In July 251 the swamps at an all but forgotten corner in the Balkan territories of the Roman Empire were about to become the scene of a devastating event. Two armies stood against each other in the summer heat. The legions of Emperor Trajan Decius and his son and co-ruler, Herennius Etruscus, were facing the army of the Goth leader Cniva. The final meeting of a long cat-and-mouse game was about to play out.
Several months earlier Cniva had crossed the Danube in the biggest Gothic invasion in the Balkans so far, plundering the lands on both sides of the Stara Planina. He was now trying to take his men and booty into safety north of the Danube.
But Decius had guessed the Gothic intentions, and was now there, near the city of Abritus, resolved to stop the raiders from withdrawing unpunished.
The numbers of the two armies were probably equal (estimates vary), but Decius had the confidence that he would defeat his enemy, as he had done earlier, at Nicopolis ad Istrum. Yet in a fit of strategic brilliance, Cniva hid some of his regiments in a marshy part of the battlefield. When the Romans broke the Gothic lines and stormed deeper, they fell into the trap of the hidden troops.
This helmet mask, found during excavations at Abritus, belonged to a citizen from the elite. It is now exhibited in the excellent museum of Abritus
A massacre followed. The emperor is said to have had the misfortune to see his son killed before his eyes; his military discipline gave him the strength to brush away the tragedy with the words: "Do not mourn, as the death of a soldier is not a great loss to the Republic." But soon Decius himself was dead, in one of the most devastating defeats the Roman army had ever experienced. Neither his nor his son's bodies were ever recovered from the mud.
The town near which the drama unfolded, Abritus, is one of those Roman settlements which appeared in the region as military camps soon after the Roman conquest, and were later promoted to proper cities. It was founded sometime
at the end of the 1st or in the early 2nd Century, either under Vespasian or Trajan. The area is generally flat, and the camp was built on an easily defensible hill, now called Hisarlaka. The location was chosen wisely: Abritus stood on the main road connecting Sexaginta Prista (now Ruse) on the Danube with Mesembria (modern Nesebar) on the Black Sea and Hadrianopolis. Two lesser roads intersected here, too, leading to Nicopolis ad Istrum and Odessos (modern Varna).
The tombstone of a family that used to live in Abritus
By the early 3rd Century the camp and the civic settlement nearby had grown large enough to be upgraded to a true city.
Ancient Abritus had straight streets, a forum and an aqueduct, shrines and followers of a number of deities. Some of them were local, like the Thracian God Rider, others were Graeco-Roman, like Zeus, Artemis and Apollo. There were also arrivals from the East, like Sabazios, Mithra and Cybele, and from Central Europe, like Epona. The citizens worshipped as well a local deity, the mysterious Goddess of Abritus. There were workshops in the city dedicated to producing nothing but metallic votive tablets. Their presence is now known by the number of bronze master moulds which are among the most curious exhibits in the museum of the Abritus Archaeological Reserve.
Abritus's population comprised local Thracians and veterans from the Roman legions, settlers from Italy and Gaul, and Greeks from Asia Minor. In the early 4th Century these were joined by Goths, who were settled in the city as foederati, Barbarian allies of the Roman Empire.
The city got its first proper fortification wall much after the fateful battle of 251. Constructed at the very beginning of the 4th Century, the fortress was on the Hisarlaka hill. It had 35 towers and four major gates, enclosing an area of roughly 15 ha. A section of it is today well preserved and is exhibited, showing an interesting variety of towers – rectangular, U- and fan-shaped – which modern archaeologists have named the Abritus system. The strange shape of the towers was for a purpose: It was harder during a siege to use a catapult at a target which had bent walls. At any rate, the walls proved useless in 376, when the Visigoths raided Abritus and burnt it down.
The fortification walls of Abritus combine several different types of towers
The city remained a major regional centre in the 5th and 6th centuries, but danger was never far away. In 447 the Huns of Attila sacked it. The fortifications were restored a century later, under Justinian I, along with dozens of other fortresses across the Balkans. But soon the pressure from the Barbarians proved too strong for Abritus. After a devastating pillage from the Avars, probably in 586, the city was abandoned, and soon after even its name was forgotten.
The remains of the city attracted the attention of archaeologists in the 1880s, when on the Hisarlaka hill an early Christian basilica was excavated and misinterpreted as an Apollo temple. Systematic excavations started in 1953, but, sadly, today a considerable portion of the city is underneath a pharmaceutical factory.
In the decades since the beginning of scientific research, the complete course of the fortification wall has been uncovered, together with a number of private and public buildings, stone reliefs and artefacts.
Remains from the residence of a wealthy citizen of Abritus
In 1971 the biggest treasure of gold coins from the late Roman period ever found in Bulgaria was discovered by the fortress wall. It consists of 835 coins from the 5th Century, with a total weight of about 4 kg. According to a hypothesis, it was hidden in 487, when the Gothic foederati living around Novae, on the Danube, rebelled. Apparently someone in Abritus decided to ensure himself against the impending raid. The precaution proved in vain as an attack never materialised: Led by Theodoric the Great, in 488 the Goths set out for Italy, where they established a kingdom. For some reason the money in the Abritus stash remained untouched.
In 1984 Abritus was declared an archaeological reserve. Recently the site was sensibly renovated, with an informative and well-laid-out museum exhibition and a multimedia centre, which bring to life the past of this Roman city.