Cybele shrine, Balchik
The Roman Empire was extremely tolerant towards different religions, on one crucial condition: Everyone was free to worship whichever deity he wanted, provided he didn't forget to pay proper attention to the cult of the emperor, who was considered divine. This cult and the worship of the goddess Roma, a personification of the Roman people, were part of the imperial propaganda which cemented Roman power throughout the empire and in the newly conquered lands. While the policy worked for most of the subjects, at least on a religious
level, there were two groups who fell on hard times precisely because of it: the Jews and the early Christians. Their belief in the Only God resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD and in thousands martyred Christians over a period of three centuries.
Apart from all this, across the empire religious tolerance and the ease with which people and ideas travelled led to the proliferation of cults and mystic religions, of migration of gods and their hybridisation with local deities.
Deity, Plovdiv Archaeological Museum
The lands of Roman Bulgaria were no exception. The old local beliefs were not eradicated, and ancient Thracian sanctuaries widened the pantheon of worshipped deities, combining old and new gods. Situated outside the big cities, these shrines represented the marriage of the traditional religion of the indigenous Thracians and the beliefs of the wider empire. The religious landscape was more clear-cut in the cities. They were the centres of the official cult of the emperor, with its strict hierarchical order of priests and religious institutions.
The traditional religion of the Thracians included the worship of the nameless Great Goddess and Great God, together with the Thracian God Rider and a local version of Dionysus as the master of the underworld. It remained widely popular in the rural areas, mostly inhabited by Thracians. The old rock sanctuaries in the mountains and the so-called pit shrines in the plains continued to operate. Old beliefs were alive also in the cities, as indicated by the many votive tablets of the Thracian Rider found in urban areas, sometimes with local epithets added to his name.
The syncretism of local and imported deities in Thrace was not a Roman invention. The process had started much earlier, when several Greek gods and goddesses were absorbed into the Thracian belief system. The most popular of these were Dionysus, Apollo and Asclepius, Zeus and Hera, Aphrodite and the Nymphs. They had shrines, people devoted to them votive tablets, and cities minted coins bearing their images.
Mithra, Ruse Museum of History
The cult of Dionysus was among the most popular in the Thracian lands of the Roman Empire – the god had been worshipped there at least since the times of Herodotus. In the Roman era, he had priests virtually everywhere, and sanctuaries to him have been found in places like Malko Tarnovo in the Strandzha and Augusta Traiana (now Stara Zagora). Votive reliefs, chariot decorations, small-size sculptures and everyday objects found in Roman Bulgaria often depict Dionysus in the company of the Bacchae and the Sileni.
Apollo, the god of light and sun, had many worshippers, and was often the official cult in urban centres, where he often took over the cults of earlier local deities, swallowing their names, attributes and powers. The divine protector of Philippopolis, for example, was Apollo Kendrisos – his second name is the local epithet of the Thracian God Rider. In the Roman era, Apollo Kendrisos was venerated so intensely that the citizens of Philippopolis dedicated their sports games to him and depicted his statue and temple on the city coins.
Hermes also enjoyed quite a following. The god of thieving and trade had old connections in Thracian society – Herodotus tells that he was the patron deity of the Thracian aristocracy. In the Roman era in Thrace he appeared on coins and in art, on bronze and marble statues, and many public buildings were adorned with hermae – the two-faced statues of the god with erect phalluses. People passing by, especially women, used to touch them in hope of good luck and fertility. The rite was common throughout the empire, and in big cities annual and cocky processions were organised in Hermes's honour.
Hercules, the demigod of the Greek pantheon, had been worshipped in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea long before the arrival of the Romans. In the Roman era his cult spread inland. Artefacts from modern-day Bulgaria – mainly bronze statuettes – show that the Heracles cult attracted worshippers slowly, with the Romanisation first of the cities and then of the countryside. The god was followed mainly by men, and the few Thracians who participated in his cult were mostly Romanised.
The three nymphs, Ruse Museum
The people of Antiquity were as preoccupied with the well-being of the body as we are. As a result, one of the most widespread cults was that of the Greco-Roman god of health, Asclepius, son of Apollo. Normally he was depicted on votive tablets and reliefs as a bearded man holding a staff with a coiled serpent, and co-worshipped with his daughter Hygieia. They had a number of sanctuaries, where people would leave votive inscriptions and reliefs of the body parts – hands and legs, for example – the deities had cured. Asclepius and Hygeia were especially popular in mineral spa venues such as Pautalia (now Kyustendil), and were often depicted on local coins. In Philippopolis these health-bringers, together with a procession of related deities, were honoured on a fine marble frieze, now on display in the Plovdiv Archaeology Museum.
