I was in Split, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, to visit the remains of the Roman palace – or fortified villa – built by the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th Century AD. The previous evening I had gone to bed early, intending to get up soon after dawn and visit the ruins before the crowds gathered too thickly. In the event, however, I was woken a lot earlier. It was 3am, a hot night, and sleep had deserted me. Instead I got up, got dressed, and went out.
Over two hours until sunrise, and the narrow alleys of the medieval town were a labyrinth of pitch darkness and moonlight, deserted except for the occasional slinking cat. Stepping from the central alleyway I arrived at the Prothyron, the monumental entrance of the palace, with the colonnaded Peristyle before it. The effect was eerie and deeply impressive. In the warm darkness the open space appeared enclosed, like the interior of a vast basilica. My camera is not the greatest, but I took a picture anyway: the grainy result gives only a vague impression of the scene.
Later, after a stroll along the deserted seafront below the buttress walls of the palace, I returned to the Peristyle. It was shortly after 4am, and the sky was filling with light, the stone of the colonnade and the palace façade glowing with a premonition of dawn.
I remained there for another hour, as the daylight increased. By 4.30am the sky had grown pale, although the sun would not rise for another half hour. Already, though, the first other visitors had wandered through the square, taking pictures just as I was doing. Street sweepers appeared, and the owner of the Luxor Café unlocked the doors to begin preparations for the day’s business. Soon the guided tour groups would begin pouring in from the surrounding alleyways, the costumed ‘Roman soldiers’ would take up their positions, and the square would fill. It was enough: I returned to my apartment by 5am, and slept.
Later that day I went back to the palace. As the bells rang noon from the medieval campanile built onto the front of Diocletian’s Mausoleum, the emperor himself appeared - or rather, a man dressed in a loose approximation of imperial costume - flanked by guards. Before a sea of tourists, he recited a brief address in Italianate Latin, and coaxed a shout of acclamation from the crowd. Not the most authentic of displays, perhaps, but it served as an entertaining postscript to my pre-dawn visit.
(Anyone wanting a better idea of what an actual Late Roman emperor looked like might refer to this missorium, or ceremonial silver dish, dating from c.AD388 – the Emperor Theodosius, his two co-emperors and his guards are shown larger than life, under the arches of a Prothyron quite similar to the one in Split):
(One of my favourite anecdotes about Diocletian comes from the historian Aurelius Victor, who writes that the retired emperor, following his abdication in AD305, was begged by his former co-ruler Maximian to resume control of the empire, which had spiralled into chaos. “If you could see the cabbages I have grown with my own hands,” Diocletian replied, “you surely would never judge that a temptation!”
The site of the ex-emperor’s veg patch has never been found, but perhaps lies somewhere in the vicinity of his palace at Split. Excavations in 2007 revealed that the sea, rather than lapping at the façade as formerly believed (or even flooding into the vaulted halls beneath, as some imaginative tour guides still claim), actually lay a short distance south-west of the palace itself. The excavators suggested that the space between palace and shore might have been filled by a hippodrome, or racetrack; common enough in imperial complexes of the era. However, the palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome has a sunken garden shaped like a hippodrome. So might it be that the seaward portico of the palace at Split looked out over just such a formal garden, and rather than watching chariot races from his front terrace, the old emperor Diocletian instead gazed down proudly at ranks of his own plump cabbages…?)
The Croatian Ministry of Culture has produced a pdf of a very informative article on the Palace (available here).
For a more scholarly survey, try this academic paper (by the same author).