You are on page 1of 24

Front cover: A mosaic of a stag at the Small Basilica in Plovdiv

Dimana Trankova Milena Raycheva Anthony Georgieff

Title page: A bronze mask-helmet from the 1st-2nd centuries AD discovered in an


ancient villa now under the Chatalka Dam, near Stara Zagora. Stara Zagora Regional
History Museum Krasimir Georgiev

A GUIDE TO ROMAN BULGARIA


by Dimana Trankova, Milena Raycheva, Anthony Georgieff
Dimana Trankova (text)
Milena Raycheva (text)
All photography by Anthony Georgieff except where marked
Subedited by Vassil Yovchev
Edited by Anthony Georgieff
Graphic design by Gergana Shkodrova
Printed by Janet-45 Print & Publishing, Plovdiv
FSI Foundation, 2016
First published in January, 2016

The publication of this book is supported by the America for Bulgaria


Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those
of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the
America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.
. ,
, ,
,
(, , )
.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form
or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise), without the prior written
consent of the publisher.

ISBN 978-619-90319-4-0

A GUIDE TO

ROMAN BULGARIA

CONTENTS

The main entrance of the ancient theatre in Plovdiv

Rome in Bulgaria
People
Life
Gods and deities
Death
The Danube border
Serdica
Sostra
Pavlikeni
Nicopolis ad Istrum
Abritus
Devnya Museum of Roman Mosaics
The Black Sea coast

Mishkova Niva
Propada
Cabyle
Villa Armira
Kasnakovo
Augusta Traiana
Diocletianopolis
Philippopolis
Plovdiv's Small Basilica
Gate of Trajan
The Southwest
Basilicas
Timeline

Rome in Bulgaria

One of the most remarkable tales


of history concerns a city on seven hills
which rose from its humble origins to
become one of the greatest empires of
all time and the cradle of a civilisation. Its
science and philosophy, architecture and art,
bloodshed and law, politics and language still
reverberate throughout the modern world.
The nature of the city of Rome was
defined by fluidity. It started as a kingdom,
but while it was swelling and conquering, it
grew to a republic and ended up an empire.
In the times of its greatest expansion,
the 2nd Century AD, Rome incorporated
large parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, and its
citizens proudly called the Mediterranean Sea
Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, as if it was nothing
more than an internal thoroughfare. In the
lands around, Rome spread not only its way
of governance, but also its art and fashions, its
language, gods and lifestyle from gladiator
games and theatre plays to public baths and
temples of the imperial cult.
What is today Bulgaria was part of
this amalgamation for at least six centuries.

This timespan covers the grandeur and


expansion of Rome during the Principate,
or the so-called Imperial Period, between
the 1st and 3rd centuries, and the
tumultuous times between the 4th and 6th
centuries, or Late Antiquity. The period saw
significant social and economy changes,
the moving of the capital from Rome to
Constantinople, the rise of Christianity as
official religion, the division of the once
mighty empire into Western and Eastern
parts, and of massive invasions of the socalled Barbarians.
The Romans set their eyes on Europe's
southeast as early as the 2nd Century BC
while their state was still a republic and the
Balkans were a colourful map of Hellenistic
kingdoms. There were a legion things which
lured them thither. The Balkans were a crucial
crossroads between Europe and Asia Minor,
and were rich in mines, thick forests and
arid land. The first to fall under the Roman
sandal were ancient Greece and Macedonia,
but the Thracians, their neighbours living in

what is today Bulgaria, continued with their


lives mostly undisturbed in a handful of
small, dependent kingdoms.
Rome was wise and careful in its advance
into the unexplored Thracian territory.
Instead of exerting direct political authority
on the population, it bribed and seduced
some of the Thracian rulers and kept them
close and dependent, using the bond of the
relation between a patronus, or protector
and benefactor, and a cliens, or a subservient
person.
Being neighbours with the Romans was
not easy. The Thracians saw some precarious
interactions, like the campaign of 72 BC,
when M. Terrentius Varro Lucullus, governor
of the province of Macedonia, marched
against the Greek cities on the Black Sea
coast to punish them for helping Rome's
then archenemy, Mithridates VI, the king
of the Pontic kingdom. The Balkans saw
another Roman military intervention in
26 AD, set by the revolt of some Thracians
against King Rhoemetalces II, a Roman
pawn.

The mostly peaceful coexistence with


Rome at the border was short-lived. The
Romans sought control over the Lower
Danube and the lands north of the Stara
Planina and the Thracian plain on its south.
The inevitable conquest followed different
patterns in the north and south, but both
regions had become parts of the empire by
the mid-1st Century AD.
The conquest of Central Europe had
convinced the Romans of the importance
of the Danubian border. So they put all
their effort first on mastering the river and
the lands north of the Stara Planina. After
a short campaign against local tribes, M.
Licinius Crassus set up a military prefecture
(a form of pre-provincial government) in the
area as early as 29 BC. There the Romans
stationed legions and started building camps
which would later turn into cities. Soon
afterwards, sometime in 12-15 AD, the
province of Moesia was officially established.
By the end of the century it had already
been split in two Moesia Inferior included
what is today northern Bulgaria and Moesia

Superior spread over Bulgaria's northwest.


When in 106 AD Emperor Trajan (98-117)
defeated the Dacians north of the Danube
and established Roman rule there, Moesia
was no longer the border. The legions
withdrew from its western part and civic
development started in the abandoned
military camps.
The Thracian lands south of the Stara
Planina became part of the empire later,
and in a different fashion. The Thracian kings
ruling there were reliable clients and allies
of Rome. The connection is even visible in
the coinage of King Rhoemetalces I: While
the Thracian king's face adorns the obverse,
the strong profile of Emperor Augustus (27
BC 14 AD) is on the reverse. After the
death of Rhoemetalces I in 12 AD, infighting
for his succession began and intensified with
the killing of Rhoemetalces III in 46 AD. By
that time Rome was ready to take control
over the area, and annexed it around 4446
AD. The province of Thrace was formed.
Unlike the Danubian provinces, Thrace
was less exposed to invasion from the

Barbarians and was considered cultivated


and civilised. It was an inner province, so no
legions were needed to police it.
The Roman rule of Thrace influenced
all forms of public life. The most dramatic
change was urban development, which had
rarely been applied in these lands. Before
the Romans came, the region had been
largely rural with hardly any big cities.
The only exceptions had been the Greek
colonies on the Black Sea and dynastic
centres in the mainland, for example,
Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv). The arrival
of Rome brought along a major change.
The famed Roman paved roads became
ubiquitous, as they were crucial for the
movement of troops and postal services
across the empire. Along with them came
public facilities such as water supply, sewage
systems and baths.
A number of cities appeared near older
Thracian settlements and many were built
completely ex novo; both were planned
from scratch. But the Greek cities and

Philippopolis were no more than redesigned


so as to fit Roman fashions, governance and
lifestyle.
Some of the newly established
settlements evolved from former legionary
camps along the Danube after 106 AD
Ratiaria (modern Archar) and Oescus
(modern Gigen). Others, like Nicopolis ad
Istrum (near Veliko Tarnovo), Augusta Traiana
(modern Stara Zagora) and Marcianopolis
(modern Devnya) appeared as new civic
settlements. By the beginning of the 2nd
Century AD the map of Roman Bulgaria had
been dotted with new towns.
Cities in Moesia were under greater
Roman influence than the ones in Thrace. It
was the result of a significant military presence:
Some soldiers were of Italic origin and after
the end of their service settled in what is
today Bulgaria.The cities in Moesia looked like
the ones in the western realms of the empire,
and the language of administration was Latin.
On their part, the cities in the south were
influenced by Greece and Asia Minor they
had a distinctly Eastern look and used Greek.

