plovdiv eastern gate.jpg

The Eastern Gate of Roman Philippopolis

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. 

Roman baths, Varna

Roman baths, Varna

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 so-called 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. 

Roman tombstone, Varna Archaeology Museum

Roman tombstone, Varna Archaeology Museum

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 ancient city of Cabyle

City of Cabyle

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 44–46 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.

The ancient city of Ulpia Oescus

Ulpia Oescus

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. 

Nicopolis ad Istrum

Nicopolis ad Istrum

All the cities reflected the Graeco-Roman concept of urbanism. They had squares (called forums in the north and agoras in the south) to accommodate vital civic and religious buildings, and people would gather there to trade, gossip, pray or have fun. Crucial elements of cityscape included basilicas (before the advent of Christianity these were covered public spaces which hosted a number of activities), temples, theatres and stadiums. The towns had water supply and drainage systems, and a street network of avenues intersecting at right angles. Statues of gods, emperors and notables adorned public buildings. The private sphere was affected as well. Most city dwellers lived in street blocks called insulae. The wealthier possessed large houses with courtyards and pools, decorated with mosaics and marble statues. 

The Roman rule boosted the economy – production was more or less centralised and standardised, and usually concentrated in the cities. Private initiative was welcomed and large establishments such as pottery workshops appeared in villas outside cities. 

The Romans were highly organised, and the developed administration they introduced in the Balkans was a novelty for the Thracians, who had been used to a social structure no more complex than a king and a small military aristocracy. Under Rome, the locals had to adjust to the new territorial and fiscal management of a centralised state. Provinces were governed by imperial officials, who resided in the provincial capitals. There was also a team of financial and other supervisors which took care of provincial matters. 

Ancient gate from Hisarya Roman city

Ancient Roman gate, Hisarya

Each city enjoyed a bit of autonomy, with a body of magistrates, which functioned as a miniature copy of the Senate in Rome. These positions were unpaid, and magistrates were expected to finance from their own pocket the organisation of public events 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 modern-day 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 high-rank 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. 

Ancient Roman tomb, Silistra

Ancient Roman tomb. Silistra

Life in Roman Bulgaria in the 1st and 2nd centuries was mostly peaceful. The most notable exceptions were the Marcommanic wars and the Antonine Plague during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). But the next century proved a time of hardship, with the Gothic invasion in the 250s and the tumultuous second half of the 3rd Century, when emperor reigns turned out too short-lived. At the end of the century, Emperor Diocletian (284-305) changed the game forever. The provinces were reorganised, their number soared and their 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 named it after himself, Constantinople. For the first time since the Romans arrived, the Balkans were near the centre of the empire. 

The rise of this Nova Roma was the first visible sign of a process which had been going on for a century. The West and the East were gradually drifting apart and evolving into two self-sufficient economic and cultural entities. This transformation became all the more obvious under Constantine's successors. It was Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) who set the tone with two history-shaping decisions. In the 390s he decreed Christianity the official (and only) state religion, and divided the rule of the empire between his sons – Honorius took the West, Arcadius the East. 

Ancient basilica, Silistra

Ancient Silistra

Southeastern Europe found itself in what today historians call the Eastern Roman Empire, the heir of the mighty Augustan state and predecessor of what would become mediaeval Byzantium. No review of Roman Bulgaria would be complete without this period of transition. The region was now next door to the imperial capital and was rather susceptible to its economic and intellectual influence. This brought about prosperity, and it's no wonder that some of the finest monuments of late Roman culture appeared precisely in the Balkans. 

While in the 5th and 6th centuries the Western Roman Empire shrank and suffered heavy defeat from the Barbarians, the sister on the east did well. It enjoyed a fair share of architectural magnificence and military success under some talented emperors like the wise reformer Anastasius I (491-518) and Justinian the Great (527–565), who restored much of the empire's territory and cultural power. 

But troubles were not far away. Wars and Barbaric invasions were not uncommon between the 4th and early 7th centuries, and they heavily affected life in Roman Bulgaria. The strict administration of the past started to crack. The settlement pattern changed. The old Roman cities, located in the plains, began to decline as even their mighty walls could not stop the Barbarians. Instead, people moved to new, heavily fortified places in the easily defensible hills. 

Ruins of ancient Serdica, Sofia

Ruins of ancient Serdica, Sofia

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. 

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 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. 

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. 

Kaliakra fortress

Kaliakra fortress

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.