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Curious what the Roman Emperor’s Palace and tech have in common?

Nikolina Kukoč

Nikolina Kukoč

27.07.2021.

view at the main square of Diocletian's Palace
Loving Split and The Palace

You already know that we at Split Tech City love Split! Loving Split also means that we love its origins and the Diocletian’s Palace our city grew from. For some time now, we have wanted to present this ancient Roman gem to our readers. However, we were wondering how to make this connection between bygone history and tech?!

We might love strolling through the Palace when we are away from our respective computer screens, but how to make it relevant for the core topic of interest we are covering which is technology and Split’s tech ecosystem? Well, someone made it relevant for us.

Therefore, let’s travel to the past for a while. Do not worry, by the end of this article, we will bring you back to the present and even launch you into the future!

Presumed original ground-plan of the Diocletian’s Palace (North is on the left-hand side)
How it all began

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… No, wait! That is not where this story is headed. It still started a long time ago, though. During the fourth century A.D., to be precise. There was this guy named Diocletian. He was a Roman Emperor and was into building nice retirement houses. Or palaces, as the case may be. Our story starts with him.

Diocletian was 39 years old when he became Roman Emperor in A.D. 284. He ruled for two decades until illness forced him to abdicate the throne at the age of 60 and retreat to his palace on the Dalmatian coast in the modern-day city of Split.

It still blows our mind that this is the city we live in!

Living here sometimes makes you guilty of forgetting you can stroll through ancient history while getting coffee or ice cream. But, we digress.

Diocletian’s Palace

The beginning of the construction of the Diocletian’s Palace has not exactly been established. It is assumed to have begun around 295, after the introduction of the Tetrarchy (The Rule of Four). Ten years after that decision, when Diocletian abdicated in 305, the Palace seems to have still been unfinished, and there are indications that some works were taking place while the former Emperor was residing there. It is unknown under whose architectural ideas the Palace was built and who its builders were. The complex was modeled on Roman forts of the 3rd-century era.

The engraved Greek characters indicate that many builders were originally from the eastern part of the empire, so Diocletian brought with him masters from the East. Still, a large part of the workforce was likely of local origin. The basic building materials came from nearby areas. The white limestone comes from the island of Brač and some from Seget near Trogir. Tufa was extracted from nearby riverbeds, and bricks were made in workshops located nearby. This vast palace complex – 3,04 hectares in size – was a part military garrison, part imperial residence.

It offered luxury as well as protection to the aging former Emperor – talk about retiring in style!

The north-south walls extend 215 meters, with walls measuring 2 meters thick and 22 meters high on the Adriatic side and 18 meters high on the north. There were 16 towers (of which 3 remain) and 4 gates: Porta Aurea (Golden Gate) in the north, Porta Argentea (Silver Gate) in the east, Porta Ferrea (Iron Gate) in the west, and Porta Aenea (Bronze Gate) in the south. The roughly rectangular ground plan mimicked a Roman military camp. Guards, slaves, and household servants were accommodated in the northern quadrants.

The imperial apartments (staterooms) were in the two southern quadrants, along the width of which ran an arcaded grand gallery, probably for promenades and the display of art, that was open to scenic views of the sea and the Dalmatian coast. The Temple of Jupiter and the Mausoleum of Diocletian were located in the imperial section, as well. Some sections of Diocletian’s luxurious quarters have survived more than 1,500 years to enable us to have our remote office days while drinking coffee and sitting under a statue of an Egyptian sphinx.

Steve, one of Split’s digital nomads, working in Diocletian’s Palace
From Rome to Romanticism

After the death of Diocletian, the Palace was abandoned for a long time. However, it was revived when Salona (today’s Solin) was largely destroyed in the invasions of the Avars and Slavs during the 7th century. Part of the expelled population, now refugees, found shelter inside the Palace’s strong walls and initiated the organized city life. Since then, the Palace has been continuously occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the basement structures and directly in its walls.

This entire area now comprises the nucleus of the “old town” of Split.

