ancient roman tomb silistra.jpg

Ancient Roman tomb, Silistra

Under the Romans, the lands of modern Bulgaria were an imperial mix of local people which included the Thracians, living mainly in the villages; the Greeks, concentrated in the Black Sea colonies; and newcomers from all the corners of the empire. New arrivals came mainly from Greece,Asia Minor and the Italian Peninsula. They lived in the big cities together with a number of urbanised Thracians, owned spacious villas in the country and served in the military camps along the Danube border. 

This mixture, together with the common culture within the empire, transformed the Thracians' everyday life and self-awareness. Throughout the centuries of Roman domination, many of them succumbed to the influence of Hellenism and Roman culture. They learnt Greek and Latin, adopted Roman names, and struggled for a niche in the empire's trade and administration. 

One of these people was Marcus Aurelius Asiaticus, son of Athys, from Augusta Traiana. He was a highly popular member of the city council and a priest of the goddess Roma. He donated lavishly for the public good, financing gladiator games and the construction of a 66- column portico. As his father's name and his nickname show, he was of mixed Thracian and Eastern origin, and one of those ambitious locals who climbed the social ladder after Emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire in 212. 

Ancient Roman gladiators, Varna Archaeology Museum

Ancient Roman gladiators, Varna Archaeology Museum

The Thracian boys who lacked those means would join the army. When they survived the exhausting service, they would return home, bringing along foreign habits and often foreign wives. By the 4th Century, though, the Thracians still remembered their roots, and the shrines of old Thracian gods bustled with worshippers. 

Romans started settling in Thrace even before it was incorporated into the empire. Many veterans born in the Italian Peninsula and other foreign places were given state land under the imperial policy of cultivating in the newly conquered territories groups of people loyal to the empire and ready to defend it in case of danger. One of them was Caius Avilius Valens, who lived in Cabyle, near modern Yambol, with his wife, Satria Marcia, probably of Thracian descent. 

The practice worked. The next generations took up top positions in local administration and often became wealthy landowners. 

Jews were living in Roman Thrace, too. In the 2nd Century AD a certain Ioses, who was a priest at a synagogue, erected a tombstone to himself and his wife in Ulpia Oescus on the Danube. At the same time the thriving Jewish community in Philippopolis built a grandiose synagogue in one of the most prestigious city neighbourhoods. The Jewish community in this multicultural city stood its ground for centuries, and revived even after the imperial anti-Jewish policies in the 5th Century. 

Ancient Roman portrait, Varna

Ancient Roman portrait, Varna Archaeology Museum

After the 3rd Century, Barbarian attacks on the Balkan parts of the empire were a common feature, yet the newcomers weren't only after battle and booty. They also settled in Roman Bulgaria. Often the empire would tackle invasions using ingenious tactics – it allowed controlled immigration of groups of Goths, Carps, Sarmatians, Parthians and Saracens. On the other hand, the empire was concerned that the inevitable physical contacts would "contaminate" the blood of the Roman citizens, and outlawed mixed marriages – a decision which proved a two-edged sword. 

In the 6th and 7th centuries nothing could stop the arrival of the Slavs and proto- Bulgarians, who mixed with the locals. This mass migration forever changed the Balkan demographics, and Thrace entered the Middle Ages with a population which would later become the modern Bulgarians. 

Ethnicity was not that important in Roman Thrace and Moesia. What mattered more was if a person had Roman citizenship, a privilege which originally included only people born in Rome, but with the expansion of the megastate would become more inclusive.Yet in the first centuries of the Roman Empire it remained something rare and cherished, and non-Roman citizens could acquire the status under strictly regulated circumstances, like surviving the 20-plus years of hard military service. 

This lasted until 212, when Emperor Caracalla issued the Constitutio Antoniniana Edict, which stipulated that all free men in the realms of the empire must become Roman citizens. 

Roman citizens or not, the Roman society, including that in Thrace, remained deeply divided by class, a structure which gradually changed in the 4th and 6th centuries. 

Slaves were at the bottom of the social pyramid, yet in Thrace their number was never as big as in ancient Greece or Rome. The reason is historical – in the pre- Roman Thracian society slaves were usually prisoners of war, and trade in humans never really took off. Instead, Thracian kings ruled over free small-time villagers and craftsmen. With the arrival of the Romans, however, slavery became more common. Cheap labour was crucial for big workshops and farms, which were supplying the imperial market. Even the cities owned people and used them for menial jobs like cleaning water pipes or maintaining the streets. 

Some slaves were freed by their masters. This never meant complete freedom, as the former slaves and their offspring were meant to remain loyal to their former owners. In the 4th Century the freeing of slaves was encouraged, especially under the influence of Christianity. At any rate, the subservience of the so-called libertini remained. 

Regarded as "the middle class" of Antiquity, the curiales were wealthy citizens and had the right to manage their city's affairs. Curiales took important posts in the local administration – a position which served as a shortcut to additional wealth and prestige in the 1st and 2nd centuries. 

ancient roman art Stara Zagora Museum

Stara Zagora Museum

The women of Roman Bulgaria enjoyed a string of freedoms. The most affluent were equally honoured for their generous donations for their cities like, in the 2nd Century, Minicia Firmina, daughter of Minicius from Nicopolis ad Istrum, and, in the 3rd Century, Lucia Septimia Bassa, the imperial priestess from Augusta Traiana. 

When in the 3rd Century the empire began to crumble and the economy deteriorated, being a curiale brought fewer perks. The cities in Roman Thrace started suffering from chronic shortages of money, so the administrators were forced to defray public expenses with their own funds. Emperor Constantine (306-337) made things even worse – he made the administrative positions hereditary. As a result, many curiales lost everything and joined the ranks of the plebeians. In the 5th Century the crisis became so acute that some wealthy plebeians were compelled to fill vacant administrative positions. 

By the end of the 6th Century the society in Roman Bulgaria, as the empire itself, had changed beyond recognition. The Antiquity was dying, giving way to the Middle Ages.