The contrast between the industrial town of Devnya and its Museum of Roman Mosaics is shocking – a drab central area is host to a modernistic building which keeps some of the most sophisticated mosaics ever found in Bulgaria. Yet here they are, astonishing images made of thousands of stone cubes, exhibited in situ in a museum built especially for them in the early 1980s.
The exhibition's highlight is a head of Medusa, her hair a tangled mass of swirling snakes, her eyes looking sideways to someone or something which the visitor cannot see. The image is far from what we know from the original myth about the monstrous Medusa, with a face so terrible that it would turn to stone all living things. It wouldn't lose its deathly power even after Perseus cut off her head and presented it to the goddess Athena, who put it on her shield, the Aegis, to scare off her enemies.
Just like Athena, the people in the Graeco-Roman world, too, used the Medusa theme – in paintings, amulets and sculptures – as spiritual protection against evil supernatural powers which were feared to sneak into houses, temples and graves. This is why the owner of the spacious domus, or urban mansion, in Devnya ordered the Medusa mosaic on the floor of his banquet hall.
Five rooms of Devnya's domus used to be covered with mosaics. The Medusa is the best preserved of them, and two more scenes had survived in relatively good state up to the late 1970s, when they were discovered by archaeologists. The master's bedroom was decorated with a scene of Zeus, disguised as a satyr and wooing the nymph Antiope. The women's quarters were decorated with allegories of the four seasons and, for some reason, with a depiction of a pair of sandals.
The lavish domus was built at the turn of the 4th Century AD, and each of its details is testimony to the affluence and importance of the owner. The mansion – with 21 rooms and a colonnaded atrium – spread comfortably over a whole insula, or a city quarter.
In those times Marcianopolis, the ancient predecessor of modern Devnya, was one of the most prominent Roman cities in the eastern part of the Balkans, and probably one of the three largest in the province of Thrace (in any case before the end of the 2nd Century, when it became part of the province of Moesia Inferior). It was founded in 106 by Emperor Trajan by the Devnya River, about 20 km from the Black Sea. Its name was supposedly a nod to the emperor's sister, Marciana, and a legend recorded by the historian Jordanes tells of how the city's location was chosen.
One of Marciana's servants went to get water from the Devnya River, but inadvertently dropped her heavy gold pitcher into the cold waters. Then a miracle happened – the river threw back the pitcher. The emperor saw in this a sign from a benevolent deity, and bowed to it by founding a city, Marcianopolis.
The Museum of Roman mosaics in Devnya was purposed built over the remains of the villa urbana
Well, the real reason seems to have been more pragmatic. The area was rich in top-quality limestone, which was exported – as it is today – to other cities. It was as well on the crossroads between routes to the Black Sea and those leading to the eastern slopes of the Stara Planina. For the citizens of Marcianopolis this combination of location and natural resources was a mixed blessing, as it meant they could get rich but could also be attacked by people who coveted their riches.
Indeed the town flourished, experiencing a boom under the Severan dynasty (193-235). After the administrative reforms of Diocletian, Marcianopolis became the centre of the Moesia Secunda province, in the Thrace diocese, outshining nearby Odessos (today's Varna).
The city was completely rebuilt at the end of the 3rd Century, and in the 4th Century became the centre of a bishopric, with a rich basilica to serve the rising number of Christians. The mosaics-decorated domus is the most prominent remains from this period of prosperity.
But there was more.
Marcianopolis had a large amphitheatre that could accommodate 3,500 spectators and was adorned by a lovely architectural decoration. Its humble remains can be visited. The sarcophagi exhibited in front of the museum are silent witnesses of the wealth and entrepreneurship of the local citizens. They were imported in the 2nd and 3rd centuries from Proconnesus (modern Marmara Island), probably by sea via Odessos. The coins minted in Marcianopolis consistently depict a triumphal arch or a gate decorated with statues of Septimius Severus, his wife and two sons. The structure definitely existed here, but its whereabouts are unknown as Marcianopolis has largely not been excavated.
The city got its first defensive wall by the end of the 2nd Century, and after the mid-3rd Century it repelled, with various degrees of success, a series of Barbarian attacks. During the First Gothic War (366-369) of Emperor Valens, Marcianopolis even became the temporary capital of the empire and an army base. In the following centuries the attacks continued, and in 447 the Huns of Attila captured the city. Less than three decades later, in 471, Goths arrived.
In 614-615 the Avars invaded, dealing the city a blow it could not survive. Marcianopolis was abandoned.
In the Middle Ages, people returned and settled where it had stood, but the ancient ruins were identified as belonging to Marcianopolis as late as the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-29, when they attracted the attention of a historian travelling with the Russian army.