Croatia / Central & Eastern Europe / History / Travel

The Elusive Emperor

Few people are so central to the history of Split as Roman Emperor Diocletian. And yet it’s surprising how little we know about the man.

Today’s Split is both a monument to Diocletian and a solemn shrine to those he had executed.

“The next few days will see the opening of Cabaret Diocletian, a new nightlife venue in Split which, because of its location and its stylish and unusual layout, looks set to become one of the leading clubs in the city. Thanks to the entrepreneurial energies of Mr Juras, the owner of the club and local representative of the Hirter brewery, the basement of Diocletian’s palace will be transformed into a fully equipped entertainment venue. The club will contain the following areas: a large performance space, a restaurant, and private rooms decorated in ancient Roman style. Lighting will be electric, with gas in reserve.”

It’s that bit about the gas that gives the game away. This promising piece of lifestyle news comes not from one of today’s travel magazines, but from the June 1914 edition of Austrian tourist publication Der Fremdenverkehr.

Split was edging tentatively towards a tourist boom in 1914, something that the outbreak of World War I soon put a stop to. Split’s star turn then was the same as it is now: the Roman palace, built for Emperor Diocletian at the start of the 4th century, that still forms the heart of the modern city.

Toga Party

Few people are so central to the history of Split as Diocletian (245-311). And yet it is surprising how little we know about the man. The narratives routinely trotted out by tourist publications are frequently based on a consensus of suppositions rather than known facts. And with new interpretations emerging in the wake of every archeological discovery, the sands of historical record are constantly shifting.

Diocletian’s status as founder of the city is celebrated throughout the summer in the Days of Diocletian (daily from mid-May until September 21), in which the Emperor arrives at a central piazza known as the Peristyle at noon, surrounded by a retinue of helmeted Roman guards. Putting this daily toga-party aside, however, there’s a surprising lack of a commercialized Diocletian cult in Split. If you’re looking for a Diocletian T-shirt, an imperial signet ring, or even a decent biography of Diocletian written in plain language, you’ll be going home empty-handed.

Split Cathedral, formerly Diocletian’s mausoleum

Diocletian is thought to have born to humble parents in or near the city of Salona (next to present-day Solin just inland from Split), rising through the ranks of the army before being proclaimed Roman Emperor in 284. He reformed the Roman Empire by establishing the Tetrarchy (basically ‘rule by four’ – a system of divided sovereignty in which there were two emperors and two vice-emperors), then abdicated in 305, returning to the land of his birth. The retirement palace he built on the Adriatic shore became the founding structure of present-day Split, its walled precincts re-used, adapted or plundered for their stone by subsequent generations, creating the core of the modern city.

We know a lot about Diocletian’s military victories and governmental reforms because they are described in detail by near-contemporary sources. The personal biography of the man is a much mistier affair – we can’t say with any certainty where he was born, why he retired, or precisely how big his palace settlement actually was. Wandering around the palace precinct today, Diocletian’s heritage is ever present, but the man remains elusive.

Petrified shit

The fact that the former palace is also a living city means that it is by no means a traditional archeological site with everything labelled for the visitor, and it’s difficult to extrapolate much about how Diocletian actually lived. Things are compounded by the fact that none of Split’s museums provide a detailed picture of Diocletian’s era, and the visitor really has to tour the palace area, visit the City Museum and then trek out to the Archeological Museum in an attempt to piece together a picture of what third- and fourth-century Split was actually like.

It’s because the palace precinct remains a residential area that it’s unlikely that archeologists will ever be able to examine it in its entirety. The best opportunity to discover more about Diocletian’s life and times came in the 1950s with the clearing of the palace basement, a substructure in the southern part of the palace precinct which mirrors exactly the floor plan of the imperial apartments that once stood above.

History as balls: breakfast time at a leading Split hotel

The basement has since served as a film set for several scenes of the HBO series Game of Thrones; what it was used for during Diocletian’s time remains the subject of much conjecture. It was almost certainly used as a living space by the squatters who too over the palace following the fall of Salona in the seventh century. Once they moved up to ground level and started building their own dwellings from the palace masonry, the basement became a huge waste bin and shit hole, fed by the primitive toilets and inadequate drainage channels of the tenements above. When the petrified shit of medieval Split was finally cleared out of the basement by modern-day archeologists, several tantalizing leftovers of the Diocletian era were revealed. A fragment of a porphyry sarcophagus, possibly Diocletian’s own, is nowadays on display in the lapidarium of the Archeology Museum. The City Museum displays a large menza or marble food table from which the emperor himself may once have eaten.

The emperor as a god

The popular view that Diocletian was a true-born Dalmatian who came home is plausible, if not exactly watertight. Diocletian’s original name, Diokles, is Greek, so he could have been born anywhere with a bit of Hellenic heritage: multiracial, multilingual Salona certainly can’t be ruled out. Contemporary writer Lactantius, who was a civil servant under Diocletian, tells us that the emperor, upon his abdication, left the imperial capital Nicomedia like an old soldier ‘dismissed into his own country’, suggesting that the ex-emperor was going back to where he was born.

