Iustiniana Prima – Discover ,,Serbian Pompeii,,

April 2, 2024

If you like to discover Roman heritage, antique places, Byzantine churches and forgotten cities – Serbia is the right place for you. On the teritorry of Serbia, believe it or not, 18 Roman Emperors were born. One third of all Roman Emperors were born in places such as Sirmium ( today Sremska Mitrovica ), Viminacium ( today Kostolac ) or Felix Romuliana near Zaječar. International tourists are becoming aware of importance of this part of Europe for antique history, especially for Roman period. But did you know that Serbia hides ,,ideal city,, how it was desribed by the Emperors of early Byzantine period? It is Iustiniana Prima – Late antique city in south-east Serbia. It is unique location that many tourists are discovering in recent years and many of them already have a nickname for this place – Serbian Pompeii.

The fortified settlement at Caričin Grad is located in south-east Serbia, on the slopes of Mount Radan, descending towards the Leskovac valley. The first archaeological excavations of Tsaritsin Grad began in 1912 and have been going on to the present day. Based upon the obtained results and historic sources, the first theories about the name of the settlement and the period of its existence have been made. It has been established that it is a town of Iustiniana Prima, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (527-565) near the place he has been born. By the order of the emperor a new administrative and archbishopric seat of the Illyricum province was built, so as to strengthen the rule of Byzantium and help spread Christianity. The settlement was not to last long, and its disappearance is associated with the emperor Heraclius (610-641) and the invasions of Slavic tribes.

The fortified city was built on the elongated and elevated rock foundation, bordered by the Caričina river to the east and Svinjarička River to the west. The urbanized area of the settlement includes three segments: the “Acropolis”, the Upper and  Lower Town, surrounded by fortifications, extending below into a broad settlement, located outside the walls. The fortified area covers about 10 hectares. Around the town there was a settlement, defended by a large moat at its south end, while earthen bulwarks protected it at its north and east ends. The west end was protected by the natural, almost inaccessible, land contour. The flattened plateau, on the highest point, was called the “Acropolis” due to its dominant position. It is surrounded by the ramparts, fortified with projected horseshoe shaped turrets. The “Acropolis” area had a sacral role and, as a bishop’s headquarters, it was divided in two by a main road with porticos, stretching in the northeast-southwest direction. In the south end, a cathedral was built with a baptistery, while a bishop’s palace was situated in the north end.

An episcopal basilica-cathedral is a monumental building discovered at the very beginning of archaeological excavations in 1912. It is a triple-nave structure with а narthex and an atrium with a large pool. The interior of the basilica is divided into naves by a colonnade, ending in the east with three-sided apses. The basilica atrium pool is carved into a rock, surrounded by porticos. Numerous fragments of architectural ornaments, such as columns, capitols and column bases, discovered during the archaeological investigations, illustrate the lavish decorations and luxurious equipment of the interior.

In the south end, the basilica is extended by a baptistery of significant proportions, with a square ground plan from the outside and a tetraconch plan from the inside. In the middle, there is a cruciform pool laid with marble. The baptistery floor was covered with mosaics whose fragments have been preserved. The northern end of the “Acropolis” covers an elaborate ensemble of rooms, designed for various purposes, forming the episcopal palace. The Upper Town is the most developed part of the Caričin Grad complex. In the centre of the Upper Town area there was a circular square, at the intersection of the main town roads, dividing the area into four unequal parts. The city planning of this section of the Upper Town was significantly affected by the shape of the terrain, resulting in terraced structures and multi-level buildings. Around the square and along the streets with covered with porticos, a number buildings was erected, most probably the public, commercial or administrative ones.

The circular shaped square was covered with stone flags. The streets were paved with big stone blocks of irregular shapes, while the floors of covered porticoes were made of brick. The portico rectangular columns were also made of brick. Under the streets there was a sewage system of canals for disposing the wastes out of the walls. Within Upper Town, the archaeologists discovered three basilicas with crypts, a cruciform church and a basilica below the “Acropolis”. The basilica with the crypt, built on the terraces, is a fine example of building mastery. The sloping terrain was used to build a massive triple-nave vaulted crypt which served as a base, above which the church was erected. Beside the sacral buildings, the archaeologists also discovered and investigated the remains of a family villa and an ensemble of interconnected rooms, called the principia, most probably the headquarters of a military commander.

The Upper Town area was surrounded by ramparts with turrets, whose direction can be clearly traced in the terrain. The fortification of the Upper Town has not been studied in full. So far, only two gates, the east and the south ones, have been explored, also the parts of the ramparts next to the gates and a number of turrets. By its building technique, the south-west corner turret is quite distinguished, which, along with a cistern, the Lower Town tower and the aqueduct, operated as the town water supply system. The Lower Town covers the area to the south of the Upper Town. It is situated on an elongated plateau surrounded by ramparts fortified with turrets. On the grounds of the Lower Town only two sections have been explored thoroughly, the north-east and the south-west ones.

In the northeast section, two sacral buildings, a dual basilica and a basilica with a transept have been discovered and investigated. The latter is one of the most representative buildings in Caričin Grad. It is a triple-nave sacral building with a central apse in the east end and an atrium in the west end. It excels by its highly valuable floor mosaics discovered in the central nave, depicting symbolic images. Among the finds containing numerous stone ornamentation, the Ionian impost capital with carved in Latin monogram of emperor Justinian I is a distinguished one. To the west of the Lower Town, there is а big town cistern. It was dug out in the ground and the findings clearly show that it was vaulted. In the vicinity of the cistern, the city thermal baths were discovered. The southeast end of the Lower Town was investigated, between the south road and the south and east ramparts.

In the area outside the fortifications of the Upper and Lower Town, remains of many buildings were discovered, including an aqueduct, large Roman baths, single-nave and triconch church, as well as traces of residential buildings and roads. The early Byzantine urban development at Caričin Grad reflects the approach of ancient Roman builders towards building plans and their implementation. It can be clearly seen how a selection of an appropriate location and a manner of planning and building can emphasise the importance and rank of some architectural units. The “Acropolis”, as the highest point, represents an ecclesiastical seat and is independently fortified. The Upper Town, as an administrative and commercial centre, occupying the central section, includes and protects the “Acropolis”, being independently fortified. The Lower Town, of lower level administrative functions, was more loosely located in space.

Throughout the area of Caričin Grad, the sacral activity is emphasised, deriving from a desire for Christianisation of the Byzantine lands that were mostly under invasion from pagan tribes. In the town and in its immediate surroundings, eight churches were discovered, quite different in their construction design. Some of these churches, by their monumental size and lavish interior ornamentation, are representative examples of early Byzantine sacral architecture.