"Serdica is my Rome" is what Emperor Constantine is supposed to have declared before eventually choosing Byzantion on the Bosphorus for the new capital of the Roman Empire and giving it the name Constantinople. Serdica, the city he was referring to, is modern-day Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, and its downtown area has preserved bits of its Roman past.
The Romans took Serdica, in an area populated by the Thracian Serdi tribe, in the mid-1st Century AD. And just like the Thracians before them, the Romans were lured by the strategic crossroads between the routes from Central Europe to the Bosphorus and from the Danube to the Aegean. Another reason for settling here were the local hot mineral springs – a mix of pleasure and healthfulness. In Antiquity they were close to the northeastern corner of Serdica's fortifications; today they bubble and steam in Sofia's centre, near the former Central Baths.
Remains of ancient Roman Serdica are exhibited in front of TzUM department store
In 106 Emperor Trajan gave Serdica the status of a municipium, and in the following centuries the city grew in importance, as evidenced by the fact that it was a provincial capital during each administrative reform in the empire. Serdica flourished in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The hot springs were captured and water flowed to the spacious public baths. Strong defensive walls with four massive gates guarded the city core. The city minted its own coins, adorned with the profiles of many rulers, from Marcus Aurelius to Gallienus (260-268). One of those was Julia Domna, the wife of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) and the mother of Emperor Caracalla, and the "divine" protectress of Serdica. By the end of the 3rd Century an amphitheatre – its axes were 60 m and 43 m – had been built near a hill outside the city walls.
This period of the past of Serdica – and of the Roman Empire – was awash in fateful events. In 270 Emperor Aurelian (270-275), who was born somewhere around Serdica, ordered that the Romans withdraw from the province of Dacia, north of the Danube. From a city far from the turbulent borders, Serdica was now close to the fringes of the empire, and the subsequent administrative reforms made it the capital of the newly established province of Dacia Mediterranea. The change is documented in inscriptions found in Serdica: While before the reform Greek was the language used on inscriptions, Latin superseded it after the end of the 3rd Century.
Some claim that ten years before the Romans left their realms north of the Danube in 260, Serdica had been the home of a quiet but fateful event. A boy was born to a Thracian father and a Dacian mother and later became Emperor Galerius (305-311). Although he is not as popular today as his contemporaries, Diocletian and Constantine the Great, Galerius made some important decisions. He used to support Diocletian's anti-Christian politics, but in 311 he issued, supposedly in Serdica, the so-called Edict of Toleration, which decriminalised Christianity and was the precursor of Constantine's Edict of Milan, from 313, which is now seen as the beginning of the imperial breakup with paganism.
According to some, Galerius is supposed to have built a palace in Serdica, on the place where the tall edifice of the modern-day Rila Hotel now rises.
Some of the ruins were covered with three modernistic domes
The 4th Century brought many changes to Serdica. The increased danger of Barbarian attacks led to strengthening the fortifications. Older streets were filled up and buildings were demolished to make room for new constructions. In the inner yard of the Office of the Bulgarian President, for example, a circular martyrion, or a saint's shrine, was built over the remains of 2nd- Century shops and part of the bouleuterion, where the city council used to meet. After several reconstructions, the shrine became the St George Rotunda.
Christianity was popular in Serdica from early times. In 343 the city became a talking point across the empire as the meeting place of a ecclesiastical council at which more than 300 bishops convened to discuss whether Arianism was heresy. The city was the centre of a bishopric, and a large Christian necropolis appeared and spread east of its fortification walls. In it, simple graves mingled with rich fresco-decorated tombs around a small, ornate church. In the 6th Century, during the reign of Justinian I, the church was replaced with a bigger basilica, St Sophia.
St Sophia church is now in the heart of modern Sofia
Soon after, Serdica descended into the Middle Ages, but bits of its Roman image stayed on. Some buildings continued their lives, like the basilicas St Sophia and St George, which survived the Ottoman invasion at the end of the 14th Century and were turned into mosques. The tombs of the St Sophia necropolis were visible above ground up to the beginning of the 20th Century, and so were parts of the city's fortifications.
Interestingly, even the modern streets in Sofia's central area follow the ancient Roman street plan.
Although most of Roman Serdica was lost under the expanding city, artefacts such as the gilded head of Apollo, now in the National Archaeology Museum, shed light on how wealthy the ancient city was. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, parts of the ancient city were discovered during the building of new developments.
The central part of modern Sofia roughly follows the street plan of ancient Serdica
The Eastern Gate of the fortification walls, along with a significant urban section, reappeared during the building of the Stalinist-style Largo in the 1950s. The bouleuterion, or the city council, was discovered at the place of the modern-day Balkan Hotel, and Serdica's gerousia, an association linked to the cult of the emperor, was found where today is the Ministry of Culture. Two identical inscriptions were found at the northern and western gates of the city, dating the construction of the walls at 177-180. Outside the city's walls, under the modern Garibaldi Square, a temple to Helios and Serapis has been identified, built in 161-163.
Although the original number of these ancient buildings was considerable, many are today lost. Only a small collection has survived and can be visited today.
Preserved parts of fortification wall near the hot mineral springs that, among other things, attracted the Romans to Serdica
The Eastern Gate has been preserved, in the underpass between the buildings housing the Office of the President and the Council of Ministers. Streets and commercial buildings of the ancient town are exhibited under the Largo and by the entrances of Serdica Underground Station. A round tower from the northeastern corner of the fortress is exhibited by the Banyabashi Mosque, and the Western Gate can be seen near the St Joseph Catholic Cathedral.
The remains of the amphitheatre – it was built over the ruins of an earlier theatre – are now at the beginning of Budapest Street. Part of them is exhibited in the subterranean level of a luxury hotel, and another, filled with stagnant water, lies behind a metal fence. If you want to have a more detailed idea of the games in Serdica's amphitheatre, go to the National Archaeology Museum. There a relief is on view depicting the games. They seem to have been quite a spectacle, featuring fights with beasts and with a make-believe, over-life-size crocodile.
The St Sophia Church is arguably the most spectacular of ancient Serdica's heritage. With a bare interior, it is well maintained, providing a glimpse of what a late Roman church may have looked like. Its subterranean level is a maze of dozens of painted early Christian tombs, offering the fascinating experience of walking around the Roman Serdica's city of dead.