Aqueduct of Ancient Roman City Nicopolis ad Istrum Had ‘Exceptional’ 3 km Long Bridge, Archaeologist Reveals in Book on Roman Aqueducts in Bulgaria

Ivan Tsarov’s new book, “The Aqueducts in the Bulgarian Lands, 2nd-4th century AD”, looks at the aqueducts of 19 Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria. Photo: Yantra Dnes

The aqueduct of the large Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in today’s Central North Bulgaria had an “exceptional" bridge, which was 3 kilometers (appr. 2 miles) long and 20 meters (65 feet) tall, explains archaeologist Ivan Tsarov who has presented his detailed new book on the Roman aqueducts in Bulgaria.

Tsarov, who is the Director of the Regional Museum of History in the city of Veliko Tarnovo (the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 12th-14th century), is a long-time researcher of Nicopolis ad Istrum, its complex water supply system, and the aqueducts of numerous other Roman cities located on the territory of today’s Bulgaria.

Tsarov’s new book is entitled “The Aqueducts in Bulgaria’s Lands, 2nd-4th century AD". It is a bilingual edition, in Bulgarian and English, and features 216 illustrations, both photographs and plans depicting the ruins and the design of the main Roman aqueducts in Bulgaria.

The book explores the aqueducts of a total of 19 of the dozens of Ancient Roman cities in the country. It features some 470 bibliography titles. The actual writing took the archaeologist two years but he has been researching the aqueducts in Bulgaria since 1997.

The Roman aqueduct in Bulgaria which has been researched in greatest detail is precisely the 20 km (12.4 mile) long aqueduct of the major city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, Tsarov notes.

“The bridge of the aqueduct [of Nicopolis ad Istrum] remains an exceptional facility for its time,” the archaeologist says, as cited by local new site Yantra Dnes.

“The bridge went over the entire valley of the Rositsa River. It was almost 3 km (2 miles) long, and almost 20 meters tall," he adds.

The Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum covered a territory of about 23 hectares (appr. 57 acres) on the bank of the Rositsa River, which is a tributary of the Yantra River.

“The aqueduct bridge was really huge but in the 5th-6th century AD a series of earthquakes brought down the entire structure. That is why I have managed to expose only the foundations which supported its arches," Tsarov explains.

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.

The major city 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) north of the Danube.

Part of the ruins of the major Roman city Nicopolis ad Istrum in Central North Bulgaria. Photo: Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History

Part of the main sewerage canal (cloaka maxima) of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Photo: Wikipedia

Nicopolis ad Istrum stood at the intersection of the two main roads of the Danubian Roman 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 archaeological exploration of Nicopolis ad Istrum first started in 1900, while the presently ongoing excavation efforts were restarted in 2007.

In 2017, archaeologist Kalin Chakarov from the Pavlikeni Museum of History initiated the first ever archaeological exploration of the water catchment reservoir which fed water to the 20-kilometer-long (12.4 miles) aqueduct of the large Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum

The 2nd century AD water catchment reservoir of Nicopolis ad Istrum is located near the town of Musina, Pavlikeni Municipality, to the west of the important city in the Roman Empire.

It used to catch the water coming from the karst springs inside the Musina Cave, feeding it to the western aqueduct of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

In 2015, archaeologists discovered the main aqueduct of ancient Odessos (today’s Varna), and in 2016-2017, archaeologists found the earliest aqueduct of ancient Philipopolis (Trimontium) (today’s Plovdiv).

The new book on Roman aqueducts in Bulgaria by Ivan Tsarov also features the emblematic treatises of Roman architects, “On Architecture" (De architectura) by Vitruvius and “On Aqueducts" (De aquaeductu) by Frontinus, as well as catalog of the aqueducts’ architectural details, an index of the mentioned archaeological sites in Bulgaria, and a glossary of the relevant terms.

A special section in the book is dedicated to the impressive aqueduct of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

Tsarov first started studying Roman aqueducts in 1997 for the start of the second Bulgarian – British project for archaeological research of Nicopolis ad Istrum when he had to research the water supply of the ancient city.

