Imperial Extravagance in Serbia

An aerial photo of the site of Gamzigrad
The main imperial palace at Gamzigrad. This enormous fortified villa has been excavated since the 1950s. The formal imperial complex functioned alongside a smaller and more private villa, presumably the imperial quarters. [Images: courtesy of Lescovac Museum.]

Journeying south from the Serbian Danube presents an opportunity to revel in Roman opulence, as Oliver Gilkes reveals.

The Danubian provinces of the Roman world do not get much of a look in as far as history goes. That is not to say there is no history – there is a lot – but seeking out modern accounts is not so easy. Pannonia, Moesia, and Illyricum were pivotal to the imperial story and, as I discovered during my journey there, that of the Middle Ages too. The Illyrian emperors, those hard-bitten, Latin-speaking, military figures who dominated later Roman history originated there, while the rich lands to the south and west of the Danube were a powerhouse of agriculture and industry. Yet try finding a modern book in English on the matter.

I picked up this trail after tracking the Danube frontier along its most dramatic stretch. Heading south and away from the great Danube bend and the crossing into Romania, one arrives in a completely different part of the world. While the Danube lies within the embrace of the Austro-Hungarian world, to the south lie the Balkans proper and there were various signs of my arrival: Baroque architecture vanishes; food becomes far more heavily meat-focused, with all sorts of dishes that are familiar from Greece, Macedonia, and Turkey; and bars are full of smoky conversations where it is easy to imagine patriots plotting against the Archduke or Pasha.

The Illyrian emperors were born in these parts and seemingly returned here to die, too. The story of Diocletian and his huge seaside retirement villa/fortress on the Adriatic at Split is well known. But as one of the most important of this elite group of later rulers, Diocletian set a fashion. While there is abundant rural settlement, in the form of villas and farmsteads, among the hills and forests there is also a series of gigantic, late villa-palaces where hopeful emperors sought to create dynastic centres.

Country retreat

Most famous of these palace complexes is the substantial walled and towered enclosure at Gamzigrad, which was first identified as a Roman fort. Since the 1950s, excavations have uncovered a huge fortified villa. We are fortunate that the discovery of a name, Felix Romuliana, on a stone archivolt provided an identity; this was where the emperor Galerius buried his mother (near her home village), giving it her name, Romula, around AD 298.

An engraved fragment of archivolt
A fragment of an archivolt from Gamzigrad, which provides the crucial evidence of the Roman name for the complex: Felix Romuliana.

Galerius was the bad boy of the tetrarchy, a new system of government that focused on four leaders, which was created by Diocletian to save the Roman world. Headstrong and imperious (what else should an emperor be?), Galerius was nevertheless an effective ruler, though hated by the Christians whom he persecuted following the lead of his patron, Diocletian. A Christian writer, Lactantius, gleefully recorded heaven’s revenge, after Galerius’ life ended with an agonising ailment in AD 311, while travelling to his villa. Both he and his mother were buried in mausolea on a hill overlooking the site. One of the triumphs of the excavations was finding the site where the Augustus and Augusta were cremated, either in reality or in effigy. The grand timber-laced pyres remained well defined, and included hundreds of rich finds, such as metalwork, gold decorative plaques, and other items that had been consigned to the flames.

The villa was magnificent. After a false start, a set of walls with bold polygonal towers surrounded what was really a small city. To one side lies the imperial palace, full of great reception rooms, waiting rooms, guest suites, and baths liberally decorated with mosaics. Nearby, a smaller palace was probably the emperor’s private quarters. The other half of the enclosure contained a major Roman-style temple to Jupiter and Hercules (and probably also to the rulers of the tetrarchy), a large bath suite, barracks stores, and service buildings. It is clear that here was a settlement outside the walls too – not surprising when one considers the hundreds, if not thousands, who must have followed the imperial court.

A mosaic of Dionysus from Gamzigrad
A mosaic of Dionysus at the entrance to the imperialdining chamber at Gamzigrad.
A stone bust of Galerius
An imperial porphyry bust of Galerius, which was found at Gamzigrad and was probably once part of a double group showing Galerius and his colleague Severus II. The quarries for the stone were at Mons Porphyrites in Egypt.

Major pieces of the architecture were discovered and are on display at the site, and also in the museum at Zajecar. These make it clear that the complex was built in the slightly odd Classical architecture of the later Roman world, with plenty of sculpture and gee gaws familiar from an earlier era, but also purple porphyry statues of the rulers of the time.

These quite crude (by earlier standards), hard, and direct images of a ruler and his colleagues are almost a signpost to imperial involvement, and have also been found at Sirmium and another nearby site: Sarkamen. Here, on a steeply sloping site is another, similar, though much smaller, fortified villa. I visited on a day when the forests were straked with misty wisps, perfect for a visit to an imperial tomb! This palace, if that’s what it was, as no buildings bar a wall circuit have yet been found, was owned by Maximin Daia, Galerius’ unpleasant nephew – truly a family business. The associated mausoleum contained no surviving burial, but a rich collection of golden jewellery, now in Serbia’s national museum in Belgrade, was found. It was most likely the property of Maximin Daia’s mother, Galerius’ sister, who was buried here.

