Mansio Idimum – Roman Post Station near Medvedja by MILOJE VASIC and GORDANA MILOSEVIC
Institute of Archaeology and National Museum, Belgrade. 2000. 296 pages, numerous figures and illustrations. ISBN 87975180

This attractive volume reports the finds made during excavations in 1960-1962 conducted by Branka Jelicic of the National Museum in Belgrade on the site of a Roman road station (mansio) near the village of Medvedje around 40 miles south of the Danube in northwestern Serbia. Normally such a lapse of time between discovery and publication would be a matter for regret but in this instance the delay has proved beneficial because it has allowed the coins recovered from the site to be interpreted within the known patterns of Roman monetary circulation only detected in recent years. The report is well illustrated and includes an aerial photograph only recently released for publication as well as a full and illustrated catalogue of the finds. The text is in Serbian (Latin script) and there is a full synopsis in English (235-263).

The site lies on the main transcontinental highway linking the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire and ran between northern Italy and Asia Minor following the route later taken by the Orient Express between Trieste and Constantinople. The remains near Medvedja lay close to the point where the road crossed the river Resava, a tributary of the Greater Morava, and the identification with the mansio of Idimum is based on the surviving ancient itineraries listing the stopping places and the distances between them. Idimum was a mansio, where overnight accommodation was available to both official and unofficial travelers. The next mansio to the north lay at Kaliste (Municipium) 27 Roman miles to the north and the next travelling south lay 16 miles away at or near the town of Horreum Margi (Cuprija) where the road reached the river Morava, which it more or less followed to Naissus (Nis), crossroads of the central Balkans. The most detailed record of this route is that of the Bordeaux Pilgrim who travelled in AD 333 between Gaul and the Holy Places and which records not only the mansiones but also the intervening relay stations (mutationes) where changes of horses and other facilities were provided. From this we learn that there were two relay stations between Idimum and Municipium in the more hilly terrain to the north but on the south one at the eighth mile (hence named Ad Octavum) halfway to Horreum Margi. In the 3rd and 4th centuries the Empire depended more than at any period on its roads, regularly traversed by emperors and their armies, and the system of post stations and relay stations was universal, maintained along every major route, even in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. Compared with the artistic and architectural riches of urban sites, these road stations have in the past held little attraction to archaeologists, being intended to serve the needs of those on the move, including those in charge of bulk supplies, and are likely to have been as basic in their facilities and generally as unappealing as their modern counterparts (at Medvedje this seems to be confirmed by the large number of tools and implements in the portable finds from the site). Emperors and the like when on the move would normally seek to be received as a ‘guest’ at the residence of a member of the local aristocracy. In recent years such settlements have been receiving the attention they merit, though mainly in Britain, Germany and Austria. This careful, albeit far from complete, examination of a road station on the great Balkan Highway is a most welcome addition to a growing body of evidence for the physical character of this imperial infrastructure.

The excavations of 1960-1962 revealed around eight buildings whose character and function could be determined more or less. The largest was a compact set of Roman baths with the usual system of hypocaust heating comprising eight rooms and covering an area of c. 24 by 16.5 m. Nearby another building (9 by c. 15 m) with decor of unusual quality was identified as likely to have some official function though the designation praetorium, usually denoting the residence of a commander within a military camp, may not be appropriate. Other buildings identified include an earlier mansio or accommodation building occupying an area of c. 150-200 square metres. To the south and away from the areas of the baths and the Praetorium were identified a possible hotel or guest house, a workshop for repairing carriages and wagons and a stores building. In addition the line of two Roman roads, both visible on the aerial photograph, were identified, a broader metalled road up to 4.6 m wide and a narrower road, that it evidently replaced, closer to the principal buildings, the baths and Praetorium.

Late in the 19th century the Austrian archaeologist Felix Kanitz traced the remains of a typical late Roman fortified enclosure (c. 100 m square) with projecting circular corner towers but the remains have long since disappeared through robbing and the digging of drainage channels in the area. Some traces can be identified on the aerial photograph that could represent a smaller enclosure than that recorded by Kanitz and with a rhomboid rather than square plan (c. 240 by 270 Roman feet and covering an area of c. 0.58 ha). Within this perimeter will have been the baths and the Praetorium that along with other structures will have formed the mansion proper intended for the use of officials and others with the appropriate documents that could only be issued at the highest levels of the imperial administration. The outlying buildings on the south noted above will then have belonged to the settlement where facilities offered to ordinary passing travellers. The evidence from coins indicates that the settlement was in use for most of the 4th century but there was little evidence for different structural phases in the remains of the buildings. Using the evidence of coins the authors conclude that the mansion was established soon after AD 313 when Constantine gained control over the region following victory over Licinius. There are indications that the settlement was already functioning during the previous half century but no structures belonging to this earlier occupation were identified. The fortifications were evidently not part of the original scheme but are later additions, probably in the reign of Valentinian (AD 364-375). Then the baths and the Praetorium were enclosed, while since the new perimeter lay astride the existing highway a new road was constructed further to the west. The mansio ceased to function, at least in the role of supporting officials and private travelers, since the coin series suddenly stops after AD 378, the year when effective imperial control of this region collapsed following the disaster at Hadrianopolis and the long-distance overland traffic along the roads was interrupted. Maintenance of the roads and of the post stations was a burden on local municipalities; once these local economies based on office-holding elites sustained by the surplus from local production were threatened then the road system and the circulation of coins they stimulated will have ceased to function almost overnight.

Some of the settlements along this road, though not, it would seem on present evidence, Idimum, appear to have survived this imperial collapse and continued to exist until the appearance of the Huns in 441-443. The imperial recovery of the 6th century extended to this area from the southeast but the only certain trace of imperial authority is a fortification at the old relay station Ad Octavum (Drazimirovac) between Idimum and the old city of Horreum Margi, though its function will likely have been very different from its role in a still flourishing imperial network of communications two centuries earlier. This clear insight into how the unified Roman Empire functioned in its final but most integrated phase is not the only gain from this study. The 180 or so coins belonging to the period between Constantine and Valentinian appear to provide a match for patterns of coin circulation recovered from sites on major roads far away in the west (e.g. Flerzheim and Dalheim) and the authors advance an argument for a consistent pattern of coin circulation during the 4th century. This correspondence can be attributed to the role of these places for people on the move along the main roads of the Empire.

If nothing else, this report should encourage students of the Roman world to invest time and effort in the study of ostensibly modest and unappealing roadside assemblages. For that, and for much more, the authors deserve to be congratulated.

John Wilkes
University College London

Review Submitted: February 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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