Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, February 12, 2018

Roman Fortress of Viminacium in Serbia

Late Roman Infantry

Viminacium, the capital of the Roman province of Moesia Superior, was one of the most important Roman cities and military camps in the period from 1st to 4th centuries. Its exceptional strategic importance was reflected both in the defense of the northern border of the Roman empire and in turn of communications and commercial transactions.

At its peak it is believed the city had 40,000 inhabitants, making it one of the biggest cities of that time. It lies on the Roman road Via Militaris.  The archaeological site occupies a total of 450 hectares (1,100 acres), and contains remains of temples, streets, squares, amphitheatres, palaces, hippodromes and Roman baths.

There was virtually no Roman emperor who did not pass through Viminacium or spend some time there. Among visits by Roman emperors, mention should certainly be made of Hadrian’s residency when hunts were organized for him at Viminacium on two occasions; the Emperor Septimus Severus visited twice; later on other emperors stayed there: Gordian III, Phillip the Arab, Trebonius Gallus, Hostilian, Diocletian, Constantine The Great, Constans I and Julian. Gratian was the last emperor known to have visited Viminacium.


The Roman fort (castrum) at Viminacium was built in the first decades of the 1st century AD. The existence of an earthwork fortification, although not archaeologically confirmed, was very likely built as early as the beginning of that century.

The camp’s dimensions have been determined by geophysical methods and by analysis of digital soil sampling. They were 443 metres by 387 metres. These methods determined that the original camp was twice that size and that there is reason to believe that two legions were probably stationed there, most likely until Domitian’s edict of 86 AD. That year the order was issued that due to the threat posed to the Roman Empire, it was prohibited to station two legions at the same place. 

The remnants of the entrance gate with massive tiling, cesspool and lavishly decorated architectural elements point to the powerful defensive system for which the camp was built on the then northern frontier of the Empire. The unearthed store of bronze coins dating back to the beginning of the 4th until the middle of the 5th centuries AD indicates the time of the destruction of the camp which, after the Hun invasion in 441 AD was abandoned and had never since been restored to its former glory. 

Aerial pictures, as well as geo-radar and geomagnetic filming carried out on the site of the former castrum, provide a true picture of the camp with its ramparts, gates, turrets, the legion’s headquarters and barracks lying beneath the fertile cultivated fields.

Viminacium was the permanent base of the Seventh Legion Claudia.

The Romans became interested in the region during the Illyrian Wars. It has been argued that the Fourth Legion Scythica stayed in Viminacium (or the neighborhood) during the first half of the reign of the emperor Augustus

Another unit that may have stayed here for a short while, is the Fourth Legion Flavia Felix, which took part in Domitian's war against the Dacians after 86. However, it would soon find its permanent base in Singidunum (Belgrade), and Viminacium was to be the permanent base of the Seventh Legion Claudia.

In the legion camp, 6.000 soldiers were stationed, and 30-40.000 lived nearby. A cavalry unit was stationed here, and it appears that the city was the place where the prefect of the Danube Fleet had his office.

In the first half of then the 3rd century the city was in full development, as evidenced by the fact that at that time it acquired the status of a Roman colony, and the right to coin local money.

Byzantine Era  (395AD to 600?)

In 395 AD the Empire permanently split into east and west and Viminacium come under the rule of Constantinople. 

Then in 441 Viminacium was completely destroyed by the Attila the Hun.  Shortly after in 476 AD the Western Empire fell.  But destroyed or not the strategic importance of Viminacium was not lost to the Eastern Emperors.

In addition is reconquering Africa, Spain and Italy the Emperor Justinian (r527-565) began a major building project in the Balkans. Up and down the Roman frontier Justinian built and re-built fortifications.

Viminacium was re-built and fortifications strengthened. In 535 the city had a bishop and was raised to the rank of archdiocese. 

Some historical sources say the city was again destroyed by Avars during their invasion in 582.

I have my doubts that the city was destroyed. 

Records are nearly non-existent about the state of the city, but the actions of both the Avars and Romans suggest the city still stood.

In 599 the Romans sent an army to the city and set up camp. It was noted that the commanders spent time in the city. The Avars and Romans then fought a series of three battles around Viminacium resulting in a major Roman victory.

It is fair to say that the Emperor would not send an important general (Priscus) and an army to defend a pile of rubble. Nor would the Avars send a large army to attack Romans who were defending rubble. 

So the city was still active at some level. Since the battles resulted in Roman victories it is reasonable to say that Viminacium continued to exist to some degree into the 600s. 

The 600s continued to see endless barbarian invasions over the Danube. With the Roman-Persian War of 602–628 all military focus was directed to the east to defend Anatolia, Syria and Egypt. Protecting the Balkan cities far from Constantinople was about as low a military priority as you could have.

We can safely say that it was during this period that Viminacium finally fell never to be rebuilt again.

Click to enlarge
Viminacium map. Excavations of Mihailo Valtrovic in 1882

Viminacium was a Legion outpost and capital
of the Eastern Roman province of Moesia.

Think of the word "Porous"

The Danube Limes was not a solid wall defending the Empire's frontier.  Rather it a was a series of fortified cities, small forts and watchtowers.  The Danube River itself was the most dominant element of the frontier system, used as a demarcation line against the Barbarian world to the north and as a fortified transport corridor.

The Limes was porous with assorted invading Slavs, Huns or Avars pouring through on raids dedicated to looting or conquest.  In theory the Roman/Byzantine strongpoints would slow down invaders allowing for troops stationed close by to push the enemy back over the border.

