Salona will be presented to you by Ani Pal, your tour guide

Salona – the impressive ancient archeological site

📔 Renato Klein

📸Anita Palada

Salona! Have you already heard of this impressive ancient archeological site, located near Split, in the Middle Dalmatia?

Step back in ancient time

Step back in time and uncover the secrets of Salona, an ancient city whose ruins stand as a testament to Croatia’s rich archaeological heritage. Today, Salona is regarded as one of the largest and most important archaeological sites in Croatia. The area was first inhabited in prehistoric times when a handful of small settlements developed at the foothills of the Kozjak mountain, near the estuary of the river Jadro, which ancient historians called the river Salon. Initially, this was a stronghold of the Illyrian tribe called the Delmati. The few pieces of information we have regarding their way of life come exclusively from Greek and Roman sources because various Illyrian languages disappeared centuries ago. The first Greek historians who visited this region describe the Illyrians as excellent herdsmen. It appears that the Delmati were particularly known as fierce and resistant highlanders. Their name comes from the word Delm or Dalm, which in Old Illyrian means shepherd. It is interesting that the word “delme” in Albanian means sheep. This is one of many examples of how traces of this ancient language continue to survive for millennia.

Salona – Romans arrived to subjugate the natives

In the 3rd century BC, Greek colonists arrived here and established contact with the indigenous people. They soon founded a small trading post to facilitate commercial exchange with their Illyrian neighbors. Eventually, the enterprising Greeks were replaced by a more powerful and aggressive force: the Roman Empire. The Romans arrived to subjugate the natives, and after a long struggle, they accomplished this objective. After establishing control over the entire area, the Romans named this region Dalmatia, in honor of the Delmati, a tribe that fiercely resisted their invasion. Today, the name Dalmatia refers to the southern region of our country centered around the city of Split.


Salona’s flourishing time

Salona would have probably remained a small, provincial town had it not been for a particular historic event that changed its fate. In the 1st century BC, a civil war engulfed the Roman Republic, completely dividing society and forcing each community to take a side. The conflict involved two adversaries, Julius Caesar, and his rival Pompey the Great. The leadership of Salona supported Caesar, who eventually defeated Pompey. Because of its loyalty, Salona was elevated to the honor of an independent Roman colony and became the capital of the province of Dalmatia. It soon began rapidly developing into a wealthy and cosmopolitan city.

Salona in Diocletian time

At the height of its influence and prosperity, Salona had a population of approximately 60,000 people, making it one of the six largest cities in the Roman Empire. The city reached the peak of its development in Diocletian’s time when it became the main transportation hub, with five major roads connecting it to the rest of the province. The principal road leading to Salona was called Via Argentaria or the Silver Road. Salona used silver to mint its currency, and the precious metal was mined in the mountains and then transported to the city along this route.

Salona’s amphitheater

During its expansion, Salona acquired all of the traditional symbols of Roman architecture. One of these symbols was the most monumental building in the city, Salona’s amphitheater. It was erected at the beginning of the 2nd century and is one of only three such structures the Romans built on the eastern Adriatic coast. Most of the amphitheater was constructed on level ground, except for the northern part which lies on a natural hillside. The auditorium was divided into three tiers; the lower two were equipped with seats while the top one was reserved for standing spectators. It could accommodate approximately 17,000 people, and gladiator games were held there until the 5th century.

The amphitheater was severely damaged in the past, especially in the 17th century when the Venetians deliberately destroyed parts of it to prevent the Turks from using the structure as a defensive position.

The Christian community established itself in Salona

Due to its favorable geographical position, the city attracted a large number of settlers from across the Mediterranean who brought their own customs, traditions, culture, and religious practices. Among the newly arrived immigrants, there was a sizable number of Christians, and therefore, in the 3rd century, a Christian community established itself in Salona under the leadership of Bishop Venantius. Venantius arrived from Rome with the mission of spreading Christianity to the rest of the region, but this was suddenly interrupted by his martyrdom. His successor, Domnius, then came from Syria and replaced him as the head of the Christian community. These events coincided with the reign of Diocletian, the last Roman emperor who mercilessly persecuted Christians. Thus, in the year 304 AD, Domnius was rounded up together with many of his disciples and taken to the amphitheater, where they were subsequently executed.

The most important  Edict of Milan for Christians was issued

A decade later, Diocletian’s successor, Emperor Constantine, issued the famous Edict of Milan, which guaranteed absolute religious tolerance to all citizens of the Roman Empire. This marked a new era in Roman history and had a far-reaching impact on the spread of Christianity, as well as the urban development of every city in the Empire. In the 5th and 6th centuries, numerous churches were built in Salona to meet the needs of a growing Christian population. Soon, the city became the most important center of Christianity in this region, and a massive episcopal center was built in its eastern part, featuring two basilicas, a baptistery, and a bishop’s palace.

Which Christian Figures Transformed Split church?

Ancient Salona ceased to exist in the 7th century when Avar and Slavic tribes devastated the area, leaving ruins behind and scattering the surviving inhabitants. Several citizens took refuge on the islands and nearby Diocletian’s Palace, which then became the nucleus of medieval Split. The cult of Salonitan martyrs likewise did not disappear because the remains of Bishop Domnius and several other Christian figures were eventually transferred to Split Cathedral. In fact, Domnius eventually became the patron saint of Split, and his holiday is celebrated on May 7th each year.

Frane Bulić- a nestor of Croatian archaeology

The first person to systematically explore the ruins of ancient Salona was Frane Bulić, a local priest, archaeologist, and historian. With incredible energy and enthusiasm, Bulić spent most of his life studying and attempting to preserve Salona and numerous other archaeological sites. He made several exceptionally important discoveries that provided a great contribution to the understanding of early Christian and Croatian history in this region. Bulić was responsible for discovering a 4th-century basilica in which Bishop Domnius was buried after his execution.

In 1898, he found a sarcophagus from the 10th century belonging to the Croatian queen Helen. Together with his associates, he succeeded in reconstructing the writing on the sarcophagus. Historians agree that this writing represents one of the most important documents in Croatian history since it provides detailed information about the genealogy of Croatian kings.

The first International Congress on Early Christian Archaeology

Realizing that the protection of these priceless historical monuments is an issue of international concern, in 1894 Frane Bulić organized the first International Congress on Early Christian Archaeology. A Danish archaeologist named Ejnar Dyggve then joined Bulić to assist him in further research. Msgr. Frane died in 1934, but before passing away, he made sure thousands of historical artifacts were transferred from Salona to the Archaeological Museum in Split where visitors can now see them on display. After entering Salona’s archaeological complex, you will encounter a small building which Msgr. Frane erected to serve as his office. The building is called Tusculum, after Cicero’s famous villa, and this is where the good priest used to spend his days revealing the secrets of the past.

Salona – incredibly significant for Croatian history

Besides the importance it had in Roman times, the area of ancient Salona is also incredibly significant for Croatian history because the first medieval Croatian state was formed here. Archaeological exploration uncovered the remains of two churches that Queen Helen had erected by the Jadro River. The Church of the Virgin Mary served as the coronation basilica for Croatian kings, while the Church of Saint Stephen was their main burial place. Both of them were destroyed in the 16th century during one of the numerous Turkish raids which swept this area.

How to come there?

Salona, an ancient archaeological site, is only a few kilometers from Split and is also accessible to visitors from medieval Trogir, which is just twenty kilometers away from this exciting ancient site.