The mausoleum surrounded by mist
The mausoleum of Galerius’ sister in the mist at Sarkamen.
Luxurious living

A passion for villa-building did not end with Diocletian and his colleagues. To the south-west is the city of Nis, where Constantine the Great was born. The ancient city was later occupied by a Turkish fortress, which is now a public park, and there is a fine, small museum with finds from the region. Good restaurants serving the meaty traditional dishes of the region abound in the old Turkish suburb.

Excavations in progress at Mediana
Excavations at the imperial villa at Mediana, near Nis. This is part of the bath complex connected to the (imperial?) quarters.

On the road out of town – past the infamous and still-standing skull tower, made by the Ottoman general Kurschid Pasha from the severed heads of his Serbian enemies in the 19th century, following their defeat at the battle of Cegar Hill – is the imperial villa complex of Mediana. This is a big site, and a grandiose new cover building is under construction. Excavation continues, led by Dr Vesna Crnoglavac from Nis museum, who very hospitably arranged for me to visit. It should soon be open to the public.

There are really a series of villas here. At its centre is a big colonnaded complex, with ranges of rooms, which are possible guest suites or more likely administration offices. Two more elaborate ranges of rooms with mosaics lie at the back, which one is tempted to say were for imperial owners. However, behind this there is another, less well-known complex with at least one tower, which may be the more secluded haunt of an owner/emperor. But the parts of the complex that are most interesting to me are the service villas (wings is too small a name). The central block is flanked by two wide courtyards, lined with what seem to be stores, barracks, and stables, while at the centre are great aisled warehouses full of massive dolia storage pots. At least one of these buildings had a major wine press at one end, and it is clear that these structures were processing the product of bounteous harvests of grapes.

The 36 dolia on the ground floor of just one warehouse will have contained around 126,000 litres of wine. Who drank all this? The answer is again the imperial court and the army. We know that numerous later emperors stayed at or near Nis, with Constantius II, Julian, and Gratian all noted as in residence, while Mediana presents the most likely venue. In later, more troubled times, a small settlement of Gothic Federates seems to have been placed here. Their church and a few graves lie outside the main villa, which was abandoned by the 7th century, if not before.

One final imperial ego trip survives in remote hills to the south-west of Nis, near Caricin Grad. By the 6th century AD, the Balkans were a stormy region, having been ravaged by Huns and others from over the Danube, though central control remained strong. Imperial ambitions increasingly rubbed up against the growing power of the Christian church, however, and Justinian the Great, the last of the Illyrian emperors, decided that the Archbishop of Thessalonica had grown too strong and decided to create a new Archbishopric in the central Balkans.

Excavations at Caricin Grad
Excavations underway at Caricin Grad. Despite its elaborate planning and the presence of so many high-status buildings within the walls, Justiniana Prima was built quite crudely and quickly.

He selected his home village (or his mother’s) for the location of a new city. In doing so, Justinian founded the very final new-build triumphal imperial city, half a millennium after Augustus created the first at Nicopolis in Greece. Justinian’s city was very different, though. A fortified citadel contained the cathedral and palace of the Archbishop of Illyricum. Colonnaded streets and a circular forum gave the whole place a classical air. There was even a bronze statue of Justinian himself. A fortified lower city held numerous churches of various designs, which were almost certainly built by the nobles and senior civil servants who moved here. Outside the new masonry walls were larger suburbs where the general populace lived.

The proximity of so many churchmen and officials created a demand for fine wares, and craftsmen were producing the prestige goods necessary for a society dominated by an administrative elite, such as carved ivory and bone, and fine metal fittings for belts, swords, and horses. These are all on display in a new gallery in the sadly under-visited museum at Leskovac. There was even an aqueduct and reservoir, all erected in the middle of nowhere, even by the standards of the 6th century! This new creation was named Justiniana Prima. It is really the first city of the early Middle Ages. The buildings looked classical, but were bonded with clay, and the whole had more in common with the era of Charlemagne in the 8th century than with what had gone before. Yet the site is a classic, a type site if you will, that sets the standard for that strange era known as Late Antiquity.

An aerial view of the Acropolis at Justiniana Prima
Aerial view of the Acropolis, or upper city, at Justiniana Prima (Caricin Grad). This walled enclosure contains the cathedral, baptistery, and bishop’s palace. Outside can be seen parts of the main city: shops, warehouses, and the famous ‘circular forum’ or tetrapylon.

Sad, then, that the place is so run-down. Serbia is short of funds, but this area of the country now sundered from Kosovo, really needs investment.

This imperial dream is where my trip through Serbia’s wonderful archaeology stopped. The magnificent medieval inheritance of churches, a reminder of a medieval empire that almost replaced Byzantium as the power broker in the Balkans, is another tale. That in turn is just one among a whole series of stories to be followed. When more normal times return, I can heartily recommend a visit to this intriguing and welcoming land.


This is an extract of an article featured in issue 103 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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