In 106 AD Emperor Trajan was returning from his victorious campaign against the Dacians in what is today Romania. These bellicose tribes had finally been conquered and subdued. Their capital, Sarmizegetusa, was put under sword and fire, and the defeated King Decebalus had killed himself to avoid capture. Trajan had finished what his predecessors – and he himself, in an earlier campaign, in 101-102 – had failed to achieve. He had secured the Danubian lands and the rich gold and iron mines of the Dacians, a precious addition to the troubled state economy struggling under the cost of expensive military campaigns.
The emperor was toying with a string of ideas about how to celebrate this victory. He wanted more than just the traditional triumphal entry into Rome with his legions, enslaved enemies and booty. So Trajan ordered 123 days of festivities and gladly accepted the gift from the Senate of a 30-metre column with reliefs showing crucial moments from the Dacian wars. Even today this column is one of the major tourist sights in Rome. In 109 he built another monument to his victory, this time in the land of the Dacians – the Tropaeum Traiani, or the Trophy of Trajan, near modern-day Adamclisi in Romania.
The city has been excavated for years
But what few people know is that Trajan did something else to commemorate his famous victory: He built an entire city, in today's Bulgaria, and his reasons for doing so went beyond mere vanity.
The emperor knew that an expanding empire needed not only territory, raw materials and goods. Encompassing lands whose inhabitants had always lived free off the boundaries of civilisation, in the newly conquered territories the empire needed people who believed in the Roman way of life. Their faith in it should be so strong and their profit from it so tempting that they would advertise its virtues among still-uncivilised natives and, if a foreign invasion occurred, would die defending them.
There were already several legions stationed by the Danube, and Trajan sent two more into the Dacian lands. Yet he needed more than soldiers to keep the peace. He needed also citizens, merchants, priests, craftsmen, villagers and landowners – a little universe of people who believed that their way of life would disappear should the empire collapse.
There were some military camps surrounded by civic settlements by the Danube, but none seemed suitable to become a hub of the imperial propaganda. So Trajan decided to build from scratch. This is how Nicopolis ad Istrum, or the City of the Victory on the Danube, was founded on an open plain about 50 km south of the Danube.
Remains of one of Nicopolis ad Istrum's streets
It involved a lot of careful planning. The new city was laid out with the obligatory grid of paved straight streets intersecting at right angles. They ran from north to
south and from east to west, several degrees off the cardinal points. It might have been done deliberately, so that every 18th of September, Trajan's birthday, when the sun rose and set, its rays would pour over the streets of Nicopolis in a celestial celebration.
Under the mighty slabs covering the streets existed an elaborate system of pipes and canals. It fed Nicopolis with fresh water, brought by a 22-kilometre-long aqueduct, and cleaned it of the putrid contents of public and private latrines. In the city centre, where the broadest east-to-west street met its north-to-south counterpart, was the agora. Built of marble and adorned with exquisite colonnades and the statues of visiting emperors, including Trajan himself, Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Caracalla, it was the heart of the city. People flocked there daily to talk, trade, pray and make sacrifices in the temples of the main gods, and to attend a show at the odeon, the small covered theatre. In winter, when the cold wind from the north swept the plain and the city, the citizens didn't suspend their activities – they just made their walks and met at the thermoperipatos, a heated building at the agora.
When the city was built, it was far from the borders of the empire, so no one bothered to fortify it; its best protection were the legions on the Danube.
This soon proved to be a mistake, as in the 170s the Costoboci ravaged Nicopolis and set it on fire. The city was restored, this time with a strong fortress wall. Its population continued to grow. When its territory expanded beyond the original boundaries, an additional wall was built to protect the new neighbourhoods.
Nicopolis prospered. Votive and funeral inscriptions show an array of people who lived in the city and its environs. Settlers from Greece and Asia Minor mingled with Thracian aristocrats and veterans from across the empire who, after their long and precarious military careers had ended, chose to stay there as landowners. Nicopolis bustled with commoners – stonemasons, builders, carpenters, fullers and cobblers – and was the home of the upper class in the face of judges and physicians. The cult of the emperor was taken care of, not least by the members of a special choir devoted to it.
One of the entrances to the agora of Nicopolis ad Istrum
Nestled on the bank of the then navigable Rositsa River, Nicopolis had a small harbour. The city was the centre of a wider network of settlements and production facilities, which fed the local and imperial markets with goods. Grain, vegetables and meat were produced at country villas, and bricks and pottery were made at two factories in the area.
