Like many parts of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, Sremska Mitrovica is a charming town full of classical architecture. But beneath its surface lie the ancient remains of the Roman city of Sirmium, which even once served as a capital of the empire.
By far Sremska Mitrovica’s top highlight is what’s left of the Imperial Palace, though interesting pieces of the past can be found scattered all throughout town. Sremska Mitrovica can easily be visited as a day trip from either Belgrade or Novi Sad, with all of the main attractions accessible on foot.
The Imperial Palace of Sirmium
The Imperial Palace of Sirmium was built at the end of the 3rd century, and it wasn’t discovered until the 1950s during the construction of an apartment building. While only a fraction of the original palace is visible today, this once-elaborate abode hosted some of the most prominent figures of Roman history.
While we don’t have an exact date, the palace likely dates back to the time of the original Tetrarchy established by Diocletian (r. 284-305). Under the Tetrarchy, the empire was ruled by four leaders at a time: two Augusti and two deputy emperors, or Caesars.
In the beginning, Sirmium was the capital of Caesar Galerius, who happened to be born further east in the present-day town of Gamzigrad, Serbia (Felix Romuliana). Interestingly, Diocletian’s co-ruler Maximian had himself been born in Sirmium.
At the time, the Roman Empire had no less than four capitals, with the others being Trier (Germany), Mediolanum (present-day Milan) and Nicomeda (Turkey).
Stepping inside, take note of the well-preserved mosaic flooring in one of the first rooms. As was the norm at Roman palaces, nearly every floor here would’ve been covered in them.
The mosaics discovered thus far date to the late 3rd to mid-4th century. Most of them display geometric or floral patterns, though the god Mercury makes an appearance on one piece (not presently visible).
Today, only foundations of the palace’s various rooms remain. But one of the structures around here was likely a Tetrakionon, or a structure meant for displaying images of Roman rulers to their subjects. It featured an arched opening on each side.
But during the Tetrarchy, rather than merely displaying statues of themselves, Roman leaders also liked to present themselves to the public in person.
They did so at a special building called a Roman circus, or Hippodrome, a long and narrow ovoid structure that was also used for chariot races.
Archaeologists, in fact, discovered evidence of Sirumium’s Hippodrome just nearby the palace. But visiting the site today, it’s not exactly clear where it stood.
Another interesting feature of Sirmium’s palace was its central heating system. Faced with harsh and cold winters, the palace builders implemented an elaborate floor heating system to ensure the occupants’ warmth and comfort.
The heat created by burning wood would be circulated via ceramic pipes in gaps beneath the floor that were created with brick columns.
Even before the Tetrarchy system was established, Sirmium served as the winter headquarters for various military campaigns of prior emperors. One of these was Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180), who stayed in the area while fighting Germanic tribes to the north.
It’s believed, in fact, that wrote part of his famous philosophical work Meditations while staying here.
With everything only visible from an elevated platform, a visit to the former Imperial Palace of Sirmium shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes. But, while surely the most impressive, it’s far from the only Roman site to seek out around Sremska Mitrovica.
The Museum of Srem
Stepping outside the enclosed Imperial Palace building, you’ll notice some Roman columns in the middle of a roundabout. The large building in the distance is the local archaeological museum known as the Museum of Srem, and it would be a good idea to head there next.
But first, notice the excavations taking place just outside. While there weren’t any labels at the time of my visit, it seems like this could’ve been part of the original Imperial Palace.
Note that the museum, which costs around 300 RSD to enter, isn’t comprised of just this building. As we’ll go over shortly, your ticket will also grant you access to another museum further down the road.
This building mainly focuses on Sirmium, or the region of Srem as it came to be known, during the Middle Ages. While interesting, those mainly interested in the Roman era should be sure to visit the Lapidarium.
Note: I had a strange experience at this museum when the woman working there tried to charge me an exorbitant 850 RSD, telling me it was the ‘foreigners price.’ The sign she was referring to also had an English translation which clearly stated it was the fee for English guided tours, which I didn’t need.
Having traveled all over Serbia, I never encountered a separate ticketing system, and I told her she must be mistaken. After some back and forth, she finally let me pay the regular price, but the whole interaction was quite odd.
Leaving the main building, head down the street, away from the Imperial Palace and toward St. Stephen Square (where the big church is). Across from the church is a door leading to the next section of the museum, which is full of interesting stone artifacts.
In the backroom, meanwhile, is a large Roman mosaic that was likely created during the reign of Emperor Maximian, Diocletian’s co-emperor.
What’s more, is that the Lapidarium also features an upper story with comprehensive English info about Sremska Mitrovica’s Roman past.
Both buildings of the Museum of Srem are open daily except Mondays.
More Around Sremska Mitrovica
What makes Sremska Mitrovica unique is the combination of its beautiful traditional architecture and ancient Roman ruins. Walking around town, you’ll discover stone artifacts where you least expect them, like a pillar in a park or a sarcophagus lid near a parking lot.
As mentioned above, the central urban square is known as St. Stephen’s Square, which is dominated by the Cathedral of St. Demetrius. The part of town largely took its shape in the 18th century.
Moving south, you’ll encounter the ‘Wheat Market Square.‘ The square features elegant houses from the 19th century surrounding yet more ruins from ancient Sirmium.
As the name suggests, before the ruins were uncovered, this area served as a lively market. But it’s also likely that this part of town played the same role in Roman times as well.
Continue west and you can enjoy a nice view of the Sava River. And just across the street is yet another historical church known as the Old Church of St. Stephen. It was constructed in the 1500s, but on a spot where local Christians were martyred back in the 4th century.
Speaking of early Christianity in Sirmium, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, would briefly rule the empire from Sirmium before founding Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
His son Constantius II (r. 337-361) would then make repeated visits to Sirmium in the 350s. Numerous other emperors would then visit Sirmium, including Julian I (r. 361-363), who would try to change the official religion back to Hellenism.
Julian’s successor Jovian, who would also visit Sirmium, would then fully restore Christianity in the empire. Finally, Byzantine Emperor Theodosius took the throne in Sirmium in 379. And following his death, West and East Rome would split apart for good.
One of Sirmium’s most famous Christian martyrs was named St. Demetrius. While, as mentioned above, the main church in the town center was named after him, there’s also a much older version further north of which only foundations remain.
The Basilica of St. Demetrius was originally built in the 5th century, consisting of three naves and an apse on its east side. Unfortunately, the door was locked and I could only see it through glass during my visit.
Interestingly, the name Sremska Mitrovica actually comes from a derivation of both Sirmium (and later Srem) and Demetrius (‘Dimitrovica’).
Sremska Mitrovica is an easy day trip from either Novi Sad or Belgrade.
You can hop on a 9:30 am bus from Belgrade, with the ride lasting just about 70 minutes. After that, the next bus isn’t until 11:45. You’ll then find a few return buses in the afternoon.
Buses from Novi Sad run at 9:15 and 11:10, with the ride also lasting about 70 minutes. You’ll also find several return buses in the afternoon and evening.
The website polazak.com is very reliable when it comes to bus transport in Serbia, so be sure to check it before your visit.