‘Condemned’ Bronze Head of Roman Emperor Gordian III from Nicopolis ad Istrum to Be Showcased by Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

This 3rd century AD bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III was part of a 2.3-meter tall statue which decorated the forum of the ancient city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Central Library of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences/National institute and Museum of Archaeology/Europeana Carare Project

This 3rd century AD bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III was part of a 2.3-meter tall statue which decorated the forum of the ancient city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Central Library of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences/National institute and Museum of Archaeology/Europeana Carare Project

A new exhibition on the major Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum (situated near the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria) is going showcase a famous bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238-244 AD) which has been subjected to the ancient custom of damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory").

The exhibition is being put together on the occasion of the Day of Veliko Tarnovo, March 22 (which is also the day of the Klokotnitsa Battle in 1230, the victory of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), against the powerful Despot of Epirus Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD).

The ruins of Nicopolis ad Istrum, whose name means “Victory City on the Danube River", are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo. It was founded by Roman Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacian tribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) at the intersection of the two main roads of the DanubianRoman provinces – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was partly rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD which in turn was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval city in the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

The head from what once was a large bronze statue of Roman Emperor Gordian III is a famous archaeological artifact in Bulgaria which is showcased relatively rarely.

It is part of the collection of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia but will now be loaned to the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, which is putting together the exhibition on Nicopolis ad Istrum, archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova has announced, as cited by local daily Yantra Dnes.

“The bronze head of Emperor Gordian III is an excellent example of 3rd century AD Roman plastic art portraits found in Bulgaria," Vladkova states.

The artifact, which is to be showcased by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, was found in the Yantra River near the town of Radanovo, Veliko Tarnovo District, in the early 20th century.

It was part of a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of the Roman Emperor, estimated to have been 2.30 meters tall, which decorated the central square of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

“There is no doubt that the statue used to tower on some of the pedestals on the city square in honor of the Emperor, and as a testimony to the reverence and respect that the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum had for the state authority and the Empire," Vladkova says.

Side views of the bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III providing a clearer picture of how the artifact was subjected to the Roman custom of "condemnation of memory" - its ears have been cut off, and its nose has been smashed with a stone. Photos: Central Library of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences/National institute and Museum of Archaeology/Europeana Carare Project

Side views of the bronze head sculpture of Roman Emperor Gordian III providing a clearer picture of how the artifact was subjected to the Roman custom of “condemnation of memory” – its ears have been cut off, and its nose has been smashed with a stone. Photos: Central Library of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences/National institute and Museum of Archaeology/Europeana Carare Project

Roman Emperor Marcus Antonius Gordianus, i.e. Gordian III, was the grandson of Emperor Gordian I. He was born in 225, and became Emperor of the Roman Empire in 238 AD at the age of 13, ruling in agreement with the Senate in Rome.

Under Gordian III, the Roman Empire waged war on the Goths along the Lower Danube, i.e. in today’s Bulgaria and Romania, in 238-239 AD, and achieved a victory against the Franks on the Rhein.

In 241 AD, Emperor Gordian III went through the province of Thrace to reach Antioch in Syria where his forces successfully fought against the Persians. Also in 241, he married Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, daughter of the praetorian prefect, Timesitheus. Emperor Gordian III died in Mesopotamia in 244 AD.

The bronze head sculpture of Gordian III from Nicopolis ad Istrum is very intriguing not only because it is extremely realistic, but also because it was subjected to the so called ancient custom of damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory") designed to wipe out the reminiscences of a state leader or another figure after their death by destroying artifacts or inscriptions dedicated to them.

Thus, the ears of the Roman Emperor’s head have been cut off, while its nose has been smashed with a stone.

The subjection of the Gordian III’s statue to damnatio memoriae is said to be perplexing because this custom was usually applied to artifacts dedicated to rulers that had been brought down from the Roman imperial throne, and there is no information in historical sources of this ever happening to Gordian III.

