Statue Head of Roman Emperor Aurelian, Unknown Colonnade Found in Ancient Rome’s Danube Colony Ulpia Oscus in North Bulgaria

The statue head from the 3rd century AD believed to depict Roman Emperor Aurelian shortly after its discovery. Photo: achaeologist Gergana Kabakchieva, via BNR

The head of a statue which dates back to the 3rd century AD and is believed to be of Roman Emperor Aurelian (r. 250 – 275 AD) has been discovered by archaeologists in Ulpia Oescus, a colony of Ancient Rome, which was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire in today’s Bulgaria.

“This is an extremely valuable find from the Roman city of Ulpia Oescus," lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia has told BNR.

Her team also includes archaeologists Vladimir Naydenov and Tinka Krasteva from the Pleven Regional Museum of History, and Deyan Dragoev from the Ruse Regional Museum of History.

“[Ancient Roman] statues and especially heads of statues are found very rarely. In the Antiquity, they thought that removing the head of a statue stripped off its energy. We have found the more precious part – the head," she says.

Another Ancient Roman statue but without the head has just been discovered by archaeologists in the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica in Southwest Bulgaria.

The ruins of the huge Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus are located near the town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria. The management rights for the vast archaeological preserve were recently reclaimed by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

The ancient city of Ulpia Oescus (today the Ulpia Oescus Archaeological Preserve) was one of only three Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria to enjoy the status of a colony of Rome (the other two being Ratiaria and Deultum), and had around 100,000 inhabitants at its height.

Located just 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the Danube River, Ulpia Oescue was the starting point of Roman Emperor Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube connecting it with Sucidava (near today’s Corabia in Romania) in the 4th century AD – the largest river bridge in Antiquity times.

The newly discovered head from an Ancient Roman statue is made of marbleized limestone.

The archaeologists hypothesize that it depicts Roman Emperor Aurelian who is known to have visited the area of Ulpia Oescus.

Lead archaeologist Gergana Kabakchieva shows the newly discovered statue head from Ulpia Oescus likely depicting Roman Emperor Aurelian. Photo: TV grab from Bulgaria on Air TV

It was during Aurelian’s reign that the Roman Empire’s Legio V Macedonica (“Macedonian Fifth Legion") returned to Ulpia Oescus and remained permanently stationed there.

“The hairstyle, the depicting of the chin, the way the eyes are depicted all speak of the fact that this statue is from the 3rd century AD, the period of the so called barracks emperors, or soldier emperors in the Roman Empire (235 – 284 AD)," Kabakchieva explains, as cited by Bulgaria on Air TV.

“Based on the size of the head, we can assume that the statue it came from was slightly smaller than life-size, probably about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall," she adds.

“This statue was the work of a sculptor from a local atelier in Ulpia Oescus. From Oescus, we have data about the earliest [Ancient Roman] sculptor’s workshop (atelier) in today’s Bulgaria. It dates back to the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (r. 54 – 68 AD), that is, the middle of the 1st century AD," the lead archaeologist elaborates.

The condition of the statue head believed to depict Roman Emperor Aurelian shows that in the Late Antiquity / Early Middle Ages somebody tried to use it as a building block for construction.

Somebody in the Late Antiquity / Early Middle Ages unsuccessfully tried to use the statue head of Roman Emperor Aurelian as a stone brick which is why its ears were damaged. Photos: TV grabs from Bulgaria on Air TV

“After the destruction of Oescus and the abandonment of this building [presently under excavation] somebody attempted to re-use this pretty statue for stone construction. As a result, the ears of the head were damaged. Yet, the head apparently appeared to be too bumpy, didn’t fit with the rest of the building blocks, and was left in this pit [where we found it]," Kabakchieva elaborates.

The statue head of Ancient Roman Emperor Aurelian, however, is not the only worthy discovery to have been made so far during the 2018 summer excavations in the Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus, which are funded by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

The archaeological team has also discovered a marble colonnade and additional structures indicating that the central residence, the main building of Ulpia Oescus, was much larger than expected.

The central residence of Ulpia Oescus is known impressive for a number of reasons including the fact that on July 9, 328 AD, it welcomed and hosted Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great who arrived in order to open the above-mentioned Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube.

The newly discovered colonnade is in the western part of the central residence, and it might have been precisely the entrance through which Constantine the Great entered the massive building.

The main building of Ulpia Oescus, which has now been found to have been larger than known, was first dug up by Bulgarian archaeologists in the 1940s.

It is also especially notable for the impressive colorful Roman floor mosaics from the time of Emperor Septimus Severus (r. 193-211 AD) which features a scene from “The Achaeans", a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright Menander (342-291 AD) from Athens. The scene shows three masked man and one without a mask.

The play was identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander", and was unknown to the modern-day world until the mosaic discover at Ulpia Oescus in 1948, which was confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt containing an alphabetical list of Menander’s works.

Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov believes Menander based this play on Book I of Homer’s Iliad, on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over the damsel Briseis. The other two men are Nestor, King of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men, and Patroclus (unmasked), Achilles’ friend who accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons after the quarrel. The Achaeans mosaic is kept today at the Pleven Regional Museum of History.

The newly discovered colonnade demonstrates that the main residence and main building of Ulpia Oescus in the Late Antiquity was much larger than known. Photos: TV grabs from Bulgaria on Air TV

For the time being, it remains uncertain whether the newly discovered colonnade existed at the time when Roman Emperor Constantine arrived to Ulpia Oescus to open his world-famous bridge on the Danube.

“It is too early to say yet whether this colonnade was already there before the revamping of the building carried out before Constantine’s visit," lead archaeologist Kabakchieva has told local news site Zetra.

She points out that the vast main residence of Ulpia Oescus actually became the center of the city in the Late Roman period when the urban plan of the early Roman city had already been abandoned. Because of the building in question, the main street of Ulpia Oescus was moved.

“The scientific value of the discovery of this colonnade is huge because it gives us reasons to believe that the entire architectural complex developed in western direction, most likely reaching the main north-south street," the archaeologist explains.

The discovery also means the main residence of Ulpia Oescus was much more sizable than previously thought. It was in one of its bedrooms that “The Achaeans" mosaic was discovered.

Archaeologist Gergana Kabakchieva amid the ruins of Ulpia Oescus. Photo: archaeologist Gergana Kabakchieva, via Zetra

An Ancient Roman column with the name of Rome’s colony Ulpia Oescus. Photo: TV grab from Bulgaria on Air

What was a bustling spot in the Roman Era today lies in a distant and depopulated region of Bulgaria, and the ancient city has thus been largely neglected by Bulgarian and international tourists, though undeservedly so.

Even though some of its ruins have been researched, remain relatively well preserved, and part of it technically has some security, the Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oscus is repeatedly raided by treasure hunters, ruthless modern-day looters.

In September 2016, the surviving ruins of Ulpia Oescus were badly damaged by two fires, apparently caused by arson by treasure hunters.

Ulpia Oescus was declared a monument of culture of national importance, the highest possible status in Bulgaria, back in 1965, and in 2011, it was declared an archaeological preserve.

The ruins of the Temple of Fortuna in the Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus near Bulgaria’s Gigen, photographed here in July 2016, before arson damaged them a month later. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

A well-preserved street in the large Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus whose ruins lie near Gigen, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, as seen in July 2016. Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube connected Ulpia Oescus with Sucidava (in today’s Romania). Ulpia Oescus is some 5 km (3 miles) south of the Danube and the bridge built by Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great. Photo: ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com

ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com’s founder & publisher Ivan Dikov visited the ruins of Ulpia Oescus in July 2016 as part of the filming of DUG, a documentary by German artist and filmmaker Jan Peter Hammer.

The filming crew stumbled upon fresh pits dug up by treasure hunters a few hundred meters outside the partly enclosed section of the Roman city but within what it was its huge urban area.

Treasure hunting and the looting of archaeological sites all over Bulgaria is a monstrous crime of mind-boggling proportions causing irreparable damage to the global cultural heritage found on Bulgarian territory, and the Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus is no exception.

Among other things, Ulpia Oescus is known for its Temple of goddess Fortuna whose four-meter-tall main statue is kept at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.

Learn more about the Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus in the Background Infonotes below!

Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city and fortress Ulpia Oescus (also known as Palatiolon or Palatiolum) is located near the town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, about 5 km south of the point where the Iskar River (whose Roman name was Oescus) flows into the Danube. It was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement from the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age.

In his work “Geography" in the 2nd century AD, Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) described Ulpia Oescus as a city of the Triballi, the independent Ancient Thracian tribe which inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. In the 1st century AD, Oescus grew out of the military camp of Roman legions Legio IV Scythica (“Scythian Fourth Legion") and Legio V Macedonica (“Macedonian Fifth Legion") set up next to the Thracian settlement.

It was founded as a Roman city in 106 AD by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) in favor of his victory over the Dacians north of the Danube. What is more, it was founded with the status of a colony of Rome, the highest status for a city in the Roman Empire. In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, Colonia Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas.

Ulpia Oescus thrived economically and culturally in the 2nd-3rd century AD as major city in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (r. 96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). However, in the 3rd century AD, this happy state of affairs was put an end to by the barbarian invasions from the north of many barbarian tribes including the Goths.

The city recovered during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) when the first permanent bridge on the Lower Danube was constructed near Ulpia Oescus. The so called Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube was 2.5 km long (1.3 km over the river), 5.7 meters wide, and was the largest river bridge in ancient times. It was opened on July 5, 328 AD, in the presence of the Emperor himself. According to historical sources, it existed from 328 AD till ca. 355 AD when it was destroyed by a barbarian invasion.

It connected Ulpia Oescus with Sicudava (today’s Corabia, Romania) on the northern bank of the Danube. In the first half of the 5th century AD, Ulpia Oescus suffered from the invasions of the Huns. In 444 AD, it was conquered by the Huns under Attila who tried to turn the city into a Hun settlement, the only Hun settlement on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, under the name Hunion (which turned out to be short-lived).

Its fortress wall was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565 AD) but the entire city was destroyed in 585 AD by the barbarian invasion of the Avars, not unlike many Late Antiquity cities all over today’s Northern Bulgaria. At the end of the 6th century AD, it was settled by the Slavs. In the 10th AD, a settlement from the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) was founded on top of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Oescus. It existed until the 14th century, the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) but its name remains unknown. After the cities destruction by the invading Ottoman Turks, its surviving residents were moved to today’s town of Gigen.

The archaeological excavations of Ulpia Oescus have revealed that in the 1st-2nd century AD the city was populated by Thracians and settlers from the Italian Peninsula, the Western Roman provinces, and Asia Minor (judging by the discovered Latin inscriptions, among other things). The initial territory of the city called by the archaeologists “Oescus I" includes the urban center, city square, and public buildings; it covers of an area of 180 decares (app. 44.5 decares), while the eastward expansion of the city called Oescus II has an area of about 100 decares (app. 24.7 acres).

Thus, in the Late Roman Era, Oescus had a total territory of 280 decares (app. 69 decares), which roughly equals the area of other major Roman cities in Central Northern Bulgaria – Novae near the Danube town of Svishtov, and Nicopolis ad Istrum near the town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo District. Ulpia Oescus had typical Roman urban planning – with a rectangular shape and streets oriented east-west and north-south. About one third of the city was occupied by public buildings, and remainder – by workshops and homes, with its population estimated at about 100,000 inhabitants at its height.

During their excavations in the late 1940s, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered a large public building containing one of the most impressive colorful Roman floor mosaics in Bulgaria, dated to the time of Emperor Septimus Severus (r. 193-211 AD) which features a scene from “The Achaeans", a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright from Athens Menander (342-291 AD). The play was identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander".

It was unknown until this discovery at Ulpia Oescus in 1948, which was confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt containing an alphabetical list of Menander’s works. The scene shows three masked man and one without a mask.

According to Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov, Menander based this play on Book I of Homer’s Iliad, on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over the damsel Briseis. The other two men are Nestor, King of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men, and Patroclus (unmasked), Achilles‘ friend who accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons after the quarrel. The Achaeans mosaic is kept today at the Pleven Regional Museum of History.

The archaeological excavations have also revealed the city’s forum, the temples of the Roman deities from the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, a large basilica, thermae, and other public buildings. The Ulpia Oescus Fortress had thick and tall stone walls with fortress towers. It was partly destroyed in the 5th century AD by the Huns, and rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.

Probably the most interesting ancient building is the Temple of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck built in 190-192 AD with funding provided by Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 161-192 AD); it was painted in red, and had white columns, and was 22 meters tall. The statue of Fortuna discovered in its middle is kept today at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The temple of Fortuna was not destroyed after the adoption of Christianity but was walled up; however, it was shattered by an earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD.

At least five Roman Emperors are known to have visited Ulpia Oescus, including Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), who even served there as a legatus, a senior officer. Another interesting building found in Ulpia Oescus is the so called civic basilica, a public building with judicial and business functions. It was 105 meters long, and was surrounded with caryatids, sculpted female figures serving as architectural supporting pillars.

The ancient ruins near Bulgaria’s Gigen were first connected with the city of Ulpia Oescus at the end of the 17th century by Italian military engineer Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (Marsigli) who was seeking for the location of Constantine’s Bridge. The first archaeological excavations of the Roman city of Oescus were carried out in 1904-1905 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vroclav Dobruski, Director of the then National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The next excavations were conducted in 1941-1943 by Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova.

In 1947, the archaeological exploration of Ulpia Oescus was continued in 1947 by Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov with a team from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Pleven.

Since the 1980s, Ulpia Oescus has been excavated by Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. In 1965, Bulgaria’s government declared Ulpia Oescus a monument of culture of national importance, and in 2011, the Ministry of Culture granted it the status of an archaeological preserve.

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Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

Roman Bridges

The Life and Times of Constantine the Great

Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor

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

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