Located in the center of the modern-day Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the ancient city of Philippopolis unveils a captivating tapestry of Roman history and architecture. This remarkable archaeological site, rife with vestiges of the Roman era, offers an immersive journey back in time. Among the myriad ruins, several key gems beckon to history enthusiasts and curious travelers alike.
The grandeur of the Roman forum stands as a testament to the city’s administrative and civic prowess. The Roman theatre, an epitome of architectural finesse, once resonated with the echoes of dramatic performances. The imposing Stadium bears witness to the city’s sporting and communal spirit.
The Library, a reservoir of knowledge, and the Synagogue, a testament to cultural diversity, provide glimpses into daily life. The Eastern gate unveils an entry point to this ancient hub, while the Odeon echoes with the melodies of bygone concerts.
Among the religious edifices, the Bishop’s Basilica and the Small Basilica stand as solemn tributes to faith. The elegant Domus Eirene, adorned with intricate mosaics, speaks of opulent Roman living.
This article delves into the allure of Philippopolis, unraveling the stories etched within its Roman ruins, each stone a fragment of an enduring legacy. Here is another article, if you want to read about the other historical attractions in Plovdiv.
A brief history of the ancient city of Philippopolis
The ancient city of Philippopolis boasts a rich and diverse history that spans millennia. Its earliest traces of settlement date back to the 6th millennium BC, evidenced by artifacts discovered on Nebet Tepe during the Chalcolithic era.
By the 2nd-3rd millennium BC, Thracian necropolises and the establishment of Thracian town Eumolpias marked the region’s historical significance.
The city’s fate intertwined with various powers throughout antiquity. Conquered by Philip II of Macedon in 342 BC, the city underwent expansion and organized urban development, solidifying its role as a crucial urban center. However, the Celtic settlement of Eastern Europe led to the city’s destruction in the 270s BC.
In 72 BC, Roman general Marcus Lucullus briefly seized the city during the Third Mithridatic War but it was soon returned to Thracian control. AD 46 marked its incorporation into the Roman Empire under Emperor Claudius. As Trimontium, it thrived as a key crossroads, praised as “the largest and most beautiful of all cities.”
Though not the capital of Thrace, it held vital importance, hosting the Union of Thracians and the significant military route Via Militaris. Roman times ushered in growth and cultural brilliance, evidenced by public structures, baths, shrines, and a stadium. The Flavian Dynasty’s construction boom (69-96 AD) led to it being named Flavia Philippopolis.
Hadrian’s visit in 117–138 AD prompted a triumphal arch erected at the east gate. In 172, a second wall protected the extending city. Becoming Thrace’s provincial capital in the early 3rd century, Philippopolis faced the Gothic siege of 250, resulting in burning and loss.
Rebounding in the 4th century, it reacquired prosperity, evident in new structures like the eastern baths and Basilica. Nevertheless, destruction struck again, this time from Attila’s Huns in 441–2 and the Goths of Theodoric Strabo in 471.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Philippopolis remained a significant city, facing challenges from Pecheneg attacks and sectarian tensions. Crusaders passed through, and the city changed hands multiple times, witnessing destruction and rebuilding.
In 1363 or 1364, the city fell under Ottoman rule, marking the beginning of a new era. Philippopolis, known as Filibe, continued to evolve within the Ottoman Empire, contributing to the fascinating mosaic of its historical narrative.
As an archaeological treasure trove and a witness to the rise and fall of empires, Philippopolis stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of human civilization.
The Philippopolis archeological site today
The Philippopolis archaeological site, extensively studied from 1965 to 1985, uncovers a layered history spanning the Hellenistic, Roman, and Late Roman periods. Originally perched on hills, the town extended to the plains during the Hellenistic era.
Its planning, influenced by Philip II and Alexander the Great, displayed intricate construction techniques. Hellenistic Philippopolis featured orthogonal gravel streets, creating rectangular city blocks with a plethora of public buildings like theaters and temples.
