Diocletian's apparent love of ritual was accompanied by a passion for building. Being an Emperor, he did not need to stint on either energy or materials in this notoriously expensive passtime - one which led Elizabeth I of England's Lord Chancellor to warn: Put not thy finger in the mortar!
Lactantius, a professor of Literature appointed by Diocletian at Nicomedia, writes of his extravagance in building:
"Diocletian had a limitless passion for building, which led to an equally limitless scouring of the provinces to raise workers, craftsmen, wagons, and whatever is necessary for building operations. Here he built basilicas, there a circus, a mint, an arms-factory, here he built a house for his wife, there one for his daughter. Suddenly a great part of the city [Nicomedia] was destroyed, and all the inhabitants started to migrate with their wives and children, as if the city had been captured by the enemy. And when these buildings had been completed and the provinces ruined in the process, he would say: "They have not been built rightly; they must be done in another way." They then had to be pulled down and altered - perhaps only to come down a second time" (Lactantius 1984, 7, 2-10).
Edward Gibbon's stupendous account of the decline of the Roman Empire, written in a style imitated from the rolling periods of classical literature, provides an account of Diocletian which underlines the un-Roman decline into luxury which he apparently helped precipitate:
The pride, or rather the policy, of Diocletian, engaged that artful prince to introduce the stately magnificence of the court of Persia. He ventured to assume the diadem, an ornament detested by the Romans as the odious ensign of royalty, and the use of which had been considered as the most desperate act of the madness of Caligula. It was no more than a broad white fillet set with pearls, which encircled the emperor's head. The sumptuous robes of Diocletian and his successors were of silk and gold; and it is remarked with indignation that even their shoes were studded with the most precious gems. The access to their person was every day rendered more difficult by the institution of new forms and ceremonies. The avenues of the palace were strictly guarded by the various "schools", as they began to be called, of domestic officers. The interior apartments were intrusted to the jealous vigilance of the eunuchs; the increase in whose numbers and influence were the most infallible symptom of the progress of despotism. When a subject was at length admitted to the Imperial presence, he was obliged, whatever might be his rank, to fall prostrate on the ground, and to adore, according the the eastern fashion, the divinity of his lord and master. Diocletian was a man of sense ... He flattered himself that an ostentation of splendour and luxury would subdue the imagination of the multitude; that the monarch would be less exposed to the rude licence of the people and the soldiers, as his person was secluded from the public view; and that habits of submission would insensibly be productive of sentiments of veneration (Gibbon 1960, 130-1);
Whether later Roman architecture is as decadent as Gibbon believes Diocletian's ceremonial practices to be is to some extent an index of fashions in architecture and in scholarship; certainly, the subject has been much more studied since World War II than before it, when Greek architecture held the field. Amusingly, Gibbon accuses Robert Adam, who visited and drew Split in his own time, of having beautified what should - after all - have been decadent:
For this account of Diocletian's palace we are principally indebted to an ingenious artist of our own time and country, whom a very liberal curiosity carried into the heart of Dalmatia. But there is room to suspect that the elegance of his designs and engravings has somewhat flattered the objects which it was their purpose to represent. We are informed by a more recent and very judicious traveller that the awful ruins of Spalatro are not less expressive of the decline of the arts than of the greatness of the Roman empire in the time of Diocletian (Gibbon 1960, 137);
Of course, Gibbon's aim was to chart decline, and it was a common belief in his day that Roman arts HAD declined. Some reviews of Adam's book were, in consequence, distinctly sniffy, and inclined to underline that architecture in 18th century England was preferable, the more so since Dalmatia was far away, and provincial in comparison with the well-known monuments of Rome:
Our readers will not suspect us of any malevolence, when we say, that the architecture of it is not comparable to that of Diocletian's baths ... strong as our veneration is for the works of antiquity, we cannot help thinking ... many ... English noble personages, are more elegantly as well as more comfortably lodged than the emperor Dioclesian was when he inhabited this superb edifice. Upon the whole, we cannot adopt the high idea which Mr Adam endeavours to give us of this emperor's taste; for the disparity between this place and his baths seems to render it accidental, and that it pointed rather towards state and magnificence than true gracefulness and beauty (The Critical review XVIII, Oct 1764, 296-9, cited from Wiebenson 1969, 115).
Adam himself did not view Diocletian's architecture as a "decline": he went to Split, as he writes in his draft introduction to his "Ruins at Spalatro", in order to investigate Roman domestic architecture (that is, his own line of business in 18th century Britain), and because Diocletian seemed, by repute, to be a fastidious builder:
The high opinion I had form'd of that prince not only from his Baths at Rome But from the Accounts of his extraordinary expences bestowed on Building, at Nicomedia Milan Palmyra and many other places of his Empire, The Delicacy of his Taste which had often occasioned his pulling down Edifices he had executed, In order to rebuild them with Inprovements, and that at immence charge Though in other Respects an Oconomical Manager of the Publick Money. These Circumstances together with what I had both heard and Read of a private Palace which that Emperor had built at Spalatro in Dalmatia convinced me that I might there find something worthy of Publick attention, and therefore I determined to lay before it the Draughts of a Palace once the residence of so great a Prince. But what still further excited my curiosity was the Hopes of throwing some new Lights upon the private Buildings of the Ancients, A Subject which had hitherto been so Superficially handled that I doubted not It would render such an undertaking still more acceptable to the Publick... (Edinburgh Record office, cited from Wiebenson 1969, 88-9).
Use this model of the Palace, or go examine the Entrance Hall