Exploring the Ancient Ruins of Diocletian’s Palace

If you do a quick search on Google (or an alternative search engine of your choosing – no bias here!) for “what to do in Split“, the first result would probably be ‘Diocletian’s Palace‘.

I say probably, but I mean definitely because I just checked. It’s a fact. Diocletian’s Palace shows up.

Now, I love scouting out a good palace on my word adventures, I really do. But, of all the palaces I’ve frequented, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been inside one. And I promise, there really has been a fair few!

Off the top of my head there’s Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace, Jaipur’s City Palace, Buda Castle (Wikipedia says it counts as a palace, okay), Udaipur City Palace, Beijing’s Forbidden City and, of course, not forgetting our very own Buckingham Palace.

When I say I’ve visited all these palaces, what I actually mean is I’ve stood outside, looked up, ooh-ed and aah-ed like those little green aliens on Toy Story, took some photos and then gone on my merry way. Because ain’t nobody got time for paying entrance fees.

I tell a lie. I did once go into a palace. Sort of.

In Kochi, Kerala, there’s this place called Bolgatty Palace and Island Resort which is, as the name would suggest a resort.

My friends, being the useful and dedicated tour guides that they were, and having already tried (and failed) to show me the synagogue in Jew Town a good handful of times, decided we’d try our luck at visiting this really nice old Dutch palace that was eventually handed over to the British in India. Because history and culture.

Except these days the ‘palace’ is a fancy-pants hotel and resort. Still, we soldiered on and I had to pretend I was some really important visiting British architect-loving person who had a deep interest in wood panelling. I will tell you this for free – I’ve never looked so intently at a door before, and doubt I ever will again.

Rewinding back to the topic at hand… Diocletian’s Palace.

My idea of researching something on Google is to glance at the first page of images and maybe click on the first couple of web links.

So, having only a few pictures of an intimidating looking entrance, a giant sphinx, and a big tower to go on, I kind of anticipated this being just another palace I had no intention of paying to enter. Still, a palace is a palace and their mostly kind of pretty so why the devil not go and have a gander, right?

On my first full day in Split, I woke up early-ish and, after wolfing down a hearty and nutritious breakfast of orange juice and Milka biscuits, went for a wander to find this super old palace that Google was raving on about.

I retraced my steps from the night before and, after about 5 minutes found myself face to face with a gigantic statue of none other than Gelert Grindelwald!

In the spirit of being honest and open and totally transparent with the whole of the Internet, this is where I confess that the bloke above is not, in fact, Gelert Grindelwald, but Grgur Ninski, a nice Christian guy who had a bit of a falling out with the Pope and did a lot of good stuff for Croatian language in the church.

As far as I know, Mr Ninski had nothing to do with Diocletian’s Palace, but is merely conveniently located right outside the Golden Gate, which was the entrance used by Emperor Diocletian back in 305AD, when he first entered the palace.

The not-so-golden Golden Gate of Diocletian’s Palace

As you can see from my fantastic and very neatly aligned photography (lol), the Golden Gate isn’t so golden these days. Although, you know, it’s very very old so has probably faded over time and perhaps was once a nice shade of parchment.

Walking through the entrance, I kind of thought “Oh wow, this is a nice entrance to the Old Town, I like it“. It sort of felt like I could have been walking into a time machine, such was the difference between the outside (Grgur Ninski and a big open grassy area with water fountains) and the inside (cobbled floor, narrow alleys and the distinct feeling of being an extra in A Knight’s Tale).

Related: A Brief Intro to Split (the City, Not the Movie)

But it wasn’t until I spent a good 10 to 15 minutes wandering around aimlessly trying to find the palace that I realised I was IN THE PALACE. And no entry fee was paid! How bloody fantastic is that?! 

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly the jaw-dropping, luxurious Disney-esque type setting I’d always imagined a palace to be (think the Sultan’s Palace from Aladdin and you’re not far off) but it was pretty darned cool all the same.

Who was Diocletian and why did he have a palace? 