Under Roman rule, the city’s architectural heritage flourished. Influenced by Greek architects, the Roman foot almost matched the Attica step, allowing seamless urban development.
The Roman period introduced iconic structures like the Stadium, Theatre, and Forum. The city’s grandeur was evidenced in large-scale buildings and lavish embellishments, reflecting the Roman Empire’s prestige.
The city walls, originally built in the 4th century BC and later fortified during Marcus Aurelius’ reign, stand as remarkable engineering feats. Aqueducts supplied water to the lower city, while the hills relied on wells.
Notable structures like the Great and Small Basilicas, displaying intricate mosaics, highlight the Late Roman period. Recent discoveries, such as a 1st-century triumphal arch and an ancient Greek inscription on a Roman statue, further enrich our understanding of Philippopolis’ vibrant past.
The site’s ongoing preservation and restoration underscore its cultural significance and the dedication of archaeologists and scholars to unveil its historical marvels.
The Roman forum of Philippopolis
The Roman forum of Philippopolis, situated at the heart of ancient Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), was a bustling hub that served as the epicenter of public, administrative, commercial, and religious activities.
Spanning 20 hectares, with 11 hectares excavated, it stands as Bulgaria’s largest Roman forum. Built during the 1st century AD under Emperor Vespasian’s rule, the forum’s design aligned with the Roman model, with the main city streets converging at its eastern entrance.
This rectangular plaza hosted a vibrant ensemble of public buildings, including the odeon, library, and treasury, forming the nucleus of ancient urban life. Stores and shops graced its sides, where merchants convened to trade Thracian goods for fine Italian pottery and bronze wares.
Over time, the forum underwent four construction phases, each revealing architectural nuances and materials.The initial phase established the urban square’s layout. In the second phase, shop levels and the ambulation were elevated. A sturdy crepidoma supported Doric columns, while original drainage managed rainwater.
Propylaea in the Ionic order defined sides in the third phase, featuring marble porticos. Most well-preserved remains belong to the fourth phase, showcasing a new stylobate of syenite blocks and a Roman Corinthian arcade. Northern sections held public buildings for governance, including an odeon and city library remains.
At its zenith, this forum epitomized the grandeur of Philippopolis. Its importance was underscored by inscriptions, dedications, and even an invitation card to gladiatorial contests, found among the remains. In the 5th century, the onslaught of Barbarian invasions led to its eventual abandonment.
Rediscovered during the construction of the central post office in 1971, the Roman forum of Philippopolis emerged from history’s shadows. Its significance persists, with ongoing excavations revealing its rich tapestry of life and culture. In 2012, new explorations unveiled an additional section, bridging the gap between antiquity and the modern Plovdiv landscape.
The Roman theatre of Philippopolis
The Roman theatre of Philippopolis, situated in the center of Plovdiv, is an exceptionally preserved ancient Roman theatre, possibly built during Domitian’s reign in the 1st century AD. Hosting 5,000 to 7,000 spectators, it boasts an 82-meter diameter semi-circular design. Facing south, it offers panoramic views of the city and the Rhodope Mountains. Divided into the seating area (cavea) and the stage (orchestra), the theatre’s unique structure includes radial stairways, tiers of marble seats, and a podium supporting the columns of the scaenae frons.
South of the orchestra, the scaenae frons, with three floors, boasts an Ionic marble colonnade and Corinthian order. Honorary inscriptions marked seats for representatives, magistrates, and Emperor’s friends. Gladiatorial fights with animals possibly occurred, prompted by Emperor Caracalla’s visit in 214 AD.
The theatre, damaged by Attila the Hun in the 5th century, was rediscovered in the 1970s. The meticulous restoration of the Roman theatre in Plovdiv by the Bulgarian Conservation School, following rigorous testing and adhering to anastylosis principles, stands as a remarkable achievement, where new material is intentionally discernible.
Today the theatre serves as a venue for various events, accommodating up to 3,500 spectators and showcasing its enduring architectural splendor. During summer, the theatre hosts plays and musical shows. Notably, musicians Devin Townsend and Sons of Apollo recorded live albums here.
