“if

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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.

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