In few places is history so much a physical part of the city as it is in Split, which has grown within, on, and around a vast palace dating back a staggering 17 centuries.


However, Split’s history stretches back even further than this – the region was home to a small local population before the plans for the palace were even drawn up. When the ancient Greeks began pushing north-west through the Balkans and around the Adriatic in the fourth century BC, they encountered tribes later known as Illyrians – peoples who had lived in the region since the end of the Bronze Age.

We know little about those earlier inhabitants, but the Greeks certainly left their mark on the coastal region now called Dalmatia, where they established a number of colonies. Their influence is clear in place names – those of most of the islands opposite Split, such as Hvar and Korčula, are derivations of Greek names: Hvar comes from Pharos, while Korčula has the same root as Corfu.

There’s also a type of white wine grape called Grk – simply meaning ‘Greek’ – grown only on Korčula, and which by tradition dates back to Greek times. It certainly tastes very much like a kind of Greek wine, with a flavour similar to aniseed.

These Greek fishing villages were then taken over by the Romans when they conquered the region and created the province of Illyricum, towards the end of the first century BC.

Split’s Roman rebirth

The Romans renamed the small Greek settlement of Aspálathos – with its natural harbours and waters protected by near-shore islands – to Spalatum, concentrated around Split’s modern port.

But their primary base was Salona, now a north-eastern suburb of Split called Solin, which became the main city in the Roman province.

History's Greatest Cities: A HistoryExtra podcast series

This companion piece accompanies our podcast miniseries History's Greatest Cities. Listen to the full episode on Florence with Marcus Tanner and Paul Bloomfield, then explore the entire series

A pivotal moment in the history of Split came around AD 295, when the Roman emperor Diocletian started making plans to retire. He was from this coastal Adriatic region, by now part of the Roman province of Dalmatia (named after the local Illyrian Dalmatae tribe), and he decided to build an extravagant retirement home on the coast.

However, this was no ordinary home. He erected a well-fortified citadel, with towering walls some 25 metres high and two metres thick. It had regal apartments suitable for a former emperor, as well as accommodation for servants and an armed garrison. In short, it was – and still is – a vast and imposing spectacle.

Diocletian abdicated in AD 305, at the age of about 60, and had a few years to enjoy his retirement in this magnificent setting before his death. After that, his palace remained a military base until the western Roman empire started to crumble, from the early fifth century AD.

Roman ruins of Salona
Roman ruins of Salona, in north-eastern Split (Photo by Getty)

Split defends its cultural roots

Split’s story becomes hazy over the next couple of centuries. We know that the area’s Romanised settlements increasingly came under attack by various tribes, including Slavs and Avars. Finally, the people of Salona fled, first to the nearby islands. Eventually, when the coast was clear, they came back to the mainland – but, rather than return to their vulnerable city, they chose to occupy Diocletian’s huge, deserted and well-fortified citadel nearby.

Certainly, by about AD 650, Split was inhabited again. In the late seventh century, the bishops of Salona moved to Split, converting Diocletian’s mausoleum into their cathedral. Not only did they turf out the remains of the Roman emperor – who had been virulent in his persecution of Christians – but they also named the cathedral after one of his most famous victims, Saint Domnius (Sveti Duje in Croatian).

The Romanised population of Illyria proved extremely resilient. Split remained one of several coastal pockets that remained staunchly committed to Latin culture as the Croat Slavs expanded their territory in the Balkans in the seventh century; Dubrovnik, farther south along the Dalmatian shore, was another. In fact, all the way up the Adriatic coast were towns where the population spoke a sort of cod Latin and preserved a very distinct culture that survived for about 1,000 years.

During this period, Split can be likened to a self-governing commune, with a leader known as the Podestà (still the formal title of Split’s mayor, colloquialised to Podestàt). Thanks to its strategic position for trade and fishing, the settlement thrived. Its population filled Diocletian’s enormous palace, which covers about 3 hectares – pretty big for an early medieval town – with citizens soon spilling out into a new district built to the west.

St Domnius Bell Tower in Split, Croatia
St Domnius Bell Tower in Split, Croatia (Photo by Getty)

Split’s identity crisis

Over time, the Croats grew more powerful, and started claiming authority over these coastal towns – but were unable to fully absorb this Latin culture. So, they reached an accommodation with Split and the other quasi-independent polities, which were nominally under Byzantine rule.

As the Middle Ages progressed, though, the Croatian kingdom faced growing competition from Hungary to the north and Venice across the Adriatic, both of which tussled for control of the Dalmatian coast. Towards the end of the first millennium, Hungary invaded the north of Croatia – but, instead of fully annexing it, in 1102 the Hungarian King Coloman declared a union of crowns. This meant that Croatia, including Dalmatia, theoretically fell under Hungarian control – though distant Hungary didn’t interfere much in the administration of Split.

Hungary itself had internal problems. Venice took opportunities to occasionally grab towns on the Dalmatian coast, then lose them, then grab them again. In the early 15th century, the Venetians persuaded the king of Hungary to sell them Dalmatia – and in 1420 they definitively took Split, signalling a sea change in the city’s fortunes.

