ancient roman plate.jpg

Ancient Roman plate

Soon after Thrace fell under the power of Rome, the empire introduced a range of changes, innovations and fashions which transformed life completely. 

Old Thracian settlements like Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv) were given complete makeovers and their plans were modified after the imperial fashion. Straight, paved streets stretched from east to west and from south to north; sewage systems and aqueducts were built; public baths became all the rage. Trade and social activities concentrated on the forums and agoras, which were sumptuously decorated with pediments and colonnades, and the highly organised imperial administration took over many aspects of life – from local coinage to taxation. 

New cities appeared as well. Some of them were built from scratch, like Nicopolis ad Istrum and Nicopolis ad Nestum, founded by Emperor Trajan to commemorate his victory over the Dacians. Others transformed gradually from the military camps along the Danube, growing steadily with veterans' families and engulfing the satellite Thracian villages and the settlements with motley crowds of itinerant merchants, prostitutes and soldiers' wives. This was how, for example, Ulpia Oescus and Novae, both on the Danube, arose. 

The imperial administration recognised these changes and throughout the years granted these settlements more and more rights. The trend was at its most intensive under Emperor Trajan, who promoted many settlements to the rank of real cities, and in recognition gave them his family name, Ulpius. 

Ancient Roman lamp

Ancient Roman lamp, Stara Zagora Museum of History

In Thrace most of the Roman cities, with the exception of the ones along the Danube, lacked proper defences. According to common wisdom, they were far from the borders and so were deemed secure. This way of thinking changed abruptly in 166-180, when the German tribes of the Marcomanni and the Quadi revolted against Rome, threatening mass invasion. In 170-171 the Costoboci raged through the provinces of Moesia and Thrace. This prompted Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who during these tumultuous times was writing his Meditations, to order the construction of fortification walls around the cities in lands which earlier had been considered secure. 

After this outburst a period of peace set in in the Balkan provinces. But in 251 the cities suffered a devastating Goth invasion, followed by waves of attacks which proved that no one was completely secure, walls or no walls. 

Roads were crucial for the functioning of the clockwork mechanism the Roman Empire was. They channelled the trade and circulation of imperial edicts and documents across the state, and helped soldiers move quickly and efficiently to where they were needed. Soon after Thrace fell under Roman control, it was crisscrossed with well-built roads. These included the major Via Militaris, which ran from Central Europe in the west to the Bosphorus in the east, and a net of smaller roads from north to south and along the Danube, which connected all the big cities. On all, milestones showed the distances, together with the name of the then reigning emperor. 

By building a bridge at Ulpia Oescus the Romans tamed even the mighty Danube. 

Ancient Roman bull statue

Ancient Roman bull statue, Stara Zagora Museum of History

As the Middle Ages advanced, the Roman roads fell into disrepair, but some of them still existed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Travellers crossing the Trayanovi Vrata, or Gate of Trajan, pass, near Ihtiman, were impressed by the sturdy boulders of the old Roman road. These, however, were dislodged to such an extent that it was preferable to walk in the deep mud beside them. Today, preserved sections of ancient Roman roads can be seen around Kalofer, in the Stara Planina, and near the stone circle at Dolni Glavanak, in the eastern part of the Rhodope. 

A restored section is exhibited by the Sostra fortress, near Troyan. 

Along the roads the Romans created road stations, where travellers could spend the night and envoys would get a fresh change of horses. Remains of such stations have been discovered all over modern Bulgaria, including Sostra and Cillae, near Plovdiv. Something close to a reconstruction of such a station can be seen at Castra Rubra, near Harmanli, in the southeast. 

Fortresses were also built by the roads, a measure which became vital after the 3rd Century, when Barbarian attacks from the north of the Danube had become part of everyday life. 

Ancient Roman luxury vessel

Ancient Roman luxury vessel, Stara Zagora Museum of History

Economic life changed, too. Thrace became part of the vast imperial market and both local aristocrats and new settlers invested their money in large farms and workshops. In the cities, craftsmen produced mass-market and luxurious pottery, and blacksmiths were busy making everything imaginable – from nails to knives to bronze lamps and decorative pins. Stonemasons and sculptors caved basalt and marble, creating columns for buildings, statues, inscriptions, tombstones. Goldsmiths meticulously wrought fine gold and silver necklaces, rings and earrings. On the outskirts of the cities, solvent-stinking leather workshops supplied shoemakers with raw materials. There were even beauticians, providing services which a modern woman would look upon as a recent invention – from hair curling to epilation with resin. 

Unlike other parts of the empire, local agriculture was almost untouched by the Roman authorities. Only small plots of land, as well as all the mines and most of the lakes, were expropriated to become part of the emperor's domain or to be turned into military camps. Rural communities kept their relative economic and social independence, and many producers of agricultural goods sold directly to the market. 

In the country, big villa rusticae, owned by the wealthiest of the population, produced large quantities of wheat, wool, fruit, timber and honey. And not only food – near the modern city of Pavlikeni, for example, a big ceramics workshop churned out tiles and bricks for the public and private buildings; pipes for the water system; lamps and pots for cooking; and even wheeled toys. 

Ancient Roman toys

Ancient Roman toys, Pavlikeni Pottery Museum

The import was mainly of luxury goods: gold and silver jewellery, candelabra and expensive furniture, wine and olive oil, expensive metal and glass vessels, and pottery. Even sarcophagi were purchased from the best workshops in Greece. 

Spacious markets in places like Discoduraterae (modern-day Gostilitsa); Pizos, near Chirpan; and Skaptopara, near Blagoevgrad were also opened and the local economy made the most of this opportunity. 

