The remarkable Roman ruins of Salona are just outside Solin, a sleepy suburb just 5km northeast of Split . Now part of an archaeological park, the Salona ruins are extensive, testifying to the importance of this colony under Roman rule. As they are relatively unvisited, wandering this empire of ruins is an evocative journey to an era of emperors, gladiators and Christian martyrs.
Salona is an easy day trip from Split and it's possible to make a stop in Salona before continuing on to Trogir. (see transport below) It takes at least one hour to visit the main sights. There are ample explanatory panels in English and the paths are well-marked. It's about a 15-minute unshaded walk to the amphitheatre at the park's farthest reaches but it's a pleasant walk past olive groves, orchards and flowering shrubs. Just inside the entrance stone tables and benches make a perfect picnic spot.
Start your exploration at Manastirine, right before the entrance to the archaeological park. This necropolis had been in use from the 2nd century BC until the destruction of the city in the 7th century. In the 1st century AD, a Roman pagan necropolis emerged and it was here that the martyr Bishop Domnius was buried.
At the end of the 4th century a memorial chapel was erected containing the tombs of Domnius and other bishops. By that time other Christians wished to be buried near the martyrs and other graves and sarcophagi were built.
In the 5th century a large three-naved basilica was constructed and then recontructed in the 6th and 7th centuries.
This small museum serves as a ticket office and souvenir shop. Construction dates from the 19th century when it housed the pioneering archaeologist, Frane Bulic. There are a few artifacts from Salona but the most important archaeological finds are in the Split Archaeological Museum.
Proceed south down a path bordered by cypresses and note the remains of the original city fortifications. Although unimposing now, imagine them punctuated by the 90 towers that were erected in 170AD.
When religious freedom prevailed in 313AD, this episcopal center was built. Two basilicas dedicated to the early Christian martyrs were constructed in the 5th century followed by a baptistery and Bishop's palace. The epicenter of early Christian Salona, this building complex is near a 3rd-century oratory where the very first Christians secretly gathered.
Just to the west is the Thermae (public baths) characteristic of Roman towns.
Take the signposted road leading west through Caesar's Gate which marked the division between "old" Salona in the east and the "newer" first century extension to the west. Originally the gate was the eastern exit of the old town. The gate was flanked by two octagonal towers and there are the remains of an aqueduct.
You'll come to Kapljuc, another early Christian cemetery in which the basilica of the "Five Martyrs" was found. This aisled church once contained floor mosaics.
Continue west and you'll come to the Amphitheatre at the northwestern end of the park. Built in the 2nd century, the arena was integrated into the town fortifications. Consisting of three floors, there was even a system to cover it all with canvas to protect against rain and the heat of the sun. There was a space underneath the auditorium for the gladiators to pray to the goddess Nemesis and a corridor to whisk out the gladiator's dead bodies. It was here that the Christian martyrs lost their lives. In the 5th century fights between gladiators ceased (civilized!) but fights between gladiators and wild animals continued. The arena could also be filled with water for the simulated reenactment of naval battles. The Venetians destroyed the amphitheatre in the 17th century as part of their struggle against the Ottoman Turks.
Located in the Jadro river delta, protected by mountains and surrounded by fertile fields, Salona was initially settled by the Illyrian Dalmati tribe. They were followed by the Greeks who had established towns nearby at Issa, now Vis island and Tragurion, now Trogir. Salona was connected to Trogir by the oldest road in Dalmatia, the Via Munita.
Walls encircled the town as early as the 2nd century BC as it was considered an important military center. At the time, the Romans were involved in a series of campaigns to conquer Dalmatia and Salona seesawed several times between local and Roman control.
Sometime between 40BC and 33BC (the exact date is uncertain) Salona became a Roman colony named Colonia Martia Ivlia Salona. Roman traders and war veterans flocked to the town and under Emperor Augustus it became the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia.
Throughout the first century AD, Salona developed rapidly. The expanded city was fortified with strong walls and towers, especially on the more vulnerable northern side. In the southeastern side, a Forum was erected and next to it a theatre that held 3500 people. A century later, an amphitheatre was built that held up to 17,000 spectactors. At its height, the population may have reached 60,000 people, making it one of the largest towns in the Roman empire.
In 284AD, Roman legions made Diocletian emperor. Born in or near Salona, Diocletian oversaw the expansion of the town, while building his magnificent palace in Split. By that time, Salona was a bustling and cosmopolitan city where several oriental religions were practiced in addition to worship of the Roman gods and goddesses. Statues of Venus were found as well as evidence that the Persian god Mithra was worshipped. Towards the end of the century, Christianity took root. Bishop Venantius came from Rome to spread the faith, followed by Syrian-born Bishop Domnius. They were not welcomed. Emperor Diocletian was an autocrat and he embarked on a ruthless persecution of the Christian community, the last and bloodiest of the Roman empire.
Religious persecution ended with the Milan Edict of 313AD and Christians began streaming into Salona to honor those martyred under Diocletian. Basilicas, an Episcopal center and Bishop's residence were built. The tombs of Bishop Domnius and other martyrs became holy places and Christians came to be buried next to them. Christians set up memorial oratories in the amphitheatre where their forebears were probably thrown to the lions
By the middle of the 5th century the Roman empire was crumbling as Huns and Goths swept down and battled through the Roman provinces. Salona was first a part of the Eastern Roman empire but was then ceded to the Gothic king Theodoric in 493. It was returned to Rome in 535 but its days were numbered. In 614 the Slavs and Avars moved in and levelled the town to the ground. Its residents fled to the islands and to Diocletian's Palace in Split.
Hours & Admission
The main entrance is open Monday-Saturday 9am-7pm; Sunday 9am-2pm. Outside of opening hours it's possible to visit the park either through the main entrance (the gate is normally left open) or from the entrance at the amphitheatre.
Admission to the archaeological park is 30/15Kn adults/children. The price includes entrance to the Archaeological Museum of Split.
The archaeological ruins are sandwiched between two main roads which can make it confusing to find by car. The main entrance is on Ulica Frane Bulica next to the Caffe Bar Salona and near the Hotel Salona Palace. The southern road is Ivana Pavlica II. It's possible to bypass the main entrance, park next to the amphitheatre and enter the park from there.
Bus #1 from central Split stops at the main entrance next to Caffe Bar Salona. It's possible to leave the park at the amphitheatre and head south to Ivana Pavlica 11 to take the 37 bus back to Split or on to Trogir.
Salona is in no way handicap-accessible. Roads and paths are rough and access to many ruins involves rocky stairs that may or may not be slippery. Good shoes are a must.
The best place to stay is the wonderful four-star Hotel Salona Palace right outside the park.