Diocletian - From Emperor To Enigma

more than a year ago

Few people are so central to the history of Split as the third-century Roman Emperor 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 hard facts. With new interpretations emerging in the wake of every archeological discovery, however, the sands of historical record are constantly shifting.

Diocletian’s status as founder of the city is celebrated every year in the Days of Diocletian (this year falling on August 28-31), when locals dressed as Diocletian and his retinue arrive by chariot to greet the crowds. Putting this three-day 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 and with nice pictures, you’ll be going home empty-handed.

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.

The fact that the former palace area now forms the heart of a living city means that it is not a traditional archeological site with everything labeled for the visitor, making it difficult to extrapolate much about how Diocletian 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 is thought to mirror exactly the floor plan of the imperial apartments that once stood above. The reason why a basement exists beneath this part of the palace is believed to be because the ground beneath Diocletian’s planned living quarters dropped sharply towards the sea, so a set of foundations had to be built in order to raise the level of the ground floor.


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