Once upon a time, thousands and thousands of years ago, there was a massive Roman city on the Croatian coastline, not far from modern-day Split. Salona was this majestic city’s name, and altogether it survived for over a thousand years, rising to prominence as the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Put bluntly- it was rather an important kind of a place. These days Salona is nothing but an extensive network of ruins in varying states of crumble and excavation, tacked on to a corner of the little town of Solin; but the fact that it’s in ruins doesn’t make this place less interesting in the slightest, and a visit to the ancient city makes a great day trip from Split.
The beginnings of Salona
Back in the days when the Ancient Romans were conquering most of Europe, they stumbled across a little Illyrian town, decided it would be a great place to live in themselves, and claimed it as their own, renaming it Salona. Because, let’s face it, throughout history us humans have proved time and time again that us humans are a rather entitled bunch. Salona grew to be a massively important city within the Roman Empire which had all the trademark factors of a massively important city within the Roman Empire. Baths, temples, roads, a mint, a forum, an aqueduct, and an amphitheatre seating up to 18,000 spectators were all built over time, all surrounded by sturdy city walls and towers; clearly Salona was quite the cosmopolitan place to be.
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The religion issue. (A classic issue.)
The amphitheatre, in classic Roman style, was used for gladiator fights, battle re-enactments, and was also the location that Emperor Diocletian used to sacrifice all the local Christians after he burnt their homes and churches to the ground. Back in those days, Christians were the scapegoats for just about every problem with society, and Diocletian was kind of like the original religious conservative, fearful of basically any religion that wasn’t his.
The thing I find pretty intriguing about this city is that it existed at a time when the world was starting to change big time for the Romans; they had gone from being an Empire worshipping strictly their own Roman gods to gradually shifting and welcoming in other religions as well. There is evidence that Persian Gods were worshipped within Salona’s city walls, and after years of religious persecution against Christians, culminating in that terrible amphitheatre massacre, Diocletian went into retirement, heading a few miles away to the retirement palace that he’d built for himself, in what is now modern-day Split. You know, Diocletian’s Palace? That’s the one. Emperor Constantine eventually took the reigns of the Roman Empire and decided that it was no longer ok to persecute Christians simply for being Christian. Nice one, Conny.
Related: What I Learned From 2 Days in Rome
Next thing you know, Christianity was declared the official religion of Rome, and churches sprung up all over the Empire- including of course, in Salona – pretty much changing the course of history forever. Christians flocked to the city, partly in a sort of pilgrimage to the martyrs who were buried there after the amphitheatre incident, but also because it was finally a safe place for them to live. So not only is Salona filled with classic ancient Roman buildings, but also churches galore from later in its history.
And that was the end of Salona.
By the 7th Century AD, the Slavs were on the warpath conquering Eastern Europe, and the Roman Empire was already getting rather flaky. Poor Salona didn’t stand a chance. The Slavs destroyed the city, but luckily its citizens had somewhere to go for refuge- down to Diocletian’s Palace, which by then was several hundred years old and had long since been emptied of its inhabitants.
The buildings were ransacked, destroyed or just left to ruin; and when you think about everything the city went through and how many lives were lived here, it could have the effect of making you feel rather small in the grander scheme of things. Pillars and doorways stand alone under invisible shells of roofs and walls, and it’s possible to walk from room to room of old houses, and sit in what’s left of the amphitheatre after the Venetians knocked it down to deter people from hiding inside it.
The site is extensive, and in the limited time we had to explore it, we didn’t get to see anywhere near enough of it. There’s a little museum near the entrance, but aside from that, visiting the city is a very casual affair; you can stroll around wherever you want to your hearts content. Although it’s crazily close to Split, not many people come to visit compared to other places like the nearby town of Trogir and the ancient fortress of Klis. In the sweltering hot sun, with not a scrap of shade unless you make it to the cypress trees on the outskirts, and with only the soundtrack of cicadas chirruping beneath the rhythm my own footsteps, it actually began to feel a bit post-apocalyptic around there, you know? I bet if someone who had lived in Salona when it was in its up-and-coming big city life phase could see it now, they’d be rather shocked.
Is this what some of our cities will look like in a thousand years or so?
Related: What to do in Split
- Split to Salona takes about 20 minutes by road.
- Buses run regularly between Split and Salona/Solin; check GetByBus for times and details.
- We visited as part of the Blue Line Bus, which meant we had less time to explore, but also took us to several other places in the area.
- Entry to the site is 40 kuna (around €5)
- Bring water, and a tonne of sun cream. There is absolutely ZERO shade.