The Stadium of Philippopolis
The Stadium of Philippopolis, an iconic relic of the ancient Roman era, graces modern Plovdiv with its grandeur. Erected during the 2nd century AD, under the reign of Emperor Hadrian, this colossal edifice served as a testament to the Roman prowess.
Nestled within the heart of the city, the stadium’s remarkable scale, spanning around 250 meters in length and 50 meters in width, could accommodate up to 30,000 spectators.
Remarkably preserved, the northern curved section, known as the sphendone, stands as a proud sentinel and a recognizable symbol of Plovdiv’s historic fabric. A unique feature lies in its placement, defying convention by residing within the city walls, nestled amidst the natural contours between Taksim Tepe and Sahat Tepe.
Crafted from enduring materials, the stadium’s seats, tiered in 14 rows, bear witness to history. Comprising solid marble blocks adorned with stylized lion paws, these seats hosted not only athletic spectacles but also dignitaries of esteemed rank, as indicated by inscriptions on marble blocks.
The stadium’s significance transcended mere athletics. It bore witness to ceremonial games reminiscent of Greece’s famed Pythian Games. These events, embellished with music, poetry, and art contests, celebrated the Roman way of life.
The visits of Roman emperors Caracalla and Elagabalus further underscored its importance, immortalizing the venue in the annals of imperial history.
Unveiled in 1923 and subsequently explored by archaeologist Liliya Botusharova, the stadium’s secrets slowly yielded to modern scrutiny. Designated a national treasure in 1995, it became a focal point of cultural pride.
In an admirable fusion of the past and the present, the stadium underwent a comprehensive renovation from 2010 to 2013. Today, its presence, nestled beneath Plovdiv’s bustling streets, continues to evoke awe and reverence, a silent witness to the ebb and flow of time, commemorating a civilization’s enduring legacy.
The Library of Philippopolis
The library of Philippopolis stands as a testament to the intellectual vibrancy of the ancient city, nestled within the confines of the Roman forum in Plovdiv. Its rectangular form, spanning approximately 20 meters in width and 15 meters in length, is a relic that whispers of a rich scholarly heritage.
More than a repository of manuscripts and scrolls, the library was a haven of enlightenment. Within its walls, knowledge unfurled through education, reading, public discussions, and impassioned speeches. In an era when wisdom was cherished, Philippopolis distinguished itself by hosting this sanctuary of learning.
Situated in the northeastern corner of the Roman forum, near General Gurko Street, the library’s proximity to the Roman odeon evokes a sense of shared purpose among these monumental structures.
Today, the echoes of the past reverberate around this hallowed ground, embraced by the modern edifice of Plovdiv’s central post office and the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare.
The library’s ingenious interior construction stands as a marvel of antiquity. The masonry, crafted from Roman bricks, conceals niches within its walls, believed to have once cradled wooden storage cabinets for scrolls. Marble slabs paved the way underfoot, guiding the curious seekers of knowledge.
Ensuring the preservation of its literary treasures, the library employed an ingenious air circulation system. Vertical clay pipes, cleverly integrated into the building’s sturdy brick walls, ushered moisture away from the precious papyrus scrolls.
A channel, intricately linked to the drainage system of the Roman forum, bore the burden of safeguarding these intellectual treasures from the clutches of dampness.
The library’s narrative unfolded in the 1980s, emerging from the shroud of time during archaeological endeavors in central Plovdiv. While the modern city has risen above its western expanse, a portion of the library’s legacy remains concealed, a silent witness to epochs gone by.
The Synagogue of Philippopolis
The Synagogue of Philippopolis, an ancient religious edifice, graced the heart of ancient Philippopolis, now Plovdiv, in the 3rd century AD. Remarkably, this synagogue remains the sole vestige of an ancient Jewish temple discovered in Bulgaria, its legacy imprinted upon the mosaic-studded foundation that endures today. The temple’s remnants are nestled along Maria Luiza Boulevard, whispering tales of antiquity.
