In the following pages, we will go back to the time when the territory of present-day Serbia was one of the key parts of the Roman Empire. One-fifth of all Roman Emperors were born here - the largest proportion of Roman rulers born outside present-day Italy. They left an impressive legacy representing the highest achievements of Roman architecture. This heritage is of immense importance for science, culture, and tourism, with many secrets still waiting to be revealed.
The Kale Site, Krševica
The archaeological site Kale is located in the village of Krševica in southern Serbia. It originates from the 4th and 3rd century BC and belongs to the group of Hellenized fortified settlements of the early Iron Age. As in cases of similar sites in Macedonia and Bulgaria, the basic characteristics of Kale include a large representation of objects (especially red-figure ceramic pots and amphorae for wine) brought from the centres of the Mediterranean (Athens, Olynth, Thasos, Mende, etc.), as well as the local production of a mobile and immovable material culture, which corresponds, by its characteristics, to late the Classic and early Hellenistic period of Northern Greece and ancient Macedonia. Architectural findings from Krševica, such as massive walls built of regular hewed stone blocks, unbaked brick and roof tiles, witness the in-depth knowledge of complex Mediterranean construction techniques and the possible presence of Greek masters. A water tank with a barrel vault, which represents one of the oldest buildings of this type in Europe, whose appearance has an important place in the history of architecture, deserves special attention. The discovery of a “Greek” legacy so far from the Mediterranean coast brings new understanding to the historically little-known, but obviously very intensive, communication of local communities with the Greek colonies on Chalcidice, and later with Philip’s and Alexander’s Macedonia. A long-term project of the Archaeological Institute in Belgrade, which has been exploring the site in Krševica since 2001, was launched due to the very rare opportunity to explore such important archaeological sites in the territory of Serbia.
Invasion of the Celts as the Cause of the Collapse of the Settlement?
An equally interesting aspect of the exploration of Krševica is the period of termination of life at this site. The position of the site in the valley of South Morava, and the fact that the abandonment (or at least significant reduction of the number of inhabitants and the termination of intensive contacts with the Greek world) can be placed in the first half of the 3rd century BC, enables the possibility of specific research into the Celtic invasion of the Balkans - a very important and controversial issue in the archaeology of the Iron Age, which is often considered the main cause of the collapse of most Hellenized settlements. Somewhat later findings of the La Tene material culture (2nd–1st century BC) indicate that the abandoned settlement in Krševica was used by Skordiskan communities as a stopover in raids upon ancient Macedonia.
The Roman Road and Tabula Traiana
The military and economic importance of Đerdap for the Roman Empire is witnessed by the construction of a road that ran next to the Danube River. This great river served Romans not only as an important transport communication, but also as a barrier to hostile barbarian tribes. Podunavlje was turned into a military frontier or limit (limes), and represented a key area upon which the survival of the Empire depended. The Roman rulers started sending, by the beginning of the 1st century, elite military units to occupy the frontier area, build roads, and ensure the smooth communication and supply of fortifications. In places where the mountains descend almost vertically to the water, the road is partly carved into the rock, and then expanded with a wooden frame on special carriers above the river. This achievement of the legionnaires was immortalized on inscriptions on imperial plaques in the gorge, of which the largest and most important is the Tabula Traiana, carved into the rock above the road in the Lower Gorge.
The Only Preserved Imperial Plaque
While other plaques were sunk or destroyed, Tabula Traiana was raised by 21.5 meters compared to its former position. Parts of the Roman road through Serbia were used up until the second half of the 20th century, when they disappeared under the waters of the Danube River during the construction of the Đerdap I hydroelectric power plant. Due to the coast, which is as inaccessible today as it was 2,000 years ago, the plaque can be seen only from the river. The following inscription in Latin was carved on this magnificent plaque: “Emperor Caesar son of the divine Nerva, Nerva Trajan, the Augustus, Germanicus, Pontifex Maximus, invested for the fourth time as Tribune, Father of the Fatherland, Consul for the third time, excavating mountain rocks and using wood beams has made this road”.
