Roman Cities in Croatia: Split and Diocletian

The foundation stone for Split was laid by Diocletian

Split, Croatia’s second city, bustling with 178,000 people, is many-sided and complex. It is not a typical ancient town which can be taken in at a glance, in one walk around, and which lives in the memory as representative of one particular historical period, of one prevailing style.

The lowest point on the Dalmatian coast to show important Roman ruins is in Split (Spalato), which is also the landing-place for a visit to Solin (Salona). The ancient conditions are reversed. Solin was then a great city and Split, a late imperial palace built three miles away, beyond its suburbs.

As Solin embodied Augustus and the beginnings of the Empire, Split typifies Diocletian and its twilight. It is almost like a night-blooming cereus, a beautiful, lurid flower, unused to the light of day but superb in tone and outline.

Ancient amphitheatre in Solin Croatia
Ancient amphitheatre in Solin Croatia.

One is somewhat tempted to say that Split is the best remaining embodiment of late Roman ideals. In the first place, it is thoroughly cosmopolitan, representing many races and centuries both as heir and progenitor, with one hand, stretched out to Rome and the other to the Middle Ages. In its plan and system, it embodies the militarism and centralization so characteristic of Diocletian.

It accentuates the Oriental idea of the separation of the sexes in its double parallel apartments, and in this as well as in its style illustrates the Eastward tendency of the emperors of the third century which was soon to culminate in the founding of Constantinople. The artists who built Split may have been, in fact, more thoroughly Oriental, than those who built Constantinople.

Earlier emperors left their palaces on the Roman Palatine. Diocletian cared little for Rome and had never lived there. Born at Solin in land always in the debatable zone between East and West, part Roman and part Byzantine, Diocletian seems like the Colossus of Rhodes, with one foot in each of these opposing spheres. By temperament thoroughly Oriental and therefore despotic; by experience a military precisian; by education an indefatigable worker in a way quite un-Oriental, he became the most logical, and the ultimate centralizer, among the emperors. His success was partly due to the hypnotism exercised by absolute fearlessness. He never showed it more clearly than when he chose to abdicate of his own free will at a time long previously planned, amid perfect peace, and leaving the empire in the hands of men of his own choice. He then came to Split.

In approaching Split after rounding the island of Ciovo (Bua) one can hardly feel its original atmosphere without eliminating a few modern buildings that disfigure both sides of the ancient site. The natural surroundings are superb, with Mount Mosor as a background and the rocky foothills reaching almost to the shore to frame the enormous bulk of Diocletian’s palace, with its southern facade crowning the water’s edge.

This is both the palace and the tomb of the last really great emperor. As you skirt its water-front for about six hundred feet, you will gradually understand that there is no parallel to what you are seeing. In essence, a medieval city built mostly inside the walls of an imperial fortified villa-palace planned like a military camp and yet a monument of luxury and magnificence. Around 3000 people live on the territory of Diocletian’s palace today.

Diocletian’s Palace was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century AD.

As usual, the ancient level is considerably below the modern street, so that it is only in the excavated area about the mausoleum that the original proportions and effects can be judged. The land slopes gradually upward from the sea so that the shoreward facade is considerably the highest. The rectangular plan, in place of the square, is borrowed from the typical permanent Roman camp, as it had been adopted in the fortified cities of the Augustan age, such as Aosta and Turin.

From the camp is also copied the general scheme of the plan, with its division into four main sections by two intersecting streets—the Documanus on the east-west (Ulica Kralja Petra Kresimira IV) and Cardo in the north-south (Dioklecianova Ulica), each ending in a gateway flanked by projecting octagonal towers. The defence is completed by square towers at the four corners and by smaller towers between them and the gates.

The Porta Aurea (The Golden Gate or Zlatna vrata in Croatian), by which you can enter the palace, corresponded really to the “Porta Decumana” (Latin name for the rear gate of a Roman fort or camp) of the camp, though it is on the north. It somewhat resembles a triumphal arch, with its niches to contain statues and busts. At the same time, it embodies striking premonitions of medieval design in the arcades surrounding these niches in which you can see in embryo the arcades that formed the central outside ornament of so many Lombard and Tuscan as well as of some Byzantine churches. No other Roman monument of the West foreshadows this scheme! It is said that the imperial sculptures in the niches were destroyed by the hordes of the fifth century.

The Golden Gate is a 4th-century Roman stone entryway to Diocletian’s Palace.

The other gates were plainer; the water gate (Porta Aenea), was necessarily insignificant, the silver gate (Porta Argentea) on the east is destroyed, but the iron gate (Porta Ferrea / Porta Occidentalis) on the west is well preserved. Aside from these two gates, there are four principal architectural masterpieces inside the walls: the arcaded court, the mausoleum of Diocletian, the temple of Aesculapius, and the vestibule of the throne room.

