Salona Amphitheatre – Roman Ruins on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast


One Planet Journey is proud to present guest writer Anita Palada, founder of the Croatian Travel Journal, an excellent resource for travel in amazing Croatia. Anita is a master storyteller with a degree in journalism and public relations, with a knack for putting the human at the centre of the narrative. In this article, you are whisked away to the Roman colony Salona on the Dalmatian coast, right into the amphitheatre and the duelling gladiators.

“Vivat! Vivat!” echoed through the amphitheatre in Salona, once the bustling metropolis of the Roman province of Dalmatia. The guttural shouts of the spectators conveyed a fervent desire for life, hope, and mercy for the defeated combatant. All eyes were fixed on the Emperor, awaiting his verdict with bated breath. Excitement and passion radiated from every face. Would he spare the gladiator? And then… the Emperor’s thumb ascended! Though vanquished, the young gladiator received a reprieve, pardoned by both the Emperor and the audience. His valour and unwavering determination had earned him salvation.

Elevated view of Salona amphitheatre
17 000 seats in its heyday. Can you see it?


The Salona Amphitheatre – Spectacular Gladiator Games 

The scene is from gladiator games in Salona in 299. Two years later, in 301, the residents of Salona braced themselves for new fights, colourful tales circulating throughout the city, fuelling anticipation and wagers on the outcome.

The elliptical amphitheatre, spanning 125 by 100 metres, with a central arena measuring 65 by 40 metres, stood ready to host a spectacle seldom witnessed in this corner of the Roman Empire. Its southern section boasted honorary boxes, reserved this time for the esteemed Emperor Diocletian and his retinue, while the northern part accommodated city dignitaries in ceremonial seats.

The entirety of Salona, then the provincial metropolis of Dalmatia, congregated in one place. Spectators filled all 17,000 seats, arranging themselves around the three concentric circles of seating. Despite the summer heat, shielded by canvas overhead, they remained undeterred, eager for the day’s festivities.

Beyond mere entertainment, attendance held social prestige and potential political advantages. It was an opportunity to pay homage to Emperor Diocletian, mingle with affluent inhabitants, and revel in a clash of gladiators.

Within the amphitheatre, murmurs of anticipation filled the air. All awaited the showdown between two formidable fighters, Metel and Cato. Would there be surprises in store? The people of Salona yearned for excitement, craving euphoria. However, uncertainty lingered. Would the fight fulfil their desires?

Arches at ruined amphitheatre
The beauty of the ruins at Salona


The Emperor’s ceremonial welcome 

As the Emperor and his entourage arrived at the eastern gate, it spurred the musicians of the magnificent fanfare to quicken the tempo, igniting a patriotic fervour in the auditorium. His regal presence and the display of his power and authority stirred excitement among the people of Salonica, who felt pride and gratitude for their allegiance to the Empire.

The crowd erupted in cheers and declarations of support. “Ave Caesar! Ave Caesar!” echoed throughout the venue.


Clash of Titans: Metel vs. Cato in the Gladiator Arena

The impending clash between the two gladiators was imminent. Metel and Cato, both hardened criminals, received reprieves from quarry labour to train in the gladiator school and arena. They pledged loyalty to the emperor and underwent rigorous training to survive. Their duty was to engage in combat with both men and beasts, entertaining the audience until their last breath. They mastered martial arts and the art of captivating the crowd, understanding that failing to uphold honour, dignity, and courage would be a grave insult to the emperor, dignitaries, and spectators alike.

The air was thick with the scent of sweat, dust, and adrenaline. Metel, a young and muscular fighter, strode towards the centre of the arena with confidence, greeted with applause. His determined gaze met that of his opponent, Cato. Though less imposing in appearance, he possessed the courage of a seasoned gladiator.

The clash of swords signalled the commencement of the deadly game. Who would meet their end today? With merciless gazes locked, they manoeuvred gracefully, dodging blows and defending themselves with engraved shields. A fierce and evenly matched fight ensued as the audience cheered, screamed, and urged for blood.

Part of the ruined complex at Salona
Salona – once a huge spectacle, now a serene ruin


The Roar of a Lion: Chaos and Courage in the Gladiatorial Arena

Suddenly, the jarring sound of metal mixed with the roar of a wild beast. The creature had broken free from its cage, charging towards the arena from the eastern entrance, creating chaotic and panicked scenes. Despite the temporary shock, the gladiators rallied, channelling the disturbance into renewed vigour.There was no time for contemplation. Quick reactions mattered most with this large, vicious beast.

A momentary hush fell over the audience. Then, in a matter of seconds, some screamed with delight while others shouted in horror at the unexpected turn of events.