Unlike the Hungarians, the Venetians very much took control, and Split’s autonomy was greatly reduced. The arrival of Italian speakers marked the beginning of a 500-year tussle over the city’s identity: was it Italian, or was it Slavic?

A sizeable Venetian population established itself in Split, where they remained the elite for half a millennium. New fortifications were constructed, including the mighty structure in the city walls now known as the Venetian Tower. And Split became an important depot for trade between Venice and the Ottoman empire to the east.

Split in the era of Napoleon

The Venetian reign was very long and very durable – but, as elsewhere in Europe, it couldn’t weather the arrival of Napoleon. Venice was overrun by the Bonapartists, leading to the capture in 1797 of its huge Dalmatian possessions. Napoleon then established the Illyrian Provinces, and enacted sweeping changes: monasteries and convents were closed and converted into educational establishments; roads were built; and the first newspapers were published – interestingly, partly in Croatian, indicating Napoleon’s favourable attitude to the Croats.

Following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, Venice’s territories, including Dalmatia, were ceded to Habsburg Austria. But Split is a long way from the Habsburg’s imperial palace in Vienna, and the Dalmatian city was largely ignored under Austrian rule. Shipbuilding, which had been an important industry in the region for centuries, was neglected – a decline accelerated by the new age of steam.

To compensate for the loss of that major industry in Dalmatia in the mid-19th century, many people turned to viticulture. Grapes had always been grown in the region, but it quickly ballooned into a huge industry. When the Phylloxera bug – a pest that decimates vineyards – spread through Dalmatia in the late 19th century, it destroyed the economy.

Mass emigration emptied islands and towns that had once been very populous, with many of their inhabitants flooding across the Atlantic to South America in particular, notably to Argentina and Chile.

Split during the world wars

The First World War saw Dalmatia, as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, fighting on the side of the Central Powers. Efforts by the Allies to persuade neutral countries to enter the conflict on their side included the secret Treaty of London signed in 1915, promising Dalmatia to Italy after the end of the war – if it fought with the Allies.

This was hugely appealing to Italian nationalists, who were keen to bring Dalmatia into the fold of the united Italy forged in the mid-19th century. But the plan was revealed when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, and the treaty was abandoned postwar – though not until after Italians had landed in Dalmatia.

In November 1918, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) was established. This resulted in fighting between Italians and Croats, ending in 1920 when Italy largely lost power in Dalmatia (except for Zadar).

In other parts of Croatia – particularly the north, which had adopted a strong Habsburg identity under Austrian rule – the idea of being governed from Serbia provoked enormous resentment towards the new Yugoslav state. But in Split, the attitude was very different: people preferred this situation to rule by Italy, and communist activity was on the rise in Dalmatia.

The Second World War brought the Italian threat back to the fore. In 1941, Yugoslavia overthrew its pro-Axis government; this outraged Germany, which bombed Belgrade savagely and invaded. The Yugoslav state fell apart, the Croats rebelled – and Mussolini saw his chance to retake Dalmatia.

Mussolini was the driving force behind the establishment of a fascist state in wartime Croatia led by Ante Pavelić, founder of the ultranationalist organisation known as the Ustaše. On installing Pavelić, Italy demanded territorial concessions – including Dalmatia.

Split was occupied for the rest of the war, initially by Italy and then – following a brief period of liberation by partisans under communist leader Marshal Josip Broz Tito in 1943 – the Germans. Large numbers of the city’s small but very ancient Jewish community were deported under the Nazis and Ustaše, and around half were killed.

Split grows under communism

When the partisans liberated Split in 1944, the city was starving. Unlike other parts of the former kingdom of Yugoslavia, Dalmatia was largely welcoming of the postwar communist regime – it had always been poor, with not much of a middle class, so socialist reforms were seen as positive. And Tito did what the Croatian nationalists had always been arguing for, certainly since the 1840s: he united Croatia and Dalmatia into one republic.

Croatia became one of six republics within the new Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. And Split fared very well, because the communists concentrated on developing towns and cities. It grew rapidly, with its population booming from about 20,000 at the turn of the 20th century to around 160,000 today.

The city quickly became a real metropolis, attracting huge numbers of people from over the old Dalmatian border in Bosnia. They brought with them quite a different culture – a more defined Catholic Croat nationalism that became prominent after the fall of communism in 1989.

In 1991, Yugoslavia fell apart, Croatia declared independence, and war broke out between Croats and Serbs. This was unfamiliar territory for Dalmatia, which had had a sizeable Serbian population since the Middle Ages; in Split, negative sentiment had always been aimed at the Italians. Although the vicious conflict came close to Split, fortunately it wasn't badly damaged – physically, at least. However, the front line wasn't far away, and the war marked the end of the old cohabitation in Split between Croats and Serbs, with most of the latter forced to leave.

The bloody war ended in November 1995. Since then, Croatia has become a hugely popular destination for international visitors, many of whom head for the Adriatic coast of Dalmatia. And while Dubrovnik – with its marble streets, terracotta roofs and filming locations – draws the bigger crowds, Split is a bustling, lively city with a wonderful café culture, centred on Diocletian’s incredible palace.

