Roman Emperor Justinian I, born in the south of present-day Serbia, wished to build a city in his home region that would be named after him. Thus, in the 6th Century CE, Justiniana Prima was born and became one of the most important Byzantine cities in the Balkans.Also known as Empress’ City (Caričin grad in Serbian), after the nearby Caričina river, it was erected on a stepped plateau at the confluence of two rivers. The town of Justiniana Prima lies on the gentle slopes which descend from Radan mountain towards the Leskovac basin, in an area outside of major roadways.
The remains of as many as ten early Christian churches (basilicas) that have been discovered across the site reaffirm the status of Empress’ Town as the religious centre of the entire northern Illiricum. A tour of the walled site will take you through three units - the Acropolis, the Upper Town and the Lower Town.
On the Acropolis, the part of the town that was built first, you will see the remains of the large episcopal basilica and the episcopal palace. Right behind the church are the remains of a large pool carved in stone, which was filled with water from a 16-kilometre long aqueduct that reached all the way to Petrov agora mountain. The round-shaped forum beneath this complex was once adorned by a monumental gold-plated statue of the town’s founder. Today, this part of the town holds the remains of a church with a mosaic in nine shades. The remains of a basilica in the Lower Town are decorated by the monogram of Emperor Justinian. Not far from the walls of Empress’ Town, there are the remains of a Roman bath.
The year 615 CE marks the beginning of the decline of Empress’ Town. Fearing the increasingly frequent incursions by Avars and Slavs, the local population began to flee. It is believed that either a fire or an enemy attack on the aqueduct during one of the many sieges drove away the last remaining citizens of this once mighty town.
The remains of ramparts and porticoed streets, numerous basilicas and public and private buildings, with water supply systems, pools and baths, paint a vivid picture of the former glory of this once lavish town, which stood as one of the pinnacles of civilization of the Greco-Roman world.