“It turned out that the last serious research on this topic had been authored by Dimitar Tsonchev, a high school teacher in Veliko Tarnovo, back in 1934, and nothing else had appeared in scientific literature since then," the archaeologist explains.

In the 20 years since then, he also began studying the aqueducts of some of the other Roman cities in Bulgaria.

Tsarov’s book focuses on the Roman water pipelines outside the urban areas – from the water sources to the main urban water distribution reservoir.

“I barely look at the water supply networks inside the [Roman] cities because this is an immense subject. I will offer just one example: the city of Pompeii where archaeologist have been digging for some 300 years now still hasn’t been researched in that respect," he notes.

Archaeologist Ivan Tsarov has spent 20 years researching Roman aqueducts in Bulgaria, and two years writing his book on them. Photo: Yantra Dnes

The archaeologist adds that the earliest research of a Roman water supply system started again in Nicopolis ad Istrum with the beginning of the archaeological excavations there in 1900.

Learn more about the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in the Background Infonotes below!

“When I was a student, I hated most the math problems about swimming pools – calculating how much water goes in and out of them. When I started working on this topic, at the very beginning I had to read the hydraulics textbook for technical high schools specializing in construction," Tsarov explains, adding that at the time he made great use of a 10-language water supply dictionary that he discovered by accident.

The archaeologist says he began to dig deeper into the scientific research literature on Roman aqueducts some 17 years ago when a Japanese prince was to visit Bulgaria. Since the prince was an expert on Roman water supply, Bulgaria’s then Foreign Minister Solomon Passy asked Tsarov to collect all Bulgarian literature on the subject so that it can be translated and presented to the guest.

The archaeologist points out that in the Roman Era having a water supply aqueduct was a matter of prestige for every Antiquity city.

Because of the high cost, however, the funding for building an aqueduct was usually raised from private donors who received special rights – or just honor and glory – in exchange.

After an aqueduct was built, the city would appoint an administration and workers for its management and maintenance.

It is noted that according to Frontinus’s treatise aqueduct zones were not guarded but their management was subject to strict laws.

Frontinus himself was appointed commissioner of the aqueducts (curator aquarum) in Rome in 97 AD by Roman Emperor Nerva.

His treatise, which was a working document, outlines the condition of Rome’s aqueducts, the amounts of water they transported, the violations of the officers in charge, and professional advice for the management of the facilities.

“That is how we know very well how a water pipeline was built, what kinds of people serviced it, and the titles of all of those professions," Tsarov points out.

He adds that Roman aqueducts often had to be repaired because of bad quality construction, aging of the pipes, enemy attacks, or natural calamities such as earthquakes and storms.

However, when an aqueduct was broken at an open-air section, the workers immediately built a wooden pipeline circumventing the problematic section in order to keep the water supply uninterrupted.

The expensive repairs were also usually paid for by private donors. The population of a Roman city was obliged to work on the public infrastructure free of charge three days per year, and that labor was also used on aqueduct projects.

Tsarov also notes that in his treatise Frontinus discusses cases of water theft. For example, Roman farmers would dig up the underground section of an aqueduct, break through it, and connect it to their own pipelines in order to be able to water their crops.

Inside Roman cities, water theft was achieved by bribing the respective officials. A household’s water consumption was calculated based on the diameter of their pipe.

The water supply officers could be bribed to install a large pipe while the family would be paying for a smaller one.

In the European provinces of the Roman Empire, where water is more abundant, water thieves would have to pay fines of up to 10,000 sestertii (silver coins).

In the Middle East and North Africa where water is scarcer and more expensive, any abuse of the water supply could lead to a death sentence.

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

Ancient Rome: A Complete History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chronicling the Story of the Most Important and Influential Civilization the World Has Ever Known

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of An Empire

Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply (Duckworth Archaeology)

Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome

Caves and Speleology in Bulgaria

Karstology: Karsts, Caves and Springs: Elements of Fundamental and Applied Karstology

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

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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.

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