The dawn of the fourth century witnessed a huge building site by the seashore in the ancient little fishing village of Aspalathos, a few miles from the busy, prosperous city of Salona. An enormous amount of manpower must have been needed to construct such a spacious and magnificent palace, in the relatively short period of ten years. The palace was for Emperor Diocletian who after voluntarily vacating the throne of the Roman Empire, moved in 305 A.D. to pass the last years of his life.
There are several reason why Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus chose just this place to spend his last days. Aspalathos was a secluded, sun-drenched bay on an attractive peninsula, in the center of the Adriatic coast, protected from the sea by the islands of central Dalmatia, from the land by the Dinaric massif, and very near quarries yielding excellent building stone.
Many have wondered that Diocletian chose to return to the country where his father had been a slave. He lived nine years to enjoy his magnificent creation, and those were the years which witnessed the overthrow of paganism, and the conversion of Emperor Constantine to the despised faith of the followers of the Nazarene. But Diocletian remained to the end faithful to his old gods—and raised two Temples to Jupiter and Esculapius inside the palace, now the cathedral and baptistery.
If you walk along the quay or old Riva, and look up above the shops and cafes of the basement, you will see a long line of noble decorative half-columns which formed Diocletian’s cryptoporticus.
There were initially fifty-two, but only thirty-eight can now be made out, and the intervening spaces are filled in with masonry, the walls of the mean houses crowded between them. Above is more artifact, part Roman, part medieval, but pierced with little modern windows with bright colored shutters, in curious contrast to the ancient stonework below.
The whole of this south front of the palace was devoted to the Imperial apartments. It had a water-gate where Diocletian could embark or disembark, just as the three other sides of the palace had their great gateways towards the land.
The Porta Aurea, on the north side, which was the principal entrance and the one by which Diocletian always entered from Salona, is in excellent preservation today and is one of the most picturesque parts in the city.
The peristyle of the palace has seven Corinthian arches on each side resting on mighty columns. The south steps ascend to what was the portico of the vestibule which opened into a magnificent hall or atrium, with side aisles like a church, out of which the private apartments of Diocletian were entered.
The ancient temples, converted into the Cathedral St. Domnius and Baptistery, are on each side of the peristyle and were formerly enclosed by courts of their own.
A remarkable feature of the interior of the Cathedral is the frieze, on which are depicted in relief hunting scenes, in which Cupids on foot, on horseback, or driving chariots, are mixed up with stags and wild animals.
The pulpit will at once attract your attention. It is beautiful alike in form and coloring, formed of marble and limestone of varying tints, resting on six octagonal columns. Each door is divided into fourteen panels, each representing some incident in the life of our Lord, and they are said to be among the earliest and best examples of the medieval woodwork in existence.
In modern times, the area covered by the old palace seems to have shrunk. The City of Split has expanded to cover the whole peninsula and it pulsates with increasing vigor to the rhythm of social, economic and cultural life. The old emperor’s palace is gradually being submerged in the outlines of a new Split but this inevitable result of modern development is offset by the care and attention which the modern age shows for the historical nucleus of the city. In this way, modern Split is paying its debt to the building which so long ago laid its foundations as a city.