Cato’s Fate in Salona’s Amphitheatre

One leap from the lion sealed Cato’s fate. He couldn’t evade the ferocious attack as the beast threw him to the ground and ravaged his body with its sharp claws. Guttural cries filled the air as the arena erupted in chaos. During this grim and perilous struggle, Metel delivered a final, fatal blow to the lion’s back. The intense and hazardous combat further stoked excitement and mass hysteria among the spectators.

Amidst the carnage, only Metel beamed with pride in the arena, his face and body smeared with blood, sword in hand, and shield raised in triumph. A monumental victory! The crowd erupted in cheers, celebrating his valour.

“Veni, vidi, vici!” (I came, I saw, I conquered) — the accolades rang out, dedicated to the young Metel.

The fervour of the fans reached its zenith. Cato lay wounded on the arena floor. The audience, merciless in their judgement, protested: “Perdidit! Perdidit (He lost)!” In their eyes, the fighter had proven weak against both man and beast. The crowd, disappointed by the outcome, voiced their discontent with the fallen gladiator.

Rectangular shaped stones in a pattern at an amphitheatre
Outlines of a mighty structure


The Emperor’s Verdict

Everyone turned to the emperor, awaiting his decree. Would he spare Cato, allowing him to nurse his wounds for another bout? Thumbs up or down? An electric energy surged through the arena, anticipation building with each passing moment as the fate of the combatants hung in the balance.

The emperor rose from his seat in the honour box, fixing his gaze on the motionless Cato.

“Perdidit! Perdidit!” the audience screamed.

With another glance towards the auditorium, the emperor’s hand turned downwards — the signal for execution! The crowd erupted into rapturous cheers of “Ave Caesar! Ave Caesar!” in approval of his decision.


Between Life, Triumph and Death

The unfortunate gladiator met his end with a single strike of the sword. Guards then removed his body through the central opening of the arena and transported it to an underground corridor containing two chambers: a shrine dedicated to Nemesis, the goddess of revenge and fate, patron of gladiators.

Cato found rest in the gladiator’s cemetery on the north side of the amphitheatre.

Metel, the victor, exited to applause and respect, his heart filled with the intoxicating allure of glory. Yet, despite his triumph, he couldn’t help but ponder his uncertain future. Would fortune favour him in the next bout? Perhaps he, too, would soon meet the fate of the fallen, and the slain. Luck is fickle, changing in an instant, as swiftly as the emperor’s finger.

Narrow passageway at Salona Amphitheatre
Can you feel the gladiators’ aura?


Fiction or Reality?

As you read, you might think of a movie akin to the tale of the renowned gladiator Spartacus. However, this is not fiction — these are snapshots from the life of ancient Salona, until 325 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great sealed the fate of the brutal gladiator games with a single stroke of his pen.

Constantine granted Christians the freedom to practice their religion, and banned practices contrary to it. Killing and sacrificing humans conflicted with Christian beliefs, leading to prohibition. The games continued in secret throughout the empire until 450 AD.


Visit Salona’s Amphitheatre on the dalmatian coast

Today, in the western part of old Salona, remnants of the famed amphitheatre still stand. Built in the 2nd century outside the city walls, the structure became integrated into the city’s fortifications during the 2nd century because of frequent attacks by the Quadi and Marcomanni.

According to findings, a wealthy resident of Salona financed the construction. Unfortunately, it suffered significant damage during the wars with the Turks in the 17th century, strategically demolished by order of the Venetian authorities.

Walls at Salona
If these walls could talk..


Salona – one of the grandest cities of the Roman Empire

Salona lies in the heart of central Dalmatia, between ancient Split and the medieval city of Trogir. The remains serve as a reminder of bygone eras, with joyous and sorrowful human destinies. Salona flourished in the 1st century BC, when it allied with Caesar during the civil war against Pompey. In gratitude, it received the status of a Roman colony named COLONIA MARTIA IVLIA SALONA, becoming the centre of Illyricum and, later, the Roman province of Dalmatia. At its peak, it boasted a population of 60,000 inhabitants.

However, in the 7th century AD, Salona fell victim to attacks by the Avars and Slavs, razed to the ground, with the population forced to flee. Displaced, they sought refuge on the nearby islands and within Diocletian’s Palace in Split. The magnificent imperial chambers and towers divided into smaller dwellings, transforming the palace into the nucleus of the medieval city.

As for the other sites of ancient Salona — Manastirina, Tusculum, Terme, Five Bridges, Episcopal Center, Kapljuč — their stories await another telling. The tales of Salona are as endless as those of Italian Pompeii!

Come and witness for yourself the rich tapestry of history that Salona offers. The Croatian Travel Journal has a wealth of tours perfect for deep travellers wishing to explore Croatia’s Dalmatian coast with local insight.


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