Over the past few years I have known a number of people that have went to Croatia and all have been pleasantly surprised by what they found. I therefore decided that I too would check it out, but where to go? There are many places that we could visit, but one in particular attracted my attention: Split. Situated in the south of Croatia on a peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic, Split has a lot to offer, including one of the best preserved Roman palaces in the world.
In the late 3rd century the Emperor Diocletion, in preparation for his retirement, began construction on a massive palace/fortress that today forms the the centre of the old town of Split. Diocletion had been kept very busy suppressing rebellions in Syria, Egypt and Britain, persecuting members of the upstart Christian movement and trying to patch together an empire that had been in disarray for decades. He therefore constructed a palace where he could live the quiet life, tending to his true passion – gardening. The palace he built was actually a mix of palace and fortress, and in its heyday would have been home to approximately 9,000 people, many of which were soldiers.
The palace measured 160 meters by 190 meters, with great gates on the north, west and eastern sides. The southern face was entered through a much smaller, less ostentations gate, as it opened directly onto the harbour and was either a service entrance or meant as a private entrance for the emperor. At the centre of the palace is the Peristyle, a monumental court which in its day led to the imperial apartments.
Today it is a focal point for tourists, and is used for various functions including plays and other festivities. There are numerous Egyptian granite columns, and in its day it was decorated with many 3500 year old Egyptian sphinxes, one of which still sits in the Peristyle.
The palace was abandoned not long after its construction, as Rome fell into decline and was consumed by a series of barbarian invasions. It lay empty until the 7th century, and since that time has been lived in and built upon, so that today it is an amazing, yet confusing complex of winding alleys, courtyards, homes, cafes and shops. For me the highlight, apart from the gelato (which is everywhere) is the undercroft or basement.
You have to pay to see this part of the palace but it is well worth the money as it is here that you see some of the best preserved architecture. You enter from just inside the south entrance, and work your way through a maze of impressive rooms with vaulted ceilings. You will find everything from storage rooms and workshops, to a temple to Jupiter. The stone work is incredible and its here that you get a real sense of the immensity of the palace and the wealth and power it projected.
Today it offers an opportunity to explore the ancient Roman world and modern Croatia itself. At the centre of the palace is a church which has served the local population for centuries, and offers the best views of the city and surrounding area.
Climbing up the tower is a must, but its not recommended if you have a problem with heights.
The best time to explore the palace is early in the morning before the crowds arrive. At 6:30 am it is already coming to life and you can quietly wander, about, taking pictures at your leisure and focus on the little things that might be otherwise missed. There are countless shops, cafes and places to indulge in the great food from the region.
Outside the east gate there is a fabulous market that offers a wide range of local produce at reasonable prices – the perfect place to pick up some quality fruit, breads, olives, honey, cheese and more for a snack or a meal in.
For me, visiting Split and Diocletion’s Palace was a somewhat surreal experience. I have long been interested in the history of the late 3rd century Roman Empire as it was at this time that two usurpers, Carausius and Allectus, seized control of Britain in defiance of Rome. It is at this time that the fort of Anderida, modern Pevensey Castle situated on coast of East Sussex, was constructed, in all likelihood to repel an expected Roman effort to retake control. For years I lived near the fort, and conducted an archaeological investigation not far from it’s walls. Visiting Split made me engage with the history of the period, and the policies of Diocletion in particular, from a different perspective. And I could do so while sipping a great cup of coffee under a palm tree with a warm breeze coming off the Adriatic.