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Feature 24 Oct 16

Traces of Empire: Serbia’s Roman Heritage

Ancient cities, sites and monuments dating back to when the Balkans were part of the Roman Empire receive little public attention in Serbia.

Ivana Nikolic
BIRN
Belgrade
Viminacium.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dzumba54n.

It is a little-known fact that many Serbian towns and cities guard ancient artefacts dating back to when what is now Serbia was part of the powerful Roman Empire.

Some historians believe as many as 18 Roman emperors originally came from towns that are now part of modern Serbia – the highest number of Roman rulers born in a single province outside Italy.

The most important and well-known of the Roman emperors was Constantine the Great, who was born in present-day Nis, a city in the south of Serbia, around 240 kilometres from Belgrade.

Constantine the Great was also one of the signatories of the famed Edict of Milan that gave Christianity equal status with other religions in the empire.

Apart from producing a number of emperors, today's Serbia – known back then as the Roman province of Moesia Superior – was also home to the imperial city of Sirmium, present-day Sremska Mitrovica in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.  

In addition, the Roman provincial capital of Viminacium, a number of imperial residences and villas - Felix Romuliana, Sarkamen, Mediana and Justiniana Prima – and several forts and fortified frontiers were also built in Serbia.

The richness of Serbia’s Roman heritage has led the county’s Institute of Archaeology, and its director Miomir Korac, to draw up a route connecting all the key sites in one 600-km historical route called The Road of Roman Emperors in Serbia - Itinerarium Romanum Serbiae.

Alongside educating the public about Serbia’s Roman heritage, the brains behind the new historical route hope it will serve to encourage tourism across the region.

While the route itself exists and is being presented in Serbia and abroad, the building has not started yet. According to Snezana Golubovic from the Institute of Archeology, “it is a very ambitious project, which includes building of some 1,000 Roman villas where all together 10,000 people would be employed.”

Golubovic argues there would be one villa every ten kilometres, with souvenir shops, rooms to let and restaurants where Roman food would be served. However, it still remains to be seen when the costly project will kick off.

Not sure if you will have time to take a 600-km tour? Read on to find out more about three of Serbia’s most famous former Roman sites: Viminacium, Felix Romuliana and Mediana.

Viminacium

Viminacium. Photo: Flickr/Škrabalica.

The site of a roman city and fort, Viminacium is near the eastern Serbian town of Kostolac, 100 kilometres from Belgrade. Once a provincial capital of the empire, Viminacium had around 40,000 inhabitants and was one of the biggest cities of the period.

The military camp at Viminacium came into existence when the Roman Empire spread to the Balkans, most likely during the early decades of the 1st Century AD when the Romans first reached the Danube.

Viminacium became one of the most important crossroads cities of the era, linking the north of the Balkan Peninsula with other parts of the Roman Empire in all directions. It is widely believed that all Roman emperors paid a visit to Viminacium because of its exceptional location.

Devastated by the Huns in the 5th Century, Viminacium was later rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian. A century later, the city was completely destroyed by the Slavs. When it comes to the Middle Ages, not much is known although Bulgarian historians argue that medieval Viminacium was a Bulgarian fortified stronghold known by the name Braničevo.

However, it was not until the 1970s that the archaeological investigations began, which are still ongoing.

This summer, the site caught the world’s attention after archaeologists discovered Ancient Roman golden tiles engraved with magic symbols, which the Romans used to appeal to supernatural powers.

They also discovered the tomb of an upper class family, adding to the 13,500 tombs already identified in Viminacium - the biggest number of tombs excavated in the territory of the deceased Roman Empire. Around 32,000 artefacts have been unearthed.

Visitors to Viminacium can see the remains of Roman streets, temples, squares, amphitheatres, palaces, hippodromes and baths.

For more information, visit www.viminacium.org.rs.

Felix Romuliana

Felix Romuliana. Flickr/Ljubar.

Another archaeological site worth visiting is Gamzigrad-Romuliana, the Palace of Galerius, near the town of Zajecar in eastern Serbia, 175km from Belgrade.

The fortified compound and memorial complex dating back to the late Roman period has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2007.

Commissioned by Emperor Caius Valerius Galerius Maximianus between the late 3rd Century and the early 4th Century, this site is a much better known as Felix Romuliana – named after the emperor’s mother.

If visiting Gamzigrad-Romuliana, you will see fortifications, memorial complexes, basilicas, hot baths, temples, the palace itself - which is located in the north-western part of the complex - as well as a tetrapylon, a monument usually erected on the site of a crossroads.

According to historical records, the area was given to the Christian church by the Roman emperors in the 4th Century. During the next century the site was devastated by barbarians.

Roman Emperor Justinian I revived it, making it a border fortress. However, it was again destroyed by Slavs at the end of the century.

Most of the credit for discovering the site was a palace goes to Dragoslav Srejovic, the late archaeologist who spent two decades from the 1970s trying to convince the world that Romuliana was not a castrum (army encampment) as had been assumed, but an imperial palace.

The breakthrough came in 1984 when Srejovic discovered an inscription at the site bearing the palace's name; Felix Romuliana. In 1993, a sculpture of the emperor's head was also discovered, made from costly Egyptian purple porphyry.

Some historians believe Felix Romuliana represents the ultimate achievement of Late Antiquity. A significant part of the floor mosaic is preserved at the Zajecar National Museum, which is also well worth a visit while you are in the area.

For more information, go to www.muzejzajecar.org.

Mediana

Mosaics at Mediana. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Dekanski.

During the Roman Empire, Mediana used to be a luxury suburb of Naissus, present-day Nis. Mediana was built between the end of the 3rd Century and the beginning of the 4th Century.

According to historical sources, Mediana rapidly expanded during the reign of Constantine the Great – who was born in Naissus.

Villas built in Mediana were opulent and decorated with mosaics, while the yards usually had fountains and sculptures of the gods. Archaeologists have discovered the suburb’s water supply, irrigation system, and handcraft centre.

Two more archaeological digs took place in 2000 and 2007, when the remains of two 4th Century churches were found.

However, Constantine the Great was not the only regular visitor to Mediana. Six other Roman emperors used Mediana as their temporary residence: Constantius, Constans, Vetranio, Julian, Valentinian and Valens.

Modern-day visitors can see the remains of the two early churches, a villa featuring a garden with peristyle columns, reception room, two dining rooms, the remains of the baths, and mosaics), plus a winery.

For more information, visit www.visitnis.com

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to clarify that Constantin the Great was Roman emperor.

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