The sheer size of the Roman Empire becomes apparent when you travel all around Europe and the Mediterranean. For instance, we have visited Roman sites in Spain, Libya (Leptis Magna) and Lebanon (Baalbek). The Balkans were at the heart of the Roman Empire: Of the about 70 or 80 Roman emperors, up to 18 may have been born in today’s Serbia. We know that many of them visited their hometowns in the Balkan countries regularly. Travelling in Serbia, we decided to visit Felix Romuliana near Gamzigrad. It is the palace Emperor Galerius built for his mother Romula and himself in the late 3rd century.
Felix Romuliana in the National Museum of Zaječar
„Busses? No, I don’t think there are busses to Felix Romuliana. You will have to take a taxi.” The staff at the National Museum in Zaječar seemed surprised to see visitors in the first place. And this despite the fact that the museum is located smack in centre of the small town. And it is quite large and important. We had decided to start our visit to Felix Romuliana in the museum in Zajecar to get some solid background information. And indeed, the most important artefacts from the Roman palaces of Felix Romuliana are now displayed there: Some statues as well as several Roman mosaics. And, most importantly, the inscription with the place name “Felix Romuliana” in the remnant of a stone arch.
However, the museum exhibition is much smaller than we expected. Apart from the room with the mosaics, there is another hall dedicated to Felix Romuliana. The other two rooms of the museum are cluttered with a variety of archaeological finds from various eras, and traditional clothing, weapons, and tools. Our visit to the museum in Zaječar is thus rather a quick affair.
Looking for a bus to visit Felix Romuliana
By 2 pm we are back on the street although we have only arrived from Niš this morning. Locals at the bus stop don’t know anything about a bus to Gamzigrad, the village near the archaeological site of Felix Romuliana. The Internet is not helpful either, although we find references to some sort of bus, possibly at 2.30 pm. “3 pm,” is the firm belief of the lady in the kiosk near the bus stop. We are still sceptical and go for the taxi after all, as recommended by the museum staff.
From the large visitor parking on a hill in the middle of nowhere we see a tiny ticket booth, modern turnstiles, and a row of partly rebuilt walls. Well behind the complex on a different hill we spot two large tumuli housing the mausoleums of Emperor Galerius and his mother. Since the UNESCO World Heritage convention included Gamzigrad-Romuliana in its list in 2007, archaeological research and restoration work has probably picked up.
Who was Emperor Galerius, the founder of Felix Romuliana?
Galerius, the Roman Emperor who built Felix Romuliana, remains a bit of a mystery to historians. Gamzigrad may have been his hometown, but his parents hailed from near Sofia in today’s Romania. Galerius rose through the ranks of the Roman military to become Caesar in 293 AD. In the late Roman government system of Tetrarchy, two Main Emperors bearing the title of Augustus ruled along with two Junior Emperors, the Caesars.
It took until 305 for Galerius to succeed his mentor Diocletian as Augustus, or Main Emperor. By then he had undertaken fierce persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire. However, just before his death in 311 Galerius issued a very different edict – this time tolerating Christianity. Apparently, it wasn’t quite that he had changed his mind about the Christians. Galerius was still a staunch supporter of the Old Roman gods. However, all the gruesome persecution measures had failed to dissuade the Christians from their religion. And certainly, they were not coming back to worship the Roman pantheon. Therefore, the new edict required them to at least pray for the Roman state and the emperor, even to their new god.
Felix Romuliana – a massive fortress
The palace doesn’t look like a palace from the outside. Rather, the wall with numerous protruding round towers reminds us of not only of Roman fortresses like the one in Aguntum in East Tyrol. It also somewhat resembles the fortified desert towns in Central Asia, such as Merv in Turkmenistan, or the Qalas of Uzbekistan.
Between two huge round towers, the western gate leads into the vaguely square palace area. Next to the gate we see a panel indicating that the German Archaeological Institute has sponsored its reconstruction. In their work between 2004 and 2012, the German archaeologists discovered settlements around the emperor’s palace complex. People lived in the area long before Galerius, and after his death, people continued to live inside the protective walls for centuries. Nevertheless, the complex was not rebuilt with larger structures, making it easier for archaeologists to examine the Roman remains.
