Croatia is the crescent-shaped country shown in green on the map, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It used to be part of Yugoslavia.
Today, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is a trending holiday location, famous for its picturesque islands with good harbors, clear water, and gentle weather. Boats pull up daily along the riva and disgorge young adults ready to party. There’s lots of music and good wine.
But up the hill from the bustling tourist shops sits a fortress built long ago, like the one pictured at Hvar, when that harbor had to be defended from marauders. It’s a curiosity now, a place you can rent for a reception. It’s also a reminder of the region’s history that’s so long and complex it’s shocking to people who are used to thinking of 1776 as a long time ago. I found it fascinating.
When Davoka Radovcic was appointed as the new director of the Croatian Natural History Museum, she reviewed the collection of artifacts held in storage. Among them, she noticed eight white-tailed eagle talons that had been excavated from Krapina, a Neanderthal site in northern Croatia, back in 1899.
The white-tailed eagle is a large, powerful raptor with a wing-span of over six feet (1.8 meters). When Radovcic examined the talons, she noticed most of them had a hole pierced through the top and burnishing marks along the edges. Clearly, they’d been modified.
She showed the talons to David Frayer, a paleoanthropologist friend who said later, “I was shaking when I saw them…I knew how important they were.” After extensive study of the talons, Radovcic and Frayer became lead authors of a 2015 paper about them in PLoS One. They concluded that the talons, collected from three different birds, had been purposely pierced and strung together, possibly into a power necklace. The assemblage was dated to 130,000 years ago, at least 50,000 years before Homo sapiens are thought to have arrived in the area. The necklace is now considered the oldest known Neanderthal jewelry.
Yet this extraordinary assemblage lay forgotten, tucked away in a drawer for a hundred years. If not for Radovcic’s sharp eye, they might still be there.
Neanderthals may have been the earliest hominins in the region, but waves of Homo sapiens, known collectively as Illyrians. followed. The ancient Greeks referred to the area as Illyria, so all the groups living there before the Greeks arrived were called Illyrians, in the same way that all native tribes in the Americas were called Indians. Very little is known about these people, partly because their history is buried under cities constructed by more recent and more famous residents, including Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Turks, Austrians, French, and British. As each new wave conquered an earlier one, people re-purposed stone blocks, roads, foundations, tools, and artwork. In Poreč, for example, the famous Euphrasian Basilica is the third Catholic church to be built on the site. It incorporates Greek colonnades, a Roman floor mosaic, a Venetian decorated canopy, and wall mosaics by Byzantine artists, plus repairs and changes made after fires and an earthquake.
Perhaps the most famous example of mixed histories is what’s called Diocletian’s Palace. It was actually a fortress rather than a palace, built for the Roman Emperor over an earlier settlement in what is now the city of Split, on the coast. Oddly enough, the city has grown up in and around the ruins, including many additions/modifications made to them through the centuries. It’s become the Old City, home to shops, restaurants, churches, schools, and an open-air market. Its gates, once fiercely guarded, now stand open to all.
Emperor Diocletian was born nearby, in the Roman city of Salona. After a successful military career, he rose to the rank of Emperor. During his reign (284 – 305 AD), he instituted changes in regional rule, coinage, trade, and taxation. He attacked and conquered the Persian Empire, a long-standing foe. But mostly he’s known for escalating the persecution of Christians.
Even more than previous Roman leaders, he saw their religion as a threat. Christians did not participate in state-sanctioned festivals or make offerings to the official gods. They didn’t believe in the Imperial Cult, which held that Emperors were divinely appointed. Diocletian felt he had to unite an ethnically diverse empire through a standard series of laws and practices, which included a return to the Olympian gods. In this way, he thought the Empire could return to the glory of Old Rome. Sort of “Make the Empire Great Again.”
So he instituted the last and most extensive program of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, beginning in 303. While the image of Christians being eaten by lions in the Colosseum is disturbing, Diocletian’s purges turned out to be a colossal failure as a deterrent. Instead of driving people away, they made the new religion more popular. Those tortured and killed rose to the ranks of martyrs and saints. Even some Roman rulers became uncomfortable with the practice.
Disheartened and in poor health, Diocletian abdicated his position in 305 and returned to his homeland. The drawing shows what his “palace” looked like when completed. The fortified city covered 30,000 square meters (about 323,000 square feet). It included room for an army garrison, private quarters, gardens, public squares, and several temples.
But he found little peace there. He was keenly disappointed to see his system of regional governance fall apart after he abdicated. One of his co-leaders, Maximian, tried to take over as Emperor, but he was defeated and subsequently disgraced in a Roman doctrine known as Damnatio memoriae: condemnation of memory. His statues and portraits were destroyed, his image removed from buildings He killed himself in what some sources call a “forced suicide.”
Diocletian, too, probably killed himself. Afterwards, the palace remained an imperial possession of the Roman Empire and sheltered Diocletian’s family and other Roman nobles in the area.
When Constantine became Emperor in 324, he converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire, reversing all of Diocletian’s punitive measures.
In the 7th century, when the area was under attack by the Slavs, local people moved into the palace for protection.
The aerial photo shows what it looks like today.
Over time, Diocletian’s presence was gradually if not quite erased then seriously over-written. A bust of him remains (but resides in the basement), as well as the basic layout of the fortress, some columns and arches, a few sections of the outer walls. And one of the sphinxes out of the eight he collected from Egypt. The rest were beheaded after his death. The whole one, which once belonged to King Thutmose, mighty ruler of Egypt who was crowned in 1526 BC, now watches throngs of tourists walk through the courtyard that Roman soldiers used to guard.
