you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.”
So wrote the former Roman Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 311, responding to calls for him to return to politics. The idyllic home he is referring to was his Dalmatian retirement palace, the impressive ruins of which now comprise around half of the modern-day city of Split in Croatia.
Diocletian’s Palace is one of the world’s most architecturally complete remains of a Roman palace. Since much of Split is actually situated within the ruins, it’s best explored by simply wandering its narrow cobbled streets.
WHERE THE TETRARCH RETIRED
Diocletian was the emperor of Rome from A.D. 284 to 305. He came from humble beginnings in the Roman province of Dalmatia and rose through the military ranks to become cavalry commander, defeated other claimants to the throne in battle, and was proclaimed emperor. Rather than ruling on his own, Diocletian delegated power to three other co-emperors who governed as “The Tetrarchy” or “rule of four,” remembered for bringing stability to the empire.
After becoming ill, Diocletian became the first Roman emperor to voluntarily retire. He returned home to live out his remaining years in the fortified compound he had built on the shores of the Adriatic. He died in A.D. 311. His palace was abandoned until around A.D. 650 when it was settled by refugees fleeing the nearby Roman province of Salona.
Later, Split became a Byzantine city, before coming under the control of Venice. It changed hands between the Italians, French and Germans over the years, and became a part of Yugoslavia following World War II.
FROM CASTLE TO CITY
The palace itself had been unknown to European architects for more than a millennium, until Scotsman Robert Adam surveyed the ruins. In 1764, with the help of the French artist Charles-Louis Clérisseau, Adams published Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia. The palace became the inspiration for Adam’s new style of neoclassical architecture and the book’s drawings brought it into the design vocabulary of European architects.
The area of the palace is an irregular rectangle enclosed by walls with towers at its northern, eastern and western facades. The southern side is unfortified and rises directly from the sea. Gates at the center of each wall lead to a central courtyard called the Peristyle. The Golden Gate in the north leads to former accommodations for soldiers and servants. The Iron Gate in the west leads to an area where three temples once stood. Only the Temple of Jupiter remains, having been converted into the Baptistery of St. John sometime in the 500s.
The Silver Gate in the east leads to the Cathedral of St. Domnius, originally Diocletian’s Mausoleum, while the Bronze Gate in the south, simpler in shape and dimensions, is thought to have served as a service entrance for supplies, or as the emperor’s private access from the sea. Only the curved stone pillars and arches that framed the gates still remain.
The limestone palace was originally decorated with 3,500-year-old granite sphinxes, brought from Luxor and created in the reign of Pharoah Thutmose III. Only three of the sphinxes remain, however. One can be seen in the peristyle courtyard, one (now headless), is outside the Temple of Jupiter and the third can be seen in the city museum.