Split: An Emperor’s Palace

A nice retirement home in a beautiful location is a dream for many of us and the Roman emperor Diocletian was no different. Now, retirement is not a word that is usually associated with emperors, but in 305 AD, after 21 years of rule, Diocletian became the first Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate his throne and retire. To spend his retirement days, Diocletian had chosen a place on the shores of the Adriatic Sea surrounded by hills which provided natural protection. It was also very close to his birthplace Salona – the ancient capital of the Dalmatian province of the Roman Empire. At that place, Diocletian built a palace so expansive that it later became a city and then the nucleus around which Split, the second-largest city of Croatia, developed.

FIRST EVENING IN SPLIT

After spending a wonderful day in the city of Šibenik, we arrived in Split, which is an hour’s drive from Šibenik, by 6:20 p.m. Apartment Antonija-i-Mateo, our apartment in Split, was a spacious, modern and comfortable place situated very close to the Diocletian’s Palace. While driving to the apartment, we saw some old walls and bastions located just a few metres away from it. At that time we ignored them since we had not read about them anywhere and felt they must not be important. Later on, we came to know that those walls belonged to the Gripe Fortress – a 17th century Venetian fortress that houses the Croatian Maritime Museum today.

The first thing we did after completing our check-in was to refuel our car and drop it off at the rental agency’s office which was located close to the Split port. We had thoroughly enjoyed driving around spectacular Croatia for 8 days, and as we wrote in one of our posts, the car offered us a lot of flexibility and enabled us to visit places which we couldn’t have visited otherwise. But driving on the opposite side, especially in cities, and the constant struggle to find parking spaces was stressful. So to be honest, I was a little relieved to finally see the back of the car.

After dropping off the car, we walked around for some time enjoying the cold evening, then picked up burgers for dinner and returned to our apartment.  

Republic Square
Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace
Bell tower at one end of the Peristyle

A CITY WITHIN A CITY

According to the historical estimates, the construction of Diocletian’s Palace started in 295 AD and lasted for more than a decade. The term ‘palace’ is not entirely accurate as it was more of a fortified compound with emperor’s lavish quarters, where official and religious ceremonies took place, housed in the southern half while the northern half contained warehouses, workshops and lodgings of servants and soldiers. The compound, rectangular in shape and divided into four parts by two main streets, was surrounded by walls and towers with a gate on each of the four sides.

After Diocletian’s death, the palace continued to be used by the Roman emperors for a couple of centuries after which it gradually fell in a state of disuse. In the 7th century the city of Salona was invaded, and its citizens, unable to prevent the city’s destruction, abandoned Salona and found refuge inside the fortified Diocletian’s Palace. This was the beginning of the palace’s conversion into a city. The medieval era witnessed the construction of houses, mansions and religious buildings inside the Diocletian’s Palace which significantly altered its appearance. Though not many buildings from the Roman era have survived to this day, the palace is still one of the best preserved Roman monuments in the world.  

We left our apartment at 10 in the morning and reached the palace in a few minutes. We entered the palace through its eastern gate known as the Silver Gate. This gate, concealed behind buildings and walls since the middle ages, was discovered and restored in the 1950s. From the Silver Gate, we walked towards the centre of the palace. We passed the small 16th century Church of St. Roche which houses the Tourist Information Centre and arrived at the Peristyle. 

Western Wall of the Palace
Silver Gate and the remains of towers on both sides of the gate
View of Silver Gate from the bell tower

Peristyle, an open colonnaded courtyard, was the heart of the palace where the people gathered to see and meet Emperor Diocletian. It also provided access to the emperor’s quarters, mausoleum and temples. Though the appearance of the Peristyle has changed with time, it still retains its core structure and many features from the Roman era. One of the longer sides of the Peristyle was lined with small medieval palaces that belonged to Split’s noble families while on the opposite side was the Cathedral of St. Domnius (formerly Diocletian’s mausoleum) and its imposing bell tower that dominated the entire old town of Split. Despite the presence of such impressive structures, the most striking object in the Peristyle was a small sculpture sitting innocuously at one end. That sculpture was a 3,500 year old Egyptian Sphinx made of black granite. The sphinx was one of the many brought by Emperor Diocletian to Split after his military campaign in Egypt though it is the only one preserved in an almost perfect condition. The best part was that unlike in museums, the sphinx was not protected by a fence so we could touch it, and touching that historic piece of art dating back to 1,500 BC was a goosebumps inducing moment.