The northern half of the palace, facing inland, was given up to the rank and file of the large imperial household and to stores, in the same way as this part of the camp was assigned to the common soldiery. In the southern half of the camp, the “praetorium,” were the headquarters and administrative buildings, and the quarters for the staff, the imperial guard, and other select troops. In the palace plan this scheme was carried out: the vestibule and imperial throne room stand at the end of the avenue where the “praetorium” would be, and beyond it, the dining and reception halls flanked on either side by the apartments for the emperor and his suite and guests. Through the large central hall, one reached the long covered gallery or “cryptoporticus” over-looking the sea, which extended along the entire southern facade.

The area enclosed by the walls is a trifle under ten acres, with sides measuring 570 feet from east to west and about 700 feet from north to south. Though the walls are 70 feet high along the sea line and 50 feet on the land side, they hardly show their height. The sea has now withdrawn itself, but it originally more than lapped the wall below the long gallery, giving it an effect as of a magnified Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. A large Watergate opened in the centre, and boats could enter directly into the lower part of the palace.

The gallery is now closed, but there is no difficulty in reconstructing its original appearance if we eliminate the walls that fill up the more than fifty intercolumniations and arcades. There was no monotony. The design was diversified by three arcades that broke the long architrave and are among the characteristic unclassic and Oriental features of the palace. The old print helps one’s imagination. There is no similar work of ancient architecture on such a large scale and so well preserved.

The other facades, with their towers and plain walls, were purely military, except for the statuary and other decorations of the Porta Aurea, the main entrance on the land side.

After entering by the “Porta Aurea” you will pass through the entire northern section along the central street without seeing hardly a trace of Roman work, but as soon as you reach the central cross street, the scene changes abruptly, as you come to the arcaded court. In the original design, the arcades were open on both sides, and there is only a low parapet between the columns. On the right, one caught a glimpse of the temple of “Aesculapius” standing isolated in the centre of its little square, and on the left, in another square, the concentric mausoleum. Immediately in front was the facade of the throne room. These four works are not only so well-preserved but are historically so pregnant with interest.

It is true, the court has suffered eclipse by the buildings which, beginning in the seventh or eighth century, have closed its arcades. But they remain a classic and noted example cited in every text-book; the earliest use of lines of free-standing arcades resting on columns. For the first time, the old straight architrave is discarded. Here we find the source and type of the arcaded interiors of the early Christian basilicas, built soon after under Constantine, some of which had architraves while others had these lines of arcades on either side of the nave. One could therefore not unreasonably conclude that the arcade came into Christian churches from some Oriental school of architecture, because the palace was the work of men from Syria or Asia Minor.

This appears very clearly in the little facade of the throne room. The base of the gable in classic architecture is formed by a straight cornice and entablature. But here, the arch is introduced to occupy nearly the entire space. This broken gable space is characteristic of temples in Syria, Cilicia, and eastern Asia Minor, and if we find it in a few scattered instances in the West, in Spain or Italy, it is in late works that imitate Oriental models. It is interesting to find it in the remains of the palace built for Diocletian’s colleague Maximian in Milan, now annexed to the church of S. Lorenzo. Sixteen large columns of its facade remain their long architrave broken in the middle by an arch. The design is almost identical to that of the Split water-front and was perhaps the work of the same architects.

The temple on the right is the imperial place of worship, corresponding to the chapel in the medieval palace-fortress, and to the papal chapel at the Lateran and Vatican. It has perhaps the best-preserved cella of any temple in existence. The basement is quite high and rather throws the building out of scale. The decoration of the doorway is almost over-rich, but the proportions are so effective as to exclude any “Barocco” effect. The tradition which makes of it a temple of Esculapius seems to be baseless and not earlier than the thirteenth century. The thunderbolts on the corbels and the eagles are good reasons for calling it a temple of Jupiter. This is quite a logical inference because Jupiter was Diocletian’s patron. In essence, his epithet was “Jovius” in the same way as that of his colleague Maximian was “Hercules.” After Diocletian’s death, the palace was called Jovense.

Finally, the gem of the palace, the mausoleum of Diocletian. It was a strange idea of the emperor to be buried in his own house, but there can be no doubt that he planned it from the beginning, and that his body rested here in a porphyry sarcophagus placed, probably, under the centre of the dome. A casual visitor is hardly likely to remember that this is the only well preserved imperial tomb in existence. The mausoleum of Augustus and his successors and their families is now a formless mound. Of the mausoleum of Hadrian, which held the imperial remains of the second and early part of the third century, only the mutilated and transformed shell remains. The emperors buried not in family memorials but in special sepulchres have fared even worse. We must pass to the times immediately following Diocletian to find single quasi imperial tombs in any preservation; of these, the tomb of Helena, mother of Constantine, near Rome, has lost everything but part of its bare brickwork, and those of her granddaughter Constantia and of Romulus Augustulus have been transformed.

