From Sirmium to Viminacium:
The Serbian stages of the journey
Travelling further down the road, we leave the territory of modern day Croatia and enter Serbia: the next stop was Sirmium (today’s Sremska Mitrovica). It was definitely one of the most important Roman cities in the territory of Serbia. It was a legionary camp and the administrative centre of the province of Pannonia Inferior, i.e. of Pannonia Secunda after Diocletian’s reforms. During the period of the tetrarchy, it was one of four tetrarchic capitals for a short time. In the fourth century, literary sources mention Sirmium as one of the six most beautiful and wealthiest cities in Illyricum.
It was founded in the territory inhabited by the tribes of Sirmians and Amantins. The city rose to the status of a colony very fast, as early as the time of the Flavian dynasty and most probably during the reign of Emperor Domitian, hence the name Colonia Flavia Sirmium, mentioned in various epigraphic sources. Such rapid economic and cultural prosperity was directly influenced by the fact that the city was located on several roads, the most important of which being the one we are currently dealing with, but also the roads connecting Sirmium with the Danube limes and, across the River Sava, with the province of Dalmatia. Two bridges on the Sava are known to us from literary sources.
One of them is known because it was used by Licinius to escape from Constantine the Great, and the other (Pons Basentis) as the place where the martyr Irenaeus was beheaded.
In the centuries after Sirmium became a colonia and it is often mentioned as an occasional residence of several Roman emperors. One of the more important events that occurred in the city was the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. Philostratus informs us that the “philosopher king” had a palace (basileon or regia) in Sirmium. The next emperor mentioned in connection with the city was Maximinus Thrax, who spent most of the time during his war against the Saristi in it. In the third century, the city was also the place from which the usurpers Ingenus and Regalianus reigned. In the age of the tetrarchy, Diocletian visited
Sirmium several times, and Galerius briefly made it one of the capitals of the Empire.
Licinius lived in the city in the period between 308 and 314 AD, before Constantine the Great defeated him near Cibalae. Constantine also spent several years in the city. The biggest contribution Sirmium makes to the history of the Roman Empire is the fact that as many as six emperors were born in the city: Trajan Decius, Aurelianus, Probus, Maximianus Herculius, Constantius II and Gratian.
Gaius Messius Quintus Decius (249-251) was born in the village of Budalia, eight miles from Sirmium. He was a warrior and gained glory due to his virtue and skill. Trajan was very popular amongst his fellow soldiers and, after the victory against Emperor Philip the Arab in 249 AD, at the battle of Verona, they proclaimed him emperor.
Trajan proved to be worthy of the task, and managed to improve the economic situation in the state. He also took care of war veterans, distributed donations to the people and repaired the infrastructure. In 251 AD the Goths crossed the lower part of the Danube, pillaging and destroying everything in their path. Trajan Decius defeated half of the barbarian forces in the battle of Nicopolis and engaged the second half at Abritus. Unfortunately, he and his army got trapped in the mud and were duly slaughtered.
Lucius Domitius Aurelianus (270-275) was born in a small villa rustica near the city. His mother was a priestess of the god Sol (Sun). He entered the army as a common soldier, and, due to his bravery and intelligence, he prospered very quickly. He made the army stronger than it had been in a very long time and won many battles and wars. The Goths and Germans were defeated, Rome was defended by new city walls, Gallia, Hispania and Britannia were regained from the hands of the usurpers, the Danube frontier stabilised and the Palmyrene kingdom, under the rule of queen Zenobia, was conquered. All these conquests led to him being entitled Aurelianus Resturator orbis. He also established the imperial cult of Sol. Near the end of 274 AD, Aurelianus marched to the east to begin a war with the Persians. During this voyage he was killed by a conspiracy of his most trusted men.
