Split's origins can be traced back to the 5th century BC when the Delmati, one of the Illyrian tribes (from where the word Dalmatia comes from) settled here. When they were conquered in 229BC by the Greeks, the town became known as Aspalathos—named after bright yellow flower bushes that envelop the coast and hills every Spring.
A little more than a century later, the Romans ruled Dalmatia and remained here until their regional capital, Salona (today's present Solin) was sacked by Slavs in the early 7thC. The Roman legacy is what is most enduring about Split, a time of culture and prosperity that is remarkably preserved in Diocletian's Palace.
Designed as a walled fortress “retirement home“ for the Emperor, it took 10 years to build and was completed in 305AD. At that time Salona, just 6 km away from the Palace, was a vast, cultured city of 60,000. The Palace itself was home to only 2,000 people--the Emperor's family and retinue, and soldiers, laborers and other common folk who also lived within its walls.
The city we know today as Split was actually founded by refugees after Salona was sacked in the early 7thC. Those who staggered into Aspalathos were given sanctuary in the Palace basements by Byzantine rulers. Slowly, over time, they eventually moved out of the basement and even began using pieces of the Palace to make permanent dwellings.
This is why the once straight, wide Roman streets in the Palace are so narrow and serpentine. So many new strucutures were built that the residents started to cut holes in the streets to throw down debris and human waste, which eventually filled up the entire basement substructures! Why didn't they just cart their debris outside the walls and dump it? Having fled for their lives once, the security of living inside walls that no army every breached was more than sufficient to keep them here. For more than 1,000 years the town never grew beyond the Palace walls.
When the sub-structures under the south side of the Palace were finally excavated in 1956, historians were amazed to see how pefectly preserved the walls and ceilings were—centuries of waste not only held them up, but kept the entire structure wonderfully intact!
Eventually, the population inside the walls simply grew too great. Feeling secure enough to venture out, the safest place residents chose was was through the Western gate--where today's Pjaca and the Venetian-era City Hall are. Very quickly they started to build houses nearby and created what is today's Varos neighborhood.
Although the Roman epoch is fundamental to Split, its 400 year Venetian era has also left its mark. Throughout the Old Town and Palace itself, are numerous Venetian-era palaces—the mansions of the elite Venetians who came here to live.
Although Napolean's French were here for only 20 years, they made major improvements to the health and welfare of the city, including establishing parks still enjoyed today.
Dalmatia was always a prize and its turbulent history is everywhere to be seen - Croatian kings and royalty only managed to rule for a short time until a new regional power assumed control. After the French, the region was ruled in part by Austro-Hungarians, Serbs and Slovenians. Finally, in 1991 and more war, Croatia became independent.
Today, Old Town (which includes the Palace) Split is under the protection of UNESCO as a World Heritage site. This means that no new new construction can happen in the Old Town and any re-construction must be superivised and approved by conservators. This has kept Split's 1,700 year history alive for millions to enjoy this magnificent living city as it was, is and will always be!