However there were many other reasons why Diocletian may have chosen to build his palace here – access to sulphurous springs, proximity to a big city like Salona, and most crucially, good maritime links and ease of seaborne escape. Construction of the palace began at least ten years before Diocletian’s retirement, which indicates that the whole idea of abdication was an integral part of Diocletian’s reforms. Emperors would henceforth leave the imperial stage when their time was up, thereby removing the need for ambitious subordinates to have them murdered.

Know your emperor: Hadrian dessert wine from Hvar

Diocletian didn’t just reform the administration of the Empire, he also reformed the ceremonial that surrounded the imperial court. The Emperor was henceforth considered a god from the moment of his accession, and people had to abase themselves when introduced into his presence. The desire to build fabulous palaces was an outgrowth of this new culture of adoration, and the palace at Split was by no means the only one that Diocletian built. Diocletian wanted his imperial capital at Nicomedia to rival Rome, and large parts of the city were demolished to make way for his official residence. He also built a fortified palace in Antioch which, although no longer in existence, is thought to have resembled the one in Split.

It’s also an open question whether Diocletian’s palace really was just a palace, or part of an already existing settlement. The name Split derives from the Latin Spalatum, which in turn is a corruption of the Greek Aspalathos (which literally means hairy broom, the wiry, yellow-flowered plant that covers this stretch of coast), and it is assumed that the Greeks got here before Diocletian did. Stone fragments of a well found at the entrance to the palace basement predate Diocletian’s time by several centuries. Recent renovation of the Split waterfront revealed wooden beams, confirming the existence of a port here in the pre-Roman era. It’s entirely possible that Diocletian demolished an existing settlement in order to make room for his palace, much as he had done in Nicomedia.

Adriatic Vegas

Although we know a great deal about the shape and function of Diocletian’s palace, the question of what lay immediately outside the palace walls remains the subject of much debate. Recent excavations have suggested the existence of a hippodrome just outside the palace, and an amphitheatre (or at the very least a theatre) just inland. This might mean that the palace was not just an imperial retirement home but a much bigger settlement comprising entertainment facilities: ‘some kind of Roman-era Las Vegas’, the Croatian magazine Globus dared to suggest in April 2014. The idea that Diocletian’s Split was a resort seems to be a backward projection of our present-day preoccupation with the travel and entertainment industries. However it’s certainly plausible that Diocletian’s settlement was more than just a palace and served a wider purpose. It is entirely likely that the retired emperor saw himself as an important player on the imperial chessboard, making his palace a political centre of some importance rather than a residence designed to keep the old man out of the way.

Ultimately there’s a huge amount of ambiguity about Diocletian’s role as local hero or imperial villain. He may well have been the founder of the Split we know today, but he also presided over the last, greatest persecution of Christians in the annals of imperial Rome. And in a solidly Catholic city like Split, Diocletian’s heritage can never be regarded as something entirely positive. The patron saint of the city is after all St Domnius (Sveti Dujam), the third-century bishop of Salona who is commonly held to have been decapitated in the city’s amphitheatre during Diocletian’s rule. St Domnius’s feast day is marked on May 7 with church processions and a city-wide fair – an annual celebration of the fact that Diocletian did not end up on the winning side.

City of Sphinxes

In a very real sense central Split is both a monument to Diocletian and a solemn shrine to those he had executed. The early-medieval Christian civilization that took over Diocletian’s palace engaged in a deliberate attempt to demonstrate its mastery over the emperor’s pagan heritage. Diocletian’s mausoleum became the Cathedral of St Domnius. One of the cathedral’s most famous altars (carved by Croatian Renaissance master Juraj Dalmatinac) honours St Anastasius the Fuller, a Salona Christian who was thrown into the sea with a stone around his neck. The crypt of the cathedral, formerly a shrine to Mithras, was rededicated to another of Diocletian’s martyrs, St Lucy. Diocletian’s sarcophagus, which once rested in the mausoleum, is assumed to have been thrown into the growing shit pile in the palace basement.

For an emperor like Diocletian, maybe the sphinx is the most appropriate symbol of all: Egyptian sphinx in the Peristyle (photo: Mirko Božić)

Diocletian shares the fate of many Roman emperors in the sense that there are so few reliable likenesses of him that we can’t really be sure what he looked like. Busts of Diocletian may well have been destroyed because of his status as a persecutor of Christians, and the only surviving likeness we can be sure of is a head of Diocletian belonging to the Istanbul Archeological Museum. It shows a bearded, rugged, resolute man, and rather like the images of emperors that appear on coins, it may well be a stock representation of imperial power rather than a genuine portrait.

Ultimately the most iconically recognizable character to emerge from Diocletian’s palace is not the emperor himself but the granite sphinx that crouches on the balustrade beside the cathedral. One of several that Diocletian had imported from Egypt, this is the sole Split sphinx that survives in its complete form. Early Christians beheaded all of the others, as if the best way to get at the dead emperor was by decapitating his stone pets. For an emperor like Diocletian, a historical riddle that remains unanswered, maybe the sphinx is the most appropriate symbol of all.

© Jonathan Bousfield