Split & The Retired Emperor

Split & The Retired Emperor

The city of Split in Croatia was our next destination and base for three expeditions in one day.

Our cruise ship, Aegean Odyssey, departed Ancona (Italy) 6pm* on Friday 7th October 2016 and docked in Split Harbour (Croatia) the next morning at 8am*, a 14 hour* journey across the Adriatic Sea.

The Voyage to Antiquity journey so far, on MV Aegean Odyssey (Map courtesy of Google Maps)

The first excursion of the day was a walking tour of Diocletian’s Palace.

Diocletian was a significant figure in the history of the Roman Empire. He was proclaimed Emperor in 284 AD after the death of Emperor Carinus, although he was not born into the position or of aristocratic stock. The full story is, however, a little more complicated than my version here would suggest.

Though, for now the most important point is that Diocletian decided to abdicate in 305 AD, the first of 51 Roman Emperors to do so. In preparation, he constructed a retirement palace in his native province of Dalmatia (now part of Croatia), with its completion and his abdication coinciding.

Artist’s Reconstruction of Diocletian’s Palace – E. Herbrard 1912, showing Diocletian’s apartment area within the southern quarter (all along the sea wall), religious and government areas within the next quarter, military garrison and servant living areas within the northern half

While sections of “The Palace” are well-preserved, today it doesn’t look much like the above painting. In addition the sea no longer laps against the southern wall. It has been replaced by cafes and shops spilling out onto the “Riva” (promenade), retaining the sea (harbour) at around 30 meters away.

Looking east along a section of the southern “Palace” wall of today, with part of a corner tower at the end of the wall (to right)

The palace was constructed with only four entry points, known as gates. The “Brass Gate” (Porta Meridionalis) in the centre of the southern wall is the least impressive of the four. It originally allowed private access to and from the sea for such things as delivery of supplies from ships or exit and entry of authorised officials. In the artist’s painting it is depicted  with a small platform in front of it.

Porta Meridionalis (aka Brass Gate or southern gate)

The southern gate is one floor lower than the other three gates and opens into the substructure below Diocletian’s apartments. This area was originally built to raise Diocletian’s residence above that of his “subjects”, on land that slopped towards the sea.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire Diocletian’s Palace was abandoned (approx 164 years after his death). And when it was gradually reoccupied by the locals of the time (fleeing a Croat invasion), there were no controls over what should be preserved, where people could take up residence or how they could make use of the palaces resources. For example, residents occupying Diocletian’s apartments began using the substructure as a dump and over a few centuries the space filled with rubbish. Ironically the substructure is one of the best preserved sections of the palace and of its kind in the world.

Part of the “Substructure” of Diocletian’s Palace, facing towards the Brass Gate

The process of resettlement in and around the palace had other consequences with some using the palace materials as a resource for “new” constructions, including stone blocks from sections of the walls. A city grew around the palace (now referred to as the old city of Split), which today looks like an extension of the palace.

Entering part of the old city that sits outside the palace, these are some of the “new” constructions we saw (a slide show of 6 images).

And within the Palace more “new” constructions.

Residential buildings constructed against the northern Palace wall
Bell Tower of St Domnius’ Cathedral, from window of the Museum

Then we came upon the best preserved parts of the “upper” Palace.

Stuck in a time warp – a couple of well-preserved Roman Soldiers, still guarding the Peristyle

Our guide, just behind the soldiers, was obviously not phased by their presence – She just turned her back on them and held our group’s orange “standard” high.

The Peristyle (ceremonial courtyard) – Walk up the stairs and through the doorway ahead to the level of Diocletian’s Apartments (or where they used to be): then down a set of stairs to the preserved substructure (shown previously); left to the Cathedral of St Domnius; right to the Baptistery

Diocletian spent a good part of his life persecuting Christians, but over time his successors made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. And to add to the irony, the Christian Cathedral of St Domnius was built on & around Diocletian’s Mausoleum. The Baptistery was placed in Jupiter’s Temple – Diocletian’s “favourite” god. And that, to a large extent, is why these buildings and the Peristyle have survived through the ages, although somewhat “altared”.

Entrance to The Cathedral of St Domnius (Diocletian’s Mausoleum)
Bell Tower added by the Christians in 1100 AD and extensively rebuilt in 1908
Under the Dome of the Mausoleum (now part of the Cathedral) – The Dome sits behind the Bell Tower


Outside the Palace’s northern wall is this large statue of Grgur Ninsti (Gregory, Bishop of Nin). He is remembered for introducing the national language into church services in place of Latin from 926 AD. This was done against the will of the Pope.

Statue  of Gregory Bishop of Nin with Chapel of Arnir’s Bell Tower behind. Both are positioned just outside the northern “Golden Gate”

I’ve mentioned the Brass Gate in the southern sea wall. There was also the Iron Gate in the western wall (Porta Occidentalis), the Silver Gate in the eastern wall (Porta Orientalis) and the most significant of the four Palace gates, The Golden Gate (originally Porta Septemtrionalis) in the middle of the northern wall.

Diocletian entered his retirement palace for the first time in 305 AD through Porta Septemtrionalis after travelling 6.5 kms from Salona, the Roman capital of the province of Dalmatia. When I read this “the light bulb of understanding” finally turned on, providing answers to simple questions like, why here? Why right on the edge of the sea? Why so big? Why …..?

View of the Golden Gate, from the outside

What follows (facts mixed with assumptions, observations and simplifications) might already be very obvious to you, but I was quite excited when I put these simple pieces of the puzzle together:

No Roman Emperor or ruling official had ever abdicated. So, being the first, Diocletian was somewhat concerned about his future in retirement. His peers or ambitious successors could perceive him as a constant threat. His former enemies might decide on revenge, now that he was more vulnerable. He needed a very safe place to “live”. So he designed his palace to provide solutions to those concerns.

  • His retirement home was a fortress, rather than just a palace
  • It provided an easy escape by sea, through the southern door (Brass Door)
  • It was situated in his native Dalmatia, where loyalty to him was likely to be at its strongest
  • He would be supported by a well-chosen military garrison, residing within the palace (he had risen through the military ranks to become Emperor and kept a good relationship with the military)
  • The main palace gate was linked by a short road to Salona, the Roman provincial capital of Dalmatia, so keeping him close and connected (physically and symbolically) to the Roman Empire and further military support
Ooooh ….those Romans

Predictably, the following destination was to the ancient ruins of Salona. But I’ll leave that and our visit to Trogir until the next episode.


Do you have an alternate perspective on Diocletian’s Palace or something to add? Feel free to offer your view by way of a comment. Hope to catch up with you soon!


* Times are approximate

  • Peter Stanton
    Posted at 16:58h, 12 December Reply

    What a delightful diversion on a summer’s afternoon…AD thanks for the great photos and well written commentary: you made me feel as though I was there.
    Cam has stayed there often and just loves it.

  • alistairstravel
    Posted at 17:12h, 12 December Reply

    I’m pleased to have “diverted you” Peter. And pleased also to know that Cam is enjoying his sailing around the Med. It isn’t difficult to like it all. Please give my regards to him. Hope you have a very enjoyable Christmas Peter.

  • Kevin @ Bev G.
    Posted at 11:25h, 15 December Reply

    Wonderful photos, Alister. The coast is replete with scenes and moods of antiquity. Bev and I drove down the coast, so long ago! Stayed at Spit and continued on to
    Dubrovnik ultimately heading north through Mostar, Sarejavo and then to Belgrade. The year was 1985 and the country was obviously in the mood for the mayhem of racial conflict.

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