Marcus Aurelius Probus (276-282) was also born in the countryside of Sirmium. He entered the military at a young age and advanced through the ranks, due to his success and victories. Emperor Valerianus noticed him, and made him a tribune. Probus repaid this honour by defeating Sarmates, and winning numerous battles, earning the epithet semper victoriosus. After the death of Aurelianus, and his successor Tacitus, Probus claimed the throne after a short civil war. He continued to wage wars as the emperor, winning one after another, and was given the title of conqueror of all barbarian tribes, tyrants and usurpers and peacemaker. During his reign, discipline in the army was at its highest. When soldiers were not engaged in warfare they were tasked with developing economic structures. One such task, the melioration of the countryside of Sirmium proved to be fatal for the emperor. Angry soldiers killed him in one of the city towers then, immediately realising what they had done, many of them committed suicide.
Marcus Aurelius Maximianus (285-305; 310) gained glory in the army with his bravery and ability. This is why Diocletian chose him as his co-ruler in 285 AD. Maximianus is remembered as being uneducated, brutal, and reckless towards the law and the given word. He showed no mercy and personally carried out all punishments. Maximianus added the epithet Herculius to his name and he was often depicted with lion’s skin, characteristic for this deity. (fig. 2) He ruled the western part of the empire from the court in Milan. Maximian’s reign is marked by many successful military conquests in which he conquered numerous Germanic tribes, waged wars in Africa and Spain, and defeated usurpers in Gaul and Britain. He abdicated together with Diocletian in 305 AD, only to return to the political scene in the civil war that his son, Maxentius, waged. In 310, he was either killed, or forced to commit suicide.
Iulius Flavius Constantius (337-361) was the third son of emperor Constantine the Great. He was a diligent student of science and skilled in rhetoric, as well as being very good at sports, horse riding and handling weapons. One of his flaws was that he believed all kinds of rumour and intrigue and then, in a rage, he would often punish innocent people. After the death of his father, civil war between his successors broke out. Constantius waited patiently and emerged as the winner after the battle of Mursa (Osijek, Croatia) in 351. However, he had no success in wars against foreign enemies, except in the campaigns against the Sarmats and Quades who ravaged the province of Pannonia. Constantius died of fever
during the wars with Sassanides in the east. Gratian (367-383) was the eldest son of emperor Valentinianus. He is known as one of the most educated rulers of the Late Antiquity. At the beginning of his reign, Gratian successfully organised the administrative functions, and also had luck on the battlefield, defeating Alamans. However, the tables then turned, and he lost control of the state. Corruption,
injustice and the buying of the merits became part of everyday life in the court. Gratian himself was spending most of the time hunting. He was killed in an ambush while fleeing the usurper Magnus Maximus. Gratian is remembered as a devoted Christian and as the man who removed the statue of Victoria from the Roman Senate. During the period of Late Antiquity, Sirmium was known as an important Christian centre. In the papers of the Aquilean Council held in 381 AD, the city is mentioned as “the head of Illyricum”. It is also well known for the many martyrs who gave their lives for the faith, the most prominent being the previously mentioned Irenaeus.
Ancient Sirmium lay beneath the modern town of Sremska Mitrovica, and as a result excavations held from the mid-20th century onwards were limited. However, parts of the hippodrome, aqueducts, luxurious houses, ramparts, and the monumental palace (imperial residence) were discovered. The imperial palace and 200 square meters of mosaics are now protected by a special construction and are on view to tourists.
Leaving Sirmium, our ancient traveller would pass through several settlements before reaching the next important stop, Singidunum. These stations are Bassiana, Idiminium, Taurunum and Confluentes.
Bassiana is located in modern day Petrovac near Ruma. It was a Roman city and military camp. It became a municipium during the reign of Hadrian and a colonia in the time of the Severian dynasty. The large castrum, in which legion II Adiutrix was stationed, has been archaeologically researched.
Taurunum (today’s Zemun) was founded immediately after the Romans arrived on the Danube, and it quickly became the main base of the Roman Pannonia fleet. This claim is confirmed both by literary sources, and by finds of bricks bearing the stamp of the fleet. After passing Confuentes, i.e. crossing to the south bank of the Sava River, our traveller would find himself in the province of Moesia Superior.