By the orders of the Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus, a monumental bridge – for almost 1,000 years considered to be the longest bridge ever built - was constructed over the Danube River between the provinces of Upper Moesia and Dacia. It connected the right bank of the Danube River, near today’s village Kostol, near Kladovo (Fortress Pontes), with the left one at Turnu Severin (Fortress Drobeta), in present-day Romania. The role of these fortifications was to control the crossing of the river. The designer was the famous Roman architect of the imperial period, Apollodorus of Damascus, whose works still adorn Rome and many other cities in the former Roman provinces. It was built in an incredibly short time, from 103 to 105 AD, during the preparations for the Second Dacian War. An impressive wooden structure with a total span of 1,135 meters was erected on twenty massive piers built into the river bed from bricks glued with a special mortar. Because of the danger from attack by barbarians, the wooden structure was removed several times in order to disable passage to the enemies. The remains of the front and end piers on the left and right banks of the Danube River are still visible today, and underwater explorations in the river bed have discovered and documented the remains of all the piers destroyed over the time by natural forces or human activity. The look of the bridge is known to us from the relief depiction on the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome, erected to commemorate the achievements during the Dacian wars, as well as from the coins showing this architectural marvel of antiquity on the reverse side.
The Goat’s Ears of the Emperor Trojan
It is interesting that the name of Trajan, or Trojan, appears in the mythology of the South Slavs as the local form of the name of the pre-Slavic god Triglav. It also appears as a night demon in a fairytale written down by Vuk Karadžić. Certainly the most famous example, however, is a folk tale, “Emperor Trojan Has Goat’s Ears”. According to the tale, Emperor Trojan had goat’s ears which could only be seen by the barbers shaving him. Whenever a barber talks about it, the emperor executes him. One barber, though, decided to dig a hole in the ground and to speak in the hole what he saw in order to relieve himself. However, a stem grew from the hole, and the shepherds made flutes from it, which, instead of music, repeated the words “Emperor Trojan has goat’s ears”.
The remains of Viminacium, the legionary camp and capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, are located near the village of Stari Kostolac, approximately ten kilometers from Požarevac. Viminacium was erected in the 1st century AD as the camp of the Legio VII Claudia (VII Claudia Pia Fidelis), around which a settlement was built. Viminacium soon became a commercial and industrial center with a rich and varied architecture, and which was granted, at the time of Emperor Hadrian in 117, the status of town – municipium (municipium); and at the time of Emperor Gordian III, the status of a colony (colonia) in 239, along with the right to mint local coins. At the moment of its greatest expansion, Viminacium was inhabited by nearly 30,000 residents. In 441, the city was devastated by the Hun invasion, and activity was not renewed until many years later. During archaeological excavations, more than 14,500 graves, parts of the legionary camp, as well as several facilities of private and public character were discovered. The fresco painting of the ancient Viminacium is at the level of the highest examples of Roman art in the quality and richness of its motifs. A team of experts are still trying to bring to light the numerous squares, temples, hippodrome, theaters, public baths, and city neighborhoods that have been hidden for centuries under the arable land, and to make them a part of world cultural heritage.
Unavoidable Residence of Roman Emperors
Hardly was there a Roman emperor who did not pass through Viminacium or stayed there. The Emperor Trajan used Viminacium as a base during preparations for the Dacian wars. The city was repeatedly visited by the Emperor Septimius Severus, and during his stay in 196 he declared his son, Caracalla Caesar, i.e. co-ruler. It should be especially noted that the emperors Philip the Arab, Trebonianus Gallus, Hostilian, and Diocletian in the 3rd century, and Constantine the Great, Constantius I, Julian, and Gratian in the 4th century stayed for longer periods in Viminacium.
The first traces of settlement in the territory of present-day Belgrade date from the 3rd century BC, when members of the Celtic-Thracian tribes built a strategic fortress near the confluence of the two rivers. During this period, the name of Singidun was mentioned for the first time, the second part of the name being a Celtic word, dūn(on), which means village, fence, or fortress. During the 1st century BC, the Romans began their conquest of Singidun, and around 16 AD, the province Moesia was established, which included almost the entire territory of present-day Central Serbia. The name of the settlement was Romanised as Singidunum, first mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography in the mid-2nd century AD. After the wars with the Dacians, during the first half of the 2nd century, Legio IV Flavia came to town and built a large legionary camp that ran beneath present-day Kalemegdan and the Upper Town of Belgrade Fortress. Today, the remains of the Roman castrum can be seen in the Roman Hall of the Belgrade City Library and below the walls of Medieval Belgrade in the Upper Town. The legion consisted of thousands of warriors who represented the most important defence against barbarian tribes residing on the left bank of the Danube River. The future Roman Emperor Flavius Jovian was born in Singidunum in 331. When the Roman Empire was divided into two parts, the city remained on the north-western border of the Eastern Roman Empire. Over the next few centuries, the city was conquered by Huns, Sarmatians, Ostrogoths, and Gepids. The Slavs inhabited it around 630, and in a letter from Pope John VIII (died 882) to the Bulgarian Prince Boris Mihailo in 876, the Slavic name of Belgrade or White City, due to the colour of the rocks from which it is built, was mentioned for the first time.
