The Palace of Diocletian: Roman Retirement Home and Palace Fortress of Croatia
Considered to be one of the most imposing Roman ruins, Diocletian’s Palace is the main attraction of the city of Split, Croatia. Spanning more than 30,000 square meters, this extraordinary complex of beautiful white limestone was built as a retirement home for the Roman emperor Diocletian. The complex consists of some of the most valuable surviving buildings of the Roman era and ranks among the most magnificent architecture on the Adriatic coast. Poised between the classical and medieval Christian civilization, it is a compendium of architectural styles that preceded it, including Greek and Byzantine.
Retirement home of Emperor Diocletian
When the Emperor Diocletian abdicated his throne in Rome in 305 AD, he retired to his native country of Croatia to his birthplace of Salona. There, in the Illyrian province of Rome, at the city of Split, he built a monumental, fortified palace where he resided until his death in 316 AD. The construction of Diocletian’s Palace began around 300 AD and would last approximately 10 years. It was built from lustrous white stone from the island of Brač, Croatia with marble being imported from Italy and Greece, along with columns and sphinxes from Egypt. A military fortress, imperial residence and fortified town, the palace measures 215m (705ft) from east to west and is 181m (593ft) wide at the southernmost point, covering 7 acres all together.
One of the three surviving sphinxes at Diocletian’s Palace (Wikimedia Commons)
The gates of four metals
There were once four gates at each wall of the palace with each one named after a metal. At the northern end was the Golden Gate, at the southern end, located on the sea shore, was the Bronze Gate. The eastern gate was the Silver Gate and to the west was the Iron Gate.
Between the eastern and western gates is a straight road, which separates the imperial residence on the southern side, with its state rooms and temples, from the north, once used by soldiers and servants. The Bronze Gate led from the living quarters to the sea. The gates themselves have not survived but carved stone pillars and arches can still be seen where they once were.
Golden gate – north entrance of Diocletian’s Palace (Wikimedia Commons)
Ground plan of the grand palace complex
The Palace at Split faces the sea and is, in plan, a facsimile of an ideal Roman city with a regular square plan and two main streets intersecting at the center. It takes the form of an irregular rectangle with numerous towers on the western, northern, and eastern facades (there were once 16 towers of which 3 remain). The palace is equipped with living quarters, baths, and reception rooms.
The vestibule of the palace is where the emperor would greet his guests and allow his people to worship him. Though the upper levels of the palace did not survive, incredibly, the basement area is still intact today, and has been used as a location for the filming of the fourth season of the TV series, Game of Thrones. The ceilings and floors would have once been adorned with mosaic tiling and marble on the walls.
The Vestibule (Wikimedia Commons)
The well-preserved basement in the west wing of Diocletian’s Palace, and the film set for the Game of Thrones TV series (Wikimedia Commons)
The art and architecture of Diocletian’s Palace
In and around Diocletian’s Palace, thousands of years of art and artifacts can be found including 3,500 year old sphinxes from Egypt, most of which were later decapitated by Christians. This was a direct consequence of Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. After his death, they showed their revenge by destroying pagan symbols within his palace, decapitating most of the sphinx sculptures Diocletian had brought back from Egypt.
The palace is also remarkable for its diversity of forms, which include an octagonal domed mausoleum (later reconstructed into a Christian church - the second oldest structure used by any Christian Cathedral), the rectangular Temple of Jupiter, the cruciform lower level of the Vestibule, and circular temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Cybele and Venus.
One of the most narrow streets in the world lies next to a temple where an intricately carved, barrel vaulted ceiling once provided a place of worship for the Roman god Jupiter. The Temple of Jupiter was constructed around the same time Diocletian's Palace was completed and is one of the best preserved Roman temples in antiquity. The building itself was constructed on a pedestal which hides the buried crypt characteristic of Roman temples. It was subsequently transformed into a baptistery, to which a beautiful Romanesque bell tower was added in the 14th and 15th centuries. Today it is guarded by a headless sphinx statue. Diocletian included the octagonal mausoleum (known as Cathedral St Domnius today), where he and his wife Prisca were eventually buried. The tomb was deliberately located so that it faced the Temple of Jupiter, Diocletian's patron god.
Illustration of the mausoleum at Diocletian’s Palace (Wikimedia Commons)
A refuge from invading armies
When the Avars and Slavic ‘barbarians’ conquered the surrounding areas of Split, they severely damaged Diocletian’s Palace. When their incursion ended in 614 AD, the inhabitants of the nearby ruined city of Salona took refuge in what remained of the palace, building their homes within the palace walls. They incorporated the old walls, columns, and ornamentation into their new structures. More and more settlements were built within the palace and eventually the palace became the town itself during the Middle Ages. The area now comprises the nucleus of the “old town” of Split. Commercial prosperity during the 13th and the 14th centuries would inspire more intensive building. The town spread outside the palace, and a new center developed along the western walls of the palace, which was fortified in the 14th century. In the 17th century, a new defense system in the form of projecting bastions was built around the palace.
The modern-day center of Split, with Diocletian's Palace, in 2012 (viewed from the north-east). (Wikimedia Commons)
Today, not much is left in the city of Split from the Roman city Diocletian once knew. Parts of the walls, gates and towers still remain, but the palace itself has undergone significant transformations over the centuries. In modern times, it has become a commercial and residential center with 220 buildings within the boundaries and is home to about 3000 people. Diocletian’s Palace is considered one of the only cultural monuments in the world in which people still live. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979 as much for the gothic and baroque buildings that date from the Middle Ages, as for its Roman origins.
Featured image: Artist’s representation of Diocletian’s Palace, Croatia (Wikimedia Commons).
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