The remains of Singidunum are located beneath the capital of modern-day Serbia, Belgrade. This is a strategically very important location, on the confluence of rivers Danube and Sava. Before the arrival of the Romans, a huge Celtic settlement existed here, and the very name Singidunum has Celtic origins. In the beginning it was probably the military camp of one of two legions that began building infrastructure on the Moesian limes, legion IV Scythica or legion V Macedonica. After the departure of this legion, another one, named IV Flavia, arrived and probably built a stone fortification on the place of the medieval Kalemegdan fortress (fig. 3). This legion is also believed to have built the bridge
connecting Singidunum and Taurunum.
The city also had some contingents of a river fleet placed in it. The civil settlement arose next to the military camp, as was common practice in Roman times. This settlement witnessed rapid economic and cultural prosperity, and so Singidunum grew municipally and, at the beginning of the third century AD, Gordian III raised the city to the status of a colonia. The history of Singidunum was not very turbulent after the end of Trajan’s wars with the Dacians, except for occasional incursions of Quads and Jasigs. More important events during the third and fourth centuries are definitely the visits that Roman emperors paid to the city (Septimius Severus in 202, Diocletian in 295 and Constantius in 349). The emperor Jovian was born in the city and reigned for a short period in 363-364 AD. He served as emperor’s guard in the court of Constantius II and was proclaimed emperor by
the troops on the battlefield after the death of Julian in the war with the Persians. Jovian then made peace with the enemy, under humiliating terms, losing more territory of the Empire than was ever previously recorded. He met a sudden and mysterious death in the north of Gaul.
As previously mentioned, modern-day Belgrade was built upon the remains of Singidunum, and this is the main reason we know so little about the organisation of the Roman city. The most important building that was excavated is the thermae on the plateau between Student’s Square and Knez Mihailova street. The ramparts of the ancient castrum can now be seen in the Roman Hall of the Belgrade City Library. Also, part of the necropolis, consisting of 56 tombs, was discovered during the construction of an underground car park between Belgrade City Hall and the National Assembly building.
A comprehensive collection of Roman artifacts can be found in the National Museum, which is currently under reconstruction. One of the more important remains from antiquity is the Jonas sarcophagus that is on display in Kalemegdan fortress (fig. 5). It is believed to be one of the oldest Christian sarcophagi from the territory of Belgrade. Two scenes from the Old Testament story of Jonas are depicted on it.
After his departure from Singidunum our traveller would find himself on the final section of road to his final destination, Viminacium. Some of the more important stations on this road were Tricornium, Aureus Mons, Vinceia and Margum. Tricornium (Ritopek) was an important military centre, judging by the name Castra Tricornia in Roman itineraries, and by the remains of several fortifications in Ritopek. Possible residents of this fortification could have been the cohorts I Flavia Bessorum and I Pannoniorum, as well as parts of the IV Flavia legion. Tricornium was important because of its strategic position, rich countryside and the vicinity of silver and lead mines. It was probably the administrative centre for mining. It is best known for the discovery of parade armour, which is displayed in the National Museum in Belgrade.
Parade armour from Ritopek
The parade armour from Ritopek is, without doubt, one of the most exceptional finds dating from the Roman era in the territory of modern-day Serbia. It was worn on the chest and fastened to the standard body armour (pectoral).
The depictions on this pectoral are divided in three friezes. In the uppermost frieze, a personification of one of the virtues of the Roman soldier is depicted on the left, with the genius of the legion (presumably of legion VII Claudia) on the right. They both have eagles on their heads, and there are two signums and one vexillum between them.
The central frieze shows us depictions of three important deities. Mars, the god of war is in the middle, Sol, who represents a deified emperor, on the left, and Jupiter on the right.
Saturn is represented on the left side of the third frieze, and Pietas, the personified virtue of piety, on the right. In the space between them are two Roman soldiers engaged in a fight. Behind one of them, there is a bull, the symbol of legion VII Claudia.
One interpretation is that this pectoral tells the story of an actual event, the conflict between legion VII Claudia and the troops of the usurper Ingenus. If so, this artifact is even more remarkable, considering that parade armour was usually decorated with standardised depictions.