This was how Bulgaria became a rare


blend of the traditions of the empire's
western and eastern worlds.

production was more or less centralised


and standardised, and usually concentrated
in the cities. Private initiative was welcomed
and large establishments such as pottery
All the cities reflected the Graecoworkshops appeared in villas outside cities.
Roman concept of urbanism. They had
The Romans were highly organised,
squares (called forums in the north and
and the developed administration they
agoras in the south) to accommodate vital
introduced in the Balkans was a novelty for
civic and religious buildings, and people
the Thracians, who had been used to a social
would gather there to trade, gossip, pray
structure no more complex than a king and
or have fun. Crucial elements of cityscape
a small military aristocracy. Under Rome, the
included basilicas (before the advent of
locals had to adjust to the new territorial
Christianity these were covered public
and fiscal management of a centralised
spaces which hosted a number of activities), state. Provinces were governed by imperial
temples, theatres and stadiums. The towns
officials, who resided in the provincial
had water supply and drainage systems, and capitals. There was also a team of financial
a street network of avenues intersecting
and other supervisors which took care of
at right angles. Statues of gods, emperors
provincial matters.
and notables adorned public buildings. The
Each city enjoyed a bit of autonomy, with
private sphere was affected as well. Most
a body of magistrates, which functioned as a
city dwellers lived in street blocks called
miniature copy of the Senate in Rome. These
insulae. The wealthier possessed large houses positions were unpaid, and magistrates
with courtyards and pools, decorated with
were expected to finance from their own
mosaics and marble statues.
pocket the organisation of public events
The Roman rule boosted the economy and the construction of public buildings.

Male citizens over a certain age participated


regularly in the meetings of the city council
and discussed current issues. Each year, two
of them were elected council leaders, whose
authority was similar to those of modernday mayors.
A variety of institutions existed in the
cities as well. There were several collegia
dealing with religious matters. Many of these
were involved in practising the imperial
cult that is, venerating the emperor as a
deity. Other institutions resembled social
clubs, and there were also professional
associations. Some were responsible for the
sports life, which was considered essential
for the education of the young. City
governments also provided opportunities
for the people who donated generously
with the aim to boost their career. It was
an expensive effort, but usually it paid off
such benefactors were held in high esteem
and were often honoured with statues.
Women participated actively in the
public life. Although they were excluded
from the sessions of the city council, they

were not confined to the households.


Many women were members of religious
associations, where they served in various
cults, and some even became the provincial
priestesses of the imperial cult a highrank office which carried considerable
prestige. When they happened to spend
money on public buildings, infrastructure or
organisation of sports or music games, they,
too, were commemorated, with statues at
public spaces.

areas dwindled. Dioceses became the major


administrative divisions, and bureaucracy
became a nightmare.
Instead of one, the empire now had four
rulers. Known as the Tetrarchy, it consisted
of two co-emperors, each of them helped by
a selected heir. This reform soon spawned a
bitter infighting, which led to the so-called
Dominate: The empire was now ruled by
a single man and his kin. In 330 Emperor
Constantine (312-337) moved the imperial
capital to Byzantion, on the Bosphorus, and
Life in Roman Bulgaria in the 1st and
named it after himself, Constantinople. For
2nd centuries was mostly peaceful. The most the first time since the Romans arrived, the
notable exceptions were the Marcommanic Balkans were near the centre of the empire.
wars and the Antonine Plague during the
The rise of this Nova Roma was the
reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But the
first visible sign of a process which had
next century proved a time of hardship,
been going on for a century. The West and
with the Gothic invasion in the 250s and
the East were gradually drifting apart and
the tumultuous second half of the 3rd
evolving into two self-sufficient economic
Century, when emperor reigns turned out
and cultural entities. This transformation
too short-lived. At the end of the century,
became all the more obvious under
Emperor Diocletian (284-305) changed
Constantine's successors. It was Emperor
the game forever. The provinces were
Theodosius I (379-395) who set the tone
reorganised, their number soared and their
with two history-shaping decisions. In the

390s he decreed Christianity the official


While in the 5th and 6th centuries the
(and only) state religion, and divided the rule Western Roman Empire shrank and suffered
of the empire between his sons Honorius heavy defeat from the Barbarians, the sister
took the West, Arcadius the East.
on the east did well. It enjoyed a fair share
of architectural magnificence and military
Southeastern Europe found itself in success under some talented emperors like
what today historians call the Eastern Roman the wise reformer Anastasius I (491-518)
Empire, the heir of the mighty Augustan state and Justinian the Great (527565), who
and predecessor of what would become
restored much of the empire's territory and
mediaeval Byzantium. No review of Roman
cultural power.
Bulgaria would be complete without this
But troubles were not far away. Wars
period of transition. The region was now next and Barbaric invasions were not uncommon
door to the imperial capital and was rather
between the 4th and early 7th centuries, and
susceptible to its economic and intellectual
they heavily affected life in Roman Bulgaria.
influence. This brought about prosperity,
The strict administration of the past started
and it's no wonder that some of the finest
to crack. The settlement pattern changed.
monuments of late Roman culture appeared The old Roman cities, located in the plains,
precisely in the Balkans.
began to decline as even their mighty walls

10

Reenactments of the Roman past are increasingly


popular in Bulgaria. One such company is the Cabyle
Antiquity Reenactment Group

could not stop the Barbarians. Instead,


people moved to new, heavily fortified places
in the easily defensible hills.
Economy and social life changed too.
Production became even more centralised,
and the state became a big investor and
owner of a number of workshops. Many
small-time freemen found themselves
so heavily in debt that they practically
became the property of their creditors: The
foundations of feudal society were laid.
Meanwhile, by the end of the 4th
Century, Christianity became the dominant
religion, with all the consequences not
only for art and architecture, but also for
social life. The Church gradually gained
political power and bishops took over city
governance.

all lived there. The streets teemed with


magistrates and matrons, prostitutes and
slaves, merchants and gladiators. Some of
these were Roman citizens by birthright
enjoying the privileges this brought them
while others acquired citizenship after
doing military or administrative service.
But it no longer mattered after 212 AD,
when Emperor Caracalla (211-217) issued
a decree which made every free man in the
empire a Roman citizen.

Social and ethnic diversity was a


crucial part of life in the cosmopolitan
empire, and Roman Bulgaria was no
exception. Local Thracians, Greeks from
the mainland or Asia Minor, Romans,
and veterans of various backgrounds

Between the 4th and 6th centuries


the empire started to crumble under the
invasions of the Barbarians. Among the most
devastating were the ones by the Goths in
the 4th Century, the Huns in the 5th, and
Slavs and Avars in the 6th. The instability
they brought combined with the deepening
political and military crisis, which ultimately
led to the collapse of the ancient Roman
civilisation. But while the Western Roman
Empire fell under the Barbarians, its eastern
sister survived, morphing into what came to
be known as Byzantium.

Konstantin Zaykov

Perched over a high plateau overlooking an important trade


route, the Ovech fortress, in Provadia,
was used by the Romans since the 3rd Century.
Today's remains date back to the Middle Ages

But Byzantium was not alone in the


Balkans. At the end of the 7th Century the
Proto-Bulgarians founded their own state
south of the Danube, beginning what over
the centuries would grow into modern
Bulgaria.
In the centuries which followed, a lot of
the Roman legacy in the Balkans was lost.
Untended, the roads fell into disrepair. The
streets, temples, baths and amphitheatres
of once lively cities were abandoned and
overgrown, or underlay mediaeval cities
whose inhabitants gradually forgot about
their predecessors. Marble statues and
columns were torn down and recycled
for mortar, and treasure hunters roamed
ruins in the search for hidden gold. Few
original Roman buildings survived (almost)

intact, such as the St Sophia Basilica in the


Bulgarian capital.
Interest in the Roman antiquity of
Bulgaria was born at the end of the 19th
Century. In the 20th research intensified.
Today, Bulgaria's Roman past is well
documented. In cities like Sofia, Plovdiv and
Stara Zagora it is firmly on the tourist map,
and each year brings new discoveries.
But there has never been a guidebook to
bring together in a single volume the history,
life, death and religion of the Bulgarian
lands under the Romans, together with the
most remarkable sites preserved from this
fascinating period of the past. A Guide to
Roman Bulgaria, published with the support
of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, aims
to fill this gap.

