The six luxury quarters of ancient Philipopolis in the Roman Era were located at the foot of Old Plovdiv’s Three Hills, down behind its world-famous Antiquity Theater. Photo: Wikipedia
The core, or “heart" of the ancient city of Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv in Central South Bulgaria, during the time of the Roman Empire consisted of six luxury quarters with residential and public buildings, including a brothel similar to the famous Lupanar of Pompeii in Italy, archaeologists reveal.
In the Antiquity period, Plovdiv was known as Philipopolis as it was named after King Philip II of Macedon. After Ancient Thrace’s conquest by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it was also called Trimontium because of the three hills on which the ancient city was located.
Today’s Plovdiv is located on seven hills known as “tepeta" (from the Turkish word “tepe", a leftover from the Ottoman period) but three of those – Nebet Tepe, Dzhambaz Tepe, and Taksim Tepe – were the site where the city developed in the Antiquity and into the Middle Ages.
Today it is also the location of Plovdiv’s Old Town famous for its architecture from Bulgaria’s National Revival period (18th – 19th century).
Roman Philipopolis / Trimontium had six luxury quarters located on the southern slope of the three hills, long-time researcher of the city’s archaeological heritage Zheni Tankova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology reveals in a report by local daily Maritsa.
Over the years, her team has discovered there the ruins of a religious temple of multiple ancient deities, an inn with a tavern, richly decorated public and residential buildings, and what appears to have been a brothel.
The six luxury quarters of Philipopolis / Trimontium in the age of the Roman Empire covered a territory of 7.6 decares (nearly 2 acres).
“We have found sections from these six residential quarters enclosed among four streets: two east-west streets (decumanus) and two north-south streets (cardo)," Tankova says.
The earliest buildings in the residential quarters in question were constructed long before the Roman conquest of Ancient Thrace, as early as the 4th – 3rd century AD, the early Hellenistic Age. They were inhabited uninterruptedly for almost an entire millennium.
The most notable building in the quarters on the southern slopes of the three hills is said to be its Antiquity temple, which seems to have served the cults for a number of deities, and was not dedicated to a single ancient god as was usually the case.
“We found the temple in one of the quarters. It’s not well preserved but it is the first Antiquity Age temple that we have discovered in Plovdiv," the archaeologist explains.
“What’s more significant in this case is that it was dedicated to many deities, not to a single one. It is a true Pantheon, the Pantheon of ancient Philipopolis," she adds.
The archaeologists have found there a wide range of marble, clay, and terracotta figures and figurines depicting numerous deities worshipped by the Thracians, Romans, and Greeks as well other ancient peoples such as the Phrygians and the Persians – including the Mother Goddess, Attis, and Mithra.
“In addition to the over 600 terracotta fragments, we’ve found some 300 clay lamps. It was odd that they had barely been in use but all of them had had their handles broken off," Tankova reveals.
All terracotta items seem to have been locally made in workshops around Philipopolis; one such workshop for finer terracotta has been found during archaeological excavations on today’s Leonardo da Vinci Street in Plovdiv.
An aerial photo shows Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater in the Old Plovdiv with its Three Hills, with the road tunnel underneath. Today the ruins of the Roman luxury quarters are found outside the road tunnel beneath the Theater. Photo: Darik Plovdiv
The road tunnel beneath Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater. The Roman luxury quarters excavated by the Plovdiv archaeologists are located on the left side of the street (on the right if one is exiting the tunnel). Photo: Plovdiv Municipality
Another intriguing building from Roman Philipopolis’s luxury residential quarters is a private building from the 3rd – 4th century AD, which appears to have been an inn with a tavern.
The archaeologists found there nearly a dozen large pithoi, big ceramic vessels used as storage containers, for grain as well as cooking and eating vessels, pottery amphorae for olive oil and wine, and hearths.
The inn also had a boudoir, a private room for women, the archeologists hypothesize judging by artifacts discovered there such as bone hair needles, and a bronze statuette depicting a female bust.
Near the inn, there was what seems like a Roman Era brothel similar to the Lupanar of the Roman city of Pompeii in Southern Italy.
“This rather pompous (in our understanding) building with its rich interior, relief wall decorations and fine murals probably belonged to a prominent citizen of Philipopolis," Tankova says.
She has referred to the perceived brothel of the luxury quarters of Roman Philipopolis as “the Courtesan’s House."
“It has an entrance directly from the street, and a bad of brick masonry, crushed stones, and mortar speaks of something more special. We could refer to it as a resting place, after taking a bath. Such an arrangement we know only from Pompeii: with a street entrance, a masonry bed, and murals. But in Pompeii the building is about 2 centuries older," the archaeologist elaborates regarding the alleged Ancient Roman brothel.
During excavations in 2012, the Plovdiv archaeologist also discovered a clay phallus figurine dating back to the 2nd – 3rd century AD. The exact purpose of the figurine, however, remains unclear, with hypotheses including a ritual symbol of fertility.
Because of previous excavations on the Nebet Tepe Hill in the 1970s, Plovdiv used to claim the title of “Europe’s oldest city" (and the world’s six oldest city, according to a Daily Telegraph ranking).
However, the latest excavations of the Ancient Thracian and Roman Nebet Tepe Fortress 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.
Prehistoric, Antiquity, and medieval finds keep springing up across Plovdiv as the city’s vast cultural heritage is still being researched.
Near the St. Marina (Margaret of Antioch) Church in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv, an archaeological team has found an ancient inscription from 303 AD glorifying Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284 – 305 AD) after he introduced the so called Tetrarchy system of government in the Roman Empire;
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.