Traces of Ancient Times under the Present Belgrade
The old part of Belgrade is brimming with places with remains from the Roman period. In 2009, under the tram rails on Tadeuša Košćuška Street, more traces of a Roman military camp from the 2nd century were discovered. It is little known that the three arched small walls on the plateau in front of the Faculty of Philosophy are in fact the remains of Roman baths, discovered in 1968. A large number of Roman graves were found in Cincar Jankova Street, on the corner of Takovska and Kosovska, in Pioneer Park, and again at the location of former “Tri lista duvana” restaurant. At the corner of Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra, archaeologists found a space paved with cobblestones from the 2nd century. These are just some of the many examples marking Belgrade as one of the richest cities in Europe in the sheer number of its ancient sites.
One of the most important archaeological sites on the territory of Serbia is certainly Sirmium. It is the oldest Roman city in the region, the only city to gain the status of a colony during the reign of the Flavians during the second half of the 1st century. The exploration of this ancient city, located at present - day Sremska Mitrovica, began in the second half of the 19th century, when the Basilica of St. Sinerot was discovered. During the construction of an apartment building in 1957, the remains of the Imperial Palace were discovered. Sirmium was first mentioned in Strabo’s Geography at the end of the 1st century BC or the beginning of the 1st century AD. It was initially inhabited by Illyrian and Celtic tribes, and it was founded as a city by the Romans. It is believed that Constantine considered the possibility of moving the capital of the Roman Empire to Sirmium whilst staying there between 316 and 321, and even opened the mint in Sirmium. However, in the end he opted for Byzantium, named Constantinople in 324. This spacious town was surrounded by trenches and wide walls within which stood the Imperial Palace, whose archaeological discovery, due to its importance, extends beyond the borders of Serbia. Parts of the hippodrome were discovered, as well as numerous villas decorated with frescoes and mosaics, public baths, granaries, craft and shopping centres, and cemeteries. From the 1st to 4th century AD, Sirmium was, at different periods, the capital of the Roman provinces of Pannonia Inferior and Pannonia Secunda, as well as the capital of the Prefecture of Illyria. The city was a temporary imperial residence and episcopal centre.
About the Place of the Death of Marcus Aurelius
The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius died in 180 in Sirmium, although the popular culture lists Vindobona (present-day Vienna) as place of death. That statement is confirmed by the writings of the Roman writer Herodian (170 - 240), who recorded that the emperor lived in Sirmium during the preparation of military campaigns, and that the Empress Galeria Faustina stayed in the city for a while with her daughter. Herodian explicitly states that the emperor Marcus Aurelius died of the plague in Sirmium, where he was burned, and his ashes afterwards transferred to Rome. Whilst in Sirmium, Marcus Aurelius greeted Bakadaspes, the ruler of the Lazyges nomadic people. He came to beg for peace but the emperor rejected it. The Greek sophist Philostratus (170 - 247) states that the city served as the starting point and was the main headquarters in the war against the Germans. This is confirmed by the fact that at the time of his death the emperor led a war against the Germanic tribes of Marcomanni, which then inhabited the present territory of Bačka. The document written by Philostratus is the oldest written record of the Imperial Palace in Sirmium, though it existed earlier.
Gamzigrad - Romuliana
The Felix Romuliana residence of the Roman Emperor Gaius Valerius Maximianus Galerius was built in the 3rd century near present-day Zaječar and it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007. Galerius built this fortified imperial villa in honour of his mother Romula, but it was never finished. At the end of the 4th century, the impressive property became a settlement in which Christian churches were built, but in the 5th century, it suffered destruction at the hands of barbarians. After that, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I turned the imperial villa into a border fortress. It remained so until the 6th century and arrival of the Slavs. With its former palace, twenty towers, temples, and impressive floor mosaics, the GamzigradRomuliana site is one of the largest and best preserved monuments of Roman architecture in all of Europe. Originally, it was thought that the site represented the remains of a Roman castrum, or fortified military camp. However, the famous archaeologist Dragoslav Srejović concluded that it is a much more significant building than even that, albeit this claim was deemed unfounded by many. Evidence that Srejović was right was discovered in 1984, when a plaque with the inscription “Felix Romuliana” was discovered, as well as in 1993, when parts of a porphyry statue that represented Galerius in life size were found. Porphyry is a type of hard stone of red-pink colour which was brought from Egypt, and its use for the making of statues was reserved exclusively for members of the immediate royal family.
