Having never spent time in any portion of the former Roman Empire, I was immediately struck by the prevalence of Roman archaeological remains along the coast of Croatia. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of Zadar itself is the exposed foundations of the ancient Roman Forum, which are now proudly displayed as part of recreational urban space in the center of old town Zadar. Whether it be foundations of walls, portions of the old city gate, or even fragments of Roman columns that were subsequently utilized in 8th or 9th century constructions, the Roman component of Zadar is striking and most notably related to its role as an administrative colony in the province of Dalmatia.
However, as a living city, it is often difficult to gauge the layout and structure of the former Roman settlement, apart from the predominantly orthogonal street pattern installed by the Romans. In fact, Roman organization of space is often more accessible in the remains of smaller Roman towns or ‘municipia’ that are scattered across the countryside – some of which have been partly excavated like Asseria or Varvaria, while others remain buried and overgrown with scrub vegetation of the Mediterranean environment, as in the case of Nadin. Regardless, the material record that survives and sits on display in local museums is impressive and reflects a high degree of craftsmanship, wealth, and power, as Dalmatia was brought into the empire sometime in the first century B.C.
The city of Salona, which now lies in ruins on the outskirts of Split, was the established Roman capital of Dalmatia, while Zadar and Narona represented other important cities in Roman administration. Pula, a major Roman colony in Istria along Croatia’s northern coast, was never a part of Dalmatia but is nevertheless one of the more impressive examples of Roman engineering in the region.
However, it wasn’t until our recent excursion to Rome that we realized just how much the Roman heartland ranks above and beyond any provincial establishment in terms of grandiose displays of power, wealth, and political might. Everything in Rome, from the Colosseum to the Pantheon to the Forum, was constructed on an astonishing scale and with an unparalleled degree of architectural skill and creativity. Even the aqueducts, which were engineered to bring water from the surrounding hills to Rome, were an impressionable sight. In many ways, such displays were not simply for the ‘glory of Rome,’ but rather, for the glory of the emperor himself.
Returning to Dalmatia, there is one monument that is on par with the absolute power and over-the-top wealth of the Roman emperor, and for good reason. The palace in the city of Split was constructed early in the 4th century A.D. as the retirement home of Emperor Diocletian, who ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 284-305. Born in Dalmatia, he simply wished to return home for his golden years. Although most of the palace has been reconfigured, walking through some of the more ancient halls certainly has the vibe of the spacious palaces of Palatine hill in central Rome where several emperors and other aristocratic families called home.
Interestingly, when the Roman Empire collapsed and the ancient city of Salona was abandoned, the former palace building with its imposing fortification walls served as the heart of the growing medieval settlement. The interior of the palace was restructured to accommodate the medieval town nucleus, which ultimately expanded beyond its walls. Today, the remains of Diocletian’s palace still arguably serve as the most impressive example of Roman architecture in all of Dalmatia, and coupled with the waterfront, it continues to be a focal point of the vibrant city of Split.