Aureus Mons (Seone) is known from literary sources as the place where grapevines were cultivated in the time of Probus. Also, not far from this site, in the village of Brestovik, a late Roman tomb was unearthed in 1901. It has four compartments and rich fresco decorations.
Margum was situated on the confluence of the Danube and Velika Morava rivers, a strategically very important place. Legion IV Flavia was probably situated here at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century, before its departure to Singidunum. The city was raised to the status of a municipium in the second century. Archaeological excavations conducted so far have been very limited, because of the forests and river canals on the site, and they don’t help
us to understand the topography of Margum any better.
And so, our ancient traveller reaches the end of his journey in the city of Viminacium, a military camp and civil settlement and the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior. It was founded on the confluence of the Danube and Mlava rivers. The city was connected to different parts of the Empire by three important roads, which directly influenced its rapid economic and cultural prosperity, giving Viminacium a cosmopolitan character in
different aspects of its everyday life.
The castrum was the permanent camp of legion VII Claudia which came from Dalmatia in the second part of the first century and remained until the end of the Roman period.
This legion earned the epithet pia fidelia in 42 AD, when it demonstrated its loyalty during Scribonian’s rebellion in Dalmatia. However, the first legions to be stationed here were the already mentioned IV Scythica and V Macedonica.
The civil settlement was granted municipal status during the reign of Hadrian, around 117 AD, when it was given the title Viminacium municipium Aelium Hadrianum. The development of the city was briefly interrupted by a plague epidemic during the time of Marcus Aurelius, but by the time of the beginning of the third century commerce was flourishing once again. Many Roman emperors visited Viminacium during its existence, and as the power of the Empire started to decline, the city gained in importance, so on a few occasions questions about the disposition of the ruling power were resolved in it.
Without a doubt, two of the most significant moments in the history of the city were the visits by Emperor Hadrian, for whom hunts were organised near Viminacium. Emperor Septimius Severus also visited the city twice, and on one of these occasions proclaimed his son Caracalla as Caesar. Other emperors who stayed here were Gordian III, Philip the Arab, Trebonius Gallus, Hostilian, Diocletian, Constantine the Great, Constans I and Julian. Gratian was the last emperor to have visited the city. Emperor Hostilian spent most of his short reign in Viminacium, where he and his mother died, supposedly of plague, but there
are also some indications that there was a conspiracy to kill the young ruler.
In the third century, during the reign of emperor Gordian III, Viminacium gained colonial status and was granted the right to mint coins. Coins minted here are recognisable by a representation of the goddess Moesia on their reverse. On either side of the deity, a lion and a bull were depicted as the symbols of two legions guarding the province. The specific feature of Viminacium coinage is that the time of minting was marked by letters an(no) and the corresponding numbers from I to XV on the reverse side (fig. 6). The closure of the Viminacium mint took place under the rule of Gallienus (253-268), who closed down almost all local mints in the Empire.
In 284, a decisive battle was fought in the vicinity of the city between the emperors Diocletian and Carinus. This battle determined the future of the state. An important find from this period is a head of Carinus (fig. 7). In 441 AD, the Huns conquered Viminacium, razing ltit to the ground. The town was never rebuilt.
Today, Viminacium is the most visited archaeological park in Serbia, with several remains displayed for visitors. New excavations are being conducted simultaneously alongside tourist presentations. In the earlier phases of these excavations, in the ’70s and ’80s, a total of 13,500 graves were discovered, making it the most researched necropolis in the territory of the empire. During the latest excavations, from 2000 onwards, city baths, an amphitheatre, the northern gate of a military camp, a mausoleum of a wealthy citizen and aqueducts were unearthed. All of these remains have now been restored and presented to the public.