Diocletian was a bloke who lived in Croatia way back when it was known as the Roman province of Dalmatia. He had a Greek name but wasn’t Greek. He wasn’t born in line to become emperor. In fact, he wasn’t born in line to become anything. His family was pretty lowly in terms of status, and so, although there isn’t that much information available about his life pre-military (because Wikipedia wasn’t around in 244AD), it’s safe to say that his birthright was more pauper than prince.

Despite his social status (if such thing existed back then) being so questionable, he somehow managed to rise like a phoenix through the military ranks, eventually becoming cavalry commander to the emperor of the time, Emperor Carus.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak modern military, let alone ancient military, so I have no idea what the role of cavalry commander actually entails. I like to think it’s the old-time equivalent of the guy who sits in the White House with full control over all the big red buttons that say things like DO NOT PUSH and NUCLEAR MISSILE: DO NOT INITIATE

So, in short, he was pretty hot stuff.

Then Emperor Carus died, and so did his son Numerian, and so somehow Diocletian was proclaimed emperor. He faced a little bit of opposition though, in the shape of Carus’s other son, Carinus. But have no fear, my friends, for Diocletian wiped the floor with him in battle and regained his title. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.

Then, because he was even hotter hot stuff than before, he changed his name to suit his new, super important role, and became Caesar Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus

A year or so later, he nominated one of his buddies, Maximian, to be his co-emperor and help him run shop. Despite a lot of battles and losing and winning and losing again, it seems they made a better coalition than anything the U.K. has coming for it…

The palace was originally built as a retirement home for Diocletian, at the turn of the 4th century, as he was of ill health and intended to abdicate the throne sooner rather than later. His official retirement date was 1st May 305, and from that day until his death in 312 (as a result of either illness or suicide – nobody really knows) he lived there in that palace.

Although according to most sources, ‘palace’ is a pretty broad term for what the structure actually was, and still is today. At around 30,000m² it’s pretty big – just under half the size of Buckingham Palace, including its grounds.

In its heyday, it was more of a fortress, with half of it designated for Diocletian’s personal use, and the other half as a military garrison.

Because all retired emperors need round-the-clock military protection.

Wind the clocks forward about 1700 years and it’s pretty surreal to find yourself sitting down on the exact same steps that once upon a time an emperor was settled on (give or take, what with restorations and the likes).

These days, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be a lot of the palace still standing. Although if you properly look into it, it’s kind of astounding just how much of the palace is still intact and almost in its original condition. Not only is it of utmost local importance, but is of unique importance worldwide as the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace.

It’s also pretty special in that to this day people live, eat and work in the palace. As in, inside the structure there are a crazy amount of houses and restaurants and shops and all sorts of other businesses, as well as what is claimed to be the one of the world’s narrowest alleys (aptly named Pusti me da prodjem, or Let Me Pass). It has its own TripAdvisor page and everything. Basically, the Old Town is the palace and the palace is the Old Town and that, to me, is pretty damn snazzy.

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16 Comments

  1. 20th June 2017 / 9:47 am

    OMG I love the architecture. Split is really becoming the next hot tourist destination and it’s nice to see that it has so much to offer in terms of history and culture as well. Castles/Palaces are always fun to wander around, and the architecture is something that interests me a lot. Roman architecture with its pillars and arches have always fascinated me so this is definitely going to be one place I would want to visit. I especially love the third picture from the top.

  2. 20th June 2017 / 10:34 am

    AH I’m already going to Zagreb soon but now I’m really tempted to add in Split. I love all of this history! How many days would you recommend for Split?

    • rhiydwi
      23rd June 2017 / 3:26 pm

      Split is gorgeous! It really surprised me, and if I remember correctly the bus journey wasn’t too long between the 2 cities.
      I only stayed 3 days, which was perfect (if a little long!) as I just had a mooch about the city, with a day trip to Klis Fortress. However, I know there are a lot of day trips to the islands and local national parks and everything available there too. Had I gone during summer I definitely would have added a day or two for those!

