Diocletian's Palace, Split, Croatia
Split, a modern resort town on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, has a fascinating historic core: It was built amid the ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace.
Complete Video Script
Split feels modern. But, a close look at the surviving facade of a Roman palace fronting its harbor reveals the city's ancient roots. Today's residents are literally living in a Roman emperor's palace. In the fourth century A.D., when Roman Emperor Diocletian retired, he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia. When Rome fell, Diocletian's palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys — once literally Diocletian's hallways — makes up the core of Split.
Local guide Maya Benzon is joining us to help explain the story behind her hometown.
Maya: The palace was huge, 200 meters on each side, and these were just the basements, so you can imagine what was on the upper floor. Roman engineers could build anything.
Rick: So they had concrete, they had bricks, round arches — they had the technology.
Maya: Yes, they had the technology and they had the slaves.
Rick: Cheap labor.
Nearby a grand underground hallway now used as a shopping arcade leads to Diocletian's vestibule.
Maya: This is the grand entryway towards Diocletian's private area, private quarters. Roman emperors called themselves the gods. And Diocletian called himself "Jovius," son of the god Jupiter. People worship him so they were kissing his robe. They treated him like a god on earth.
Diocletian's mausoleum dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original Roman building survives — the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs. Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But centuries later, in the Middle Ages, his mausoleum was converted into a cathedral. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims: Christian martyrs…like this one, who was tied to a mill stone and tossed into the sea.
A few steps away is a temple dedicated to Jupiter.
Rick: This is all part of Diocletian's palace complex?
Maya: Yes, we are still walking in the area of Diocletian's Palace, and you know Diocletian was "Jovius." And here in the middle of the palace he erected the house for his father — this is Jupiter's temple — and for a Roman building it's very rare that it's completely preserved with the ceiling, with the roof. So on the ceiling you can see really nice Roman carvings. You can see some faces, some flowers. Later on during the history of the Middle Ages this was converted into the church, so this was the medieval baptistery. We have St. John the Baptist, and here we have the baptismal font. And we have this curious panel here in the front. We have Croatian king from the 11th century. We have a bishop standing just next to him, and underneath his feet we have a citizen.
Rick: So you've got the secular power, the religious power, and the people respecting the power.
Maya: That would be it. Because this is a baptistery, here we have a statue of St. John the Baptist. This is a modern work of the 20th century made by the greatest Croatian sculptor ever, Ivan Meštrović.
A highlight for me is simply people watching. The sea of Croatian humanity laps at the walls of Diocletian's Palace along the pedestrian promenade, or "Riva." As on similar promenades throughout the Mediterranean world, the cars have made way for the people. Strolling locals finish their days in good style…just enjoying life's simple pleasures in a city made friendly for its residents.