In the period of the Middle Ages, between the 12th and 14th centuries, there was greater architectural development, when many medieval houses filled not only Roman buildings but also a large part of the free space of streets and docks. Also completed in this period was the construction of the Romanesque bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, which inhabits the building that was originally erected as the Mausoleum of Diocletian.

The mausoleum was converted to a cathedral by the first bishop of Split. It is noteworthy for its fine frescoes, marble pulpit, and Romanesque carvings. The Temple of Jupiter was subsequently transformed into a baptistery.

After the Middle Ages, the palace was virtually unknown in the rest of Europe, until the Scottish architect Robert Adam surveyed the ruins. With the aid of French artist and antiquary Charles-Louis Clérisseau and several draughtsmen, Adam published “Ruins of the Palace of The Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia” in London in 1764.

This brought The Diocletian’s Palace back to the world’s focus. The Palace also inspired Adam’s new style of Neoclassical architecture and additional publication of measured drawings brought it into the design of European architecture of the time.

Weathered stone paths of the Palace that the inhabitants of Split have walked on for centuries
Back to the present

Now that we have traveled a bit to the past, it is time to come back to the present. Today, the palace is relatively well preserved with all the most important historical buildings pretty intact.

Therefore, Diocletian’s Palace far transcends local importance because of its degree of preservation.

As the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace, it holds an outstanding place in the Mediterranean, European, and world heritage, protected as such in 1979 by being listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.

Nowadays, you can find many VR tours of the Palace that are a fine display of using technology to bring the past to life. However, what we would like you to focus on is the future. We have already established that the future of any type of tech ecosystem lies in its youth. The younger generations that are coming are the ones that will continue to build, as well as change, what we are doing now. Same as we did to the work that the generations before us created.

Who represents the future of our beloved ancient Palace, as well as the future of our tech ecosystem? Who can connect both? Well, the answer is – high school students at Split’s School of Civil Engineering and Geodesy.

Onward to the future

Inspired by the ancient origins of our hometown, these young and talented students have created their “Let’s Relive the Past” project and presented it at UNESCO’s international competition for the King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for the use of ICTs in Education. Established in 2005 and supported by the Kingdom of Bahrain, the UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for the use of information and communication technologies in education rewards projects and activities of individuals, institutions, or organizations for excellent models, best practices, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching, and overall educational performance.

The two prize-winners are chosen on the recommendation of an International Jury of educational experts from nominations submitted by UNESCO’s Member States and UNESCO partner organizations. And while Split’s promising team of high schoolers didn’t end up being one of the winners of the competition, their project still caught the attention of the International Jury who couldn’t believe the animations were made by a high school student who is self-taught in the particular technology that was used.

One of the videos that are part of the “Let’s Relive the Past” project

The team of high-schoolers consists of Petar Alfirević, Danijel Barada, Petar Bašić, Bernarda Franić, and Toni Šarolić. Supported by their teacher and mentor Magda Maver, as well as the school principal Filip Relja. First among equals is Petar Alfirević who did the majority of the work and built the 3D models which he later animated. Using historical facts and with a little help of imagination, he built an impressive model for someone self-taught and who used various YouTube tutorials as his main allies in surpassing all the “I don’t know how to do something” obstacles. Two of the videos the students have made are also adapted for the deaf and hard of hearing. Scanning a QR code will take you on a tour of the Palace – bridging the gap between ancient history and modern technology.

It is admirable to see how, not only Petar, but also his teammates Bernarda, Danijel, Petar, and Toni all learned new things on their own, with little help from their mentors, as well as applied that knowledge in a project that is there for the world to see and experience on the “Let’s Relive the Past” YouTube channel. We do not have to fear for the future of our tech ecosystem with young talent like this already doing amazing things.

Diocletian would also be immensely proud!

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About author:

Nikolina Kukoč

Researching is woven into my DNA, but I'm a musician at heart. Interested in too many things and always curious. Forever in love with Split and enchanted by people who teach me new things. When I'm not writing about Split's tech community, you will find me somewhere in nature, in the theatre, or with my head stuck in a book. I do my best to live by the verse from the opera "Fedora" by Umberto Giordano: "Love forbids you not to love."

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