When I think of the Roman Empire my thoughts usually turn to the eternal city of Rome and the splendid ruins found there or the many sites scattered across southern France where the magnificent Pont De Gard aqueduct, arena in Arles and theater in Orange stand as testament to the splendor of Pax Romana. What does not come to mind are the Balkans and the area which is now part of the Serbian nation. That was until I stumbled upon some fascinating information while reading a guidebook on a train trip to Belgrade. This was how I first learned about the city of Sremska Mitrovica.
I read with interest about its prominence in late antiquity. At that time it was known as Sirmium. The city had been one of the pivot points on which the empire turned away from the west and towards the east, while playing a role in one of the seminal events in Roman history, the Crisis of the Third Century. This was a series of unceasing civil wars during a fifty year period beginning in 235 AD. The crisis irreparably weakened the empire. Among the many problems which beset the Roman world during this violent period were several emperors who came from Sirmium and its surroundings. The city bred a martial ethos that dominated the empire during the crisis.
A Very Bad Fate – Chaos Rules Rome
Less than an hour’s drive west of Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica is located on the left bank of the Sava River. Its situation along the river has made it a prime spot for human habitation over the last seven thousand years. The apex of its development came in the centuries following its conquest and incorporation into Ancient Rome in 14 BC. Sirmium eventually grew to become one of the bigger cities in the empire, with an estimated population of 100,000. Military expeditions by such famous emperors as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were outfitted from the city. Aurelius also kept a residence there. The city was conveniently located close to the imperial frontiers along the Danube, a region where the Romans were engaged in near constant warfare against barbarian tribes.
By the 3rd century AD, power in the empire was gravitating eastwards with Sirmium at the crossroads of this movement. No fewer than ten Roman emperors were born in the city over a 150 year period beginning in 210 AD. The first five of these emperor’s reigns were short lived, reflecting the perpetual state of crisis which brought and then banished them from power. They were all military men who knew violence intimately. The first of these five emperors was Decius Traian (249 – 251) who along with his son and co-emperor Herennius Etruscus (251) died in a swamp, killed by Goths at the Battle of Abrittus in what is now Bulgaria. Decius became the first, but certainly not the last Roman Emperor to die in combat. Then there was Quintillus (270), who would end up in Italy where he was killed after a few months on the throne.
Short Lived – Life & Death At The Top
Two emperors from Sirmium managed to escape a violent death, Hostilian (251) and Claudius II (251). Unfortunately they fell, as thousands of others did, to the Plague of Cyprian, a lethal epidemic that was most likely smallpox. There were also a couple of emperors who were not born in the city, but claimed the imperial throne while there in 260, Ingenuus and Regalianus. The former committed suicide by drowning himself after being defeated in battle, while the latter was murdered by the same people who had put him in power a few months earlier. This was an age of chaos and crisis. It seems that there was something about connections with Sirmium that brought tough soldier emperors to very bad fates. Finally in 284 the crisis ended and Sirmium was well situated to grow once again.
Though Sirmium continued to produce emperors, including Maximianus Herculius (285-310) and Constantius II (337 – 361), the empire had been fundamentally transformed by fifty years of crisis. The economy was in tatters, as trade routes had been irreparably altered. Personal freedom was sacrificed for collective security. The empire was in decline, but Sirmium weathered the changes better than most cities. Sirmium gained exalted status as one of four imperial capitals in the latter part of the third century, at other times the city was a provincial capital and capital of a praetorian prefecture. When the empire turned away from paganism and towards Christianity, the city became an episcopate. It was not until 441 when the Huns arrived that the city fell out of Roman control, yet Barbarian tribes such as the Gepidae made Sirmium the center of their world as well. Only when it was taken in the late 6th century by Avars was ancient Sirmium a thing of the past. Fortunately much of the Roman city was left intact.
The Great Unseen – Sremska Mitrovica’s Buried Treasures
Fourteen hundred years later much of Sirmium still exists, but cannot be seen. It has been submerged beneath modern day Sremska Mitrovica. It would be one of the world’s premier archeological sites if only what lies beneath the current city could be unearthed. With the exception of such tantalizing remnants as the Emperor’s Palace very little excavation has taken place. During the 1970’s an American team of archeologists proposed that Sremska Mitrovica be relocated to an entirely new area in order for a thorough excavation to take place. This did not sit well with the citizens or the government of Yugoslavia. The proposal went nowhere. A large scale excavation of Sirmium has yet to take place.
While Roman history enthusiasts may salivate at the thought of an eventual excavation there is little chance of that. The site that most would love to see is a fully intact Roman Hippodrome, the only one left in the world. The problem is that it lies directly beneath the town center. Due to its size, there is no way of excavating the site without altering the existing town center. Thus, one of the great treasures of antiquity is likely to stay hidden under the sleepy streets of Sremska Mitrovica.