11

YOU ARE HERE

sterreichische Nationalbibliothek Austrian National Library

The province of Thrace with the Danube, the Black


Sea and modern Bulgaria, were depicted on the Tabula
Peutingeriana, a 13th-Century copy of an illustrated map
of the Roman Empire. The original was compiled from
Roman maps dating from the 1st to the 5th centuries,
which explains why it includes toponyms that didn't exist in
the same time, like Pompeii, the city destroyed by Mount
Vesuvius in 79 AD.
The Tabula Peutingeriana was made to facilitate
travellers. It covered the roads throughout the empire,
all the major cities and road stations and the distances
between them. It included almost the complete territory of
the empire (with the exception of Spain, Morocco and the
British Isles which were probably on a lost part of the map)
as well as some lands outside the Roman realm: the Middle
East, India, Sri Lanka and even a bit of China.
The map was discovered in Worms, Germany, and is
now in the sterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Hofburg,
Vienna.

12

13

Life

Soon after Thrace fell under the


power of Rome, the empire introduced a
range of changes, innovations and fashions
which transformed life completely. Old
Thracian settlements like Philippopolis
(modern Plovdiv) were given complete
makeovers and their plans were modified
after the imperial fashion. Straight, paved
streets stretched from east to west and
from south to north; sewage systems and
aqueducts were built; public baths became
all the rage. Trade and social activities
concentrated on the forums and agoras,
which were sumptuously decorated with
pediments and colonnades, and the highly
organised imperial administration took over
many aspects of life from local coinage to
taxation.
New cities appeared as well. Some
of them were built from scratch, like
Nicopolis ad Istrum and Nicopolis ad
Nestum, founded by Emperor Trajan to
A part of a set of medical instruments from the 3rd-5th
centuries, from ancient Marcianopolis.
Varna Archaeology Museum

18

19

Left: The names of the different phylai, or neighbourhoods,


of Philippopolis were written on the seats of the local
theatre, indicating which seat belonged to whom
Gold necklaces of a wealthy lady from Philippopolis,
the 2nd Century. These were found buried alongside their
owner, in the eastern necropolis of the city, and are now
on display at the Plovdiv Archaeology Museum

commemorate his victory over the Dacians.


Others transformed gradually from the
military camps along the Danube, growing
steadily with veterans' families and engulfing
the satellite Thracian villages and the
settlements with motley crowds of itinerant
merchants, prostitutes and soldiers' wives.
This was how, for example, Ulpia Oescus
and Novae, both on the Danube, arose.
The imperial administration recognised
these changes and throughout the years
granted these settlements more and more
rights. The trend was at its most intensive
under Emperor Trajan, who promoted many
settlements to the rank of real cities, and
in recognition gave them his family name,
Ulpius.
In Thrace most of the Roman cities,
with the exception of the ones along the
Danube, lacked proper defences. According
to common wisdom, they were far from

20

the borders and so were deemed secure.


This way of thinking changed abruptly
in 166-180, when the German tribes of
the Marcomanni and the Quadi revolted
against Rome, threatening mass invasion.
In 170-171 the Costoboci raged through
the provinces of Moesia and Thrace. This
prompted Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who
during these tumultuous times was writing
his Meditations, to order the construction of
fortification walls around the cities in lands
which earlier had been considered secure.
After this outburst a period of peace set
in in the Balkan provinces. But in 251 the
cities suffered a devastating Goth invasion,
followed by waves of attacks which proved
that no one was completely secure, walls or
no walls.
Roads were crucial for the functioning
of the clockwork mechanism the Roman

Empire was. They channelled the trade and


circulation of imperial edicts and documents
across the state, and helped soldiers move
quickly and efficiently to where they were
needed. Soon after Thrace fell under Roman
control, it was crisscrossed with well-built
roads. These included the major Via Militaris,
which ran from Central Europe in the west
to the Bosphorus in the east, and a net
of smaller roads from north to south and
along the Danube, which connected all the
big cities. On all, milestones showed the
distances, together with the name of the
then reigning emperor.
By building a bridge at Ulpia Oescus the
Romans tamed even the mighty Danube.
As the Middle Ages advanced, the
Roman roads fell into disrepair, but some
of them still existed in the 17th and 18th
centuries. Travellers crossing the Trayanovi
Vrata, or Gate of Trajan, pass, near Ihtiman,

21

An amphora with an erotic scene,


Plovdiv Archaeology Museum

An architectural fragment from the basilica of Ulpia


Oescus, depicting an actor. Now in the Pleven Regional
History Museum

were impressed by the sturdy boulders of


the old Roman road. These, however, were
dislodged to such an extent that it was
preferable to walk in the deep mud beside
them. Today, preserved sections of ancient
Roman roads can be seen around Kalofer, in
the Stara Planina, and near the stone circle
at Dolni Glavanak, in the eastern part of the
Rhodope.
A restored section is exhibited by the
Sostra fortress, near Troyan.
Along the roads the Romans created
road stations, where travellers could spend
the night and envoys would get a fresh
change of horses. Remains of such stations
have been discovered all over modern
Bulgaria, including Sostra and Cillae, near
Plovdiv. Something close to a reconstruction
of such a station can be seen at Castra
Rubra, near Harmanli, in the southeast.
Fortresses were also built by the roads,
a measure which became vital after the 3rd
Century, when Barbarian attacks from the
north of the Danube had become part of
everyday life.

22

Economic life changed, too. Thrace


became part of the vast imperial market
and both local aristocrats and new settlers
invested their money in large farms and
workshops. In the cities, craftsmen produced
mass-market and luxurious pottery, and
blacksmiths were busy making everything
imaginable from nails to knives to bronze
lamps and decorative pins. Stonemasons and
sculptors caved basalt and marble, creating
columns for buildings, statues, inscriptions,
tombstones. Goldsmiths meticulously
wrought fine gold and silver necklaces, rings
and earrings. On the outskirts of the cities,
solvent-stinking leather workshops supplied
shoemakers with raw materials. There
were even beauticians, providing services
which a modern woman would look upon
as a recent invention from hair curling to
epilation with resin.
Unlike other parts of the empire, local
agriculture was almost untouched by the
Roman authorities. Only small plots of land,
as well as all the mines and most of the
lakes, were expropriated to become part of

the emperor's domain or to be turned into


military camps. Rural communities kept their
relative economic and social independence,
and many producers of agricultural goods
sold directly to the market.
In the country, big villa rusticae, owned by
the wealthiest of the population, produced
large quantities of wheat, wool, fruit, timber
and honey. And not only food near the
modern city of Pavlikeni, for example, a big
ceramics workshop churned out tiles and
bricks for the public and private buildings;
pipes for the water system; lamps and pots
for cooking; and even wheeled toys.
The import was mainly of luxury goods:
gold and silver jewellery, candelabra and
expensive furniture, wine and olive oil,
expensive metal and glass vessels, and
pottery. Even sarcophagi were purchased
from the best workshops in Greece.
Spacious markets in places like
Discoduraterae (modern-day Gostilitsa);
Pizos, near Chirpan; and Skaptopara, near
Blagoevgrad were also opened and the local
economy made the most of this opportunity.

