Mosaics are beautiful traces of the Roman past. The striking mosaic floors in the imperial palace at Sirmium, and also the ones we have discovered so far at Glac, are mainly made up of stone tesserae in black, red, yellow and white. Mostly they comprise geometric designs
Over Christmas, conservators Svetlana, Ivan and Zdravko were working on restoring part of a mosaic floor in the imperial palace. The floor belonged to a narrow room, part of the entrance to the palace, and is decorated with a checkerboard pattern interspersed with the simple interlaced design known as a Solomon’s Knot. The design was adopted as the logo of the Imperial Palace centre, and it must surely be an auspicious sign that the Solomon’s Knot was one of the first designs visible on the mosaic discovered at Glac during the 2017 season.
Mosaic restoration is painstaking work. Holes in the original mosaic have to be carefully filled with mortar, with the outlines of tesserae painstakingly drawn in to continue the original pattern. Finally, the mortar is coloured and sealed, but in such a way that it is obvious at a glance which parts of the mosaic are original and which parts are modern restoration, while preserving a strong overall aesthetic.
The bold designs of the restored mosaic are striking, but they also evoke stories. It is hard to get a clear sense of what the Imperial Palace at Sirmium once looked like; but get down close to the tiles and you are on the same floor that emperors and their retainers once trod, striding in triumph or pacing anxiously.
There was a night in AD 361 when an emperor named Julian strode over that mosaic floor in triumph.
Julian was one of the most fascinating late-Roman emperors who passed through Sirmium. The nephew of Constantine the Great, he survived the purge of his family that Constantine’s sons launched after their father’s death in AD 337 to remove any potential rivals. Most of his close family members did not. In the following years, Julian kept his head down, becoming a great scholar of philosophy and also developing a deep hatred for the Christianity that Constantine had adopted. With the empire officially Christian, Julian kept his paganism to himself, although his attempt to restore the old gods of Rome when he finally became emperor earned him the name of Julian the Apostate. More than many other people from the past we are able to get a real sense of Julian’s personality, through his own writings that have survived and through the vivid description written by Ammianus Marcellinus, an officer in his army who later wrote a history of his times.
In AD 355, Julian was dragged out of obscurity by his cousin Constantius II, the sole surviving son of Constantine, who needed a family member who could act as a figurehead to lead the Roman army in the west while Constantius fought the Persians in the east. Given the title of Caesar, which had come to mean a junior emperor by the end of the third century, Julian proved to be very successful, gaining a loyal following from his army and defeating a large coalition of Germanic barbarians at Strasbourg in AD 357.
Unfortunately, Julian’s success attracted Constantius’ suspicion, and in AD 360 he sought to transfer some units of Julian’s army east for service against the Persians. According to Ammianus, Julian’s army revolted, acclaiming Julian as Augustus (senior emperor) at Paris in AD 360. Although Ammianus describes Julian’s unwillingness to be made emperor, it is difficult to imagine that the army’s revolt against Constantius II was unexpected or unwelcome to him. Refusing to accept this fait accompli and share power, Constantius II prepared to fight a civil war, so in Spring AD 361 Julian gathered his army together and marched rapidly eastwards to try to catch Constantius at a disadvantage. Using boats to move rapidly down the Danube, Julian set his sights on the strategic city of Sirmium. On a night when the moon was waning, Ammianus tells us, Julian landed his troops under cover of darkness at Bononia, the modern village of Banoštor just north of Sremska Mitrovica on the Danube. He dispatched a force of lightly-armed troops to launch a raid on Sirmium, with the aim of capturing Constantius’ main official in the region, the comes Lucillianus, who was preparing to defend Sirmium from Julian. Ammianus likens Julian to a ‘meteor or a flaming dart’, such was the rapidity of his strike at Sirmium. His boldness paid off. Lucillianus was captured and brought to Julian, and despite his defiance his capture caused any opposition to Julian to collapse.
The stage was set for one of the more exciting nights in ancient Sirmium. Julian marched his army overland from Banoštor, perhaps still expecting to have to fight for the town. Instead, on reaching the suburbs of Sirmium, which Ammianus tells us spread a long way outside the city, he was met with crowds of soldiers and townspeople, greeting him with flowers and torches and acclaiming him as emperor. They escorted him through the town to the palace, and Julian walked across the mosaic restored by Svetlana, Zdravko and Ivan, no doubt relieved and delighted at his success. Indeed, Ammianus decribes his joy at capturing the city so easily, as he hoped that other towns would soon follow the example of Sirmium, the ‘most populous and famous mother of cities’.
Julian only stayed in Sirmium for three days, during which time he celebrated his arrival with chariot races in the hippodrome that lies under the modern town. He marched on to Niš, to war, and into history, but his visit to Sirmium is just one reminder of a moment when the town of Sremska Mitrovica stood at the very centre of great events.