Marcus Tanner was talking to Paul Bloomfield, travel journalist and host of our podcast series History's Greatest Cities

What to see: Split in five places

This city on the Adriatic – founded in a Roman palace-citadel – has a rich history. Marcus Tanner chooses five sites that shed light on the Croatian port’s past.

Map of Split with five locations marked

1. Cathedral of St Domnius

1 St Domnius Alamy 2GA2KMP

Split’s cathedral, one of the oldest in Europe, is a curious octagonal shape without a processional nave and with few windows. That’s because it wasn’t built as a church at all, but as the mausoleum for the Roman emperor Diocletian, within the vast palace he commissioned in AD 305 in preparation for his retirement.

But in the seventh century – following the repopulation of the citadel-palace by Romanised peoples seeking safety from Avars and Slavs – the bishops of nearby Salona repurposed it as their seat, turfing out the emperor’s remains. Over the following centuries, various additions were made – not least the magnificent wooden doors carved around 1214 with scenes from the life of Christ.

Exiting the western portico, you arrive in the Peristyle – a huge open-air auditorium into which Diocletian would have emerged from his sea-facing private apartments. Today the Peristyle, which looks like a stage set, hosts operas and concerts.

2. Statue of Gregory of Nin

2 Gregory of Nin dreamstime_xxl_69675346

Walk north out of Diocletian’s palace through the so-called Golden Gate, and you’ll be met by a huge statue of what looks like a wizard from Lord of the Rings. This is Bishop Gregory of Nin (a royal city near Zadar, north-west of Split), who played an intriguing role in the city’s history.

According to church records, in 925 Gregory wanted the bishopric moved from Split to his base in Nin. He also decreed that mass should be given in the vernacular, and that Glagolitic script (similar to Cyrillic) should be used. His suggestions were firmly rejected – a rebuttal of Slavic dominance by the Romanised people of Split. Gregory’s story was forgotten for nearly a millennium, then revived in the 19th century by Croatian nationalists for whom he was an icon of resistance against Italy.

The prominent Dalmatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović created this enormous statue of Gregory looking angry and gesticulating wildly – presumably at the Latin occupants. It was erected first in the Peristyle, the epicentre of Roman Split, as a gesture of defiance to the Italians. At the start of the Italian occupation in 1941, the statue was dumped outside the city walls – then, interestingly, it was reinstated in its current position by the communist regime as a potent symbol of Slavic might. His toe is shiny, rubbed for luck over decades.

3. Venetian Tower

Night-time photo of the Venetian Tower

After taking Split in 1420, the Venetians stamped their mark on the city with a range of structures. Of the castle they built into the citadel’s southern walls, this tall, polygonal tower is the only substantial surviving element. The Venetians developed the port, using Split as an entrepôt for goods traded with the Ottoman empire, and some of the wealth that created was spent here.

As well as the tower, there are a few palazzos dotted around the old city. The 15th-century town hall – just outside the west gate in the square known locally as Pjaca (a corruption of the Italian piazza) – is in a distinctly Venetian style, replete with arched loggia and Gothic windows.

4. Split Synagogue

Photo inside the Split Synagogue

Split is home to one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities. There are menorahs and other Jewish symbols carved into the walls of Diocletian’s palace, suggesting that Jewish people may have been among the refugees from Salona who founded the modern city around the seventh century.

There was certainly a synagogue in the city during the Middle Ages, though it burned down around 1507. It was replaced by the current structure, tucked away in an alley in the north-west of the palace, which has been in use continually since (apart from a hiatus during the Second World War). It now looks rather baroque, following a makeover in the 18th century.

Following the German occupation in 1943, about half of Split’s Jews were deported and killed, many by the Croatian far-right Ustaše organisation. Today, the city’s Jewish community numbers about 100 – more than enough to maintain the synagogue.

5. Croatian National Theatre

Photo of the front of the Croatian National Theatre

The bright yellow theatre, originally opened in 1893 and rebuilt following a devastating fire in 1970, isn’t the most beautiful place in Split. I think its architects were a bit uncertain of what they were doing, and played around with neo-Romanesque motifs and so on.

But what makes it interesting is what it meant to Croatian nationalists at the time it opened. In 1880, Antonio Baiamonti, who was mayor of Split for 20 years and who had tried to make it as Italian as possible, retired. Two years later, as a result of voting reforms in the Austro-Hungarian empire, the newly enfranchised Croats – who represented the majority of Split’s population – voted in one of their own.

One of the first things the Croats did on taking power was build a national theatre, providing a big stage setting for nationalist operas and so on. This huge building, the largest theatre in south-east Europe at the time, represented a symbol of the final triumph of the Croats in Split after centuries of Italian domination.


Marcus Tanner is the author of Croatia: A History from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Yale University Press, 2019), and was talking to Paul Bloomfield, a travel journalist and host of our podcast series History’s Greatest Cities. Listen to the companion podcast on Split or explore the entire series