Galerius - From Being a Persecutor to the First Edict of Tolerance
According to the records of Lactantius, advisor to Constantine I, Galerius was proud of his Dacian origin. Once he even suggested that the empire should be called Dacian, not Roman, which caused a shock amongst patricians and senators. He was notorious for his brutality towards Roman citizens and persecution of Christians. Lactantius notes that Galerius, during Diocletian’s government, secretly set fire to the royal palace and blamed Christian saboteurs, after which followed Diocletian’s rage and one of the biggest persecution of Christians in the history of the Roman Empire. Later Christian chroniclers, who did not like Diocletian, testify that Galerius repented his act before his death and issued an edict of tolerance towards Christians, permitting the religion to exist so long as it did not threaten the existing order.
A royal palace whose remnants we can still see today lies at the site of Vrelo in the village of Šarkamen in eastern Serbia, built during the period of the Roman Empire called the Tetrarchy, or rule of four. It was built by Maximinus Daia, a ruler who wanted to leave a lasting memorial of himself in his hometown, following the example of his uncle tetrarch Galerius, who had built Felix Romuliana. According to the model established by the founder of Tetrarchy, Emperor Diocletian, tetrarchs would abdicate after twenty years of ruling and withdraw to their residences in their hometowns. After death, the rulers were declared gods and buried in magnificent mausoleums. The complex of the imperial palace in Šarkamen covers over 25 hectares and is one of four palaces located on the territory of present-day Serbia. A set of gold jewellery found at the site was owned by the Empress and buried in the mausoleum of Šarkamen. It is now being kept in the National Museum in Belgrade. It consists of three necklaces, three rings, two earrings, a pair of hair ornaments, the so-called salteleons, one pendant, and nine gold diadem leaves with engraved portraits of the emperors from Tetrarchy coins.
Discovery of a Lavish Palace
Initially, it was thought that a Roman fortress that defended the route between the fort and towns Aquae (today Prahovo) and Taliata (today Donji Milanovac) on the Roman border along the Danube River (limes) was located at the site at Šarkamen. However, archaeologists discovered later the palace and tomb of a woman of high rank considered to be the sister of the Emperor Galerius and mother of Maximinus Daia. After about 17 centuries, through systematic excavations conducted in the period of 1994 to 2016, archaeologists found 36 gold objects, a monumental porphyry statue of the Emperor on the throne, and a marvelously built, fortified imperial palace surrounded with a fortification wall with a thickness of 3.50 to 5.40 m; with 10 towers of approximately 20 m in diameter, a circular and octagonal base, and walls 3.5 m thick, testifying to their great initial height of approximately 12-15 m. The towers were entered through impressive stairs paved with stone slabs of white limestone. A unit for water supply was discovered next to the southern fortification wall of the palace - castellum aquae. Unfortunately, Maximinus Daia did not enjoy the benefits of this luxurious residence – he died or was killed in 313, after the lost battle in the civil war with the Tetrarch Licinius.
Mediana, one of the most important suburbs of ancient Niš (Naissus), was located on the route of a Roman road following the direction Singidunum - Viminacium - Naissus – Serdica, and included an area of about 80 hectares. It represented a unique complex of residentialadministrative character, whose origins date back to the end of the third century and the Emperor Constantine the Great. In the northern part of the settlement, several significant buildings were discovered: several villas rusticas, a water tower, warehouse, barracks, workshops, two early Christian churches, the walled complex of villa with a peristyle (a covered area with columns), thermal baths, and monumental gates with a driveway and large yard. Analysis of the architecture of the villa complex indicates three construction stages from the end of the 3rd to mid-5th century. During the second phase (330-378), the villa was lavishly adorned with rich frescoes, mosaics, and statues of pagan deities. These works were aligned with the celebration of the thirtieth reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, and were aimed at highlighting the place of birth of the Emperor, their organization and the architecture fully reflecting imperial ideology. At the entrance to the villa, a sculpture of the goddess Dardania, patroness of the Emperor’s homeland and imperial dynasty, was placed. This impressive building was decorated with the most expensive marble, with walls painted with the finest colours, and an interior enriched with a number of porphyry and marble sculptures. The villa served as a place for both rest and the management of state affairs, but also for the reception of large numbers of members of the imperial entourage, administration, artisans, and others. At the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th century, Gothic federates (armed forces) were brought in and settled on the imperial property in Mediana, and after the invasion of the Huns in 441, life in Mediana died down through the 12th century.