23

But as the complaint of the villagers of


Scaptopara, hewn in stone and addressed to
Emperor Gordian III (238-244), shows, living
close to a lively market had its downsides.
The officials and soldiers visiting the market
place to collect taxes or purchase supplies
often abused their powers at the expense of
the villagers.
Trade and production peaked in the 2nd
Century, due to the relative peace in the
empire and the booming economy, and was
eased by administrative measures which
allowed Thracian cities to mint their own
coins.
Yet despite the economic upswing, the
imperial financial system nearly collapsed
during the so-called Crisis of the 3rd
Century. Money lost its value when the
emperors increased the number of soldiers
and their pay (as a way to secure their
backing in their own game of thrones),
and at one point the state even started
collecting taxes in kind. Bartering goods
was common. Coupled with the Barbaric
invasions and the wars between the

24

numerous generals aiming for the throne, it


ended in severe disruption of internal trade.
The shock was never completely overcome
even when some form of stability was reestablished at the end of the century.
Arts under the Romans underwent
a transformation, too. In rich cities the
administration and the affluent citizens
purchased mosaic floors and marble
decorations for their public buildings and
private mansions, boastful inscriptions
to praise their deeds, and meaningful
tombstones for their graves. A number of
artisans met this demand, and even formed
local schools. Their art was not as exquisite
as that in Rome, and the funeral family
portraits on tombstones are pronouncedly
crude. Still, there are fine examples of
Thracian provincial arts. In Plovdiv, the
Archaeology Museum, an ancient mansion
and a basilica, preserve fine mosaics from
the period between the 3rd and 5th
centuries. More mosaics of importance can
be seen in Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad, the

Glass jugs and cups, Balchik History Museum

Bronze balsamarium, or a vessel for ointments and


perfumes, shaped as an African boy, the 2nd Century,
Plovdiv Archaeology Museum

mansion in Devnya, the History Museum in


Stara Zagora, the National History Museum
in Sofia, and the Archaeology Museum in
Sandanski.
Frescoes from the Roman era are also
preserved in modern Bulgaria, with the
best examples being a 4th-Century tomb
from Philippopolis with frescos of the
resurrection of Lazarus and the 5th-Century
tomb at Silistra.

gladiator games dwarfed interest in drama.


The existence of one of the comedies of
the Greek playwright Menander actually was
discovered because of a find in. . . Bulgaria.
No one had suspected that Menander ever
wrote a play called Achaeans before a mosaic
of a troupe of actors with the names of
the play and its author was discovered in
Oescus.
The best-preserved Roman theatre is
in Plovdiv, the modern-day descendant of
Philippopolis, and the city is also the home
of the finest Roman stadium in Bulgaria.
Both were built in the 2nd Century. The
stadium hosted competitions in athletics,
boxing and poetics which the city authorities
organised. The stadium was used to display
the city's devotion to the incumbent
emperors sports games were organised to
honour Caracalla and Elagabalus (218-222),
who probably attended the events. Such
games were probably held also in honour of
a more unconventional person Antinous,
the lover of Emperor Hadrian (117-138).
And yet people were not always amused by

Like elsewhere in the Roman Empire,


entertainment was in high demand also in
Thrace.
Theatre had already been a popular
pastime in the Greek colonies on the Black
Sea coast, but in the 2nd Century AD a
good theatre house was essential for every
city in Thrace with any pretence of status.
But in Roman times few people actually
liked the moralistic tragedies of Classical
Greek playwrights like Euripides and
Sophocles. Most preferred saucy comedies
and the cheap humour of contemporary
authors, while intellectuals complained that

25

The wealthiest people in Roman Bulgaria could afford


expensive imported vessels made of bronze, Plovdiv
Archaeology Museum

what they saw on the arena, as evidenced


by the game of draughts cut into one of
the upper rows of the stadium by bored
spectators seeking alternative amusement.
Gladiator games were also a popular
form of entertainment in Philippopolis
even the theatre was used as an arena for
the blood sport. Organisers didn't shy from
making these events as interesting as they
could. A stone relief from Serdica (modern
Sofia) is a good example for what the
shows offered: Besides a range of exotic
animals, there is an over-life-size model of
a crocodile spurred on by men. Sadly, only
scant remains of the amphitheatre of Serdica
can be seen today, in the subterranean level
of a downtown hotel. In Nicopolis ad Istrum
and Philippopolis, fragments of gladiator
games ads have been found, listing the
gladiators and the organisers.

26

Games of all sorts, as well as festivals


of the old gods were banned in 393 by
Emperor Theodosius. Christianity became
the official religion, leaving its mark
on everyday life. Sunday Mass became
the central event of the week. Idle talk
about actors and their antics in pubs
was replaced by the then fashionable
arguments about the nature of Christianity
and if Nestorianism and Arianism were
heresies. Yet certain topics were always
on people's minds and conversations
the gossip from the imperial palace; the
rumours of yet another Barbaric invasion;
the soaring prices and the increasing
number of small-time villagers and
artisans, who were becoming increasingly
dependent on their masters. Later these
so-called coloni would form the base of
the feudal society.

Barbaric invasions, revolts and


internecine conflicts would often bring life
in Roman Bulgaria to a halt in the 5th and
6th centuries. Cities were sometimes taken
by invaders and would remain silent for
some time, with walls ruined, houses burnt,
streets filled with rubble and the bodies of
slaughtered citizens.
But people would always return to their
destroyed homes, start rebuilding and continue
living and doing business behind the protection
of new and stronger walls.Yet by the end of the
6th Century the empire was completely unable
to defend its citizens. People abandoned many
of the vulnerable towns and sought the security
of the hills, where they built strong fortresses.
The Middle Ages had begun and the
Roman way of life in Thrace was slowly
forgotten until archaeologists started
excavating it at the end of the 19thCentury.

THE VILLAGERS OF SCAPTOPARA


TO CAESAR MARCUS ANTONIUS
GORDIAN PIUS FELIX AUGUSTUS

Hallof, K. 1994. "Die Inschrift von Skaptopara: neue dokumente und neue Lesungen." Chiron 24: 405-41

One of the very few surviving petition from


ordinary people to the emperor in Rome was
found in Bulgaria in 1868, on a stone slab in Gorna
Dzhumaya, today's Blagoevgrad. It is captivating
reading. In 238 the villagers complained to the
emperor that both the imperial administration
and the army abused their power. They slept in
the villagers' houses, used the famed local baths,
and took goods from the local fair without
paying. Such was the pressure over the villagers
that they were now struggling to pay their taxes.

The people of Scaptopara tried unsuccessfully to


complain to the local governor. Now they were
considering to abandon their village and search for
better future elsewhere.
The emperor, Gordian III, replied, and
his answer, too, is included in the inscription.
He ordered the people to turn to the local
authorities and not to seek a solution at the
emperor's court.
We don't know if this helped the villagers of
Scaptopara. But the fact that the petition was

hewn in stone and probably exhibited at some


public space suggests that it was used against
any imperial offender. Gordian was the man
who restored some of the stability in the empire
after the terrible year 238, the Year of the Six
Emperors, and tried to rule justly.
Unfortunately, the Scaptopara inscription,
known to historians as IGBulg IV 2236, is lost.
Sometime between 1875 and 1891 it was broken
into four pieces, and the whereabouts of only one of
these is known. In the 1990s it was located in Berlin.