The baths (thermae) are typical Roman buildings. They served not only as a means of personal hygiene, but also for relaxation and various social activities. The baths of Viminacium are distinguished by their architectural design. The archaeological explorations showed the existence of five conchs, four of which were used as warm rooms and one as a cold room. The entire building was heated using the hypocaust system, a uniquely Roman way of heating the floor. The remains of fresco paintings witness to the luxury of the baths. In one of the earlier phases of the building, the floor was covered with mosaics. The large
number of oil lamps that have been found during the excavation suggests that the thermae were also used during the night. The city baths, as well as the gate of the castrum and the mausoleum are covered by special timber constructions, so they can be visited regardless of the weather.
The amphitheatre at Viminacium is the first building of this type to be unearthed in Serbia. It had stone walls around the arena, and tribunes made of timber. It could accommodate around 7,000 spectators. Part of the tribune has been reconstructed, and now various cultural events are being held in this unique surrounding.
The approximate dimensions of the military camp are 443 x 387 meters. The north gate, so called porta praetoria, was researched during the excavations conducted in 2002 and 2003. The remains of an entrance gate, with massive pavement blocks, a cloaca and richly decorated architectural elements were unearthed.
The find of a hoard of bronze coins dating from the period of the fourth and early fifth centuries is testimony to the imperilled state of the camp, which was abandoned during the invasion of the Huns in 441 AD.
The aforementioned mausoleum is square in plan and measures 20 x 20 meters. It is built of stone blocks and ashlars and decorated with columns. The main building is in the central part of the mausoleum. Its dimensions are 5 x 5 meters and it is built of chunks of green schist bonded by mortar. The stone bases at the corners of the building carried columns.
A tomb was discovered in the central part of the structure. The deceased person was laid on the wooden support and cremated on the spot. This form of burial, known as a bustum, is generally very rare, and it was quite exceptional in the period in which the mausoleum was erected. The individual cremated and buried in this place must have been a person of great distinction in the Roman hierarchy. The mausoleum was plundered during Roman times, and its ashlars and columns were used secondarily for the construction of nearby fourth century tombs.
Alongside the mausoleum, three tombs with fresco decorations are displayed for tourists. What is unique is the way in which they are presented, with visitors having to go through an underground tunnel from which they enter the tombs from beneath. One of these tombs belonged to a young woman, depicted in the fresco technique. This painting is considered to be amongst the highest achievements of art of the Late Antiquity.
About 1,000 meters of three Roman aqueducts have been unearthed. These structures were built of stone chunks, bonded with lime mortar. The sides of the aqueducts were covered with lime mortar too, and the lower layer was made of water resistant mortar. The bottom was built of fire-baked bricks bearing the stamps of the Roman legions that built the aqueducts in the first century AD. The legions in question were III Flavia Felix and VII Claudia Pia Fidelis. The upper part was covered with massive floor bricks. Their total length was about 10 kilometres and they brought water to the ancient town and military camp of Viminacium. The gradient from the water source to the city and castrum was 1 to
2 percent per mile. The names of the craftsmen who built the structures have been found inscribed in several places.
One part of the aqueducts has been moved, as it was endangered by the Drmno coal mine. This segment will be presented in the part of the Viminacium archaeological camp that is currently being prepared, together with kilns used for making clay bricks and the remains of a third century villa rustica.
Domus Scientiarum Viminacium
The Viminacium Scientific-Research Centre (Domus Scientiarum) is a facility built in the style of a Roman villa rustica (fig. 14). It serves multiple purposes, as it has quarters intended to be used by archaeologists and other scientists who are engaged in multidisciplinary research on the site as well for the accommodation and activities of tourists who wish to get to know Viminacium more thoroughly than would possible during standard tours.
The facility consists of two levels. On the upper level, there are premises for work (laboratories, workshops and studies) and accommodation, a library, a kitchen, a dining room and a spa centre, which resembles Roman baths. The lower level consists of a conference hall and a museum. In 2013 an exhibition celebrating the 1,700 year jubilee of the Edict of Milan was held here.
It comprised of all of the most important artifacts from the Roman period in the territory of Serbia. Domus Scientiarum represents the very best in archaeological tourism, with the unique atmosphere of ancient Rome.