Archaeologists May Have Discovered Ancient Thracian, Roman Town Scaptopara, Precursor of Bulgaria’s Blagoevgrad

A painting of the lowermost part of the Scaptopara Inscription from 238 AD which outlines a petition from the residents of the Thracian city of Scaptopara (today in Southwest Bulgaria) to Roman Emperor Gordian III. Photo: Wikipedia

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a large town from the time of the Roman Empire hypothesizing that it might be the Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement of Scaptopara, the predecessor of today’s city of Blagoevgrad in Southwest Bulgaria, whose name is known from a stone inscription of a petition by the locals to Roman Emperor Gordian III.

The Scaptopara Inscription, which dates back to 238 AD, was discovered on a stone stele in what is today a suburb of Bulgaria’s Blagoevgrad back in 1868.

It outlined a petition from the residents of Scaptopara, which was inhabited by the Gressitae, a subgroup of the Ancient Thracian tribe of the Dentheletae, to Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238 – 244 AD).

All of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube, including the most powerful Ancient Thracian state, the Odrysian Kingdom, which existed in the 5th century BC – 1st century AD, was conquered by the Roman Empire by 46 AD.

Subsequently, not unlike many other conquered peoples in the Roman provinces, the Thracians and their aristocracy became integrated into the institutions of the Roman Empire, including the military.

The residents of Scaptopara asked Gordian III to abolish their obligation to host for free Roman troops and civil servants coming to their town because of its hot mineral water springs.

The inscription also contained the response of Roman Emperor Gordian III who essentially devolved the matter back to the local authorities in the city of Pautalia (Velbazhd in the Middle Ages, today’s Kyustendil in Southwest Bulgaria).

Learn more about the Scaptopara Inscription in Background Infonotes below!

In 2015, a marble bust of Roman Emperor Gordian III was seized from treasure hunters in Bulgaria, while a “condemned” bronze head of the same Emperor has been discovered in the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

A large Roman Era settlement from the 1st – 4th century AD which might be ancient Scaptopara has been discovered 5 km away from the modern-day city of Blagoevgrad, the Monitor daily reports.

The Roman Era town is located between the modern-day towns of Pokrovnik and Zelen Dol, and covers an area of 20 decares (app. 5 acres), lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia has revealed.

The “urban type settlement" has been discovered as a result of urgent rescue excavations for the construction of the Struma Highway running from Bulgaria’s capital Sofia to the border with Greece to the south.

“There is a high probability that this settlement will turn out to be Scaptopara, as today’s Blagoevgrad was once called," Dimitrov is quoted as saying.

“Yet, in order to be sure of that, we also need to find some epigraphic [monuments], i.e. stone inscriptions," he adds.

“It is known about Scaptopara that it was built near the hot springs steaming from the Struma River, near the excavations which cover a total area of 80 decares (app. 20 acres)," the archaeologist elaborates.

His team of some 200 archaeologists and workers has discovered a number of Roman Era buildings.

The most notable of them is a huge building which was 80 meters long and 60 meters wide. It is described as a residential building which contained thermae, i.e. baths.

According to Dimitrov, it dates back to the early 4th century AD, i.e. the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306 – 337 AD). The baths inside the building had three pools, including an arc-shaped one.

The archaeologists have also discovered a well preserved water pipeline and pipes connecting the thermae to a catchment reservoir.

Other newly discovered Late Roman Era buildings include the foundations of a church and pottery kilns.

A total of 1,500 archaeological artifacts have been discovered so far in the rescue digs in what is hypothesized to have been the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Scaptopara, including about 800 coins.

Most of those are Roman bronze coins as well as several silver Roman denarii and one gold-plated coin. Over 40 of the coins have been found inside a small ceramic vessel leading to the conclusion that it may have been a concealed coin hoard.

The archaeological team has discovered about 20 large pithoi (ceramic vessels) dug into the ground for keeping grain, wine, olive oil, and other foodstuffs, as well as a large number of other pottery vessels such as bowls, pots, and pitchers

“The entire plot that we are currently exploring is slated for the construction of the highway. Its route must be shifted to circumvent the Roman settlement," archaeologist Zdravko Dimitrov is quoted as saying.