Erected during the early 3rd century AD under the Severan dynasty’s reign, the synagogue’s basilica-like form showcased three naves, a central and two flanking, aligned north to south.
Craftsmanship resonated within its walls, as twin mosaic floors bore vibrant hues and imagery, depicting the Menorah and palm branches sacred to the Jewish community, alongside geometric motifs. Notably, a Greek inscription unveiled the temple’s benefactors.
Enduring tribulations, the synagogue emerged resilient. The Goths’ onslaught in 250 AD dealt a blow, yet its essence persisted, rebuilt true to its original blueprint. Yet again, the tide of time brought hardship, with the 5th century’s Jewish persecution within the Roman Empire leading to destruction.
Rebirth followed, witnessed through restored walls and expanded spaces, the mosaic’s second layer devoid of Jewish symbols an emblem of this era. By the 6th century’s close, the synagogue met its final demise.
Today, the Synagogue of Philippopolis stands as an archaeological testament to a storied past, a window into a world marked by faith, artistry, and resilience. Its narrative, etched in stone, enriches Plovdiv’s heritage, echoing through time.
The Eastern gate of Philippopolis
The Eastern gate of Philippopolis, one of three entrances to the ancient city found in Plovdiv, stood sentinel on the road to Byzantium and the Bosphorus. Originating during Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd century, the gate underwent a comprehensive reconstruction in the 4th century and partial repairs in the 5th.
Guarded by protective watchtowers, this gateway adorned the grandest city street, its syenite pavement marked by wheel ruts and lined with richly adorned Roman Corinthian colonnades.
With a central entrance flanked by narrower passages, the gate graced a thoroughfare unlike any other in Philippopolis. Nearby buildings, potentially barracks or infirmaries, and elaborate porticoes formed a complex around the gate.
The original site held a marble triumphal arch for Hadrian’s 2nd-century visit, followed by later fortifications due to Marcomannic threats.
Rebounding from Gothic invasion in 251, Philippopolis revived and fortified its walls, utilizing Hadrian’s arch remains to construct the new Eastern gate. This evolution transformed the ancient imperial commemoration into the city’s most prominent and significant entryway. Discovered in the 1970s, the Eastern gate remains a testament to Philippopolis’ enduring history.
The Odeon of Philippopolis
The Odeon of Philippopolis served as both the city council house (bouleuterion) and a versatile theater in ancient Plovdiv, with its construction spanning four phases from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. This multifunctional structure attests to Philippopolis’ cultural and political prominence.
Located near General Gurko Street within the Roman forum’s northeastern corner, the odeon’s historical connection to the forum was severed by the construction of Maria Luiza Boulevard and a pedestrian tunnel.
Structured as a rectangular edifice, the Odeon featured key theatrical components like the skene, orchestra, and cavea. The skene, extending across the full cavea width, was Corinthian-ordered, with vertical grooves hinting at a possible curtain system.
The cavea, hosting 300 to 350 seats, embraced the orchestra’s eastern curve, upheld by a vaulted structure akin to Rome’s Colosseum design. The orchestra transitioned from a horseshoe to semicircular form in its final phase.
Discovered in 1988 by archaeologists Z. Dimitrov and Maya Martinova, the Odeon gained national cultural significance status in 1995. Conservation efforts, supported by the Leventis Foundation, were executed in 2002. This odeon, a testament to Plovdiv’s historical and artistic prowess, serves as a tangible link to the past within the city’s architectural landscape.
The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis
The Bishop’s Basilica of Philippopolis, known as the Great Basilica, is an ancient church in Plovdiv, built around the mid-4th century AD. As the largest early-Christian church found in Bulgaria and one of the Balkans’ biggest from that era, it boasts a distinctive design: central and side naves, an apse, a narthex, and a colonnaded atrium with a marble-decorated presbyterium.
