Adapted long ago to serve as Split’s town centre, Diocletian’s Palace (see map) is certainly not an archeological “site”. Although set-piece buildings such as Diocletian’s mausoleum (now the cathedral) and the Temple of Jupiter (now a baptistry) still remain, other aspects of the palace have been tinkered with so much by successive generations that it is no longer recognizable as an ancient Roman structure. Little remains of the imperial apartments, although the medieval tenements, shops and offices that have taken their place were built in large part using stones and columns salvaged from Diocletian’s original buildings. Despite its architectural pedigree, the palace area hasn’t always been the most desirable part of the city in which to live. During the interwar period it was dubbed the get (“ghetto”) and – abandoned to the urban poor, down-at-heel White Russian émigrés and red-light bars – became synonymous with loose morals and shady dealings. Nowadays the palace area is once more the centre of urban life, hosting a daily melee of tourists and shoppers.
Born the son of slaves, Diocletian was a native of Dalmatia – and possibly grew up in Salona, next door to Split. Despite his humble origins he proved himself quickly in the Roman military, becoming emperor in 284 at the age of 39. For 21 years he attempted to provide stability and direction to an empire under pressure – goals he achieved with some measure of success. Believing that the job of running the empire was too big for one man, however, Diocletian divided the role into four, the Tetrarchy, carefully parcelling out responsibility among his partners – a decision which some historians believe led directly to disintegration and civil war. Diocletian was also renowned for his persecution of Christians: those martyred during his reign included the patron saints of Split, Domnius and Anastasius, along with many other leading religious figures – Sebastian, George, Theodore and Vitus among them.
The motives for Diocletian’s early retirement have been the subject of much speculation. It was obviously planned well in advance by a man who feared he was no longer up to the rigours of government. As a highly innovative emperor, Diocletian obviously saw the very concept of retirement – a total novelty among Roman rulers – as a logical adjunct to his other reforms. However, the power-sharing system he left behind soon disintegrated once he was no longer at the helm, leading ultimately to the rise of a new strongman, Constantine the Great (ruled 309–38).
Robert Adam and Diocletian’s Palace
Robert Adam and Diocletian’s Palace
Our knowledge of Diocletian’s Palace owes much to the eighteenth-century Scottish architect Robert Adam, who set out to provide a visual record of what remained of the palace, believing that contemporary European builders had much to learn from Roman construction techniques. Adam arrived in Split in 1757 with a team of draughtsmen; they spent five weeks in the city despite the hostility of the Venetian governor, who almost had them arrested as spies. This didn’t prevent Adam from enjoying the trip: “the people are vastly polite, everything vastly cheap; a most wholesome air and glorious situation” was how he summed the town up. The resulting book of engravings of the palace caused a sensation, offering inspiration to Neoclassical architects all over Britain and Europe. Adam’s work was certainly seminal in the development of the Georgian style in England, and large chunks of London, Bath and Bristol may be claimed to owe something of their space, symmetry and grace to Diocletian’s buildings in Split.