After the city of Salona (Split) fell to Charlemagne, King of Franks and Emperor of Romans, in 800 AD, Diocletian’s sarcophagus was destroyed and his mausoleum remade into a Catholic church, now called the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. The new builders combined Diocletian’s Corinthian columns, which he took from the ancient Greeks, with elaborate carved and gilded altarpieces. New statues portrayed Christian saints in Roman-style robes. Elaborate stone carvings decorated the walls, altar, and pulpit. Relics of Saint Domnius in a silver reliquary join the ranks of the dead entombed in the church.
In a deliberate rebranding, the place that held the remains of the Emperor was claimed for the new ruler and new faith. Over the centuries, this relatively small church became the seat of the diocese.
Yet today, it’s a curiosity to most visitors rather than a place of spiritual power. It bothered me that people talked and laughed, checked their phones, took photos of friends in front of the gilded altar. It seemed disrespectful. It’s a church. One with a complicated history, but still a place of worship.
Diocletian isn’t much of a hero in the eyes of history. His division of power is partly blamed for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Over 3000 Christians were killed by his order. Over 2000 slaves died in the construction of his palace.
And that was neither the beginning nor the end of sectarian violence. Because Croatia and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia sit on the line between the Muslim East and the Christian West, religion has played a role in many conflicts involving Western Christians, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews that have resulted in well over a million deaths.
As recently as 1991 – 2001, the Yugoslav Wars accounted for over 140,000 deaths.
Blood permeates the stones in this church and everywhere else in the country. The sheer weight of history the place carries is overwhelming. At the same time, the workmanship of all sections is incredible. It has a beauty and intensity that deserve recognition.
Balancing old and new
In the vestibule (Peristyle) of the Palace, I listened to a klapa group, traditional a cappella singers. The place has wonderful sound that resonates all the way to the open ceiling two stories up. Several videos of klapa groups are listed in the sources. Clearly, the all-male group has roots in church music, particularly Gregorian chant. It still has a deep, solemn feel.
Later, though, we heard a klapa group that used guitar, mandolin, and accordion for accompaniment and included more folk tunes and party music. Like everything else in the area, it seems to be in flux, part old and part new.
Game of Thrones
The most surprising discovery of my tour of Diocletian’s Palace was the number of tourists who were there only to see locations used in filming Game of Thrones. Special tours showed avid followers the basement of the palace (shown) where Daenerys kept her dragons in the show. Fans could have their picture taken on a replica Iron Throne, take selfies in the narrow stone streets. For many, the fictional world of Game of Thrones seemed more real and more immediate than the actual history. Granted, the site’s intensity and bloody past make it a perfect backdrop for a series featuring both. But the dramas that played out in these halls were real.
More on Croatia, especially the island of Vis, will appear in Part II.
Sources and Interesting Reading
Bust of Diocletian, in Diocletian’s Palace, from Intrepid Berkeley Explorer, https://intrepidberkeleyexplorer.com/Page30Q.html
Calloway, Ewen, “Neanderthals wore eagle talons as jewelry,” Nature, 11 March 2015, https://www.nature.com/news/neanderthals-wore-eagle-talons-as-jewelry-1.17095
Croatia Adriatic map by Norman Einstein, May 20, 2005 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=157083
“Diocletian’s Palace,” Croatian National Tourism Board, www.diocletianspalace.org
“Diocletian’s Palace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diocletian%27s_Palace
Diocletian’s Palace drawing By Ernest Hébrard (recoloured by DIREKTOR) – http://www.civilization.org.uk/decline-and-fall/diocletian, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32215172
Diocletian’s Palace peristyle today By Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm, Sweden – Split D81_3080, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64310000
Diocletian’s Palace today By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2008466
Photo of walls of Diocletian’s Palace in Split By Beyond silence – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2008424
Diocletian’s Palace today, from the air By Ballota (crop by DIREKTOR) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31325036
“Diocletian Persecution,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diocletianic_Persecution
“Euphrasian Basilica,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphrasian_Basilica
“History of Croatia,” Lonely Planet Travel Information, https://www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia/history
“History of Dalmatia,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Dalmatia
“Illyria,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illyria
“Illyrians,” Wikipedia, httos:/en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illyrians
Klapa singers in Diocletian’s Palace https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lnb7G-revKc
Klapa singers, another video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sciwtWcfdH4
Klapa singers photo The Lady Travels blog https://www.theladytravels.com/diocletianspalace/split-diocletians-palace-diocletian-quarters-klapa-singers-2/
“Krapina remains: fossil Neanderthal remains, Croatia,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Krapina-remains
Kubilius, Kerry, “Traveling to and around Croatia,” TripSavvy, 4 June 2019, https://www.tripsavvy.com/where-is-croatia-1501269
“Neanderthal: First Discoveries,” Britannica Online Encyclopedia, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/407406
Peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace photo By Ballota – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24833618
Rubin, Alissa, “Religious Identity at the Heart of Balkan War,” Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1999, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-apr-18-mn-28714-story.html
Steves, Rick and Cameron Hewitt, Rick Steves Croatia and Slovenia, Sixth Edition. Avalon Travel, and imprint of Perseus Books, June, 2016
“World War II in Yugoslavia,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_in_Yugoslavia
“The Yugoslav Wars,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yugoslav_Wars
Zorich, Zach, “Neanderthal Necklace,” Archaeology magazine, July-August 2015, https://www.archaeology.org/issues/182-1507/trenches/3366-trenches-neanderthal-eagle-talon-necklace