Situated near the 19th-century Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Louis, the basilica measures 86.30 m in length and 38.50 m in width. Notably, it features intricate mosaics, covering an extensive 22,000 sq. ft. area, showcasing captivating geometrical designs, eternal knots, and avian symbols of piety.
An ancient coin from Emperor Licinius’ era (308-324) was found during Bishop’s Basilica excavation, suggesting it might be one of the earliest Roman Empire churches post Christianity’s legalization in 313.
Its size, decor, and central location hint at a significant Philippopolis Christian community. Adorned with Christian-symbol adorned columns, murals, and mosaic floors, it thrived until an earthquake led to its abandonment. Erected over an older structure, it later became a necropolis with a decorated cemetery church.
Initially unearthed during the construction of an underpass, the basilica underwent restoration, transforming it into a modern museum complex. The two mosaic layers are to be displayed on two levels, offering a comprehensive view of the site’s historical significance.
Supported by Plovdiv Municipality, the Ministry of Culture, and America for Bulgaria Foundation, this project reflects the city’s recognition as the European Capital of Culture in 2019.
The Small Basilica of Philippopolis
Standing as a distinctive emblem of Plovdiv, the Small Basilica of Philippopolis graces Maria Louisa Blvd in the city’s core. Discovered by chance in 1988 during the construction of an apartment block, this early Christian haven offers a glimpse into the artistry of ancient Philippopolis mosaic craftsmen.
Crafted in the latter half of the 5th century AD, the basilica boasts opulent architectural embellishments: a marble colonnade threading through the naves, a marble altar screen, a pulpit, and a synthronon in the altar apse.
Spanning 20 meters in length and 13 meters in width, it originally emerged as a three-nave structure, crowned with an apse and a narthex. Its floors, adorned with Roman mosaics bedecked in vibrant geometrical patterns, evoke the era’s artistry.
Adjacent structures extend the narrative: a small chapel gracing the basilica’s southern end and a baptistery nestled on the northern flank. The latter, hosting a cruciform baptizing pool, dazzles with polychromatic mosaics portraying Christian symbols like deer and doves.
From 1993-1994, the National Monuments of Culture Institute carefully removed and stored half of the precious mosaics, preserving the remainder on site. In 1995, the basilica and nearby ancient fortification remains earned the status of a national cultural monument.
Mosaics were meticulously restored by archaeologist Mina Bospachieva and restorationist Elena Kantareva-Decheva in 2000. Thanks to the America for Bulgaria Foundation, Bulgarian Ministry of Culture, and Plovdiv Municipality’s financial support, a comprehensive conservation and restoration endeavor began in 2010. By 2013, the restored small basilica was inaugurated, opening to the public on May 1st, 2014.
Domus Eirene , also known as the House of Eirene, an opulent Roman domus in Philippopolis, was erected around the 3rd century AD, following the Gothic invasion of 250 AD.
Named after the central mosaic portraying the Greek goddess Eirene (Peace), this residence sprawls over 668 m2, with 160 m2 hosting vibrant mosaics. Situated in the archaeological underpass of Tsar Boris III Boulevard, the house stands upon a paved Roman street.
Emerging from the ashes of the Gothic onslaught, this peristyle house encompasses an entire insula. Ravaged anew by Attila’s Huns in 441–442, it was subsequently expanded and adorned with resplendent mosaics in the 4th and 5th centuries. These intricate designs featured geometric patterns, endless knots, flowers, and welcoming inscriptions.
Abandoned by the 6th century alongside nearby significant structures like the episcopal basilica, this dwelling consisted of residential chambers around the peristyle and service rooms in the south. A magnificent mosaic of Eirene, crafted with fine tesserae, adorned the central residential space, with an octagonal marble basin serving as a fountain. An apse was later added to the entrance area.
Discovered during the construction of Tsar Boris III Boulevard’s underpass in 1983–1984, the site was swiftly designated a culturally significant asset. After restoration, the house and its mosaic floors were unveiled to the public in 2003 as part of the TrakArt cultural complex.