This marble bust, allegedly of Roman Emperor Gordian III, has been seized by the Bulgarian police from a trafficker of antiques, and transferred to the collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

This marble bust, allegedly of Roman Emperor Gordian III, has been seized by the Bulgarian police from a trafficker of antiques, and transferred to the collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia. Photo: National Museum of History

In 2015, the Bulgarian police seized from an antiques trafficker a similar artifact – a marble bust of Emperor Gordian III, now part of the collection of the National Museum of History in Sofia, whose exact place of origin has remained unclear.

The new exhibition of the Veliko Tarnovo Museum on Nicopolis ad Istrum is also going to exhibit projects for the graphic reconstruction and restoration of the Roman city drafted by Master’s Degree architecture students from Varna Free University.

The projects are based on their exploration of the architecture of Nicopolis ad Istrum during the summer of 2015.

One especially interesting item from the future exhibit will be a model of the forum (main square) of the Roman city. It includes a building called thermoperipatos, a name designating a type of ancient public building which has been identified only in Nicopolis ad Istrum so far, out of all cities in Roman Empire. Resembling a three-nave basilica, it was a commercial space which had 28 stores and a large hall for business meetings.

It is believed that this particular building, the thermoperipatos, is depicted on the coins minted by Nicopolis ad Istrum.

“[With this model] even the non-experts will be get an idea about the scope and architectural decoration of the square, the locations of the statues and the porticos of the entire complex", the long-time researcher of Nicopolis ad Istrum, archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova, is quoted as saying.

The exhibition is also going to feature over 20 posters documenting various architectural details from the glorious Ancient Roman city.

“The main thing about these projects is that the architects have strived to preserve the authenticity of the monuments, and the atmosphere of the Roman city, and all restorations that they projects propose are very moderate and delicate. The views of the archaeologists and designers are fully identical on this issue. Their only goal is the best possible preservation of the original Roman structures in Nicopolis ad Istrum. That way this splendid city will be saved from ridiculous, ugly, and wrong reconstructions that we’ve been seeing everywhere," Vladkova concludes, referring to the problem with Bulgaria’s botched archaeological restorations.

A model of the central square (forum) of the Roman city of Nicopolis of Istrum, which will be featured in the new exhibition of the Veliko Tarnovo Museum. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

A model of the central square (forum) of the Roman city of Nicopolis of Istrum, which will be featured in the new exhibition of the Veliko Tarnovo Museum. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

The new archaeological exhibition on Nicopolis ad Istrum is to be opened on March 21, 2016, at 11 am in the P. R. Slaveykov Regional Library in Veliko Tarnovo.

Unfortunately, the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum remains a largely unknown destination for cultural tourism. Recent data has shown that in 2015, it was visited by fewer than 4,000 tourists, a number which is nonetheless an increase compared with previous years.

The archaeological exploration of Nicopolis ad Istrum first started in 1900, while the presently ongoing excavation efforts were restarted in 2007. Read more about the Roman city in the Background Infonotes below!

In the summer of 2015, the archaeologists unearthed the ruins of a huge Antiquity building which was probably the residence of the agoranomus / curule aedile, a public officer in charge of trade and market operations in Ancient Greek and Roman cities.

Archaeologist Pavlina Vladkova and the local authorities in the town of Nikyup in Central North Bulgaria recently issued a call for volunteers to aid with the 2016 summer digs of one of the most glorious Ancient Roman cities in Southeast Europe.

About 50 volunteers have already signed up to donate their labor during the 2016 summer archaeological excavations but more are invited to join in.

Anyone seeking to join the 2016 summer excavations of Nicopolis ad Istrum in Central North Bulgaria as a volunteer should email lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova, who is in charge of the applicants’ selection, at pavlina_v[@]hotmail.com by the end of May 2016!

The ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria's Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Ministry of Culture

The ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Photo: Ministry of Culture

Background Infonotes:

Nicopolis ad Istrum (also known as Ulpia Nicopolis ad Istrum) was an Ancient Roman and Early Byzantine city (not to be confused with Nicopolis Ad Nestum in today’s Southwest Bulgaria).

