Michael Greenhalgh, Department of Art History,

Australian National University (

Fischer von Erlach's reconstruction of Split, from his Entwuerff einer historischen Architektur, Vienna 1721, Tafel X

The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus writes admiringly of Diocletian's building at Split:

The city of Spalato, which means "little palace", was founded by the emperor Diocletian on the coast of Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia):

He made it his own dwelling-place, and built within it a court and a palace, most part of which has been destroyed. But a few things remain to this day, e.g. the episcopal residence of the city and the church of St Domnus, in which St Domnus himself lies, and which was the resting-place of the same emperor Diocletian. Beneath it are arching vaults, and to cover over the city throughout, and to build his palace and all the living quarters of the city on top of those vaults, which used to be prisons, in which he cruelly confined the saints whom he tormented. The defence-wall of this city is constructed neither of bricks nor of concrete, but of ashlar blocks, one and often two fathoms in length by a fathom across, and these are fitted and joined to one another by iron cramps puddled into molten lead. In this city also stand close rows of columns, with entablatures above, on which this same emperor Diocletian proposed to erect arching vaults, to a height of two and three stories, so that they covered little ground-space in the same city. The defence wall of this city has neither rampart nor bulwarks, but only lofty walls and arrow-slits (Constantine Porphyrogennetos 1949, chap 29, lines 237-57).

Above: Ernest Hebrard's reconstruction of Split, Paris 1911

As a reminder of the riches of (Roman) Dalmatia, there follows a presentation on the Palace of Diocletian, addressed to non-specialists. A pedagogical reason for this presentation is to test the story-book approach with in-line images, so that users may judge how the technology might work with book-length treatments. Will this system be useful for teaching, perhaps providing a series of documents for self-tutoring?

Split - or Spalato - is one of the most extraordinary places of the later Roman world, being no less than the palace which the Emperor Diocletian began building in 293 AD in readiness for his retirement from politics in 305. On the Dalmatian coast, adjacent to the Roman city of Salonae, it takes the dual form of a legionary camp similar to those still to be seen on the frontiers of Syria (appropriately so, for Diocletian was of necessity a military emperor) but also, with its splendid loggias, of an Italian house.

The name "Split" is, for the fanciful down the ages, a contraction of "Spalatum" - that is "palatium" or "palace". A similar example of folk etymology is to be found in Sicily, where the late Roman villa with prestigious mosaics, at Casale, is near a town called Piazza Armerina - "Piazza" here likely being derived from "palatium". Constantine Porphyrogenitus certainly thought so - but contemporary opinion holds that the name more likely derives from the Greek name for the area - Aspalathos, which is a shrub.

The importance of Split resides both in its state of preservation, and in the dearth of comparable examples from the Roman world. There are no coherent palace structures left in Italy, for example: fragments exist at Ravenna, althpough they are difficult to identify; the the Palatine Hill in Rome (the origin of the word "palace", because that is where the Imperial palaces were) presents several overlapping structures - but nothing in so coherent a form as Split, where the structure of the palace/camp tells us much about imperial ceremonial and god-like pretensions.

Edward Gibbon gives a good description of how Diocletian, retiring (without being pushed) from the Imperial Purple, came here to grow cabbages:

A miserable village still preserves the name of Salona; but so late as the sixteenth century the remains of a theatre, and a confused prospect of broken arches and marble columns, continued to attest to its ancient splendour. About six or seven miles from the city Diocletian constructed a magnificent palace, and we may infer, from the greatness of the work, how long he had meditated his design of abdicating the empire ...

Though Constantine, from a very obvious prejudice, affects to mention the palace of Diocletian with contempt, yet one of their successors, who could only see it in a neglected and mutilated state, celebrates its magnificence in terms of the highest admiration ... The form was quadrangular, flanked by sixteen towers ... The whole was constructed of a beautiful free-stone, extracted from the neighbouring quarries of Trau, or Tragutium, and very little inferior to marble itself. Four streets, intersecting each other at right angles, divided the several parts of this great edifice, and the approach to the principal apartment was from a very stately entrance, which is still called the Golden Gate. The approach was terminated by a peristylium of granite columns, on the one side of which we discover the square temple of Aesculapius, on the other the octagon temple of Jupiter...

The range of principal apartments was protected towards the south-west by a portico five hundred and seventeen feet long, which must have formed a very noble and delightful walk, when the beauties of painting and sculpture were added to those of the prospect (Gibbon 1960, 135-6).

The ground-plan is a trapezoid, with the south (sea) side (157.5 metres) endowed with a splendid balcony but only a small gate. The longer walls are on the east (191.25m) and west (192.10m) sides and these, together with the closing wall to the north (150.9m) have impressive gates. The walls are some 17m in height, and 2m thick, and are largely intact, with square towers at the corners and on the long sides, and fancier octagonal ones flanking all the landward gates.

What makes Split so impressive is that the post-antique housing does not totally hide the Roman arrangement - that is:

Each of these is dealt with on a separate XMosaic page.

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