Varna, Bulgaria's biggest maritime city, began its life as a Greek colony, Odessos, in 570 BC. It was a major port of the province of Moesia, preserved some of its autonomy, and minted its own coins until the mid-3rd Century.
Odessos prospered in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Trade with Asia Minor and the Middle East boomed, as did the crafts. Among them the stonemasons and sculptors were the most distinguished, producing portraits, reliefs and sarcophagi. Contacts between Greeks from the city and Thracians from the mainland were intensive, resulting not only in trade but also in the exchange of ideas in the Roman hodgepodge of cultures. Significantly, it was in Odessos where the first depictions of the Thracian Rider appeared and became popular on religious and funeral art – for the Thracians of earlier times this deity had been a faceless idea.
Relief depicting gladiators, exhibited in Varna's Archaeology Museum
In that period of prosperity for Odessos, a new fortification wall, an aqueduct and spacious public baths were built, and the pre-Roman theatre went through a major reconstruction. The city was wealthy enough to have its own sports and arts games. When Emperor Gordian III supposedly visited Odessos in 242, the city spent lavishly to organise games in his honour.
The city suffered heavily from the Gothic invasions of the middle of the 3rd Century, as they disrupted the local trade and the economy in the mainland. The change of the imperial capital in 324 brought back prosperity, and settlers from Asia Minor, Syria and elsewhere again flocked to live and do business in Odessos. In 447 Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) signed at Odessos an armistice with Attila, saving his realms from the armies of the fearsome Hun. In the beginning of the 7th Century, however, the attacks of Avars and Slavs proved too intense, and the city was abandoned for at least several decades before reviving as a medieval city by its current name, Varna.
A mask, Varna's Archaeology Museum
The generations of (almost) uninterrupted inhabitation over the remains of ancient Odessos have left few visible traces of its aboveground existence. Archaeological research is hard in a living city, but when new construction begins in the old centre, the ancient past often comes into view.
Varna's fine Archaeology Museum is great for having a more detailed view on the life, death and gods of Odessos. The museum has an exquisite collection of gravestones, statues and early Christian art, as well as finds like the beautiful silver cup and surgical instruments buried in the tomb of a physician and his wife in Balchik.
Portrait of a man, Varna Archaological Museum
But don't stop exploring Varna's Roman past at the museum. In the present-day Greek Neighbourhood, situated over the oldest core of the city, there are the ruins of a building which still impresses, 1,700 years after it was abandoned.
Squeezed by the blocks of new apartment buildings, rubbing walls with the 1830s St Athanasius Church rise the humpbacked, brick-and-mortar arches of Roman baths. Built at the end of the 2nd Century and abandoned a century later, they spread over 7,000 sq m, and are believed to be the biggest Roman building in Bulgaria excavated so far.
Another chunk of Roman legacy is nearby, on Primorski Boulevard, close to the Museum of Varna's Modern History.
The so-called Small Roman Thermae were built in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The tools of an ancient Roman doctor, Varna Archaeology Museum
Statue of a woman, Varna Archaeology Museum
Roman tombstone, Varna Archaeology Museum