Posted by: viewfromtheriva | August 5, 2017

The substructures of Diocletian’s Palace, the oldest piggybank in the world?


There’s always something going on in and around Diocletian’s Palace.  If you have been here, as you enter the substructures under the south part of the Palace,  there is a small, open well-like structure filled with brackish water that visitors like to throw coins into.

Every so often, a workman siphons the water out and scoops up the coins and tosses them into a bucket.

According to local staff, several hundred Euros a year are collected, which are used to help support the continued upkeep and protection of the Palace.

The substructures of the Palace are a constant reminder of just how sublime Roman (with the help of a lot of Greek slaves) architecture can be.  Made of limestone, travertine marble, brick and mortar, with carefully notched out blocks to make sure the building wouldn’t collapse in an earthquake, the substructures are as beautiful as they are functional.

The southern part of the Palace is at sea level and the area from the central Peristil north is much higher, so a cavernous substructure was created to hold up the south side of the Palace–where the emperor and his family lived.  During Diocletian’s time, these vast basements were primarily used to store wine, olive oil and other effects.

300 years after Diocletian died, the Avars and Slavs overran this part of the Roman Empire, conquering Salona, the then capital of Roman Dalmatia, a cosmopolitan city of more than 60,000.  Fleeing for their lives, the safety of the Palace seemed a perfect refuge.

Fortunately for them, Byzantine rulers living in the Palace, let these refugees in–but made them live in the substructures–even today, you can still see staircases and outlines of roofs down here.

Since the Palace walls were never breached by any enemy, the refugees felt so secure that for more than 1000 years, residents never moved out.  Instead they eventually began building their own houses up above, using chunks of the Palace and bringing in other stone.  The once gloriously wide, straight, elegant Palace streets became a warren of buildings both small and large.  When the Venetian arrived–and stayed for more than 400 years–they built their own palaces within the Palace.

The result of course, is what we see today–much narrower streets and many, many more buildings (and churches) within the Palace that its original structure.

And what happened to the substructures?  The new residents and those who followed  simply dug holes in the streets and alleys where they built their new homes and threw building debris, garbage, human waste and more down into the “basements” where they once lived!

When they were dug out, archaeologists were amazed to find so much intact–after 1,700 years of continuous occupation all that debris literally filled up the substructures and preserved them beautifully! More importantly, once revealed, archaeologists were able to re-construct what the use and dwellings above must have looked like.

There are lots of older structures than the Palace of Diocletian, but precious few have been continuously lived in for such a long time and are in such a remarkable state of repair.  To the local workman collecting modern coins from a small well inside a 1,700 year old Roman building, it’s just part of his job.

But to me, living here, it’s part of the never-ending adventure that is Split.

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