Model of Viminacium

Roman Legion camp of Viminacium


Viminacium Roman Aqueduct

Re-Building The Danube Limes

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD
Procopius - Buildings

Thus did the Emperor Justinian fortify the whole interior of Illyricum. I shall also explain in what manner he fortified the bank of the Ister River, which they also call the Danube, by means of strongholds and garrisons of troops.  

The Roman Emperors of former times, by way of preventing the crossing of the Danube by the barbarians who live on the other side, occupied the entire bank of this river with strongholds, and not the right bank of the stream alone, for in some parts of it they built towns and fortresses on its other bank.  However, they did not so build these strongholds that they were impossible to attack, if anyone should come against them, but   they only provided that the bank of the river was not left destitute of men, since the barbarians there had no knowledge of storming walls.  In fact the majority of these strongholds consisted only of a single tower, and they were called appropriately "lone towers," and very few men were stationed in them.  

At that time this alone was quite sufficient to frighten off the barbarian clans, so that they would not undertake to attack the Romans.  But at a later time Attila invaded with a great army, and with no difficulty razed the fortresses; then, with no one standing against him, he plundered the greater part of the Roman Empire.  But the Emperor Justinian rebuilt the defences which had been torn down, not simply as they had been before, but so as to give the fortifications the greatest possible strength; and he added many more which he built himself.  In this way he completely restored the safety of the Roman Empire, which by then had been lost. And I shall explain how all this was accomplished.
Emperor Justinian

The River Ister flows down from the mountains in the country of the Celts, who are now called Gauls; and it passes through a great extent of country which for the most part is altogether barren, though in some places it is inhabited by barbarians who live a kind of brutish life and have no dealings with other men.  

When it gets close to Dacia, for the first time it clearly forms the boundary between the barbarians, who hold its left bank, and the territory of the Romans, which is on the right.  Consequently the Romans apply the term Ripesia to this part of   Dacia, for ripasignifies bank in the Latin tongue.  Accordingly they had made a beginning by building on the bank there in ancient times a city, by name Singidunum.  This the barbarians captured in time, and they immediately razed it, leaving the place quite destitute of inhabitants.  They did precisely the same thing to most of the other strongholds.  

But the Emperor Justinian restored the entire city and surrounded it with a very strong fortification, and thus made it once more a famous and important city.  And he set up another new fortress of exceptional strength about eight miles distant from Singidunum, which they call by the appropriate name of Octavus.  

Beyond it was the ancient city of Viminacium, which the Emperor rebuilt entire and made new, for it had long before been ruined down to its uttermost foundations.

As one goes on from Viminacium there chance to be three strongholds on the bank of the Ister, Pinci and Cupi and Novae.  These were formerly both single in construction and when named were single towers. But now the Emperor Justinian has greatly increased the number of the houses and enlarged the defences at these places, and thereby has properly given them the rank of cities.  

And opposite Novae in the mainland on the other side of the river, had stood from ancient times a neglected tower, by name Literata; the men of former times used to call this Lederata.    This the present Emperor transformed into a great fortress of exceptional strength.  After Novae are the forts of Cantabaza, Smornês, Campsês, Tanata, Zernês, and Ducepratum. And on the opposite side he built a number of other forts from their lowest foundations. 

Farther on is the so‑called Caput Bovis, the work of the Roman Emperor Trajan, and beyond this is an ancient town named Zanes.  And he placed very strong defences around all these and so made them impregnable bulwarks of the State.  And not far from this Zanes there is a fort, Pontes by name. The river throws out a sort of branch there, and after thus passing around a certain small portion of the bank, it turns again to its own stream and is reunited with itself.  It does this, not of its own accord, but compelled by human devices.  The reason why the place was called Pontes, and why they made this forced diversion of the Ister at this point, I shall now make clear.

(Procopius Buildings)      (Viminacium)      (Moesia)

(Viminacium)      (Viminacium)      (Viminacium)


sceptical if true said...

always mesmerizing those stories about lost romans outposts ...
neverdeless if those canot hold those barbarians ...
civilization went backward for centuries , till the renaisance
i mean europe and asia minor
in those times , darkness , was on most part of the world ... for every mumbo jumbo political correctness we canot hold anything about happiness on the peoples of the world in those times ... monstly all civilazations in those times were uterly racists , and use slavedom as the real deal , and purpose ...
don`t bulshit a *
and i can answer any country , or region by region ... even backward europe then
democracy as we know it ... doesn`t was present in any kind of way

sceptical if true said...

neverdeless a nice piece gary

Anonymous said...

looking at the map is outstanding the way borders are kept as big as they are with a few thousand mens in legions of 5.000
thats true that in those times we got no 500 millions in europe as today , but neverdeless is appaling the way , or the time romans kept the grip on power on so many lands and people
to be no eurocentric , i understand also that equation on other lands and peoples , as south america incas , or central aztecs , or persians empires, alexandre empire , china , the kmers , india , the ancian caliphate, mali , egipt empire of ancient faroos, case by case as different they are
but on romans i thought i can take the right conclusions for rise and fall

Anonymous said...

wellllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllly ...
neverdeless , with a great amount of blood , and death , only europe create a almost perfect model for democracy , that with ups and downs , could balance the exercice of elected powers , without more massacres .For that as imperfectation as we can see , the always presence of the organized crime home or foreign is a shadow reality , as political parties ( all ) behave like organized criminal gangs .
On that the only diference with other places is that by elections we the people could choose between a organized criminal gang , or other organized criminal gang .
Is all a show of deception .
Even in roman byzantium as emperor rules all , with byzantine ways .

Anonymous said...

serbians restor the site with great acuracy , as photos are bonafide and not some photoshop