Rescue excavations on the route of the Struma Highway have led to the discovery of a large number of exciting archaeological sites such as the Early Neolithic settlement near Mursalevo, the Late Neolithic settlement near Damyanitsa, and the Early Iron Age and Late Roman settlement near Moshtanets, among many others.

Unfortunately, none of these sites has been truly rescue as the route of the Struma Highway has not been shifted in order to preserve them, and prehistoric and Antiquity settlements have been covered with asphalt.

Background Infonotes:

Scaptopara is an Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement which is believed to have been the predecessor of today’s city of Blagoevgrad in Southwest Bulgaria.

The name of Scaptopara is known from the so called Scaptopara Inscription – a 3rd century AD stone inscription outlining a petition of the town’s population to then Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238 – 244 AD).

The Scaptopara Inscription was discovered in 1868 back when Bulgaria was still part of the Ottoman Empire, a period of Bulgarian history known as the Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878-1912).

The stele containing the inscription was found at a vineyard hill in the then village of Gramada, today a quarter of the Bulgarian city of Blagoevgrad.

The Scaptopara Inscription is bilingual – in Latin and Ancient Greek, and dates back to 238 AD. It is said to be the only fully preserved petition on behalf of a settlement to an Emperor of the Roman Empire.

After the inscription’s discovery in 1868, the stele was preserved in the local mosque. As the find became known, it was studied by French archaeologists who read the inscription and published a paper on it. A Greek explorer also made three copies of the inscription, of which only one remains known.

By 1875, the stele containing the Scaptopara Inscription was kept in the church of Blagoevgrad (back then called Gorna Dzhumaya).

In the time between then and 1891, the stele was broken into four pieces, the lowermost of which ended up in Germany’s capital Berlin in 1891, where it was copied. Subsequently, it two was lost, and resurfaced again in Berlin only in the 1990s.

The Scaptopara Inscription of 238 AD contains a petition by the residents of the Ancient Thracian settlement of Scaptopara, at the time par to the Roman Empire, which was known of its hot mineral springs and thermae (baths), and the response of Emperor Gordian III to the petition.

The inscription reveals that by the Gressitae, a subgroup of the Ancient Thracian tribe of the Dentheletae, and that the petion was drafted by veteran Aurelius Pyrrhus, a former Roman legionnaire, and a native of Scaptopara who also owned real estate there.

All of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube, including the most powerful Ancient Thracian state, the Odrysian Kingdom, which existed in the 5th century BC – 1st century AD, was conquered by the Roman Empire by 46 AD.

Subsequently, not unlike many other conquered peoples in the Roman provinces, the Thracians and their aristocracy became integrated into the institutions of the Roman Empire, including the military.

Back then Scaptopara was part of the Roman administrative district which had its capital in the city of Pautalia (Velbazhd in the Middle Ages, today’s Bulgarian city of Kyustendil).

The population of Scaptopara petitioned Roman Emperior Gordian III to revoke its obligation to host for free Roman troops and civil servants, and to offer them with special services during the 15-day local annual fair.

The petition said that a growing number of residents were going broke because of that obligation, and were abandoning the town.

The hot mineral springs in Scaptopara became so popular that the locals could no longer bear burden of hosting the flocking troops and civil servants there, explaining they would be unable to pay their taxes if their obligation was not discontinued.

Roman Emperor Gordian III’s response included in the Scaptopara Inscription was not categorically, and he essentially referred the matter back to the local authorities personified by the provincial governor and the local court.

There have been hypotheses that, given the Emperor’s evasive response to the petition of Scaptopara’s residents, the stele containing the inscription was erected not by the local authorities by the petition’s author Aurelius Pyrrhus who might have wanted to demonstrate the efforts he made for his hometown.

The precise location of the Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement of Scaptopara remains unknown in spite of several hypotheses referring to the ancient sites around today’s city of Blagoevgrad in Southwest Bulgaria.

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