After the Romans took over, the influx of foreign gods into Thrace intensified. The new deities came from as far as the Middle East, Egypt and Gaul, but the most omnipotent of them arrived from Rome.
This new god was the emperor. The cult of the emperor was a highly organised affair – there was a wide network of city and provincial priests and institutions devoted to his worship. Being a priest to the emperor – who the incumbent ruler was never mattered – was a pro bono affair, and such persons were expected to contribute with their own money for the building of temples to the emperor, erecting statues of him and his family, and organising events like sports games in his honour. But despite everything, being a priest or priestess of the emperor was a prestigious and highly coveted position for those who could afford it.
In the province of Thrace the imperial cult was organised by the Philippopolis-based League of the Thracian Cities. The top priests of the cult were almost always Roman citizens, and very rich. At a more local level, however, the organisations devoted to the cult of the emperor were more open to people of lower social status and to non-Roman citizens – the only thing someone needed to qualify for membership in such an association was to have enough money. Logically, the number of these societies shot up – the so-called gerousiae were functioning in cities like Philippopolis, Serdica, Pautalia, Augusta Traiana. In Nicopolis ad Istrum there was an organisation of hymn-singers which was devoted to the imperial cult, and some of the seats in the theatre in Philippopolis were reserved for the members of the Philokaisaroi, or Those Who Love the Caesar.
Arthemis, Ruse Museum of History
For about three years the Apollo Kendrisos temple in Philippopolis was also dedicated to Emperor Elagabalus and the city was granted the prestigious title of neokoros, or a temple warden. A special festival was organised to honour the emperor, who probably visited the event. But when Elagabalus died, his successor discontinued the veneration and stripped Philippopolis off its neokoros status.
So far few traces of temples to the emperor have been discovered, mainly in Deultum (modern Debelt, near Burgas), Nicopolis ad Istrum and Augusta Traiana. According to some research, the Bishop's Basilica of Philippopilis was probably built over the remains of the temple of the emperor's cult.
In any case the people of Roman Bulgaria didn't need temples to express their love and devotion to their divine emperors – statues of the incumbent ruler and his relatives were placed at public spaces. Their hairstyles were widely copied by the common folk, and we now find these reverberations of imperial fashions on portraits on tombstones from the Balkan provinces.
The 3rd Century was a time when the power of Rome was waning, and the resultant instability stirred the cities to vie more ardently for the most spectacular way to show their devotion to the emperor. This fashion created much trouble, as the emperors came and went at a disconcerting speed, with each eager to erase all traces of his predecessors. Statues of emperors were erected complete with glorifying inscriptions, only to be pulled down a couple of months later. An interesting example of this has been found in Plovdiv. The pediments of statues of Emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-238) and his son, which once stood in the city's agora, were discovered reused as building materials in an ancient bridge and with hastily erased inscriptions – this took place after Thrax was deposed in 238, the Year of the Six Emperors.
The rest of divine immigrants in Roman Bulgaria arrived mainly from the Middle East and Egypt.
Thracian god rider, Ruse Museum of History
The Phrygian Cybele, known also as the Mother of Gods, had some worshippers on the Black Sea coast as early as Hellenistic times, as evidenced by her temple in Dionysopolis (modern Balchik). But her cult really took off in Roman times.
Another newcomer was the so-called Syrian Goddess. The traces of her cult in Bulgaria are few and far between, but according to some theories, she could be Atargatis, the principal goddess of Syria in the Antiquity. She didn't come alone, but with a colleague. Jupiter Dolichenus was a Roman blend of Jupiter and the Syrian Baal, and was depicted as a bearded man with Phrygian hat and trousers. His cult was brought to the Moesia Inferior province by soldiers in the imperial legions, and was a mysterial one – an initiation was needed before one was allowed to learn the secret teachings of his worship.