  3. 20th June 2017 / 4:02 pm

    I admit that I’m a sucker for castles. Like you, I visited City Palace in Jaipur but was more impressed by Mysore Palace (so beautiful inside but you’re not allowed to take any photos!). This one in Croatia certainly looks like it holds a lot of history and secrets. I would definitely head to Split to check out this gem.

    • rhiydwi
      23rd June 2017 / 3:27 pm

      I visited Mysore Palace too (how could I forget?!) but it was during the night and only in passing, so I didn’t really get to experience the full grandeur of the place.

  4. 20th June 2017 / 5:06 pm

    I do love a good castle (I’m always coughing up the entrance fee!). This one sounds amazing – how cool that people still live and work in it. I don’t think it will be hard to persuade the husband to come here as he loves Roman history!

  5. 20th June 2017 / 5:15 pm

    Wow, these are really incredible photos. I’ve never even heard of this place before. Thank you for sharing it!

  6. 20th June 2017 / 11:24 pm

    That’s such an interesting story about how Diocletian claimed his palace! I’ve definitely stumbled across this many a times on Google (guilty of bias here!) and have had it on my bucket list for ages! My dad’s family is from Croatia, so visiting it is very high on my bucket list! Also definitely had a chuckle with your green aliens from Toy Story reference. That’s literally me at every palace I’ve been to so far! 😛 (Schoenbrunn, Buckingham & Versailles so far… So many more to go!)

    • rhiydwi
      23rd June 2017 / 3:29 pm

      Sometimes my laptop randomly changes the homepage to Bing and I get so mad – Google is definitely my fave, but don’t tell anyone I said that!
      Oooh, I’m jealous of Versailles! I’d love to visit some day, but the day-to-day cost of visiting France is a bit offputting for my wallet.

  7. 20th June 2017 / 11:39 pm

    Such a well written article, really made me laugh. Great mix of history and humour! I am also a lover of the outside of castles, though I’ve been peer pressured into entering a few more than you. This sounds worthwhile though, heading back to Solit in April so will 100% check it out!

    • rhiydwi
      23rd June 2017 / 3:31 pm

      Thanks Clare! 🙂 Oh wow, I’m super jealous you’re heading back there next year! Croatia may be in my top few favourite countries I’ve ever visited.

  8. 21st June 2017 / 7:45 am

    I loved the sense of humour in your post. I know that feeling when you want to enter an awesome building but the entrance fees is clearly set keeping in mind no humans but only ATM cash machines walk in; so you end up taking artsy photos outside the buildings and learning about the facts from wikipedia! Happened to me so many times, so like you I become enthusiastic when I find a pretty cool place which comes without an entrance fee. Most of the interesting places in India unfortunately costs a lot to the foreigners. Oh by the way while reading about the palace’s history in the article I almost wished “how nice it would be if this girl could teach me history this way when I was in school” ! It was absolute fun! 🙂

    • rhiydwi
      23rd June 2017 / 3:32 pm

      Oh my word, don’t even get me started on India!!! When I visited last year I was always with a bunch of my local friends. It would make me so mad when my entry fee would cost 10x theirs! Like, I totally get that countries want to make money off of their visitors but the huge difference in price was laughable in most places.
      Aw thank you! 😀 I tried to make it fun – don’t want anyone falling asleep on my watch haha.

  9. Jean
    21st June 2017 / 11:54 am

    Just some bloke who lived…. oh that had me in giggles! Love it. Looks like an epic place to explore. Even if you did have to turn into an LGM and ohhhh and ahhhhhh at it all.

  10. 22nd June 2017 / 10:50 am

    I liked that you provided the history of Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a smart and hardworking leader. I am a fan of reading this kind of stuff. The palace looks like it is the heart of the city. It is special and a great representation of what happened years ago.

  11. 22nd June 2017 / 10:52 am

    I liked that you provided the history of Diocletian’s Palace. Diocletian was a smart and hardworking leader. I am a fan of reading this kind of stuff. The palace looks like it is the heart of the city. It is special and a great representation of what happened years ago. It is incredible that it has not collapsed yet.

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