27

The Danube Border


What? Military camps, fortifications, cities
Where? Along the Danube
VISIT?
Vidin: History Museum (13 Tsar Simeon Veliki St,
Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 12 am and from
2 pm to 5 pm, www.museum-vidin.domino.bg),
Baba Vida Fortress (in summer weekdays from
8.30am to 5.30 pm, weekends from 9 am to
5.30 pm, in winter weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm,
weekends from 10 am to 5 pm)
Gigen: Ulpia Oescus Roman city, daily from 9am to
5 pm, artefacts, including mosaics in Pleven Regional
History Museum (3 Stoyan Zaimov St,
in winter Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 5.30pm,
in summer from 9.30 am to 6 pm, www.plevenmuseum.dir.bg)
Svishtov: Novae Roman military camp
(open daily from 9 am to 6 pm),
History Museum (6 Klokotnitsa St,
open Monday to Friday from 8 am to 5 pm)
Ruse: Sexaginta Prista fortress (2 Tsar Kaloyan St,
open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 am to 5.30 pm),
Regional History Museum (3 Alexander Battenberg
Sq, in summer from 9 am to 6 pm, in winter Monday
to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm www.museumruse.
com)
Silistra: Archaeology Museum (74 Simeon Veliki St,
in summer Tuesday to Saturday from 9.30 am
to 5 pm, in winter Monday to Friday from 9.30 am
to 5 pm, www.museumsilistra.com), Roman Tomb
(the intersection of Sedmi Septemvri and Boyka
Voyvoda streets, by appointment with the museum)

44

45

Previous spread: A Roman sarcophagus in front of the


Vidin History Museum. The museum is situated in an
opulent Ottoman period mansion
The surviving Roman fortifications gave the name of
the modern town of Kula: in Bulgarian, kula means
"tower." The tower was nearly destroyed in the 19th
Century, when a local Ottoman administrator decided
to demolish it in a bid to give the town a more
modern look

A mountain is a better protection


than a river, but in 15 AD, when the Romans
took over the Thracian lands between the
Danube and the Stara Planina mountain,
they had no choice: The mighty river, whose
upper course they had already mastered,
became the frontier of the expanding
empire, setting a clear line between the
civility of Pax Romana and the unruliness of
the independent people on the other side
of the river, the Barbarians, as the Romans
called them.
The Danubian limes, or border, was
one of the crucial fringes of the empire, a
giant line of fortifications created to stop
invasions from the north. The section of
the river which is now in Bulgaria was
fully incorporated into it. To guard their
new border, the Romans created a set of
castra, or military camps, castella, or small
fortresses, and watchtowers along the river.
Four legions were deployed in the camps
along the Danubian shore of present-day
Bulgaria: in Ratiaria, Oescus, Novae and
Durostorum. An estimated 60,000 soldiers

46

47

In Roman times, Ulpia Oescus was one of the major cities


in the region, standing at the one end of a bridge over the
Danube. Today its quiet ruins lie by a sleepy village, Gigen

protected the porous river border, helped


by a developed infrastructure net. A river
fleet, probably stationed in the castellum of
Sexaginta Prista (modern Ruse), patrolled
this part of the river. Along the shore ran a
military road ensuring secure connections.
The Romans knew the importance of roads
for military campaigns, and used to build
these almost immediately after establishing
their power over conquered lands. Sadly,
modern-day Bulgaria lacks a similar riverside
road along the Danube, and this leg of your
Roman journey will regularly lead your far
from the river and then back to it.
The Roman-built riverside infrastructure
included also a bridge over the river at
Oescus built in the early 4th Century.
The soldiers were not alone in
the Roman realms along the river. The
conquered Thracians were still there, and
many of them lived in their old settlements
close to the Roman camps and strongholds.
And there were the civilians who would
gather around each legion: merchants,
craftsmen and publicans, prostitutes and

48

soldiers' wives (legionaries were banned


from marrying before the end of their
20-plus years of service; they would start
families though not legal ones). This motley
gathering of people from all corners of
the empire would settle near the legion's
camp, in civic settlements the Romans called
canabae. After completing their service,
many veterans would move to the canabae
or would become landlords somewhere
nearby.
By the beginning of the 2nd Century the
military camps and their canabae had grown
to such an extent that Emperor Trajan
promoted some of them to the rank of
colonia, recognising them as representatives
of the imperial power. Being a colonia bore
both prestige and practical gains, among
them tax and judicial privileges. Happy with
their new status, Ratiaria and Oescus added
the emperor's family name, Ulpius, to theirs.
In the 160s Emperor Marcus Aurelius went
further, and promoted some lower Danube
settlements to the rank of municipia, which
granted them self-governance.

Marcus Aurelius's decision probably had


something to do with the fact that after long
decades of calm on the Danubian border
(bar the Dacian attacks of 85/86 AD and
the subsequent Dacian Wars), the enemy
was finally at the border. In 170-171 the
Costoboci ravaged the Balkan provinces of
the empire.
Eventually the border was pacified, but
in the 3rd Century the so-called Barbarians
used the opportunity to make the most
of the economic and political crisis in the
empire, and crossed the Danube several
times, to disastrous effect. The tumult began
in 239, and peaked with the invasion in 250
of the Goths led by Cniva, who wreaked
havoc in the Danubian Plain, crossed the
Stara Planina mountain and captured
Philippopolis.
It was all downhill from then on. In 269
an estimated 300,000 Barbarians crossed
the Danube, and in the early 270s Rome
was forced to abandon the territories north
of the river, which it had controlled since
the times of Trajan. The settlements on the

Danube became frontier outposts. At the


end of the 3rd and in the early 4th centuries,
an administrative reform, the change of the
imperial capital to nearby Constantinople
and controlled settlements of Goths in the
Danubian Plain eased the pressure on the
border for some time. This didn't last. In the
360s the Goths crossed the Danube again,
reaching, in 378, as far as Hadrianopolis
(today's Edirne, Turkey).
In the 5th Century a new horror crossed
the Danube: the Huns, led by a fearsome
man, Attila. The Huns eventually continued
westwards only to be replaced by another
menace the Avars, the Slavs and, later, the
proto-Bulgarians. In the 6th Century the
empire tried to ease the pressure on the
Danubian border with military campaigns
and reinforcement of fortifications, mainly
under the emperors Justinian I (527-565)
and Maurice (582-602).
But by the 580s the Avar destruction on
the Danubian towns and forts had proved
too much for the people there. Many forts
and towns along the lower Danube were

49

abandoned and the locals moved to the hills,


in easier to defend fortresses.
The remains of the Roman border
outposts, camps and cities dot the
lower Danube today and are fascinating
exploration sites. Sometimes they lie
hidden in overgrowth or under buildings
and streets from centuries of continuous
inhabitation, sometimes they are exhibited
and reconstructed. In the past few years
Bulgaria and Romania have been campaigning
for the inclusion of these sites in the

50

UNESCO World Heritage List, as a crossborder monument of culture.


The first remains of ancient Roman
fortification on the Bulgarian part of the
Danube are soon after the Serbian border and
the isthmus of the Timok River, near the village
of Vrav. Dorticum castellum was built in the
1st Century and soon grew to a local trade
and tax collection point. It was abandoned in
the 6th and 7th centuries.The remains of the
fortification have been preserved, together

A stone inscription with the name of the Roman


predecessor of modern Ruse: Sexaginta Prista.
Ruse History Museum

Restorations of the central parts of Roman Novae

with the necropolis and the vicus, or civilian


village near the fortification, but there is little
to be seen in situ.

as it controlled a crucial bend of the


river. In 320 its fortifications were heavily
reconstructed, covering an area of over 20
ha. In the times since, most of the castrum
has been overbuilt with streets and buildings,
but the initial layout of the later Baba Vida
Fortress, the city's most popular site, is from
the Roman era. The local history museum,
situated in a beautiful 18th-Century house,
has an interesting though not extensive
collection of artefacts from Roman Vidin.
Among them stands out the 2nd-Century
bronze portrait of a young man.
Some of the most interesting exhibits
in the museum, like the marble statue of
Hercules and the floor mosaic from a villa
rustica were found not in ancient Bononia
but in the biggest settlement in the region in
the Roman times.

In the centre of the nearby town of Kula


you will find the more spectacular remains
of a 16-metre circular tower. It belongs to
the Castra Martis castle, built in the 3rd
Century to secure the border after the
Roman withdrawal from the lands north of
the river. The fortification was reinforced
under Justinian I, but was completely
abandoned after the ruinous Avar invasion
of 586.
Vidin is the first major stop on the
route of discovering Roman heritage along
the Danube. The city's modern name is a
derivation of its Roman one, Bononia, which
according to some historians stems from
Dunonia, the name of a 3rd-Century BC
Celtic settlement. Interestingly, Bononia is
also the old name of Bologna in Italy.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, Bononia
on the Danube was a major Roman outpost

Today one could hardly recognise


the muddy hills around the village of Archar,
about 27 km east of Vidin, as Ulpia Ratiaria,
the famed city which grew from the camp
of a succession of Roman legions stationed

in the 1st Century AD at this part of the


Danube course.
Ratiaria (the name supposedly comes
from the Latin words for either raft or river
ship) appeared during the reign of Emperor
Vespasian (69-79). Initially a military camp, it
became a colonia in 106, attracting a number
of settlers from Italy and Asia Minor. The
city was abuzz with activity, flourishing from
the trade along the river and the roads
leading to the Bosphorus and the Aegean.
Crafts flourished inside Ratiaria, and its
surroundings nurtured the prosperous
mansions and villas of local landlords.
Yet the city couldn't recover from the
586 Avar attack, and was abandoned.
Ratiaria might have easily become one
of most attractive Roman sites on the
Bulgarian section of the Danube if it hadn't

fallen in the hands of local treasure hunters.


