Present-day Dalmatia with its mild Mediterranean climate, welcoming ports, and enchanting mountain ranges that protect it from the north was, in ancient times, full of ancient Roman settlements. One of them was Salona, which became the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia in 9 CE.
Nowadays, it's called Solin and is situated at the estuary of the Jadro river on the east side of the Adriatic coast, just outside of the city of Split, with whose history it is closely linked.
Salona's history dates back to ca. 181 BCE when the Illyrian tribe of the Delmatae settled in what is today the Croatian region of Dalmatia (the etymology is quite clear). With the invasion of a Roman army led by general Metellus Macedonicus in 117 BCE, Salona gradually fell under Roman rule, until it was completely conquered in 76 BCE as a result of the Third Dalmatian War.
In around 33 BCE, under the rule of Roman emperor Augustus, it gained the status of a fully-fledged Roman colony. From that point forward, the Romans built it into a true Roman city. In fact, it became the administrative headquarters of the empire's Dalmatian province.
At the end of the 3rd century CE, emperor Diocletian ruled over the province. It's believed that he was born around Salona and decided to build a summer home/Roman barracks nearby. And so, from 295 - 305 CE, Diocletian's Palace was built in Split. Salona thrived as an important cultural and merchant center until around the 7zh century when, either as a result of Avar and later Slav invasion, or perhaps a plague, or slowly fell. The remaining inhabitants fled to either the neighbouring islands or, you guessed it, the nearby, and well-fortified Diocletian's Palace.
However, Salona was later revived to some extent and today holds numerous medieval archaeological remains. Many ancient remains are also intact, allowing us to at least partially reconstruct the ancient city's layout.
Although it's believed that the Illyrian settlement, first mentioned is 119 BCE, also had walls, the majority of the city walls were built during the Pax Romana which lasted from the beginning of Augustus’s reign in 27 BCE and ended in 180 CE, when Marcus Aurelius died.
During this golden age of the Roman Empire, the city expanded both eastward and westward. Archaeologists now believe that Salona, at its peak, had about 90 towers protecting it from the invading Germanic tribes, whereas the walls themselves covered approximately 4 km.
The towers had a “makeover” in the 5th century CE during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. Once again, in the 6th century CE, triangular endings were added onto the square towers for additional support and protection. The walls of the oldest part of the town (the urbs vetus) are still preserved, along with the main city entrance, the Porta Caesarea. With the expansion of the city to the east and the west, the urbs occidentalis (western town) and urbs orientalis (eastern town) developed, and the city walls grew. This entailed the building of more walls and towers during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (especially during the reign of Emperor Diocletian), but also many other new buildings.
The amphitheatre was one of such buildings that was constructed in the north-west part of the town, connected to the urbs vetus by the city walls.
Although only the lowermost floor is preserved to this day, the amphitheater had 3 floors and could seat between 15,000 and 18,000 spectators who would crowd to see the gladiators fight (at least until the 5th century when they were banned in the entire Empire). Some elaborate architectural designs made it possible to cover the entire arena with a canvas, protecting those inside the amphitheatre from the hot sun and the rain.
The amphitheatre’s bloody past survived into late antiquity. During Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, the building was used for executing Christians, resulting in several of those executed being turned into saints. Ironically enough, this list includes St Domnius, the patron saint of Split, to whom the bell tower towering above Emperor Diocletian’s mausoleum (now the cathedral of Split) is dedicated.
As in any significant Roman town, Salona also had thermae i.e. baths. Several of them, in fact. The Great Thermae are the best-preserved ones and were built during Diocletian’s reign as well.
The Great Themae, as is customary, were fully-equipped with dressing rooms, massage rooms, an exercise and lounge room, sauna, a frigidarium (cold pool), a caldarium (hot room), and many other rooms that were meant to benefit the overall health of the Salonitan people.
Bridge of Five Arches
As with any Roman city, Salona also had two main roads - the Cardo and the Decumanus. Apart from being a crossing over the Jadro river, the bridge of five arches was an extension of the Decumanus into the eastern part of the city and was a lifeline to Epetium (present-day Stobreč), which was an important port at the time.
How to get to Salona
Nowadays, the modern city of Solin covers more ground than did the ancient city of Salona. The archeological site of Salona is located within Solin, only 6 km away from Split. If you don’t manage to find anywhere to stay in Solin, just bear in mind that Split has a lot of real estate to offer and is really close by.
You can get to the site by car. There’s a parking lot at the entrance, but there’s also a smaller parking lot on the opposite side, near the amphitheatre. If you’re arriving by bus, you’d have to catch the no. 1 bus from Trg Gaje Bulata in Split. That will lead you straight to the main entrance. You can also get to Salona from Trogir, which is just a 20-minute bus ride away, or even less if you have a car.
We recommend entering through the main (north) entrance since you’ll get to go through the Tusculum. It was built in 1898 by the renowned archaeologist Monsignor Frane Bulić who had devoted his career and life to researching Salona. The Tusculum was his research base and is, both architecturally and in terms of horticulture, a real sight to see!