ALL (SERBIAN) ROADS LEAD TO ROME

26. Март 2020
Sale Dugokosi
Сан издање 14

If you have been reading my column, you know that I am aware of Serbia’s rich cultural history. After the fortress at Maglić opened my eyes, I could not but gaze across the landscapes of Šumadija and wonder at the thoughts and impressions, and the contexts that framed them, of past inhabitants. Monasteries and fortress ruins particularly stimulate this part of my curiosity. But at that early stage in my Serbian odyssey I was unaware how this sense of the past would connect back to myself as an heir to European cultural wealth from our shared Greco-Roman heritage.

On a visit to Serbia over a decade ago, I had learned of a less obvious monument on the outskirts of Belgrade. My invaluable Cultural Treasury of Serbia, a bible for a Serbophile like me, made mentioned of something worth seeing on a private farm in Brestovik. As our family was headed east to attend the autumn harvest festival in Smederevo, I insisted on a pitstop in this sleepy village.

The owner of the estate directed us to the far end of his apple orchard, up a gentle slope by thickening trees, where we discovered ascending stone stairs covered with forest overgrowth. These led to an entrance surrounded by low walls with several additional steps down to a shallow enclosure.  Two Roman arches sheltering alcoves to the left and right greeted us before an arched wall with a door to an inner chamber. The whole thing seemed like a hobbit-home from Lord of the Rings, cut into the hill and framed with greenery. We stepped inside the doorway and discovered a spacious and tastefully decorated vault, with some rubble where statues and sarcophagi used to be.

And, as is my nature, I was overcome with the mystery of the person who had built this, back in the third century, and what they must have felt towards those who were entombed here. What love! What a will to honour these sentiments in a lasting way. Scholars have unearthed enough evidence to suggest he was probably a high-ranking Roman soldier or an aristocrat, and the crypt housed the remains of his family. Both the layout and the art motifs revealed a faith in the old pagan gods.

And then it dawned on me that, whoever this man was, he lived here. He truly inhabited this place and, we can safely presume, he loved it. He knew its forests, savoured its crops, and watched its seasons come and go. He planned to live here until his dying day, a fact evident from the consecration of this part of it as a timeless tribute to his beloved family. I overlayed this realisation in my mind and my heart onto my father-in-law, who similarly loves the orchard rolling down from his weekend house atop a scenic hillcrest above Sopot, and every other person throughout history whose eyes awoke to this dawn light, scanned these same hills and valleys and, feeling the pride of claim and belonging, wished to be buried right where they had lived

Serbia was once Rome, and Rome was once homeSirmium, Singidunum, Viminacium, Felix Romuliana, Justiniana Prima, Medianathese places speak of caesars and legions and the artifacts of an empire. But the tomb at Brestovik revealed the personal, human connection of a specific Roman to Šumadija and the people who shared his home there. This added a layer of depth to my impression that Serbia is so much larger than the sum of its parts.  Like Italy and Greece, its endowments belong to all those who have inherited the civilisation that Rome delivered from the Greeks and, via Byzantium in the East and the Renaissance in the West, bequeathed to us. It’s a home we can and should be proud of.

 

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