In spite of archaeologists' efforts, since the
1990s illegal digging has been a constant
plague for the ruins of this ancient city.
Once the village of Archar is behind
you, Lom appears, where the humble
remains of Almus are preserved. The small
fortress guarded the northern end of a
provincial road whose south section ended
in Serdica. It was built in the 2nd Century
and probably controlled a river harbour,
but in spite of large reconstructions by
emperors Diocletian and Constantine, it fell
to the Huns in the 5th Century and was
later abandoned.
Then come the ruins of Augustae, 3 km
north of the village of Harlets. Established

51

xxxxxxxxxxxx

THE CURIOUS STORY


OF A ROMAN COIN
In 1945, a man from Brestovitsa village, near Ruse,
slaughtered one of his rams only to discover... a gold coin
in its stomach. The coin eventually ended up at the Ruse
History Museum where it became a curiosity.
Years passed until a proper survey revealed the coin's
true value it was an extremely rare type of coins minted
under Emperor Trajan Decius. The emperor himself died
not that far away from Ruse he lost his life in a battle with
the Goths at nearby Abritus, in 251.

Early Christian basilica and fortifications by the Danube, in Silistra

in the 1st Century as a fortified post, the


settlement grew between the 2nd and 6th
centuries until the Avars put an end to life
there.
The Augustae's remains are far from
spectacular, but don't miss the opportunity
to stop at the village of Gigen and the city
of Ulpia Oescus, about 70 km to the east. In
the 1st Century AD the Romans established

52

a major military camp here, the seat of


Legio V Macedonica and later of Legio IV
Scytica. In 106 Emperor Trajan promoted
the settlement to a colonia and later the
growing number of inhabitants required the
extension of the initially fortified space of
18 ha with an outer city, covering additional
10 ha. In 328 Emperor Constantine
visited Oescus for a special event the
inauguration of the bridge over the Danube.

The city withstood a number of


Barbarian attacks, until the Avars brought
about complete destruction. Situated now
on the outskirts of Gigen, the ruins of
Oescus are not signposted, and the site is
in a picturesque state of dilapidation, with
marble friezes and columns lying among the
undergrowth a real delight if you grow
tired of modern reconstructions of ancient
sites.

Belene, about 70 km to the east, has


the dubious fame of the place where one
of the most atrocious political prisons in
Communist Bulgaria operated, and where
the controversial second nuclear power
plant in the country may one day be built.
The town has also Roman heritage
the remains of the Dimum castellum.
Established in the 1st Century as the seat
of an auxiliary cavalry unit, it later grew in
importance as a major customs, providing
the current local authorities to advertise
Belene and Dimum as "the customs of the
Moesia province."

Novae appeared as a military camp in


the 1st Century, and sometime between
the mid-2nd Century and the beginning
of the 3rd Century became a municipium.
At the time of its greatest prosperity the
city spread on about 44 ha, and had a lively
canabe attached to it. Over the years Novae
witnessed major events like the imperial
visits of Trajan, Hadrian and Caracalla, and
the 250 Goths invasion. In the 5th Century
Goths were allowed to settle around, and
Novae became the centre of their political
representation in the region.
Novae has been excavated by Bulgarian
and Polish archaeologists, and in springtime
it hosts the Eagle on the Danube, Bulgaria's
most significant historical reenactment
event, in which dozens of people dressed
like legionnaires, priests, senators and noble
ladies walk around the out-of-style concrete
of the reconstructed Roman city.

as a fortification, but by the beginning of


the 5th Century it had attracted significant
civilian population, probably including Goths.
Iatrus was abandoned after the Hun invasion
in the 5th Century.

Today Ruse, about 70 km to the east


of Krivina, is Bulgaria's largest city on the
Danube and the best place in the country
to see fin-de-sicle architecture the
remains of an economic and cultural boom
experienced between the mid-19th and
the mid-20th centuries. In Roman times,
Sexaginta Prista castellum was more humble,
a fortification stretching along the river
The most visually striking Roman
bank. The name of the castellum can be
remains on this part of the Danube are in
interpreted as "the port of 60 ships" and
nearby Svishtov. There, outside the city on
indicates that Sexaginta Prista was a major
the road to Ruse, you'll see arches and walls
military port.
of exposed concrete and stainless steel, a
Unlike the concrete mess which the
tasteless reconstruction of the central part
reconstructed Novae is, the remains of
of Novae, with a military hospital, a small
Sexaginta Prista have been preserved and
temple and the praetorium, or the seat of the The next bit of Roman heritage by
exhibited much more sensibly. About 50 m
garrison's commander of Legio VIII Augusta
the Danube is Iatrus, a 4th-Century castellum from the walls, in the company of temples
and, later, of Legio I Italica.
in the modern Krivina village. It was built
and the principia of the fortress, discovered

53

The Silistra Tomb is arguably the most astonishingly


decorated tomb in Roman Bulgaria. Birds and flowers cover
the low ceiling and the owner together with his family,
servants and some of his riches (a pair of trousers included)
are depicted on the walls

during excavations, is the small museum,


partly based in a Cold War-era bunker. A
reconstructed wooden watchtower and
a scaled model of a Roman river ship are
the exposition's main attractions. For
more, visit the excellent Regional History
Museum. There, besides looking at Romanera artefacts, you can experience history
firsthand, learning, for example, how much
a soldier's half-yearly salary weighed.
From the end of the 1st up to the 6th
centuries, the Transmarisca castellum near
modern-day Tutrakan, was the home of
an auxiliary military unit and served as an
important road station. Its remains are far
from impressive, but were lavishly restored
recently.
The ruins of another castellum and
road station, Tegulcium, by the village of
Vetren, were not that lucky. The Danube
destroyed a significant part of the once
lively settlement, and the hostilities during
the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the

54

First World War obliterated much of


what had remained.

shopping centre was built over it, leaving


visible only bits of the ancient structure.
Long before Christianity became the
The Roman remains of Durostorum, official religion in the Roman Empire, it had a
in Silistra, the last Bulgarian city on the
strong following in Durostorum. During the
Danube, are worthy of special attention.
anti-Christian persecutions which marked
Durostorum was the seat of the Legio XI the reign of Emperor Diocletian at the end
Claudia, and was promoted to a municipium
of the 3rd Century, 12 Durostorum citizens
by either Marcus Aurelius or Caracalla. In
were martyred because of their faith. In the
the following centuries Durostorum became 5th and 6th centuries the city became the
the major imperial outpost in this part of
centre of a bishopric and a large basilica
the Danube. The city's remains are a national was built in it to correspond to the newly
archaeological reserve which effectively
acquired status. Its ruins can be seen in the
covers about two-thirds of the area of the
city garden.
modern town.
Ancient Durostorum's most astonishing
The massive fortifications of the ancient Roman site is far from the riverbank. It is a
town are partially exhibited in the city park. lavishly painted tomb from the 4th or 5th
In 2015 major repairs led to the discovery
Century. An array of birds covers the ceiling,
of fragments of murals which decorated a
and on the central wall is the portrait a
2nd-Century official building, and parts of
man, probably a high-ranking magistrate, and
the early-6th-Century fortifications. Sadly,
his wife. To the left and right of the couple,
some of the city's archaeological heritage
several servants carry clothes and expensive
was lost recently, when a flashy hotel was
objects, giving us an idea of the everyday life
built over it. The citadel of Durostorum has in the Balkans in the Late Antiquity.
also fallen prey to new construction a
Besides the owners in the main scene,

two of the persons depicted in the tomb are


of particular interest. A man carrying a pair
of trousers for his master sports the typical
hairstyle of the Goths, a clear indication that
a man from this Germanic people was living
in Roman Silistra at the time. The other is a
beautiful girl, thought by some to have been the
master's mistress, holding a heavy incense burner.