Exploring the palace area
Inside one of the gate towers, there is a small exhibition of decorative stones and reliefs from the excavations. The main palace area, however, looks not very convincing at first. We see a few clusters of walls and former buildings, along with some standing marble columns. But we cannot recognise the palace in these remains. The information panels don’t help much, either. We read that there were several temples on the premises, including one for Jupiter, one for Hercules, and one for the Goddess Cybele or Magna Mater. We guess that the stone stairs leading up a pile of stone belonged to a temple, and the marble columns to the living areas. But walking around the ruins and wall foundations doesn’t help us making out the functions of the individual buildings. We can imagine even less where the mosaics and statues from the Zaječar museum were found. The information on the ground remains rather vague despite some reconstructed 3D images. In the palace area, only one simple mosaic is still in place and visible.
Sacred farewell – death rites for the emperor
It doesn’t take us very long to walk all around Felix Romuliana. From the Eastern gate, we have a glimpse outside to the valley and the hill beyond. But there is no path leading from the palace to the two grave tumuli for Emperor Galerius and his mother, so we don’t even try visiting these graves. In the museum we had read about the elaborate ceremonies that turned a dead emperor into a Roman god. They included a waxen effigy of the dead emperor which the mourners treated as “sick”. Only after lengthy preparations, they declared the wax puppet dead and burned it on a funeral pyre with lots of flowers and incense. Ideally, an eagle would then take the emperor’s soul – cloaked in a lot of smoke – to heaven and the emperor would become a god.
The quest for public transport from Felix Romuliana to Zaječar
Back at the parking lot, we resign: There are no other visitors to Felix Romuliana today. But it is less than 2 km to a slightly bigger road, and it is still in the afternoon. From there we should surely be able to find a car to take us back?! But we soon realize that there aren’t so many cars anyway on this road. And while in most countries drivers would stop for obvious tourists on a country lane, here they don’t. We quickly give up and walk to the next village, Zvezdan, in the hope of finding a taxi.
Zvezdan looks deserted, but while we are walking the main road, a public bus passes us from behind! It’s another 6 or 7 kilometres on a lonely road to Zaječar, so we jump and make signs, begging the driver to stop. He doesn’t stop but points forward on the road. What does he mean? That he cannot stop here? We madly run after the bus anyway and soon see a bus shelter. To our relief, the bus stops there for long enough for us to catch up. 20 minutes later we are back in town.
Should you visit Felix Romuliana?
In terms of Roman archaeological sites, and for a UNESCO World Heritage site, we found Felix Romuliana somewhat disappointing. We have seen wildly more impressive sites, such as Jerash in Jordania and Bulla Regia in Tunisia. For archaeologists, the Imperial palace of Felix Romuliana may have a certain significance because it is from late antiquity and a rare type of building. For tourists, however, we think that it is no must-see. Rather, the quest of getting to Felix Romuliana is an adventure of its own. So, we do not regret our excursion to Gamzigrad, but overall, we liked the imperial palace of Constantine the Great near Niš better.
The practicalities: How to visit Felix Romuliana by public transport
Felix Romuliana is near the village of Gamzigrad. That’s what most descriptions mention – but forget about Gamzigrad: it’s on a side road and no bus ever goes there. The larger settlement of Gamzigradska Banja is on the main road, but no improvement – it is also 5 km away from the archaeological site. There are occasional busses going from Zaječar to Gamzigradska Banja, passing the turn-off for Felix Romuliana (1,6 km). These are an option if you can find out at what time they are running. We couldn’t.
Otherwise, taxis wait near Hotel Hamburg in Zaječar. We paid 600 RSD one-way – even with waiting time, the round trip would probably not be more than 20 €.
Walking the whole distance (which we had considered) was not an option, we found. Even if it’s only about 8 km one way, the country road has no sidewalk and cars and trucks are going pretty fast.
Getting to the town Zaječar, where we stayed overnight, also requires some planning. We found a morning bus from Niš to Zaječar, and a slow bus the next morning to Paraćin on the motorway to Belgrad. Both busses were the only connection in the morning, with perhaps one more connection during the whole day.
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Have we made you curious? If you think of going to visit Serbia in the future, why don’t you save this post about Felix Romuliana for reference: