Archaeologists Find Traces of 251 AD Invasion of Roman Empire by Goths during Digs at Antiquity Odeon in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Archaeologists Find Traces of 251 AD Invasion of Roman Empire by Goths during Digs at Antiquity Odeon in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv

Archaeologist Maya Martinova in the newly discovered Roman Era public building near the Antiquity Odeon of ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. The building has three floor levels, the third of which is built on top of rubble from the Gothic Invasion of the Roman Empire in 250-251 AD. Photo: Plovdiv Time

Archaeologists have unearthed part of an unknown Roman Era public building in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv which bears traces from the Invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths in 250-251 AD when the Goths went as far south as Philipopolis (Plovdiv’s predecessor) and ransacked it.

The unknown public building which shows traces of destruction caused by the Goths during their barbarian invasion has been discovered right to the west of Plovdiv’s Antiquity Odeon, an ancient performance facility, and north of the main square of Philipopolis.

The emergency excavations at Plovdiv’s Antiquity Odeon made headlines from the start when the archaeological team discovered a medieval grave from the 11th-12th century with an arrow in the chest of the buried person.

Subsequent digs, however, revealed deeper a room from an unknown Antiquity building with three floor levels built one on top of the other.

“We’ve managed to study one room from an unknown so far public building… We’ve discovered several floor levels. In the upper-most layer, we’ve found the burial from the Middle Ages, 11th – 12th century, when the spot in question used to be a necropolis… We’ve also found an arrow,” lead archaeologist Maya Martinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, has told local news and culture site Plovdiv Time in an interview.

“We’ve managed to study [the Antiquity building’s] room in depth. It has turned out that it has three floor levels, the latest of which was organized on top of rubble from the city destruction,” she adds.

“This [rebuilding] happened after the Gothic invasions in 251 AD. Back then the entire city [of Philipopolis] was burned down and damaged,” Martinova emphasizes.

In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae.

They were initially halted by Emperor Trajan Decius at Nicopolis ad Istrum (near today’s Nikyup) but then went on to raid a number of Roman cities reaching as far south as Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) which was ransacked.

Upon retreating north, from Thrace (Thracia) into Moesia, the Goths were met by the forces of Emperor Trajan Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus near the major Roman city of Abritus (near today’s Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria).

In 2016, near the town of Dryanovets, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered the battlefield of the Battle of Abritus, one of the greatest battles in the Late Antiquity.

In the Battle of Abritus in July 251 AD, 1765 years ago, the Goths routed the Roman forces, and killed not one but two Roman Emperors: Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (r. 249-251 AD) and his co-emperor and son Herennius Etruscus (r. 251 AD).

The Goths prevailed even though Roman Emperor Trajan Decius probably selected deliberately the location of the battlefield because of the flat terrain which gave the Roman legions an advantage.

Archaeologist Maya Martinova in the newly discovered Roman Era public building near the Antiquity Odeon of ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

An Ionic order capital discovered from amidst the rubble at the Antiquity Odeon in Plovdiv. Photo: Plovdiv Time

The excavations of the unknown public building west of the Antiquity Odeon of ancient Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) have revealed traces precisely from the city’s ransacking by the invading Goths in 251 AD.

“In the ruble, we’ve also discovered this wonderful Ionic capital,” lead archaeologist Martinova stresses.

The artifacts discovered by the archaeological team include a large amount of household pottery, other household items, bronze lamps, and a bronze door key (3-4 cm in length), all of them from the Roman Era.

The excavated location west of the Antiquity Odeon is supposed to become the ticket office of a large tourism visitor center as Bulgaria’s Plovdiv is going to exhibit in situ the Forum, i.e. the main square of ancient Philipopolis.

“The Odeon where we’ve just work is the so called Forum North which encompasses the northern part of the city square of the Antiquity city, the so called agora. Here in the northern part [of the Forum], there is a complex of public buildings which were connected with the government of the city,” the lead archaeologist explains.

“This Odeon, which later had the functions of a small theater building, was used as a bouleuterion where the boule, the city’s magistrates, would meet,” Martinova adds.

She points out that all decisions for the government of ancient Philipopolis at the time were made there.

“The northern part of the city square (Forum) includes not just the bouleuterion (Odeon) but at least three more buildings, including the city library, of which 80% have been studied. To the west of it, there was another public building with a very rich façade facing today’s Central Post Office,” the researcher elaborates.

It was in that last building where archaeologists have discovered an arc-shaped niche with a statue of Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 177/180 – 192 AD).

“It has been proved epigraphically that the northwestern part of this complex [of Roman buildings] was occupied by a building of the [city] treasury because in the 1950s, during a reconstruction of the main streets, here were discovered two [stone] blocks with inscriptions in Latin, saying ‘Treasury Building’,” Martinova says.

She notes that the statue of Roman Emperor Commodus discovered there has helped with the more precise dating of the building.

“The northern part of city square [the Forum of Philipopolis] – which was one of the largest in the Eastern Roman provinces – covered an area of over 25 decares (appr. 6.2 acres). Plovdiv’s modern-day Central Post Office covers only about a quarter of the square space,” the archaeologist explains.

She points out that when no archaeological excavations were conducted when the post office was built. Archaeological research was carried out only later, in 1972, when the post office building was expanded.

Unlike the northern section, the southern part of the Forum of ancient Philipopolis had commercial functions.

Back in 2015, Plovdiv Municipality won a court battle against local merchants allowing it to link the Roman Forum of Philipopolis with the already restored Antiquity Odeon.

Along with other public buildings, the Antiquity Odeon of ancient Philipopolis was located in the northern part of its Forum (main square). The southern part of the Forum was commercial space. Bulgaria’s Plovdiv is presently seeking to exhibit the entire Forum in situ. Photo: Plovdiv Time

The latest excavations of the Ancient Thracian and Ancient Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv have revealed issues with earlier archaeological research casting doubt on whether Plovdiv indeed was the oldest city in Europe, while not denying the exquisite historical, archaeological, and cultural value of the site.

The 2017 archaeological digs have marked the second consecutive season since the renewal of the research of Plovdiv’s Nebet Tepe Fortress in the 2016 excavations, more than 35 years after the previous excavations were completed in the 1970s.

Because of those previous excavations on the Nebet Tepe Hill, Plovdiv has claimed the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

Later, in the Antiquity period, the city was known as Philipopolis (named after King Philip II of Macedon), and Trimontium (following its conquest by the Roman Empire).

In addition to challenging the existing hypotheses about the Nebet Tepe Fortress and Plovdiv’s early urban development, the 2017 archaeological excavations there have produced a wide range of exciting discoveries.

These include a previously unknown Roman fortress tower, a storage facility containing a barrel with preserved wheat, 50 bronze horse harness appliques, and a weird medieval funeral in which a woman was buried face down, with hands tied on her back.

Learn more about the history of Plovdiv and Nebet Tebe in the Background Infonotes below! (Based on the pre-1980 excavations.)



Relevant Books on

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

DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Bulgaria

Top 12 Places to Visit in Bulgaria – Top 12 Bulgaria Travel Guide (Includes Sofia, Sunny Beach, Nessebar, Plovdiv, Belogradchik & More)

Lonely Planet Romania & Bulgaria (Travel Guide)

Bulgaria History, Early Settlement and Empire: Pre-Bulgarian Civilizations, Communism, Society and Environment, Economy, Government and Politics


Background Infonotes:

Odeon is the name for a public Ancient Greek or Roman building built for musical and poetry shows and competitions. The word comes from Ancient Greek, and means “singing place” or “building for musical competitions”. The first Odeon was built in Ancient Sparta around 600 BC. Three Ancient (Roman) Odeons have been discovered in Bulgaria so far – in Philipopolis (Plovdiv), Serdica (Sofia), and Nicopolis ad Istrum in Northern Bulgaria. It is believed that the Plovdiv Odeon was first used as a bouleuterion, a building for the council of citizens (boule) in ancient city-states (poleis) but was later used as a space for theatrical performances.


According to the pre-1980 excavations, the history of the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv – often dubbed the oldest city in Europe – began with the human settlement on the ancient hill of Nebet Tepe (“tepe” is the Turkishword for “hill”), one of the seven historic hills where Plovdiv was founded and developed in prehistoric and ancient times.

Thanks to the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement and fortress of Nebet Tepe, Plovdiv hold the title of “Europe’s oldest city” (and that of the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).

The hills, or “tepeta”, are still known today by their Turkish names from the Ottoman period. Out of all of them, Nebet Tepe has the earliest traces of civilized life dating back to the 6th millennium BC, which makes Plovdiv 8,000 years old, and allegedly the oldest city in Europe. Around 1200 BC, the prehistoric settlement on Nebet Tepe was transformed into the Ancient Thracian city of Eumolpia, also known as Pulpudeva, inhabited by the powerful Ancient Thracian tribe Bessi.

During the Early Antiquity period Eumolpia / Pulpudeva grew to encompass the two nearby hills (Dzhambaz Tepe and Taxim Tepe known together with Nebet Tepe as “The Three Hills”) as well, with the oldest settlement on Nebet Tepe becoming the citadel of the city acropolis.

In 342 BC, the Thracian city of Eumolpia / Pulpudeva was conquered by King Philip II of Macedon renaming the city to Philippopolis. Philippopolis developed further as a major urban center during the Hellenistic period after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s Empire.

In the 1st century AD, more precisely in 46 AD, Ancient Thrace was annexed by the Roman Empire making Philippopolis the major city in the Ancient Roman province of Thrace. This is the period when the city expanded further into the plain around The Three Hills which is why it was also known as Trimontium (“the three hills”).

Because of the large scale public construction works during the period of Ancient Rome’s Flavian Dynasty (69-96 AD, including Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD), Emperor Titus (r. 79-81 AD), Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD)), Plovdiv was also known as Flavia Philippopolis.

Later emerging as a major Early Byzantine city, Plovdiv was conquered for the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680 – 1018 AD) by Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD) in 812 AD but was permanently incorporated into Bulgaria under Khan (or Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836 AD) in 834 AD.

In Old Bulgarian (also known today as Church Slavonic), the city’s name was recorded as Papaldin, Paldin, and Pladin, and later Plavdiv from which today’s name Plovdiv originated. The Nebet Tepe fortress continued to be an important part of the city’s fortifications until the 14th century when the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. During the period the Ottoman yoke (1396-1878/1912) when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, Plovdiv was called Filibe in Turkish.

Today the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval settlement on Nebet Tepe has been recognized as the Nebet Tepe Archaeological Preserve. Some of the unique archaeological finds from Nebet Tepe include an ancient secret tunnel which, according to legends, was used by Apostle Paul (even though it has been dated to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD)) and large scale water storage reservoirs used during sieges, one of them with an impressive volume of 300,000 liters. Still preserved today are parts of the western fortress wall with a rectangular tower from the Antiquity period.


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