But as the complaint of the villagers of Scaptopara, hewn in stone and addressed to Emperor Gordian III (238-244), shows, living close to a lively market had its downsides. The officials and soldiers visiting the market place to collect taxes or purchase supplies often abused their powers at the expense of the villagers. 

Trade and production peaked in the 2nd Century, due to the relative peace in the empire and the booming economy, and was eased by administrative measures which allowed Thracian cities to mint their own coins. 

Yet despite the economic upswing, the imperial financial system nearly collapsed during the so-called Crisis of the 3rd Century. Money lost its value when the emperors increased the number of soldiers and their pay (as a way to secure their backing in their own game of thrones), and at one point the state even started collecting taxes in kind. Bartering goods was common. Coupled with the Barbaric invasions and the wars between the numerous generals aiming for the throne, it ended in severe disruption of internal trade. The shock was never completely overcome even when some form of stability was re-established at the end of the century. 

Ancient Roman vessel

Ancient Roman vessel, Stara Zagora Museum of History

Arts under the Romans underwent a transformation, too. In rich cities the administration and the affluent citizens purchased mosaic floors and marble decorations for their public buildings and private mansions, boastful inscriptions 

to praise their deeds, and meaningful tombstones for their graves. A number of artisans met this demand, and even formed local schools. Their art was not as exquisite as that in Rome, and the funeral family portraits on tombstones are pronouncedly crude. Still, there are fine examples of Thracian provincial arts. In Plovdiv, the Archaeology Museum, an ancient mansion and two basilicas, preserve fine mosaics from the period between the 3rd and 5th centuries. More mosaics of importance can be seen in Villa Armira near Ivaylovgrad, the mansion in Devnya, the History Museum in Stara Zagora, the National History Museum in Sofia, and the Archaeology Museum in Sandanski. 

Frescoes from the Roman era are also preserved in modern Bulgaria, with the best examples being a 4th-Century tomb from Philippopolis with frescos of the resurrection of Lazarus and the 5th-Century tomb at Silistra. 

Like elsewhere in the Roman Empire, entertainment was in high demand also in Thrace. 

Ancient Roman jewellery

Ancient Roman jewellery, Stara Zagora Museum of History

Theatre had already been a popular pastime in the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast, but in the 2nd Century AD a good theatre house was essential for every city in Thrace with any pretence of status. But in Roman times few people actually liked the moralistic tragedies of Classical Greek playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles. Most preferred saucy comedies and the cheap humour of contemporary authors, while intellectuals complained that gladiator games dwarfed interest in drama. The existence of one of the comedies of the Greek playwright Menander actually was discovered because of a find in... Bulgaria. No one had suspected that Menander ever wrote a play called Achaeans before a mosaic of a troupe of actors with the names of the play and its author was discovered in Oescus. 

The best-preserved Roman theatre is in Plovdiv, the modern-day descendant of Philippopolis, and the city is also the home of the finest Roman stadium in Bulgaria. They were built in the end of the 1st and the 2nd centuries, respectively. The stadium hosted competitions in athletics, boxing and poetics which the city authorities organised. The stadium was used to display the city's devotion to the incumbent emperors – sports games were organised to honour Caracalla and Elagabalus (218-222), who probably attended the events. Such games were probably held also in honour of a more unconventional person – Antinous, the lover of Emperor Hadrian (117-138). And yet people were not always amused by what they saw on the arena, as evidenced by the game of draughts cut into one of the upper rows of the stadium by bored spectators seeking alternative amusement. 

Ancient Roman theatre, Plovdiv

Ancient Roman theatre, Plovdiv

Gladiator games were also a popular form of entertainment – in Philippopolis even the theatre was used as an arena for the blood sport. Organisers didn't shy from making these events as interesting as they could. A stone relief from Serdica (modern Sofia) is a good example for what the shows offered: Besides a range of exotic animals, there is an over-life-size model of a crocodile spurred on by men. Sadly, only scant remains of the amphitheatre of Serdica can be seen today, in the subterranean level of a downtown hotel. In Nicopolis ad Istrum and Philippopolis, fragments of gladiator games ads have been found, listing the gladiators and the organisers. 

Games of all sorts, as well as festivals of the old gods were banned in 393 by Emperor Theodosius. Christianity became the official religion, leaving its mark on everyday life. Sunday Mass became the central event of the week. Idle talk about actors and their antics in pubs was replaced by the then fashionable arguments about the nature of Christianity and if Nestorianism and Arianism were heresies. Yet certain topics were always on people's minds and conversations – the gossip from the imperial palace; the rumours of yet another Barbaric invasion; the soaring prices and the increasing number of small-time villagers and artisans, who were becoming increasingly dependent on their masters. Later these so-called coloni would form the base of the feudal society. 

Barbaric invasions, revolts and internecine conflicts would often bring life in Roman Bulgaria to a halt in the 5th and 6th centuries. Cities were sometimes taken by invaders and would remain silent for some time, with walls ruined, houses burnt, streets filled with rubble and the bodies of slaughtered citizens. 

But people would always return to their destroyed homes, start rebuilding and continue living and doing business behind the protection of new and stronger walls. Yet by the end of the 6th Century the empire was completely unable to defend its citizens. People abandoned many of the vulnerable towns and sought the security of the hills, where they built strong fortresses. 

The Middle Ages had begun and the Roman way of life in Thrace was slowly forgotten until archaeologists started excavating it at the end of the 19th Century.