Peristyle
Prothyron: This is where Emperor Diocletian presented himself to his subjects who waited in the Peristyle
Small medieval palaces on one side of the Peristyle
Cathedral of St. Domnius and its bell tower on the other side of the Peristyle
The 3,500 year old Egyptian Sphinx

From the Peristyle, we went inside the Cathedral of St. Domnius and visited the associated religious buildings but we will write about them in a separate post.

After visiting all the religious buildings we came back to the Peristyle and made our way towards the vestibule through the Prothyron. In the Roman era, Vestibule was the domed hall that connected the Peristyle to the royal chambers although its dome did not survive the rigours of time. This building was unique in the respect that it was circular from inside and rectangular from outside.

Looking up from the Vestibule
A performance inside the Vestibule
Vestibule seen from the bell tower. It is rectangular from outside and circular from inside.

We again returned to the Peristyle from where a set of stairs led down to the palace cellars. At the location where the palace was built, there was a slight downward slope from north to south, that is, towards the sea. We have mentioned previously that the emperor’s chambers were located on the southern side of the palace, hence, a network of underground cellars was built beneath them to elevate the chambers. The cellars were also used for storage purpose. In the early middle ages, people used to live in the cellars, but as houses started getting built above them, the cellars were used for dumping garbage and sewage. The cleaning and excavation of cellars began in the 1850s and they proved to be invaluable to the historians. The cellars were built to mirror the royal chambers above them and they helped historians understand the layout of chambers which have not survived. The central portion of the cellars, accessible to everyone, was lined with shops selling souvenirs and other items. We did not visit the rest of the cellars as they were quite steeply priced and we were not very interested in seeing empty underground rooms.  

The Cellars

A small gate known as the Brass Gate connected the cellars to Riva – the Split’s seafront promenade which was among the most beautiful in entire Dalmatia. We did not spend much time at the Riva as we had already covered it the previous evening, so we just walked to the ferry port, bought ferry tickets for the next day and returned to the palace.

View of Southern wall of the palace and Riva from bell tower
Ferry port seen from the bell tower

Now that we had covered almost all the major tourist spots in the Diocletian’s Palace, we embarked on the exploration of rest of the palace as per the tourist map we were carrying. We passed small medieval palaces with beautiful portals, facades and courtyards, tiny churches built in enclosed spaces, some fascinating sculptures and the western gate of the palace called the Iron Gate. The most interesting thing about this gate was a 6th century church and an 11th century bell tower built on the top of the gate.

Iron Gate with an 11th century bell tower on top
Main Portal of 15th century Augubio Palace
Facade of Golden Gate Palace. It houses a restaurant today
Tiny 6th century Church of St. Martin built in the guard’s passageway above the Golden Gate

As we traversed through the maze of stone that the Diocletian’s Palace was, we began to understand its enormity and marvelled at how people had adapted their lives within this ancient structure. It was amazing to see modern stores and stylish boutiques with LED lightings, CCTV cameras and large glass windows located in centuries-old buildings, and stalls, restaurants and ice-cream parlours tucked away in little corners. We had a scrumptious lunch in one such Mexican restaurant. In any other place, eating in this kind of cramped space would have been uncomfortable but in Split, surrounded by so much history, it was rather enjoyable.

A street in Split
A restaurant in a tiny space

After exploring the palace to our heart’s content we exited through its northern gate called the Golden Gate. The Golden Gate, architecturally the most impressive of all the four entrances, was the primary gate in the Roman era and a road from it led directly to the city of Salona. Across the gate, there was a majestic statue of Gregory of Nin – a 10th century Croatian bishop who is considered a national hero. The reason for this status is that he opposed the imposition of Latin language for religious services by the Pope and fought for the use of local language and script. We had seen a smaller version of this statue in Varaždin and just like with that one, the big toe of this statue was also shiny and golden as rubbing it is said to bring good luck. 

Golden Gate
Golden Gate and the Northern Wall
View of Northern Wall and Golden Gate from the bell tower. It can be seen how an entire city has developed inside the walls
Statue of Gregory of Nin

Interestingly, the Diocletian’s Palace only forms half of Split’s old town. We devoted the rest of the afternoon to explore the other half which we will bring to you in our next blog.

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