Ancient Roman tomb, Pomorie

In the mid-1st Century AD a wealthy citizen of Philippopolis was burned on a funeral pyre and buried in a tomb together with his precious possessions, among them a gold wreath and a helmet-mask of silver and iron, representing the strong face of the deceased. A century later a gladiator was mourned by his wife with а gravestone depicting him in all his menacing glory. In the beginning of the 3rd Century, another citizen was buried with his horses and a chariot decorated with a brass relief showing Heracles and Emperor Caracalla. In the 2nd Century, in another corner of the Balkan realms of the Roman Empire, in the ancient city under modern-day Sandanski, an affluent family went to a local master for an important commission. They wanted a family tombstone depicting all the generations, old and young, with stern faces and haircuts and beards according to the fashion in Rome. 

Three centuries later in Durostorum, a rich man had his tomb painted with an array of birds, together with images of himself, his wife and their servants, and a beautiful girl who now some speculate was his mistress. In Serdica, wealthy Christians built themselves painted tombs, and one of them left his name for posterity written on the wall: Honorius. 

During the Roman era people in what is now Bulgaria slipped from life to death in a variety of rituals and fashions, leaving behind a range of funeral architecture, tombstones, beliefs and rites, including curses towards anyone who would try to rob graves or steal burial plots. For the different people in Roman Bulgaria, transferring into the hereafter was determined by many factors, chiefly ethnicity and religion. 

ancient roman necropolis propada

Ancient Roman necropolis, Propada

The Thracians, at least in the first centuries under Roman rule, kept their old burial traditions. They were most often cremated and buried in mounds, and the ashes of aristocrats, like the man in Philippopolis, were laid in tombs of stone or of bricks and mortar. The burial goods typically included chariots and full sets of armour and weaponry. 

The bodies of Greeks and the settlers who have come from Asia Minor and the Italian Peninsula were laid under tombstones or in stone sarcophagi. 

Yet in time the burial rituals of the different groups changed and acquired new forms. Influenced by the Roman civilisation, rich Thracians gave up mound building for tombstones and sarcophagi. But they stuck also to cremation and would often put the image of the Thracian God Rider on their graves. In burial context, the horseman symbolised the heros, or demigod which the deceased would become in the afterlife. The Greeks had another image with a similar meaning – it depicted the deceased feasting, reclining on a couch, often surrounded by his family. 

The imperial funeral fashions spread in Thrace, usually in busy cities where people from all the corners of the empire mingled. Tombstone styles, originating in the Italian Peninsula, appeared on Thracian soil: They included decorations of reliefs of wreaths, eagles, lions, ivy and vine leaves, and sculpted portraits of the deceased. 

Ancient Roman tombstone, Ruse

Ancient Roman tombstone, Ruse

Economy and social changes, too, influenced the burial fashions. In the prosperous 2nd and 3rd centuries, wealthy Thracians were buried in expensive and nicely built bricks-and-mortar tombs. But during the turbulent 4th Century money ran out and tombs were now built from materials taken from the ruins of earlier buildings. Among the Thracian nobility the faded popularity of large grave mounds could be linked to the granting of Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire in 212. Slavery was never widespread in Thrace, so aristocrats probably contracted labourers to build these expensive heaps of soil and gravel over their tombs and graves, an enterprise which could take up to six months. After 212 the nobility lost their power over poorer Thracians,and gave up mound building. The crisis after the 251 Goth invasion is also believed to have played a role for the gradual abandonment of the rite. 

After the 4th Century, Christianity imposed a unified burial rite for all adherents of the religion – the dead were interred with their feet pointing to the east. Most of the graves were covered with bricks. The wealthiest built small tombs and decorated them with frescoes, symbolically depicting the bliss of Heaven. Some of the finest were in Serdica, scattered around the predecessor of the 6th-Century basilica of St Sophia. Another beautiful example is the tomb from Durostorum, though its Christian characteristics have been disputed. 

Pagan or Christian, the preserved tombstone inscriptions are a vital source of information about the people of Roman Bulgaria. 

Ancient roman tombstone, Sandanski

Ancient Roman tombstone, Sandanski

One tombstone from the eastern necropolis of Philippopolis, for example, was paid for by certain Philip and Papias, who dedicated it to the 30-year-old Philip, their dead son and brother, respectively. The loss was so great that the city council and the associations of merchants of second-hand and of leather goods joined in. Thus, with only a few lines, the inscription reveals the age of the deceased, the trade of his family and the social influence he had in his life. It also reveals that his family was of Greek descent, that it had arrived from Nicomedia and Nicaea in Asia Minor and still had contacts with their relatives there. The year when Philip, son of Philip, died is not mentioned. Archaeologists think it happened in the 2nd or 3rd centuries. 

And sometimes you do not even need to read inscriptions to learn about the deceased. 

The objects found in graves speak for themselves. Fine surgical instruments and medicine boxes, for example, indicate that the buried man was a physician. Fine gold necklaces, for their part, belonged to wealthy ladies. Strigils, or tools for cleaning of sweat and sand from the skin, and balsamaria for ointments and oil mark the graves of sportsmen. Yet many graves remain shrouded in mystery. Who was Honorius, whose tomb is by the entrance of the St Sophia Basilica in Sofia? Did the silver helmet of the man from Philippopolis depict his actual face, or it was an idealised image of a warrior? It's uncertain that we will ever know.