The man who commissioned this


beautiful tomb never used it the sepulchre
was found empty in 1942. Whether the
owners were killed before their times
during a Barbarian invasion or were forced
to leave Durostorum for good remains a
mystery one of the many concerning the
Roman history of the Bulgarian Danube.

55

Philippopolis

WHAT? Remains of theatre, stadium, agora,


basilicas and more
WHERE? Plovdiv
VISIT?
Archaeology Museum: 1 Saedinenie St, in summer
Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 8 pm, in winter
Tuesday to Saturday from 9.30 to 5 pm
Ancient Theatre: Monday to Sunday from 9 am
to 5.30 pm
Stadium: Dzhumaya Square
Small Basilica: Maria Louisa Boulevard, between
blocks 22 and 23, open Monday to Sunday from
10 am to 6 pm, www.romanplovdiv.org
Agora and Odeon: Central square, by the Post Office
Eirene Mansion: Archaeology Underpass, Tsar Boris
III Boulevard
Eastern Gate: Aleksandar Malinov Square, no
admission fee

Remains of Philippopolis's stadium

128

129

The theatre of ancient Plovdiv was also the meeting place


of the League of the Thracian Cities
Right: A mosaic with Narcissus used to decorate the floor
of a local mansion, Plovdiv Archaeology Museum

Roaring crowds of spectators cheer


on their favourite runner. In the arena,
a gladiator dies in a pool of blood. Two
wealthy ladies inspect fine fabrics at a shop
run by a Jewish merchant. In the forum,
slaves are busy erecting a statue of the
current emperor while others outside the
city are busy repairing an aqueduct. The
people around the Eastern Gate make way
for a chariot carrying a provincial official
from his rural villa to his city mansion.
The lives of the residents of Plovdiv in
the Roman era were as varied, busy and
interesting as those of their modern-day
successors. Philippopolis was one of the
largest cities in the empire's Balkan domains.
Situated on the then navigable Maritsa River,
it lay at the intersection of the roads linking
the Bosphorus and Central Europe and the
Danube and the Aegean. Fertile lands spread
around it, and the nearby Rhodope mountains,
with their dense forests and quick rivers,
supplied the city's 100,000 citizens with water
and its merchants with timber, wool and honey.
A cluster of three hills offered protection.

130

131

Pedestrians walk on Roman-era streets at the Archaeology


Underpass in Central Plovdiv
Right: Spot the Romans: Ancient and medieval fortifications
form the base of 18th-19th-centuries mansions, at Atanas
Krastev Square

The place where Plovdiv stands was


considered ideal for living millennia before
the Romans' arrival. There was a Neolithic
settlement here, and in the 2nd Millennium
BC the Thracians fortified the three hills.
In 342 BC the Thracian city of Pulpudeva,
or Eumolpis, was taken by King Philip II
of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father.
According to a popular legend, he renamed
it Philippopolis, after himself. Macedonian
control was soon shaken off, but the
name stuck, only to be modified over the
generations, ending up as today's Plovdiv.
Alternating diplomacy with war, it
took the Romans almost a century to gain
control of Thrace and Philippopolis. In 44-46
AD Emperor Claudius (41-54) established
the province of Thrace. Philippopolis
was not its capital, but the empire began

132

struggles which ravaged the empire, but it


always rose from the ashes of destruction.
In the 6th Century, unlike many Roman
cities which had been abandoned forever,
Philippopolis entered the Middle Ages and
continued its eternal transformation.
Most of the public buildings, the houses
investing money, people and effort in the city,
and by the end of the 1st or at the beginning of the poor and the wealthy, the temples and
the riches of Roman Plovdiv are lost forever,
of the 2nd centuries it became the seat of
destroyed by invaders and built on by later
the League of the Thracian Cities. The 2nd
inhabitants.Yet Plovdiv is probably the
Century was a good time for Philippopolis.
Bulgarian city boasting the richest and bestThe economy and the city flourished, and
preserved Roman archaeological heritage.
the city minted its own coins. People from
The marble theatre of Philippopolis
all corners of the vast empire mingled on its
is
the
tastiest piece of all. Believed to be
streets and the entire city expanded onto
built between 108 and 114 in the crevice
the plain, spreading far from the protective
between two hills of the city acropolis and
shadow of the three hills. Its location
in techniques harking back to Greek and
and importance were acknowledged by
Roman fashions, it seated more than 5,000
emperors who paid visits among them
people and had an astonishing vista opened
Hadrian, Septimius Severus, Caracalla and
Elagabalus. The city honoured the arrivals of of the Thracian Plain and the Rhodope.
Popular tragedies and comedies, song
the latter two by organising special sports
competitions and gladiator games attracted
games.
Philippopolis was not spared the Barbaric people there. The theatre was used also as
the meeting place of the delegates of the
invasions, economic crises and power

League of the Thracian Cities. The different


neighbourhoods, the followers of the
imperial cult and the important families in
Philippopolis all had their names inscribed
on the seats, a miniature replication of the
city's social order. Even today the most
telling example of its continuing fascination
is right before your eyes the theatre
steps have been worn down by the feet of
thousands of spectators.

The hills around the theatre are


hatched by Thracian, Roman and Byzantine
fortification walls. They often merge and are
overbuilt with the beautiful 18th- and 19thCentury mansions Plovdiv is famed for. The
best spots to see how the constructions of
the different eras of Philippopolis overlap
in an inimitable puzzle are Nebet Tepe, the
Hisar Kapiya Gate and its round tower a few
metres away, and Atanas Krastev Square.

The economic boom in the 2nd Century


produced the stadium, another majestic
highlight in Philippopolis. Seating 30,000
people, it was a silent witness to the fierce
competitions of the city games and of the
devastation brought on by the Goths in 251.
While the invaders were besieging the city,
the entire population of Philippopolis were
gathered in the stadium to hear a letter
from Emperor Trajan Decius. The missive

133

A Philippopolis coin from the end of the 1st Century


AD with a goddess who was the city's divine protector.
Local coinage was a sign of the economic prosperity of
Philippopolis during the first centuries of Roman rule
Right: A partial reconstruction of the so-called odeon,
or small covered theatre. The agora of Philippopolis
was nearby, a huge space of 10 ha, now mostly under
the Central Square of modern Plovdiv and the Central
Post Office

calmed them with the news that help was


on the way and that stability would return.
The stadium survived until the 11th Century,
but was later built over and forgotten until
1923, when it was rediscovered. Today its
semicircular end is nicely restored and
exhibited at Dzhumaya Square, next to the
15th-Century Cuma Mosque.
The entire length of the stadium is still
underground and only sections are on view
on the underground levels of two shopping
centres. But it's easy to follow it in your
mind. The pedestrian shopping street follows
the ancient track for more than 200 metres,
with the end recently marked.
The agora, or the main administrative and
commercial centre, of Roman Plovdiv was a
huge open area where trade was conducted,
people congregated, and the official imperial
cult received the obligatory veneration.
In its heyday the agora in Plovdiv spread
over 10 ha. Today a portion can be seen
near the Central Post Office. For now, best
preserved are the partially restored remains
of the so-called Odeon, a small semicircular

