Anyone wandering the remains of deserted, windswept Salona in the hills above Split will inevitably wonder what it was like to live in the provincial Roman settlement during its prime. The archaeological remains are so spread out and so vast that the city’s former status in the empire is unmistakable. There is just enough left of the original ancient structures to paint a good picture of what the city of 60,000 must have looked like, although a depressed economy has left Salona neglected and overgrown.
When you buy your ticket, you will be given a map, but the gravel paths meander—and sometimes disappear—without many signs. Tracts can seem to blend into patches of working farmland. Oddly, these “flaws” don’t detract from Salona’s appeal.
Salona was originally a sheltered town on the Jadro River that was settled primarily by Illyrians and Greeks from Vis (Issa) who were trading partners. In the 2nd century b.c., the Romans began to infiltrate, and eventually Salona was named Colonia Martia Julia Salona and transformed into Rome’s administrative center for the province of Dalmatia. It subsequently became the largest city on the eastern Adriatic coast.
During Diocletian’s reign, Salona prospered and the Romans undertook extensive building projects, including a theater; a forum with a temple consecrated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva; and a three-story amphitheater that could seat more than 15,000 spectators which served as the city’s primary sports and entertainment venue.
At the same time, Salona became a magnet for adherents of various spiritual movements of the times. According to scholars examining the ancient city’s archaeological traces, these immigrants brought their customs and beliefs with them from such far-flung places as Egypt, Asia Minor, and Persia.
The new Christian faith was also in the mix of emergent religions sprouting in Salona, a situation that particularly vexed Diocletian, who was devoted to his pagan gods and claimed to be a descendant of Jupiter. In a.d. 303, toward the end of his reign, Diocletian solidified his reputation as one of Christianity’s most zealous persecutors. He attempted to purge his corner of the empire of the new religion by ordering the churches to be razed and the Scriptures to be burned. He warned that high-ranking Romans would lose their places and domestic staff if they continued to profess Christianity, and they would be deprived of their liberty. Other decrees arrived in rapid succession, ordering that “the presidents of the churches in every place should all be first committed to prison and then coerced by every possible means into offering sacrifice."
Bishops Domnius and Anastasius of Aquileia were among the Christian proselytizers of the times and both probably were among those martyred in Salona’s amphitheater for their beliefs. Ironically, the bodies of both these martyrs replaced Diocletian’s in the Cathedral of St. Domnius in Old Town Split after Christianity was legalized and became the religion of the majority in the realm.
At the beginning of the 7th century, the Avars and Slavs invaded Salona, driving the city’s residents to nearby islands, from which they later fled to Diocletian’s Palace.
Today Salona is a ghost city and little of its former glory remains. The amphitheater’s foundation is breathtaking in its scope and size—historians say the arena still was standing in the 17th century when it was deliberately destroyed by Venetian generals who decided it was better to level the structure than leave it for encroaching Turks. After that, Salona was ignored until a Split priest and archaeologist, the Rev. Frane Bulić, began an excavation in the late 19th century.