This mausoleum of Diocletian stands preeminent in preserving not only its entire structure but practically all of its decoration. Hardly any ancient monument of any class is so intact. Also, as a type, it is extremely valuable. It is the heir of the early circular tombs of Asia Minor and Etruria and the progenitor of the Christian baptistery. The structure of its dome, with fan-shaped interdependent internal arches in the masonry, is perhaps unique and much discussed by architects. The entire design, with its peripteral portico, its central dome, and its interior order with free-standing shafts and figured frieze, may be taken as typical of a late imperial tomb.

The thorough restoration which has been carried on for so many years has had its disadvantages. A large portion of the internal details has been thrown away or transferred to the museum because they were regarded as too injured to be retained in the structure. The whiteness of the material of the new parts prevents any delusion, and, in a way, the workmanship of the capitals and other details can be better seen in the museum.

One cannot leave without a glance at the origin and history of the palace. Diocletian became emperor in 284 and a year later took as his colleague Maximian, to whom he assigned the West, keeping for himself the East, and so establishing a precedent for partition. Better to hold the empire in control, he established in 293 the famous tetrarchy, by making Galerius and Constantius Chlorus Caesars and dividing the Roman world into four administrative sections. His reorganization of the basis of the provincial administration, his perfecting of paternalism, and his superb organization of central authority are commonplaces. The other three men never questioned his supreme direction. He was training the two Caesars to the succession. Diocletian had long planned to retire on the twentieth anniversary of his accession at the age of 58. He announced his decision. He then put it off for a year to allow Maximian to complete his twenty years. The solemn abdication took place on May 1, 305.

It was then that Diocletian withdrew to Solin to live in the palace, which was being built in a small bay near the city, under the name Aspalathos. Here he lived and “grew cabbages” until his death in 313, except for a few journeys including an extended stay at Sirmium (now Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) in 306, perhaps in connection with work at the quarries for the palace. He had a meeting at Sirmium in 307 when he was begged to return to power to silence increasing disorders.

We must believe that the palace had been in the course of construction for a number of years before 305, even though it was not then completed. Probably it had been begun as early as 293 when the two Caesars were selected as successors for himself and Maximian. The emperor had other large palaces. That at Nicomedia (an ancient Greek city in Turkey) was the most extensive, like a superb camp. Others were at Aquileia (an ancient Roman city in Italy) and in the east.

The architects are unknown. From similarity to work at Palmyra and elsewhere in Syria, we may conjecture that they belonged to the school of Antioch. However, the schools of Asia Minor, such as Nicomedia, need not be excluded. The two provinces had been for centuries in the closest artistic relation.

The emperor’s last years, as we know,  were made worse by the struggles between Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius, and, at last, by the tragic fate of his own mother and wife. After his death, the palace was turned by the government into a factory for cloth weaving in which the staff was entirely female, under official inspection. In memory of the emperor, it was called Jovetise. It was threatened and damaged by barbarian hordes in the fifth century and seems to have been abandoned. After all, it was no fortress.

Meanwhile, Solin, though threatened, had not been captured. When the final disaster came between 625 and 639, the survivors of Solin fled to the islands and the East, where they had been preceded by most of the well-to-do, who had foreseen it. One of the patricians, though, bearing the homely name of John, established himself within the abandoned walls of the palace as soon as the storm had passed, and gathered around him many of the fugitives. A church was soon organized, and its bishop received the same privileges as the ancient church of Solin. But, how desolate and impoverished was the land, a shadow of the sleek and confident past! The picture of these poor survivors burrowing among the ruins of the church of Solin for the relics to put in their new church is typical of the frequent destruction of the ancient culture.

The mausoleum became the cathedral, and the temple became the baptistery. The citizens quickly found room inside the walls, turning the passageways and courts into streets and squares.

It was long before its magnificence was defaced. As late as the tenth century, the famous emperor and writer Constantine Porphyrogennetos, himself a great lover and connoisseur of art, familiar with the gorgeous monuments of Constantinople, and the Orient declares that it surpassed even in its ruin all powers of description.

In the course of time, thanks to the inspiration of the ancient monument and the pride of being the seat of religious supremacy, Split became a power in the modest early Middle Ages. Its school of art ruled a significant part of Dalmatia. Its crowning glory is the really superb campanile of the mausoleum cathedral, and hardly less extraordinary, though less conspicuous, is the richly carved pulpit. Earlier than either and very rare of their kind are the carved doors by the native artist Andrija Buvina, dated in 1214. He was probably also the author of the extremely Oriental openwork carved wooden choir stalls, which are unequalled in the West.

Nothing is more convincing of the strength of tradition than how the campanile reproduces the antique designs, and the choir stalls continue the Oriental influence of the past.

Historically we can best study here not only the type of funerary chapel and the origin of the basilical interior but also that peculiar style of decorative sculpture in flat relief or openwork in marble which forms the basis of Byzantine and early Italian design, especially the geometric work which prevailed throughout Dalmatia, Istria and nearly the whole of Italy even under the Lombards. In fact, the palace is one of the indispensable landmarks of history; the latest produced by Roman imperial art.

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