“In This Sign Thou Shalt Conquer”
The rule of Constantine the Great marks the beginning of the history of the city of Constantinople, the capital of two empires, which will play a significant role in Europe over the next 1,600 years in social, economic and educational terms and in scientific, artistic, and religious terms as well. The way in which Constantine opted for Christianity instead of traditional Roman religion is an interesting story. According to legend, mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea, he had a dream in which he saw the monogram of Christ, after which he heard the words: “In hoc signo vinces” (In this sign, you will conquer). The next day, Constantine ordered the forging of a military flag (“labarum”) with the monogram of Christ, after which he won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and became the sole ruler of the western part of the empire, and later emperor of the entire Roman Empire.
Gold Helmets from Berkasovo
During works in a field in Berkasovo, a Srem village near Šid in 1955, two helmets with a gold coating and a few more objects of silver and iron were accidentally found, all of which testify to the luxury of the late ancient civilization. The helmets bear interesting inscriptions in Latin and ancient Greek, and one has the inscription VICIT (LIC)INIANA. This helped experts conclude that this prestigious military equipment dates from the 4th century, from the epoch of joint rule and later conflicts between the Roman emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius. The helmets are now in the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad.
Mystery amongst the Srem Fields
The reason why the helmets were hidden in the fields near Šid remains a mystery, and the key assumption is that they were hidden by Licinius‘ officers during the retreat after the battle with Constantine’s legions. Although there are a number of questions related to these helmets that have no answer, the relics certainly belonged to high-ranking Roman soldiers. Similar helmets were almost always found along the border of the Roman Empire on the Rhine and Danube River, and the discoveries from present-day Serbia make up a significant percentage of the total discoveries. In addition to the helmets of Berkasovo, a similar excavation from Jarak near Sremska Mitrovica was completely reconstructed, and a fragment of one such gilded helmet originates from Singidunum.
The Empress’ Town - Justiniana Prima
The remains of one of the most important Byzantine towns in the Balkans, Caričin Grad, are located about thirty kilometres from Leskovac. It was built by Emperor Justinian I in gratitude to the place where he was born. The city covers an area of 20 hectares and is divided into several units. The main part of the city is the Acropolis with its Episcopal church and palace, and the Upper and Lower Town with its numerous religious, administrative, and public buildings. Residential buildings were located amongst other facilities, as well as in broad suburbs surrounding the town. Fifteen discovered churches in the town and its immediate surroundings, as well as other finds, indicate that Caričin Grad can be identified with Justiniana Prima. The specifics of the town include an aqueduct about 21 km long, a large water tank, water tower, and in particular, an arch dam. These buildings represent exquisite work of the Byzantine art of engineering. The first Justiniana, as a church centre, occupied the highest place in the hierarchy of the Byzantine Illyricum, and it included a number of provinces and dioceses. The head of the Church of Justiniana Prima received not only the rank of provincial metropolitan, but also the title of archbishop, with the right of resolving disputes and ordination in the whole territory of northern Illyricum. The archbishop of Justiniana Prima was mentioned for the last time in 602 in a letter from Pope Gregory the Great. Shortly afterwards, the town disappeared from the historical scene.
Importance of Justinian the Great
Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565, was the last Roman emperor who was able to restore the relative size of the ancient Roman Empire and regain lost territories in the west. Although Justinian’s restoration did not last long, and its collapse had grave consequences for the empire, the period of his reign was a great role model for the later world. Justinian’s reign was marked by a series of significant events. Although, as Ostrogorski states, none of these campaigns was personally led by Justinian, the width of his political objectives and the power of his comprehensive spirit integrated the abilities of all his associates. The construction of Hagia Sophia, which is still standing in modern Istanbul, a masterpiece of Christian architecture, as well as his codification of Roman law, known as the Justinian Code (Corpus Iuris Civilis), are among the greatest achievements of his reign. Justinian codification remained valid in the empire for nine centuries, and was a basis for Serbian Medieval law – the Nomokanon of Saint Sava and the Code of Emperor Stefan Dušan. In the late Middle Ages, the Justinian Code began to be studied in the Western Europe, and today’s continental European law was built on that foundation.