Croatia is replete with a rich cultural heritage of Illyrian, Roman, Ostrogoth, Byzantine, Venetian, Hungarian, Ottoman, French, Austrian, and Croatian legacies. Although a plethora of different peoples have lived in and ruled the region, the first great conquerors to hold Croatia, the Romans, still have a strong mark on the landscape, impacting both Croatian identity and tourism.

These sites have been honored by the modern Republic of Croatia, with the amphitheater at Pula being featured on the reverse of the Croatian 10 kuna banknote and Diocletian’s Palace at Split on the reverse of the 500 kuna banknote. The Roman sites have also contributed to Croatia’s burgeoning tourism industry, which has become a major source of income for the nation, bringing in millions of tourists a year.

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Pula

Pula’s amphitheater, built under the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (27BC-68AD), is one of the best preserved and largest Roman amphitheaters in the world (seating 20,000 people). It is in fact the only one to have all four sides and all three levels still remaining. Although it had been pillaged for stone after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Patriarch of Aquileia, who had jurisdiction of the city, banned this action in the 13th century, but stones were taken again in 1709 while constructing the Pula Cathedral.

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Pula’s Amphitheater | Photo by Manfred Kopka

In 1583, the Venetian Senate (Venice controlled the city of Pula then) debated moving the arena to within the city of Venice itself, but opposition led by Senator Gabriele Emo led to the proposal’s rejection. Today there is plaque to Emo on the second tower of the amphitheater in remembrance of his opposition.

The restoration of the amphitheater began under Auguste de Marmont, Napoleon’s governor of Illyria. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Francis I of Austria, the new ruler of Pula, continued the restoration of the site. Although it can no longer hold 20,000 patrons, Pula’s amphitheater is still used in the summer for gladiator fights, plays, and concerts.

In addition to the amphitheater, the city of Pula also has the Temple of Augustus, most likely built towards the end of Caesar Augustus’ life (d. 14 AD). It was originally part of a triad of temples, but only the Temple of Augustus and the backside of the Temple of Diana, now incorporated into the Communal Palace, survive. The Temple of Augustus was converted into a church by the Byzantines, and was later used as a granary. It was almost destroyed when an Allied bomb struck it during World War II, but it was reconstructed in 1947. Today it is used as a lapidarium, a place to store old archaeological stone fragments.

One of the oldest monuments in the city is the Arch of the Sergii. The triumphal arch was built to commemorate three brothers from the influential Sergius family that had fought in the Battle of Actium (31 BC).

To top it all off, there Pula is also home to the Archaeological Museum of Istria, which includes artifacts from prehistory through the medieval period.

Nesactium

Near Pula, the town of Nescatium pre-dated Rome’s incursions into the region and was ruled by the Histri tribe, who gave their name to the surrounding region of Istria. The Romans conquered and destroyed the town around 177 BC, but it was later rebuilt by the Romans. Pula overtook it in importance during the Roman period. Its Roman era walls and the stony outlines of several buildings still stand today.

Split

Although it is over 1,700 years old, the Palace of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) dominates the modern town of Split, located on the Adriatic Sea. Diocletian was born nearby in Salona, and built the palace for his retirement after he stepped down from being emperor in 305. But in addition to being a luxurious residence for the ex-emperor, it was also used to house a significant military garrison.

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Drawing of Diocletian’s Palace in the 4th Century

Although it lay abandoned in the centuries after Diocletian’s death, in the 7th century locals began to settle inside the palace’s walls to protect themselves from in the increasingly dangerous region when Byzantine power receded.

Today, restaurants, shops, and even homes can still be found within the walls of the palace. In 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the surrounding buildings in Split. Several Roman structures inside the palace still survive, including Dioceltian’s mausoleum (now the Cathedral of St. Domnius), the vestibule (and the overhead cupola), the Peristil (the center courtyard of the palace), the Protiron (the entrance to the imperial quarters), and the former Temple of Jupiter (now a baptistery).

Solin

Diocletian’s birthplace, the city of Salona was a political center of the Roman Empire during his reign. Now it is the small city of Solin, but it still has Roman ruins, such as those at the Tusculum Museum (including the Manastirine, a burial site for early Christian martyrs), public paths, and a covered aqueduct.

Burnum

Burnum was a Roman fortress for much of the imperial period of Rome and a town rose up around it. The fortress was destroyed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian when he attempted to retake it from the Ostrogoths. Today, two of the original five arches still stand on the site.

 

 

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