The best days of Nicopolis were during the Antonine dynasty, which lasted until Emperor Commodus (177-192), when the most important structures of the agora were built. At the very beginning of the rule of the Severan dynasty the city was excluded from the province of Thrace and moved to the province of Moesia Inferior. The territory it controlled was widened, increasing the income for the city and its inhabitants.
But soon after imperial decline, frequent changes of power, intensified Barbarian attacks and the Roman withdrawal from Dacia in 270 put an end to the prosperity of Nicopolis ad Istrum. The border was breaking up beyond hope. In 251 the Goths of Cniva besieged the city, which had a narrow escape when Emperor Trajan Decius (249-251) arrived in time to push back the invaders. In 447 it was not so lucky: Atilla's Huns overtook it, and the destruction was so great that when the survivors returned and tried to revive life, they were able to use a mere fourth of the city's former territory.
Yet life at that time was not all fear and invasion. When Christianity arrived, Nicopolis ad Istrum became the centre of a diocese. A group of Goths settled around and inside the city, and in the 4th Century were converted by the Goth Bishop Ulfilas. He was helped by his translation of the Bible from the Latin into Gothic, which he did while living in Nicopolis ad Istrum.
By the 6th Century the invasions of Slavs and Avars had become too strong for the citizens to drive back. The garrison of the Eastern Roman Empire was unable to cope, and the city walls could not protect the people. Nicopolis had been built to celebrate a victory over the Barbarians, not to deal with Barbarians in front of its gates. The citizens finally realised that their once glorious home had turned into a trap. So when the Avars ravaged the city at the end of the 6th Century, the survivors decided against returning. They moved into the nearby rocky hills above the banks of the Yantra River and built there easily defensible fortresses. One of them was to become Tarnovo, the capital of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
For a few hundred years the ruins of the great city fell silent. In the 10th Century a group of Bulgarian villagers used the ruins to settle, lured by the fertile area and the abundance of building material from ancient times. They stayed there until the 14th Century, when the Ottoman invasion and subsequent wars reached the region and turned it into a wasteland.
The area was too good a place to stay empty forever. When peace returned, another village appeared a few kilometres off the ruins. It is still there, bearing the puzzling name of Nikyup. Is it an echo of the name of the ancient Nicopolis? By any means.
The modern village and the ancient city have more in common than just a name. You'll see this when you walk the streets of Nikyup. A number of ancient slabs and altars have been built into the houses and the stone walls of their gardens. Remains of the Roman city are clearly visible in the walls of Tsarevets, the main fortress in Veliko Tarnovo. Finds from the bygone Roman splendour of Nicopolis ad Istrum continue to reappear from the ground. Among these finds is the large bronze head of Emperor Gordian III, part of a larger-than-life statue. It was hacked off, its ears severed, and its nose violated – the result, possibly, from Christians "purging" Nicopolis ad Istrum from what they saw as pagan idols.
In spite of the generations of people who freely "borrowed" stones from it, Nicopolis as Istrum is still well preserved. The reason behind it is important: It is one of the few major Roman cities in Bulgaria which have not been overbuilt by later inhabitants. The Roman heritage of Serdica, Philippopolis and Augusta Traiana, to name but a few locales, has been lost over the centuries of continuous inhabitation and the formation of modern Sofia, Plovdiv and Stara Zagora. Nicopolis ad Istrum was spared that fate.
It was largely forgotten until 1871, when the Austro-Hungarian traveller and historian Felix Kanitz rediscovered it. The first excavations were made in 1900, but proper research began decades later. In recent years, excavation work ebbed and flowed, with archaeology professors and students from Veliko Tarnovo and the UK carrying out the research. So far about a third of the city area has been dug out.
Nicopolis ad Istrum has long been open for tourists, but until recently visiting it was tricky. The track branching off from the road linking Veliko Tarnovo and Ruse and going through Nikyup was pot-holed, and it was only the beginning. The ancient streets, canals and buildings were overgrown with thick greenery, and signage was nonexistent. But in 2011 the site received funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation.The area was cleared, protective covering was erected over several buildings and new equipment was bought.The ancient streets, where once hundreds used to pass on their daily business, are again welcoming – to tourists.