Its ruins are located near today’s town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo Municipality, 18 km northwest of the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central Northern Bulgaria. Its name means “Victory City on the Danube River". It was founded by Roman Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Daciantribes between 101 and 106 AD (most probably in 102 AD) on a plateau on the left bank of the Rositsa River. This is where the two main roads of the DanubianRoman provinces intersected – the road from Odessus (Odessos) on the Black Sea (today’s Varna) to the western parts of the Balkan Peninsula, and the road from the Roman military camp Novae (today’s Svishtov) on the Danube to the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula.

(Ulpia) Nicopolis ad Istrum was first part of the Roman province of Thrace but after 193 AD it was made part of the province of Moesia Inferior. Nicopolis ad Istrum flourished in the 2nd-3rd century, during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (193-235 AD). It further developed as major urban center after the reforms of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Its organization was similar to that of Roman cities in Thrace and Asia Minor such as Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon. It was ruled by a council of archons, a city council and an assembly, with local priests worshipping Ancient Roman and Greek deities such as Zeus, Hera, Athena, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithras. At the time, Nicopolis ad Istrum was inhabited by Thracians, Roman military veterans, and settlers from Asia Minor. Nicopolis ad Istrum is known to have minted 900 different emissions of bronze coins. The city had orthogonal planning, with an agora (city square), a cardo maximus and a decumanus maximus (main streets), a market place, other public buildings and residential areas, limestone-paved streets and underground sewerage, as well as three aqueducts and several water wells, many of which has been unearthed in archaeological excavations.

The fortress walls of Nicopolis ad Istrum were erected only after the city was ransacked by a barbarian attack of the Costoboci, an ancient people possibly linked to the Getae (Gets) inhabiting an area in today’s Western Ukraine. The city square (agora) featured a statue of Roman Emperor Trajan mounted on a horse, a number of other marble statues, a Ionic colonnade, a three-nave basilica, a bouleuterion (a public building housing the boule – council of citizens), a building to the cult of goddess Cybele, a small odeon (theater), thermae (public baths) as well as a building which according to an inscription was a “termoperiatos" which can be likened to a modern-day shopping mall – a heated building with shops and closed space for walks and business meetings. A total of 121 stone and brick tombs and sarcophagi have been found by the Bulgarian archaeologists excavating the city’s necropolis. Some villas and other buildings in the residential parts of Nicopolis ad Istrum have also been excavated.

Nicopolis ad Istrum is sometimes described as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition because in the 4th century AD Gothic bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila) (ca. 311-383 AD) received permission from Roman Emperor Constantius II (r. 324-361 AD) to settle with his flock of Christian converts near Nicopolis ad Istrum in the province of Moesia, in 347-8 AD. There Ulfilas invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic.

The Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed in 447 AD by the barbarian forces of Attila the Hun, even though it might have been abandoned by its residents even before that. It was rebuilt as a fortified post of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) in the 6th century AD. The Early Byzantine fort covered about one forth of the Ancient Roman city – 57.5 decares (app. 14.2 acres) out of a total of 215.5 decares (app. 53.2 decares), and was also the center of a bishopric. The Early Byzantine fort was destroyed at the end of the 6th century AD by an Avar invasion. Later, it was settled as a medieval cityin the Bulgarian Empire between the 10th and the 14th century.

Nicopolis ad Istrum was visited in 1871 by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz who found there a statue of the wife of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193-211 AD). The city was first excavated in 1900 by French archaeologist J. Seur whose work, however, was not documented, and in 1906-1909 by Czech archaeologist B. Dobruski. In 1945 and 1966-1968, there were partial excavations led by T. Ivanov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Systematic excavations were started in 1970 and were led again by T. Ivanov. Between 1985 and 1992, Nicopolis ad Istrum was excavated by a joint Bulgarian-British expedition from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia and a team of the University of Nottingham. The joint Bulgarian-British excavations were resumed in 1996. The Nicopolis ad Istrum archaeological preserve is managed by the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History. In 1984, the Ancient Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum was put on the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.