A more peculiar case is that of Sabazios. His mysterial cult is thought to have originated in Thrace and brought to Asia Minor long before the common era. There it changed, and returned during the Roman times, when he had plenty of followers, who dedicated to him inscriptions of gratitude and the characteristic bronze hands making a blessing gesture. No temples to Sabazios have been discovered so far in any corner of the former Roman Empire, but without doubt there used to be one in Serdica, where his cult was quite popular.
Mithra, the widely popular Zoroastrian god venerated by Roman soldiers, was popular alongside the militarised Danubian border and everywhere where there was an army or discharged veterans. Mithra was also a thing in the areas of Nicopolis ad Istrum and Philippopolis, attracting worship by craftsmen and merchants from Asia Minor.
The cult of Mithra was shrouded in secrecy, with a strict seven-stage initiation into his mysteries. What is known is that this deity was worshipped in underground temples built to resemble caves decorated with reliefs depicting his being born from a rock, sacrificing a bull or feasting. So far, temples of Mithra probably existed in Pautalia, Serdica and Philippopolis, but the evidence is inconclusive.
The soldiers in the legions on the Danube border worshipped as well the so-called Danubian Rider. In truth the riders are two and are depicted on steles and small plates standing on the two sides of a goddess, the body of a fallen man under their feet. In Bulgaria most of the finds of these curious deities, who were probably the divine twins Castor and Pollux, are from the region around Oescus.
It was again soldiers who brought to Roman Bulgaria Epona, the Celtic goddess who was the patron of horses, donkeys and mules.
Mithra, Varna Museum of Archaeology
From Egypt the cults of Isis, Serapis, Anubis and other deities arrived to Roman Bulgaria. Isis was a goddess of fertility and became popular in Rome long before the end of the Republic. She enjoyed quite a popularity, with emperors like Caligula (37-41), Domitian (81-96), Hadrian (117-138) and Galerius (293-311) among her followers. Isis inevitably reached Thrace, where votive inscriptions, small statues and her trademark sistrum, or percussion musical instrument, have been found.
When the people of Roman Bulgaria were not relying on organised religion, they put their hopes on sheer superstition. When they needed advice, they threw a handful of knuckle bones. Just like on modern dice, each side of the bone had a numerical value, and after the bones had stood still the sum of the numbers was then interpreted. Amulets were popular – made of gemstone, ceramics or metal, they depicted mythical creatures and contained spells for the health and good fortune of their wearers. There were also curses – inscribed on lead, they were meant to bring all the suffering in the world to the curser's rivals and enemies.
Judaism and Christianity, the two monotheistic religions in the Roman Empire, had adherents in the lands of modern Bulgaria since an early age.
The remains of a lavish synagogue in Philippopolis from the period between the 2nd and 6th centuries point to both tolerance – the Jews had the means and the freedom to build a house of prayer in the city's most prestigious neighbourhood – and prosecution – it was destroyed during the peak of anti-Jewish politics in the 5th Century.
Mosaic menorah, ancient synagogue in Philippopolis, Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology
According to legends Christianity arrived in Roman Thrace as early as the end of the 1st Century. The community grew in the following centuries, resulting in a number of people who were martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305). Thirty-seven Christians from Philippopolis were executed on his orders, and were later commemorated in a special shrine. In Durostorum (modern Silistra) 12 people also lost their lives for their belief in Christ.
In 313 Emperor Constantine I (306-337) decriminalised Christianity, and Theodosius I (379-395) made it the official state religion, banning all things pagan.
This change gave Christianity a boost, and after an initial period of shortage of proper churches, by the end of the 5th Century Roman Thrace saw a number of majestic basilicas built, sometimes over the remains of old pagan shrines.
Bishop's Basilica of Philippopolis
The legalisation of Christianity resulted in some troubles. It was hard for the Church and the authorities to decide which of the many branches of this new religion should be considered orthodox and which should be banned as heresies. Roman Bulgaria was not excluded from the religious turmoil. In the 4th Century, for example, Philippopolis was a stronghold of Arianism, a teaching whose followers believed that the Son was subordinate to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Arians were so many that while in 343 ecclesiastical leaders from all over the empire convened in Serdica and condemned Arianism as heresy, an alternative meeting was held in Philippopolis. It gathered 76 Arian bishops, with the bishop of Philippopolis presiding. The citizens of Philippopolis kept their soft spot for alternative teachings for the next centuries – in the Middle Ages, Plovdiv became a centre of Paulicianism.