In Diocletian’s Living Room

In Diocletian’s Living Room

 I wake to find myself in Diocletian’s living room. A little odd, considering Diocletian lived 1700 years ago. But the Roman emperor’s palace is actually one of history’s great recycling success stories—not to mention one of the world’s great archaeological sites. Let me explain.

Diocletian retired to his point of origin, Split, Croatia, at the turn of the fourth century A.D., with plans to raise cabbages and enjoy the Adriatic way of life. In true imperial style, he had built a city-size complex with all the amenities—including a ceremonial entrance court, Egyptian sphinxes, and a temple devoted to Jupiter. But after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century, the palace withered beneath the Mediterranean sun.

Some time later, people fearful of warring barbarians began residing within its crumbling walls, building their own houses in which to live. Crafty minds quickly spotted the Roman leftovers—marble columns and slabs and arches—that could be put to use as tables, windows, support pillars, and more.

The result? Gothic and Renaissance buildings incorporating the Roman remnants into their relatively “modern” styles, all within the palace’s original walls.

Street vendors provide fresh fruits near the palace walls. (Photograph by ironypoisoning, Flickr)

But it doesn’t stop there. More recently, that hodgepodge of ancient structures has been repurposed yet again to become today’s trendy cafés, bars, and boutiques—a hub of neon and bustling crowds and window-shopping delights.

Indeed, in this still-living city, 3,000 people reside along the walled complex’s pedestrian-only streets paved with Roman marble.

In the grocery store, I shop for fruit among ancient pillars.

Waiting in line at the bank, I lean against a Corinthian column.

And so today, I wake in the Hotel Vestibul Palace, an über-chic space that incorporates some of what remains of Diocletian’s living room. Several walls, for instance, sport exposed brick- and stonework from his imperial residence; the Roman herringbone pattern is unmistakable.

At noon, I peek outside my little window, which looks down on the palace’s rounded vestibule, and I see Diocletian and his wife, dressed in long flowing robes and flanked by their honor guard of Roman soldiers, processing in the elaborate changing of the guard.

It’s obviously a reenactment, but amid the regalia the crowd cheers and, for a very brief moment, I cheer along, worried that the emperor might take notice if I don’t. Back in the day, such a lack of enthusiasm would have been seen as disloyal, even grounds for execution.

But then I remember, I’m in 21st-century Split, where the Roman legacy lives on—everywhere I look.

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.