Diocletian’s Palace (#7)

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Today we continue examining the list of 52 Ancient Roman Monuments which had been claimed as a “must see” by Touropia Travel Experts. The last location we had checked out was #8 – Verona Arena.

Today we’re headed to Split, Croatia as we explore #7 – Diocletian’s Palace!

Located in a bay on the south side of a short peninsula running out from the Dalmatian Coast stands Diocletian’s Palace. Built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in preparation for his retirement, at the turn of the 4th Century AD.

Weakened by illness, Diocletian left the imperial office on 1 May 305 AD. He became the earliest Roman Emperor to voluntarily abdicate the position.

Diocletian in Retirement

Diocletian lived out his retirement in his palace tending to his vegetable gardens. His palace went on to become the core of the modern day 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. The structure is massive and more resembles a large fortress, with about half of it for Diocletian’s personal use and the rest housed the military garrison.

Ariel view of Diocletian’s Palace in Split.

About 4 miles from Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, the terrain slopes gently seaward. The karst topography is typical, consisting of low limestone ridges running east to west with marl in the clefts between them.

The Palace was built of white local limestone and marble of high quality, most of which was from Brač marble quarries on the island of Brač, of tuff taken from the nearby river beds, and of 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.

Plan of Diocletian’s Palace

The ground plan of the palace is an irregular rectangle (roughly 525 ft x 623 ft) 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 huge gates and watchtowers.

The palace is enclosed by walls, and at times, it housed over 9000 people. Subterranean portions of the palace feature barrel vaulted stonework.

Painting of Diocletian’s Palace in its original appearance upon completion in AD 305 (viewed from the south-west).

Only the southern facade, 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 thought that it was originally intended either as the Emperor’s private access to the sea, or as a service entrance for supplies.

The design is derived from both villa and castrum types. This duality is also evident in the arrangement of the interior.

Porta Argentea aka the Silver Gate

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 2-halves. In the southern half were the more luxurious structures (the Emperor’s public and private apartments, along with religious buildings).

The Emperor’s apartments formed a block along the sea front and were situated above a substructure because the sloping terrain demanded significant differences in level. Although for many centuries almost completely filled with refuse, most of the substructure is well preserved, and indicates the original shape and disposition of the rooms above.

Bell Tower of the Cathedral of St. Doimus as seen from within the Vestibule.

A monumental Peristylium formed the northern access to the imperial apartments. It also gave access to Diocletian’s mausoleum on the east (now Cathedral of St. Domnius), and to 3 temples on the west (2 of which are now lost, the remaining having become a baptistery, originally being the Temple of Jupiter).

There is a temple just to the west of the Peristylium called The Temple of the Aesculapius, which has a semi-cylindrical roof made out of hand carved stone blocks. The construction was so outstanding that it was not until the 1940s that the roof began to have any issues, but restoration has recently been done.

Porta Aurea aka the Golden Gate

The northern half of the palace, divided in 2 parts by the main north-south street (cardo) leading from the Golden Gate (Porta Aurea) to the Peristylium, 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 magazines.

Sphinx of the Peristylium

The Palace was decorated with numerous 3500-year old granite sphinxes, originating from the site of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Only 3 have survived the centuries: 1) still remains on the Peristylium, 2) sits headless in front of Jupiter’s temple, and 3) resides in the city museum.

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 Croats.

Since then the palace has been occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the palace basement and directly in its walls. Diocletian’s Palace far transcends local importance because of its degree of preservation.

View of the Peristyle in an etching by Robert Adam (1764).

After the Middle Ages the palace was virtually unknown in the rest of Europe until the Scottish neo-classical architect Robert Adam had the ruins surveyed. Then, with the aid of French artist and antiquary Charles-Louis Clérisseau and several draftsmen, Adam published Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (London, 1764).

Diocletian’s palace was an inspiration for Adam’s new style of Neoclassical 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-François Cassas created drawings of the palace, published by Joseph Lavallée in 1802 in the chronicles of his voyages.

Actors playing Roman Soldiers in the Central Square of the Palace.

The Palace is of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural features on the Croatian 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.

Modern nightlife in an ancient palace.

In November 2006 the City Council decided to permit over 20 new buildings within the palace (including a shopping and garage complex), although the palace had been declared a World Heritage Monument. It is said that this decision was politically motivated and largely due to lobbying by local property developers.

Once the public in 2007 came aware of the project, they petitioned against the decision and won. No new buildings, shopping center 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.

Diocletian’s Palace on the reverse of the Croatian 500 kuna banknote, issued in 1993.

Today many restaurants and shops and some homes (all of which had previously been constructed before 1979) can still be found within the walls. The palace is depicted on the reverse of the Croatian 500 kuna banknote, issued in 1993.

Scene from Game of Thrones – Season 4 (1-13-2014)

Diocletian’s Palace was used as a location for filming Season 4 of the HBO series Game of Thrones. This palace is today, with all the most important historical buildings, in the center of the city of Split.

We hope you enjoyed today’s journey into a now sovereign nation that sits between Central and Southeast Europe. Please join us again soon for we never know where we’ll be or what we have to uncover.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Michael, Hogan, C. “Diocletian’s Palace”. The Megalithic Portal. 6 October 2007.

Weitzmann, Kurt. Age of spirituality: late antique and early Christian art, third to seventh century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979. ISBN 9780870991790.

“Day 72: Filming in Diocletian’s Palace & Žrnovnica”. WinterIsComing.net. 27 September 2013.


Diocletian Palace

Features of Kuna Banknotes