Despite his lowly birth as the son of slaves, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (better known as Diocletian) rose to the highest level in the Roman military. As Emperor he subdivided the farflung Roman Empire, then continued his rule for more than 20 years before thinking about where to put down permanent roots after his retirement. Such planning is not unusual after years of stress brought on by high pressures of the jobs. What is unusual is that the retirement home built by the Roman Emperor was declared a World Heritage Site nearly 1700 years later.
In the late third century Diocletian, originally from the town of Dioclea, chose a harbor in nearby Salona as the site of his retirement palace. Diocletian's Palace, an opulent fortress set on 9½ acres (38,000 m²), became his home when he voluntarily retired from the military and politics in AD305. He spent his remaining six years tending his gardens and gazing out on the bay that leads to the Adriatic Sea. When courted by Roman Senators a few years after retirement to help the Empire overcome growing political problems, Diocletian took them for a stroll through the gardens that he had created with his own hands to show them that he was committed to his retirement decision and had no plans to leave his paradise.
Diocletian's Palace is located in Split, Croatia's second largest city situated along the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. Set on terrain that slopes gently toward the bay, the ancient palace is surrounded by the modern day city but retains much of the architectural structures erected more than 1700 years ago. Built much like a Roman military fortress, Diocletian's Palace was enclosed on the east, west and north sides by 50 - 70 feet (15 – 20 meters) high 3 - 6 feet (1 – 2 meters) thick walls. The south side faced the bay. Along this side were columns that created a covered corridor where the Emperor could relax and gaze out on the blue Mediterranean water.
Three sides of the palace were secured by 16 guard towers and divided into two major sections. The main street linked the east and west gates and served as the dividing line between the complex’s northern and southern sides. The palace complex had three entrances from the land sides with huge, elaborate double doors on the northern side where the main entrance was located. The south bay-facing side had a smaller, simpler sea gate that may have been more for ceremony or supplies delivery than fortification since the palace façade was just a few feet from the bay. The luxurious south side of the palace complex with the view of the sea was where Diocletian’s personal chambers and temples were located. Simple, basic quarters for the imperial army, servants, others who needed space, and a storage area were on the north side of the main street.
The opulent villa had huge cellars, which were mostly used as a garbage dump, and an upper level used as a residential, ceremonial and common area. In preparation for his death, the Emperor built his own mausoleum constructed with white local limestone and high quality marble.
The palace was adorned with beautiful gardens and Egyptian, Italian and Grecian columns, arches and sculptures. There were three temples – the temple of Jupiter (preserved but now used as a baptistery) and the temples of Kibel and Venue.
Original walls, arches and columns of Diocletian’s Palace complex still stand; however, most of the palace space has been converted into a small city. The grand hallway leading into the palace has been transformed into a mini-mall where locals have set up shop to sell a variety of objects to the thousands of tourists who visit the palace each year. About 500 people have further adapted the palace’s interior space into private residences. The upper levels of some nearby former plebeian quarters have been converted into condos and the lower levels into chic restaurants, apparel and jewelry stores, and souvenir shops.
The promenade runs the length of the palace south wall and is paved with gleaming white marble tiles. It presents a jarring contrast with façade of the fourth century palace. As eclectic as it may appear, this is where locals and tourists stroll and where they sit for a spell to take in the Adriatic coastal beauty just as Diocletian did in the early fourth century. Today there is much more to see since the Split harbor is abuzz with activity from fishing boats delivering the day’s fresh catch, ferries transporting passengers along the coast to Dubrovnik and the Croatian islands, and cruise ships that include Split as a stop on their Mediterranean itinerary.
After Diocletian’s death, the palace was occupied for a while by Romans then fell into disuse. As the local population grew, Christians took over the palace. They obliterated most images of Diocletian who was known to have persecuted Christians and replaced them with crosses and other Christian images. They converted the emperor’s mausoleum into a cathedral initially dedicated to the Virgin Mary, made other architectural changes and constructed additional buildings of different architectural styles. By the end of the Middle Ages, the cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary was renamed Cathedral of Saint Domnius (aka Dujam), martyr of Salona and patron saint of Split.
Despite several changes, Diocletian’s Palace is one of the best-preserved Roman royal residences in the world and may be one of the only cultural monuments in the world in which people still live.