Given Croatia's position on the cusp of the Mediterranean, Central European and Balkan worlds, it's hardly surprising that the country has played host to a veritable cocktail of cultures. It's certainly rich in terms of archaeology, with everything from Neolithic pots to medieval pitchforks poking up from the soil.
It was arguably the Romans who left a more profound mark than most, establishing ways of living, worshipping, building and simply hanging out by the sea that influenced all who came in their wake. Establishing control over the territory of present-day Croatia gradually between the third and first centuries BC, the Romans built cities, military camps and roads, placing the region at the centre of a thriving Mediterranean civilisation.
And Croatia's Roman story didn’t just end with the fall of Rome in 476. The Romanised population of the future Croatian coast stuck around for centuries, eventually melding into a hybrid Latin-Slav civilisation whose traces in Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik and elsewhere can still be seen.
Today's visitor to Croatia will find Roman remains aplenty. Here are just a few of the ones you should try and fit into your stay.
Split: Diocletian's Palace
Croatia's most enduring witness to the Roman way of life is Split, a city that literally took root inside Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace, a lavish complex made ready for the ruler's retirement in 305 AD. When the inhabitants of nearby Salona took refuge here after their own city was sacked by marauding Avars, they took Diocletian's buildings and moulded them to their own whims. While turning his mausoleum into a cathedral and using the stones of his living quarters to make new houses, they preserved walls, city gates and a street plan that can still be strolled today. And strolling through the palace complex can be is a fascinating experience, bring you face to face with Roman colonnades, stone sphinxes imported from Egypt, leftovers of pagan temples and a whole modern city centre of boutiques, banks and cafés that appears to have burrowed itself in among the ancient stones.
The popularity of Adriatic festivals has become one of the defining tourist phenomena of recent years. But the seductive power of togetherness, noise and spectacle was known to the Romans too. The skyline-dominating Roman arena in Pula, one of the best preserved in the Roman world, hosted a lavish array of entertainments back in the day, and continues to be one of the Adriatic's most impressive concert venues. With an original capacity of 23,000 spectators, the arena probably attracted visitors from far and wide, as well as serving the inhabitants of Roman Pula itself. Festival tourism, it seems, has a longer history than we think.
Medulin: Vižula Peninsula
Relocating to a luxury seaside apartment and pampering yourself with the local spa facilities is far from being a modern leisure trend. The Romans were at it 2,000 years ago. The best place to catch a glimpse of elite Roman holiday culture is Vižula in Medulin, where remains of an extensive villa complex run around the shores of a wooded peninsula – complete with mosaics, under-floor heating, and the kind of shoreline colonnades that seem perfectly designed for that evening glass of wine. Legend has it that Emperor Constantine's illegitimate son Crispus was held here prior to execution: a more luxurious version of death row is difficult to imagine.
Roman Dalmatia was far from being an exotic vacationland to which people went to rest or retire. Central to Mediterranean trade and commerce, it was a thriving and cultured powerhouse of empire. Dalmatia's capital was Salona, just inland from today's Split, a large and populous city that emerged in the third century BC and endured until the Avar invasions eight centuries later. Wedged between modern-day olive groves and orchards, only a fraction of the site has been excavated – but there's still an extraordinary amount to see, from vast late-Roman churches to a stark but haunting ruined amphitheatre.
Zadar's Old Town has seen so many architectural epochs that it's almost an open-air museum of urban planning throughout the ages. However, the street plan is almost entirely Roman, and wandering the grid of pedestrianised thoroughfares gives you some idea of what being an idle stroller in an ancient city actually felt like. The Roman Forum still survives as the city centre's largest public space, complete with a few stray columns and stretches of wall. Much of Zadar's Roman masonry ended up being recycled as building materials by subsequent generations: the stone blocks lining the city's famous ninth century Rotunda of St Donat were originally hewn by Roman masters. Zadar's Archaeological Museum offers an excellent introduction to Roman culture on the eastern Adriatic while the nearby Museum of Ancient Glass showcases some of the beautiful objects that Roman craftsmen churned out.
A reminder that the Roman Adriatic needed to be secured and policed is provided by the military camp at Burnum, located on the western rim of the Krka National Park. Containing remains of an amphitheatre and the arched wall of a former command post, it's an evocative spot. Many of the finds from Burnum are exhibited in the brand new Eko Kampus Krka in Puljani. a combined museum and education centre where multimedia displays bring both the natural and human histories of the Krka valley to life.
What with the intricate mosaics of their under-floor heating systems, the Romans were highly innovative architects and designers, qualities that find a profound echo in this museum. Built right on the top of the remains of first-century trading town Narona, it allows visitors to look down through glass floors at the town's remains. Undoubted highlight is the Temple to Augustus, fronted by statues of the imperial family. And if you’re wondering where some of the statues' heads have gone then you'd better go ask the British: the head of Augustus' wife Livia was spirited away by journalist and archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1878, and is now displayed in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.
Rome was just one of many civilisations to leave a mark on Vinkovci in south-east Croatia. Nowadays rather better known as a railway junction, Vinkovci claims to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Europe, and has wheelbarrow-loads of archaeological evidence to prove it. Indeed, they're digging stuff up all the time – the unearthing of a 2,000-year-old Roman sarcophagus was one of the archaeological sensations of summer 2022. The imaginatively presented Town Museum covers all of Vinkovci's past incarnations, and is one of the best places in the country to catch up on the many layers of Croatian history – and how exactly those Romans fitted in.
This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.