DIOCLETIAN’S PALACE is an ancient palace built by the Roman Emperor DIOCLETIAN at the turn of the 4th century on the bay of ASPALATHOS, and it today forms the centre of the city of SPLIT.
While it is referred to as a “palace”, because of its intended use as the retirement residence of Diocletian, the term can be misleading as the structure s massive and more resembles a “large fortress” : about half of it was for Diocletian’s personal use and the rest housed the military garrison.
Diocletian built the massive palace in preparation for his retirement on the 1st of May, 305 AD. It lies in a bay on the south side of a short peninsula running out from the Dalmatian coast, 4mls from Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. The terrain slopes gently seaward and is typical “karst” consisting of low limestone ridges running east to west with “marl” in the clefts between them.
After the Romans abandoned the site, the Palace remained empty for several centuries. In the 7th century, nearby residents fled to the walled Palace in an effort to escape invading Slavs. Since then the Palace has been occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the Palace basement and directly in its walls. Today, many restaurants and shops and some homes can still be found within the walls.
After the Middle Ages, the Palace was virtually unknown in the West, until the Scottish neo-classical architect Robert Adam had the ruins surveyed and, with the aid of French artist and antiquary Charles-Louis Clerisseau and several draughtsmen published “Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia”.
Diocletian’s Palace was an inspiration for Adam’s new style of “neo-classical” architecture and the publication of measured drawings brought it into the “design vocabulary” of European architecture for the first time. A few decades later,, in 1782, the French painter Louis-Francois Cassas created drawings of the Palace, published by Joseph Lavallee in 1802 in the chronicles of his voyages.
This Palace is today, with all the most important historical buildings, in the centre of the city of Split. Diocletian’s Palace far transcends local importance, because of its degree of preservation. The Palace is one of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural features of the Adriatic coast. As the “world’s most complete remains of a Roman Palace”, it holds an outstanding place in Mediterranean, European and World Heritage.
In November 1979, UNESCO, in line with the international convention on cultural and natural heritage, adopted a proposal that the historic city of Split, built around the Palace, should be included in the register of World Cultural Heritage. In November 2006, the City Council decided to permit over 20 new buildings within the palace (including a shopping and garage complex), despite the fact that the Palace had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Monument. It is said that the decision was politically motivated and largely due to lobbying by local property developers. Once, the public in 2007 became aware of the project, they petitioned against the decision and won. No new buildings, shopping centres or the underground garage was built.
The World Monuments Fund has been working on a conservation project at the Palace, including surveying structural integrity and cleaning and restoring the stone and plasterwork. The Palace is depicted on the reverse of the Croatian 500 kuna bank note, issued in 1993.
The ground plan of the Palace is an irregular rectangle (approx. 160m by 190m) with towers projecting from the western, northern and eastern facades. It combines qualities of a luxurious villa with those of a military camp, with its hue gates and watch-towers. The Palace is enclosed by walls, and at times, it housed over 9,000 people. Subterranean portions of the Palace feature “barrel-vaulted” stonework.
Only the southern façade which rose directly from, or very near to, the sea, was “unfortified”. The elaborate architectural composition of the “arcaded gallery” on its upper floor, differs from the more severe treatment of the 3 “shore facades”. A monumental gate in the middle of each of these walls led to an enclosed courtyard. The southern sea-gate (the PORTA AENEA) was simpler in shape and dimensions than the other 3, and it is though, that it was originally intended either as the Emperor’s private access to the sea, or as service entrance for supplies.
The design is derived from both “villa” and “castrum” types, and this duality is also evident in the arrangement of the interior. The transverse road (decumanus) linking the eastern gate (the SILVER GATE or PORTA ARGENTEA) and western gate (the IRON GATE or PORTA FERREA) divided the complex into two halves. In the southern half were the more luxurious structures —- i.e. the Emperor’s apartments, both public and private and religious buildings.
The Emperor’s apartments formed a block along the sea front and were situated above a sub-structure, because the sloping terrain demanded significant differences in level. Although for many centuries almost completely filled with refuse, most of the sub-structure is well-preserved and indicates the original shape and disposition of the rooms above.
A monumental court, called the PERISTYLE, formed the northern access to the Imperial apartments. It also gave access to Diocletian’s mausoleum on the east (now Cathedral of Saint Dominus) and to 3 Temples on the west (2 of which are now lost, the 3rd having become a baptistery, originally being the Temple of Jupiter). There is a Temple just to the west of PERISTYLUM called the Temple of Aesculapius, which has a semi-cylindrical roof made out of hand-carved stone blocks which did not leak until the 1940s, and was then covered with a lead roof. The Temple was restored recently.
The northern half of the Palace, divided into 2 parts by the main north-south street leading from the Golden Gate (PORTA AUREA) to the PERISTYLE, is less well-preserved. It is usually supposed that each part was a residential complex, housing soldiers, servants and, possibly, some other facilities. Both parts were apparently surrounded by streets. Leading to perimeter walls there were rectangular buildings, possibly storage units.
The Palace is build of white local limestone and marble of high quality, most of which was from BRAC marble quarries on the island of BRAC, of “tuff” taken from nearby river beds and brick made in Salonitan and other factories. Some material for decoration was imported Egyptian granite columns, fine marble for revetments and some capitals produced in workshops in the PROCONNESOS. The Palace was decorated with numerous 3,500-year-old granite SPHINXES, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh THUTMOSE -3. Only 3 have survived the centuries. One is still located on the PERISTYLE, the 2nd sits “headless” in front of Jupiter’s temple and a 3rd is in the city museum.
Water for the Palace and the whole of Split area comes from the JADRO RIVER near SALONA. Along the road from Split to Salona, impressive remains of the original Roman aqua-duct can still be seen. They were extensively restored in the 19th century. Today, the Palace, along with adjoining areas to the west, forms the very heart of Split. Many shops, restaurants, bars and apartments for tourists can be found within the Palace.
DIOCLETIAN’S PALACE is being used as a location for filming the 4th season of the HBO series ——- GAME OF THRONES.