A Roman retreat

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Felix Romuliana, seen from Magura Hill. Note the decumanus stretching from the main east gate at the top. The white columns of the atrium of the main palace, later adapted to serve as part of the later Christian basilica, are visible on the right.

Eighteen Roman emperors came from Serbia – more than anywhere else outside Italy. One of them was Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus Augustus (AD 293-311). Standing in the splendid ruins of his palace at Gamzigrad-Felix Romuliana in eastern Serbia, in the remote lush countryside, I could not help feeling sorry for Galerius. Though he chose Thessaloniki as his capital, it was here in his hometown that he intended to retire in AD 313, when his term as Augustus under the 2nd Tetrarchy was due to end. Sadly, Galerius died – in 311.

The luxurious palace complex Felix Romuliana was named after his mother, Romula – with the ‘Felix’ tacked on to indicate her deification. But after his death, with building work barely completed, it was used only for the occasional ceremonial purpose. In the mid-5th century, a couple of Christian basilicas were built over some of the rooms, and workshops appeared on the perimeter walls. Evidence of fire and destruction suggest turbulent times, probably at the hands of the Huns. Finally, in the 7th century, the site was abandoned, its name lost.

Galerius was clearly fond of his old mum: not only did he name his palace after her and make her a god, but when she died in 305, he had her mausoleum and funeral pyre erected on Magura Hill overlooking the town that bears her name. His own were built alongside hers a few years later.

On his death, a wax effigy of the emperor was burned upon a funeral pyre, and he became a god. The pyre was then covered by the tumulus, and his body interred in a grand mausoleum behind it. His is the last example of apotheosis in the Roman world, as his successor, Constantine, adopted Christianity, thereby doing away with such rituals. Standing in what was once the central ceremonial room of Felix Romuliana, and later converted to form part of a Christian basilica, I could clearly see Romula’s mausoleum and the two tumuli against the skyline.

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The view from the central ceremonial room, dubbed the ‘Throne Room’, looking across the atrium, with its marble columns, to the Magura Hill with the tumuli and mausolea of Emperor Galerius and his mother Romula.

Galerius knew what he was doing when he chose this spot: Magura Hill has long been recognised as a sacred site – a Bronze Age necropolis has been found here – and, visible for miles around, it would have served as a constant reminder to those below of the deified couple lying there. Today, local people still climb its slopes on holy days to keep candlelit vigils on the summit.

When we visited, blowsy, deep-red wild peonies and delicate pink dog-roses littered the slopes, heralding the beginning of summer. It was utterly peaceful and deserted, and, from that vantage point, we could admire the whole palace complex, encircled by great fortress walls, laid out below.

When Galerius became Augustus in AD 305, work at Felix Romuliana stepped up a gear, to reflect his new status. The trapezoid wall, studded with towers, was reinforced by a second, grander outer wall made up of a combination of bricks and local stone. It is punctuated by two imposing gates – the main one in the east wall, the second directly opposite – and studded with 20 octagonal towers. The overall effect is of a mighty fortress.

Indeed, when antiquarians came across the ruins in the 19th century, they mistook it for a Roman military camp. It was not until archaeologists in the 1950s began excavations and uncovered beautifully sophisticated mosaics, white marble columns, and fine statues of Roman gods that anyone realised this must be something much grander. Then, in 1984, a broken section of an ornamental arch (pictured inset left) was discovered with the inscription Felix Romuliana. Finally, the site’s identity was restored.

There is another clue: a decorative pilaster strip on the eastern gate depicts the 2nd Tetrarchy, with Galerius and Constantius Chlorus at the top, below them the Caesars Severus and Maximinus Daia, and then the retired Augusti Diocletian and Maximian Hercules.

From the outside, the intimidatingly vast gates and high walls belie the bucolic atmosphere of the interior, with its immaculately kept remains of a once sumptuous palace and its vistas of rolling countryside. Nothing from the modern world impinges. What’s more, other than a small party of enthusiastic children who explored the sprawling complex and then suddenly were gone, we had the place to ourselves: the only sounds were birdsong and the rustling of leaves being brushed by the wind.

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The floor in one of the main ceremonial rooms of the palace: its fabulous mosaics are kept covered by sand to protect them from the elements.

We were lucky enough to meet Maja Živić, who came here on a dig 25 years ago and has been working on the site ever since. She kindly agreed to show us around. We wandered through the interconnecting palace buildings, into the bathhouse with its hypocaust now visible in parts beneath its flooring; on to the atrium – later incorporated into the centre of the Christian basilica – with its (reconstructed) fountain and tall white columns, brought from the Greek island of Proconos; and then into the central hall with its intricately designed mosaics. Some of these mosaics remain in situ, covered by a protective layer of sand to shield them from the elements.

The sand had been swept back from one corner of the floor, just enough to give us a tantalising glimpse of the intricate geometric design that flows around the edges of the room. In the centre, there would have been pictorial scenes of gods and hunting. In the northern hall, the triclinium, a particularly fine mosaic was found that depicts Dionysus, the Roman god of fertility and wine – a god with whom the emperor was keen to associate himself because, like Galerius, Dionysus was the son of a mortal mother, and, like Galerius, he made her a god. It is now on display, along with many other marvellous mosaics and artefacts from Felix Romuliana, in the museum at Zajećar about 11km (7 miles) away – which I urge you to visit.

Indeed, I urge you to visit Felix Romuliana. Go before anyone decides to change it: there are no hideous walkways, no intrusive coverings, no flashy signs or touristy gizmos. Sitting in the tiny alfresco café that nestles discreetly in a corner, and enjoying what I was assured was a traditional snack of sugared doughnuts and pear slivovitz (brandy) with our wonderful host Bora Dimitrijević, director of the museum at Zajećar, I asked Maja if it was always this quiet. She shrugged. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it’s a mystery.’ Why such a glorious example of Roman architecture and design seems to be off visitors’ radars is a mystery indeed. There can be few sites of such significance that are so wonderfully preserved, unspoilt, and a joy to explore. Galerius may not have had a chance to enjoy it, but the rest of us should.

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