Gladiator Fight Relief Discovered in Ancient Roman City of Nicopolis ad Istrum near Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo

The newly discovered gladiator fight relief from the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in North Bulgaria likely dates back to the reign of the Severan Dynasty (r. 193 – 235 AD). Photos: Yantra Dnes daily

An ancient stone relief from the 2nd – 3rd century AD depicting a gladiator fight has been discovered by archaeologists in the huge Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, whose ruins are located near the city of Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.

The reliefs showing the gladiator fight is deemed to be extremely valuable because only a handful of such depictions have been discovered in Bulgaria so far in spite of the fact that the Balkan country boasts dozens of major ancient cities either built by the Roman Empire, or upgraded by the Romans after they conquered Ancient Thrace.

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.

The gladiator fight relief has been discovered by the team of archaeologist Ivan Tsarov, who is the Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History, during excavations of a small square in the southwestern corner of the Forum complex of Nicpolis ad Istrum.

The stone relief with the fighting Roman gladiators has been found underneath the square’s pavement, and it dates to 2nd – 3rd century AD, possibly to the first half of the 3rd century, or the time of the Severan Dynasty (r. 193 – 235 AD).

The researchers hypothesize that it was either part of a frieze that decorated a trading table for measuring the weight of olive oil and grains, or that it was part of a sacrificial altar used for rituals before gladiator fights.

The newly discovered gladiator fight relief from Nicopolis ad Istrum depicts a “classic fight” between two of the most popular types of gladiators: a secutor armed with a short sword and protected with a helmet and a shield, and a retiarius, the lightly armed gladiator equipped with a trident, a net, an arm guard and a shoulder guard.

The gladiator fight relief from Nicopolis ad Istrum depicts a “classic” battle between a secutor and a retiarius. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

Archaeologist Ivan Tsarov unearthing the gladiator fight relief in the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Photo: Yantra Dnes daily

“It is interesting that this relief reveals the dynamics of the fight between two types of gladiators, the classical type (secutor) armed with a short sword, helmet, and shield, vs. the retiarius armed with a trident, a dagger, a net, and an arm and shoulder guard,” Tsaros says, as quoted by local daily Yantra Dnes.

The discovery of the gladiator fight relief proves that the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum hosted gladiator fights.

Until now, the only evidence that its residents were entertained by gladiators have been three inscriptions mentioning gladiator fights. The most interesting of those was discovered back in 1985 in the Roman city’s gymnasium (gymnasion), a training facility for athletes competing in public games.

The inscription in question reveals that it was left during 10-day gladiator fights organized by one of the prominent citizens of Nicopolis ad Istrum, which included a total of 10 couples of gladiators and the slaughter of 100 wild animals, Tsarov explains.

The gladiator fights in Nicopolis ad Istrum are believed to have taken place in its amphitheater whose location has not been established yet.

For the time being, the Bulgarian archaeologists have not found any traces of a Roman amphitheater made of stone in Nicopolis ad Istrum, which is why they have hypothesized that it may have been a wooden facility built outside the city.

Only three Roman amphitheaters known to have hosted gladiator fights have been discovered in Bulgaria so far: in Serdica (today’s Sofia), in Diocletianopolis (today’s Hisarya), and in Marcianople (Marcianopolis) (today’s Devnya).

“The relief leads to the conclusion that gladiator fights were something usual in the life of the ancient city of Nicpolis ad Istrum,” the lead archaeologist says.

The Roman gladiator fight relief is to be studied further, and will be exhibited at the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History subsequently.

The 2018 excavations in Nicopolis ad Istrum have focused on the last unexplored part of the city Forum in its southwestern section.

The gladiator fight relief has been found underneath the pavement of a small square in one of the corners of the Forum of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Photos: Yantra Dnes daily

In the 3rd century AD, the place was a small square which was later destroyed as a result of an earthquake.

In the 5th – 6th century AD, in the Early Byzantine period, the administration of Nicopolis ad Istrum moved to the Tsarevets Hill, late the site of the Tsarevets Fortress in today’s Veliko Tarnovo, capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire in the Middle Ages (1185 – 1393).

Part of the local residents who remained in Nicopolis ad Istrum revamped the place by burying many of the columns and other collapsed architectural fragments, and leveling the spot.

This is where the gladiator fight relief has been found alongside many other intriguing fragments.

“During this period when Nicopolis ad Istrum wasn’t really a city but just a settlement life there barely survived, and the people needed some empty space. And that today’s is an archaeologist’s luck,” Tsarov says.

“This spot used to have a small square imitating the large square in the center of the [city Forum]. It was surrounded on three sides with a colonnade, and was open to the west. Underneath the pavement of this little square, which was demolished in the Antiquity, we find pits of various shape. Our goal was to complete the digs here last year in order to prepare the site for restoration. However, it turned out that these pits contain a large amount of architectural details, and we’ve had to keep digging here,” the lead archaeologist elaborates.

Tsarov says many of the architectural structures will be restored through anastylosis, the archaeological technique which uses original material as much as possible.

Tsarov’s archaeological team includes also Mihaela Tamonova, a restorer at the Regional Museum of History in Veliko Tarnovo and a Ph. D. student at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, and Mina Koleva, a university student of archaeology and history in Canterbury in the UK.

The 2018 digs in the Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum are funded with BGN 20,000 (appr. EUR 10,000) by Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.

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 city’s aqueduct, including its 3 kilometer-long bridge is also explored in detail in Ivan Tsarov’s recent book on Roman aqueducts in Bulgaria in the 2nd – 4th century AD.

In August 2018, the local authorities organized the 3rd annual Antiquity Festival dedicated to the heritage of the huge Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum.

Other particularly impressive Ancient Roman discoveries made in Bulgaria in the recent weeks have been the finding of a statue head of Roman Emperor Aurelian in the huge Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus (also in Northern Bulgaria) and the discovery of a Roman magistrate’s statue (without the head) in the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Heraclea Sintica in Southwest Bulgaria.

Another gladiator fight relief was discovered in the Roman city of Augusta Traiana in Bulgaria’s Stara Zagora back in 2015, followed by the discovery of a gladiator’s statue head.

Possibly the most interesting artifact related to gladiators to have been found in Bulgaria is a stone relief, in essence a poster advertising gladiator games in ancient Serdica (today’s Bulgarian capital Sofia, which was discovered back in 1919.

The famous Ancient Roman gladiator games poster, a stone relief, discovered in Serdica (today’s Sofia) in 1919, is dated to the 320s. Photo: National Institute and Museum of Archaeology

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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