Roaring crowds of spectators cheer on their favourite runner. In the arena, a gladiator dies in a pool of blood. Two wealthy ladies inspect fine fabrics at a shop run by a Jewish merchant. In the forum, slaves are busy erecting a statue of the current emperor while others outside the city are busy repairing an aqueduct. The people around the Eastern Gate make way for a chariot carrying a provincial official from his rural villa to his city mansion.
The lives of the residents of Plovdiv in the Roman era were as varied, busy and interesting as those of their modern-day successors. Philippopolis was one of the largest cities in the empire's Balkan domains. Situated on the then navigable Maritsa River, it lay at the intersection of the roads linking the Bosphorus and Central Europe and the Danube and the Aegean. Fertile lands spread around it, and the nearby Rhodope mountains, with their dense forests and quick rivers, supplied the city's 100,000 citizens with water and its merchants with timber, wool and honey. A cluster of three hills offered protection.
The ancient theatre
The place where Plovdiv stands was considered ideal for living millennia before the Romans' arrival. There was a Neolithic settlement here, and in the 2nd Millennium BC the Thracians fortified the three hills. In 342 BC the Thracian city of Pulpudeva, or Eumolpis, was taken by King Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. The conqueror renamed it Philippopolis, after himself. Macedonian control was soon shaken off, but the name stuck, only to be modified over the generations, ending up as today's Plovdiv.
Ancient Roman street
Alternating diplomacy with war, it took the Romans almost a century to gain control of Thrace and Philippopolis. In 44-46 AD Emperor Claudius (41-54) established the province of Thrace. Philippopolis was not its capital, but the empire began investing money, people and effort in the city, and by the end of the 1st or at the beginning of the 2nd centuries it became the seat of the League of the Thracian Cities. The 2nd Century was a good time for Philippopolis. The economy and the city flourished, and the city minted its own coins. People from all corners of the vast empire mingled on its streets and the entire city expanded onto the plain, spreading far from the protective shadow of the three hills. Its location and importance were acknowledged by emperors who paid visits – among them Hadrian, Septimius Severus, Caracalla and Elagabalus. The city honoured the arrivals of the latter two by organising special sports games.
The ancient stadium
Philippopolis was not spared the Barbaric invasions, economic crises and power struggles which ravaged the empire, but it always rose from the ashes of destruction. In the 6th Century, unlike many Roman cities which had been abandoned forever, Philippopolis entered the Middle Ages and continued its eternal transformation.
Most of the public buildings, the houses of the poor and the wealthy, the temples and the riches of Roman Plovdiv are lost forever, destroyed by invaders and built on by later inhabitants. Yet Plovdiv is probably the Bulgarian city boasting the richest and best-preserved Roman archaeological heritage.
The Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis
The marble theatre of Philippopolis is the tastiest piece of all. Believed to be built between 108 and 114 in the crevice between two hills of the city acropolis and in techniques harking back to Greek and Roman fashions, it seated more than 5,000 people and had an astonishing vista opened of the Thracian Plain and the Rhodope. Popular tragedies and comedies, song competitions and gladiator games attracted people there. The theatre was used also as the meeting place of the delegates of the League of the Thracian Cities. The different neighbourhoods, the followers of the imperial cult and the important families in Philippopolis all had their names inscribed on the seats, a miniature replication of the city's social order. Even today the most telling example of its continuing fascination is right before your eyes – the theatre steps have been worn down by the feet of thousands of spectators.
Mosaics from the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis
The hills around the theatre are hatched by Thracian, Roman and Byzantine fortification walls. They often merge and are overbuilt with the beautiful 18th- and 19th-Century mansions Plovdiv is famed for. The best spots to see how the constructions of the different eras of Philippopolis overlap in an inimitable puzzle are Nebet Tepe, the Hisar Kapiya Gate and its round tower a few metres away, and Atanas Krastev Square.
The economic boom in the 2nd Century produced the stadium, another majestic highlight in Philippopolis. Seating 30,000 people, it was a silent witness to the fierce competitions of the city games and of the devastation brought on by the Goths in 251. While the invaders were besieging the city, the entire population of Philippopolis were gathered in the stadium to hear a letter from Emperor Trajan Decius. The missive calmed them with the news that help was on the way and that stability would return. The stadium survived until the 11th Century, but was later built over and forgotten until 1923, when it was rediscovered. Today its semicircular end is nicely restored and exhibited at Dzhumaya Square, next to the 15th-Century Cuma Mosque.
The Eastern Gate
The entire length of the stadium is still underground and only sections are on view on the underground levels of two shopping centres. But it's easy to follow it in your mind. The pedestrian shopping street follows the ancient track for more than 200 metres, is marked on the pavement.
The agora, or the main administrative and commercial centre, of Roman Plovdiv was a huge open area where trade was conducted, people congregated, and the official imperial cult received the obligatory veneration.
Small Basilica's baptisterium
In its heyday the agora in Plovdiv spread over 10 ha. Today a portion can be seen near the Central Post Office. For now, best preserved are the partially restored remains of the so-called Odeon, a small semicircular building which hosted the meetings of the city council. Ongoing archaeological research will reveal more.
The remains of some marvellous mosaics from the houses of wealthy Philippopolis families are now in the Archaeology Museum, along with a collection of tombstones and sculptures. But a more vivid experience is in the Archaeology Underpass. The facility is built over the preserved and exhibited remains of a Roman crossroads and on the premises of a modern art gallery a section of a rich local family house from the period between the 3rd and 6th centuries is exhibited in situ. Its centrepiece is a beautiful mosaic of Eirene, the Greek personification of peace.
The ancient forum
In the first century of the Roman rule, Philippopolis was far from the tumultuous borders of the empire, so the houses and buildings had no defences. The situation changed during the rule of Marcus Aurelius. Barbarian attacks threatened these parts of the state, and this caused a strong wall to be built to protect the city. The remains of the most important entrance in the fortress wall, the Eastern Gate, from which the road to Constantinople started, are preserved on Aleksandar Malinov Square.
Roman Philippopolis was a place of many temples and deities, with local and imported cults attracting thousands of believers. The main temple, devoted to Apollo Kendrisos and later to the emperor, stood outside the city walls, on one of the hills. When Christianity took over, the temple of Apollo was turned into a church.
A part of the Roman stadium is exhibited in the underground floor of a modern store
Ancient Roman deity from the collection of Plovdiv's Archaeology Museum