.
Visiting Split has become a must for anyone visiting Croatia. The exciting and unusual story of how the city was created out of spite is attractive to many. Most visitors never expect to reveal such a unique story the city has and usually return to see and explore more.
The most intriguing and history-loaded part is the old town, where each stone tells a story—walking through the palace as a living monument is an unforgettable experience.
The best method is to start exploring the recently excavated lower floor of the residential part of the palace. It is the most preserved Roman monument in the world. Thanks to the debris that covered the level from above, archaeologists were able to dig out walls completely intact.
Walking through the rooms is like a time machine, as it was discovered that the lower and upper floors are the same in terms of layout. The upper level was used to film interior scenes with Khaleesi, mother of dragons, from Game of Thrones. Fans will recognize familiar white limestone blocks right away.
The central corridor of the substructural level, through a series of side exits, take both locals that still live in the palace and visitors to the upper level. This is the perfect spot to observe the transition from a palace to a city, as many constructed their homes on top of Roman walls.
Don’t be surprised to get an invitation to one of the resident’s living rooms, covered with ancient mosaics, as locals say the whole palace is like a living museum.
This is a must for coffee lovers, as local traditions must be obeyed. One such tradition is to sit down for a 2-hour long coffee, and the best place to do this is at the steps of the square.
Exploring the palace further will be an exciting adventure. Getting lost in a labyrinth of narrow alleys will reveal interesting corners. Ultimately, people find their way out, as they are attracted by an always loud, colourful, and vivid Pjaca.
A Venetian-looking square is an entrance to the new world, as many say. Constructed in the 15th century, during the city’s Golden Era in international trade, this is a place of great local cuisine, shopping from local souvenir shops, and an entertaining area during warm summer nights.
The whole historic core sits on a slope, meaning that all streets end on the main waterfront, Riva. This is considered to be the living room of everyone that lives in Split. It is important to see and to be seen, but what most locals will do is to sit over coffee for hours. It is a very important ritual, as, over the aforementioned cup of coffee, every critical life event is arranged.
The waterfront expands around the whole bay of Split. The western part of the bay ends with the lungs of the city, green hill Marjan, a great area visitors and locals can visit to cool down in the hot summertime. Marjan hill provides much-needed shade and peace while the opposite side of the bay belongs to the port of Split. The port is the third-largest in the Mediterranean. Ferry boats and catamarans connect Split with islands, which is an opportunity to plan a nice field trip.
When visiting Split, visitors often notice a rich gastronomic scene. This is thanks to the Italian influence over the centuries. Locals accepted the popular Mediterranean lifestyle. Lots of family-owned taverns are popular to experience truly local and authentic cuisine. They are loyal to old recipes that were passed from one generation to another. A special treat is to taste a traditional, healthy snack – soparnik.
The city centre is home to many beaches. The most popular is Bačvice. An attractive, shallow, sandy beach is home to a local game, picigin. Joining locals in this popular game will be an unforgettable experience. It takes some skill, as jumps in shallow water are tricky, but it will be worth it.
Split is the perfect hub when staying for a few days. The central location and close vicinity of all the famous Croatian islands make it a great base to explore the region and enjoy a typical Mediterranean life.
References and sources:City of Split, Tourist Board of split