The name Diocletian was one that the Christians would come to dread. Roman emperor from 284 to 305AD, Diocletian was one of the last Caesars to persecute the growing religion in a desperate attempt to stop its surging support. As part of his aim to reaffirm his authority as the God-given ruler of the world, the emperor rigidly enforced the worship of the old gods and oppressed those who dared to follow another faith.
The result was the Diocletianic Persecution, where both Christians and Jews were rounded up due to their suspicious lack of support for the values of the existing regime. Christian leaders were literally silenced: Romanus of Caesarea had his tongue removed before his execution. Nobody would oppose Diocletian’s purpose of creating one nation under Jupiter.
The hatred grew. Christian churches were toppled and their worshippers burnt to death. The intolerance became ever more brutal. Dungeons were filled with growing numbers of Christians, jailed simply for refusing to sacrifice to the old gods.
Others were condemned to damnatio ad bestias, execution by wild beasts. Saint Euphemia has Diocletian’s oppression to thank for her matrydom. She was torn to pieces by lions in the circus after refusing to sacrifice to Ares, God of War (at least it wasn’t Venus, which might have been rather perverse).
After a lengthy career dedicated to suffering and misery, Diocletian retired to his birthplace, Dalmatia, where he began the construction of a new palace. This vast complex today makes up the old town of Split in Croatia, which is one of the most spectacular Roman sites still in existence. Astonishingly, it is so little known that many people have never heard of it before arrival in modern-day Split.
Incorporating both Diocletian’s lodgings and the quarters where his troops were stationed, the palace is basically a citadel or a fortress. Having racked up a substantial number of enemies during his lifetime, the aging dictator lived out his last years in a state of paranoia. Apparently, he changed his sleeping quarters every night to thwart would-be assassins.
What is most astonishing about Diocletian’s palace is that this is not a jumble of columns with a visitors’ centre attached. The living city of Split is the attraction. People still live and work amongst the ruins just as they have done for two millennia. There is a pizzeria built alongside the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, right in the city centre. This temple still retains its original roof, something very rare in buildings from this period:
The town’s cathedral was originally Diocletian’s mausoleum and you can still visit the crypt below. How the Christians must have loved occupying the very tomb of their pagan oppressor and turning it into a place of worship!
Controlling a vast empire meant that Diocletian could draw on all the wealth of his possessions in decorating his retirement village. He imported black granite sphinxes from Egypt to decorate the buildings. Already almost 1,800 years old when they were requisitioned for the empire, these statues are still dotted around the city today, left to the open air and not hidden away under air-conditioned glass in museums.
Best of all, the city walls still stand and visitors can choose whether to enter through one of the four gates. Straight out of a fantasy novel, these are all named for metals: the Gold Gate (North), the Silver Gate (East),the Bronze Gate (South), and the Iron Gate (West) – the one below:
While its nearby neighbour Dubrovnik creaks under the weight of the tourist hordes disgorged by the cruise ships that loom up against its harbour, the people of Split live out their lives in the midst of some of the finest Roman ruins anywhere in the world, in the same way as they have done for 2,000 years. Spilt is a must-see on any trip to Croatia.