134

building which hosted the meetings of the


city council. A recent reconstruction and an
upcoming series of excavations are about to
make the visible parts stand out from the
ancient square.
The remains of some marvellous mosaics
from the houses of wealthy Philippopolis
families are now in the Archaeology
Museum, along with a collection of
tombstones and sculptures. But a more vivid
experience is in the Archaeology Underpass.
The facility is built over the preserved and
exhibited remains of a Roman crossroads
and on the premises of a modern art gallery
and a section of a rich local family house
from the period between the 3rd and 6th
centuries is exhibited in situ. Its centrepiece
is a beautiful mosaic of Eirene, the Greek
personification of peace.
In the first century of the Roman rule,
Philippopolis was far from the tumultuous
borders of the empire, so the houses and
buildings had no defences. The situation
changed during the rule of Marcus Aurelius.
Barbarian attacks threatened these parts of

the state, and this caused a strong wall to


be built to protect the city. The remains of
the most important entrance in the fortress
wall, the Eastern Gate, from which the road
to Constantinople started, are preserved on
Aleksandar Malinov Square.
Roman Philippopolis was a place of many
temples and deities, with local and imported
cults attracting thousands of believers. The
main temple, devoted to Apollo Kendrisos
and later to the emperor, stood outside
the city walls, on one of the hills. When
Christianity took over, the temple of Apollo
was turned into a church.
The city also had a synagogue. It was in
the wealthiest neighbourhoods and sported
lavish decorations. The local Jews used it
between the 2nd and the 6th centuries,
and excavations have revealed two layers
of mosaics from that period. Today an
apartment block rises over the remains of
the synagogue; the mosaics are in the city's
Archaeology Museum.
But a more lucky place is near the now
defunct synagogue, giving a better insight

into Roman Plovdiv's religious past. The


Small Basilica on Maria Louisa Boulevard
operated in the 5th and 6th centuries and
was discovered in 1988-89. It astounded
archaeologists with its exquisite mosaics
rich in early Christian symbolism. In 2013,
with help from the America for Bulgaria
Foundation, the mosaics and the church
were turned into a museum.
At the time of writing the renewed

excavations of a bigger church,


Philippopolis's Bishop's Basilica, are
underway, again spurred and assisted by the
America for Bulgaria Foundation. Situated
at the beginning of Maria Louisa Boulevard,
next to the St Ludwig Catholic Cathedral,
the basilica has a marvellous mosaic
floor depicting beautiful birds and will be
exhibited in situ at specially built museum
premises.

135

Plovdiv's Small Basilica

WHAT? Late Roman church with mosaics


WHERE? Plovdiv, Maria Louisa Blvd, between
blocks 22 and 23
VISIT? Open daily from 10 am to 6 pm,
www.romanplovdiv.org

Plovdiv lays claim to at least 7,000


years of history, of which only a fraction
has been preserved, and even less can be
experienced and hardly outside the old
centre. There, the remains of a Roman
theatre, stadium and agora rub boulders
with early Ottoman mosques, 18th-Century
mansions and fin-de-sicle houses. All of these
have been on the tourist maps for decades.
And yet the Small Basilica is an
exception. About an easy 10-minute walk
from the Central Post Office, it was virtually
unknown to the wider public until 2013.
Built in the 470s beside the then eastern
fortification wall of Philippopolis, the Small
Basilica was situated in the city's richest
area. The lavishly decorated mansions of
the wealthiest citizens surrounded grand
public buildings like the oldest synagogue in
Bulgaria and the Bishop's Basilica.
Since 2013, visitors to Plovdiv have enjoyed the mosaics
of the Small Basilica

136

137

138

A stag and a couple of doves decorate the church's


baptistry

Before it was restored and turned into a museum


the basilica was covered in vegetation and debris

This part of the city was abandoned


at the end of the 6th Century, and during
the following centuries was plundered as a
source of building materials. By the 1980s,
when large-scale construction of apartment
blocks started in the area, the remains
of this once prosperous neighbourhood
were completely covered by earth and
developments.
Some houses and public buildings came
to light under the spades of archaeologists,
but only a handful of them were deemed
important enough to merit preservation.
One of these was the Small Basilica.
Discovered in 1988, it had a mosaics floor and
an elaborately decorated baptistry, which were
too precious to lose. Some of the mosaics
were removed and put into storage, and
the baptistry was covered with a protective
shroud of concrete. In 1995 the Small Basilica
was registered as a cultural monument.
But as happens to so many other
archaeological sites, chronic negligence
reduced the basilica to little more than
wasteland.

It was in 2010 when things changed. The


America for Bulgaria Foundation began a
project to restore the mosaics and bring
them back to the church, with the site
becoming a museum of archaeology. In the
following four years 1.53 million leva was
spent on the revival of the basilica and its
mosaics, which were cleared, reinforced,
conserved and taken back to their original
places at the church's carefully restored
ruins and the nearby mansion, street,
fortification wall and tower.
The mosaics are visually arresting, but
their historical value exceeds their ocular
splendour. They have given a new lease of life
to one of the most thrilling footnotes in the
history of late Antiquity.
In front of the altar a partially destroyed
inscription mentions "a victor and a
patrician." This was Basiliscus, a military
commander of the Roman province of
Thrace in the mid-5th Century and brotherin-law of Emperor Leo I. In 471, when the
Goths in Thrace revolted, Basiliscus saved
Philippopolis from sacking and destruction.

The grateful citizens made him a statue by


the Eastern Gate and built the Small Basilica
to commemorate their salvation.
So far so good, but why then is the
name of Basiliscus missing from basilica's
inscription? The answer lies in events
which unfolded soon after it was finished.
In 474 Leo I died, and his son-in-law, Zeno,
ascended the throne. Unhappy with the
development, Basiliscus overthrew Zeno
the next year. But barely a year had passed
and Basiliscus lost the support both of the
populace and the patricians Zeno returned
to Constantinople to rule as emperor for
the next 15 years.
Zeno punished his rival according to the
standards of the day. Basiliscus was left to
die of thirst and hunger, and his name was
erased from historical records, statues and
official inscriptions. It was removed, too,

from the floor of the Small Basilica.


Several years later the Small Basilica
was destroyed in a fire. The damage was
too severe, and the citizens of Philippopolis
chose to rebuild the church from scratch.
The floor of the new basilica was covered
with bricks, but the building acquired
another landmark the baptistry.
It was built by the northeast corner of
the Small Basilica to accommodate the large
number of people converting to Christianity.
The room had a deep cross-shaped
baptismal pool of marble with running water.
Above it, four marble pillars supported a
marble cover. The floor was decorated with
mosaics showing pigeons and grazing stags.
Only two of the four mosaics from the
baptistry have been preserved, but even
today, after all the centuries, they astonish
with their vivacity and bright colours.

139

UNDERSTANDING
THE SMALL BASILICA MOSAICS
The mosaics in the Small Basilica were made by
local craftsmen, who used marble, red, black,
green and yellow stone, and ceramic fragments
to create elaborate designs and images. These
images had symbolical meaning, and if you know
how to read them, the mosaics will share their
secrets with you.

The rosetta predates Christianity, but for


Christians it symbolises the blood of Jesus

The Solomon's Knot is an ancient symbol with many


meanings, among them as an image of eternity and faith

The swastika is an ancient solar symbol, and the


meander is interpreted as a simplified labyrinth

The vase represents the vessel where heavenly


myrrh is collected

The stag represents the soul of the Christian, striving for


faith and truth or purified through Baptism. Images of
deer drinking from springs are seen often in late Antiquity
mosaics. At all events, if you look closely at the deer in the
Small Basilica, you see that it is surrounded by flowers and
that there are no springs around. This has invited another
interpretation: In Christian symbolism, stags were enemies
to snakes, which were seen to personify evil. Deer would
hunt these down into their underground holes, would drive
them out them with their breath, and then swallow them.
This sequence of actions symbolised Christ's fight with
Satan

"... victor and patrician, together with their families" read the surviving lines of the inscription of Basiliscus

140

The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, Who appeared at the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan

141

Related Interests