This article originally appeared at TimeTravelTurtle.com.
So far in my writings about Serbia, I have concentrated mainly on recent history – of unification and dissolution and conflicts over those two. But Serbia’s history is much longer than anything anyone alive can remember. For my visit to Gamzigrad, I have to go back thousands of years to a time when this land was very much part of the Roman Empire.
In the year 306, Emperor Caius Valerius Galerius Maximianus was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire. Here, on this site at Gamzigrad in today’s eastern Serbia, he had already started building his own palace and compound. But when he took control of the greatest civilisation known to man at that time, he set about expanding it to make it fit for an Emperor.
Within the impressive fortifications there were basilicas, temples, hot baths, a memorial complex, ceremonial buildings and a palace. Being a good boy he named the whole place after his mother, Romula, and so it was known as Felix Romuliana.
It is the most important Roman ruin discovered in Serbia. Not just for its size and its detail but because it was quite unique in its layout. In a direct line from the compound, high up on a hill in front are two large memorial mounds where Galerius and his mother are buried. The idea was not just about respect for the dead – the belief at the time was that the two of them would achieve divine status through the societal position of Galerius in his life and the physical position of their memorials.
Today the site is in ruins and little has been done to uncover everything and restore that which has been found. There is still a fair bit to see and it is easy to imagine what a grand mini-city this would once have been. It’s impressive that, 1700 years later, you can see as much as you can. Intricate mosaics on some the floors have been discovered and are protected simply by a few ropes to stop visitors walking over them. Not that there are many visitors – I am the only person here on the afternoon I’ve turned up. I’m given a ticket and left to wander around, signs in English explaining what each building is.
So many years have passed and so much has happened since the time Galerius took control of the Roman Empire and built his home here amongst the fields near some crossroads. The site itself was turned into a community and market zone long after his death, before it was sacked by the Huns, rebuilt, and then eventually abandoned because of constant attacks from the Avars and the Slavs in the seventh century. And now it’s a tourist site.
With so much of Serbia and this region defined by events from the past few decades, sometimes you need to look back centuries to get some perspective.