Am Bear, Will Travel: The Palace of Diocletian

Editor's Note: The @KyCocaineBear and his Lib Wife ("the Lib") are on a European vacation and he has graciously agreed to document their journeys across the pond in this new travel blog series.

Welcome to Am Bear, Will Travel.

The Lib of the House and I have been in Croatia for the past week now with some quick dips into Bosnia and Montenegro. I never had any strong desire to tour the former bastions of communism that so much of the eastern European countries were comprised of but this has been an amazing visit.

I’ll eventually be doing a more overall summary piece on the trip but there are certain things I’ve seen that deserve their own post.

The palace of Diocletian in the city of Split is one of those sites.

Diocletian was born in the city of Solana not far from Split and became a soldier in Rome’s army at the age of 16. I won’t dwell too deeply on his story other than to say that he was an exceptionally talented soldier that worked his way up through the ranks over the years until he became emperor in 284 AD.

Construction of the palace began in 295 and in 305, Diocletian did something no other Roman emperor had done up to that point and abdicated the throne so he could retire. He moved to the palace in 305 and lived out the rest of his life in high style – finally passing in 311 at ~70 years old.

The palace was split between a luxurious abode for Diocletian, his family, and visiting dignitaries with the other half set aside for a garrison of troops to protect the inhabitants. It had an aqueduct that supplied fresh water for drinking, running water for the toilets, and even heated floors.

As Rome began its slow disintegration in the 400’s the palace became a refuge for fleeing Roman nobility and when the empire gave its last gasps in the 600s the palace began its second life as a home for commoners and that’s one of the many things that make these “ruins” so special. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Rome and I’ve visited all the sites there and neighboring cities like Pompeii and Naples as well as in countries like England and France and as far as I know – these are the only ancient ruins that are still actively lived in by locals.

The Southern Walls

In the Roman’s heyday, this was all sea and would have been used as an escape should the palace have been attacked.

A riviera was only added in the 1700’s when the Venetians controlled this area and wanted a better port for their ships. This extra land allowed bars, restaurants, and shops to pop up and they used the original walls as the back of their shops.

This setup still exists today.

The image on the left is the original opening that Diocletian would have used as an escape route had the palace ever been attacked. The image on the right is what you see after entering.

It’s a bit of a surprise to enter into such a large space when the opening suggests nothing this grand is behind it. No one lived down here as the sea at high tide would enter the area. The sole reason for this grand substructure is simply to support and raise up the living areas above it so they could have their grand sea views.

There are multiple rooms like this and other than their space and size there isn’t anything particularly luxurious about them. There are no paintings or sculptures here.

We can only walk in these rooms today because they have been cleared of centuries of waste that were piled up after the 600s when commoners began to build their homes and shops above where the palace living areas originally existed.

They knocked holes through the floors in various locations and essentially used the substructure as a giant toilet. There are many more rooms like this one where we can’t venture because they haven’t been excavated.

Why? Well, after spending a lot of time and money – they simply didn’t find anything of value other than knowing what these people ate.

The other big takeaway from down here is just how strong Roman engineering was. This sub structure was built to house walls and floors and support people and floors (obviously) but what it supports today without any further reinforcement is truly amazing and we’ll see that shortly.

In the left image above you can see these giant blocks they used for the base walls.

There is no mortar used here.

Instead, you can see the little jig cuts they used to keep any sliding friction from occurring. These cuts were all done by hand and it’s pretty amazing how tight they are together.

In the image on the right we can see an arch where they did use mortar which still seems to be in solid condition over 1,700 years later. This mortar consisted of volcanic ash with lime, seawater, and eggs.

These arches were there to circulate air in the lower chambers.

Finally emerging from the lower levels, I was really surprised to arrive at what amounts to a small medieval village that has been built up over centuries. Some of these walls go back to the 600’s while others date as recent as the 1500’s.

The substructure handles this extra weight with no problem although the tour guide mentioned the government does go down there occasionally to do very precise measurements using lasers so they can catch any issues before they become major problems.

It isn’t all narrow streets and old buildings built right next to each other, though. The image on the left shows where an Allied bomb destroyed a section of the top level when we were trying to root out the Nazis that took over this area after the fall of Mussolini.

On the right, a beautiful dome that is original to the Roman time is missing its top due to an Allied bomb that hit but thankfully did not explode. It should be noted that the target was not the palace. The Nazis were elsewhere but the bombs were off target.

The tomb of Diocletian.

Fun fact – the emperor after Diocletian was Constantine who legalized Christianity in 330.

Diocletian was the last emperor to pursue and punish Christians that had turned away from the old gods. As such, they hated him.

When the commoners took this over they turned his tomb into a church and smashed his sarcophagus, what was left of his body, and threw it all in the junk. Nothing of his original burial chamber will ever be recovered.

Thankfully, not everything was lost from the original palace.

These are the original columns to the square where Diocletian would have greeted commoners to give speeches.

The image on the left has the little podium he would have stood on while the right shows the remaining beautiful columns that would have graced this square.

I can only imagine what it would have looked like 1,700 years ago when it was all complete.

Just guys bein' dudes.

Here’s the last fun fact about Diocletian – history records he had both his wife and his daughter beheaded in the square above for choosing to become Christians. If nothing else, the guy certainly had a singular vision of how the world should work.

And that is Diocletian’s palace – one of the only Roman ruins I’m aware of that started as a palace to eventually become its own little village and then is allowed to continue that way rather than become a history museum or a tourist only zone.