Huge Roman Inscription of Dionysus Cult Secret Society after 251 Goth Invasion Found in Early Christian Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv
A gigantic Ancient Roman inscription left behind by a mystic secret society dedicated to the cult of god Dionysus in the middle of the 3rd century AD after the Roman Empire in today’s Bulgaria was invaded by the Goths has been discovered by archaeologists in the Early Christian “Great Basilica” in Plovdiv, the successor of ancient Philipopolis.
The newly discovered monumental Roman inscription is in Ancient Greek, and is dated to ca. 253 – 255 AD. It refers to the so called Dionysian Mysteries – rituals in Ancient Thrace, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire involving trance-inducing techniques.
It is also remarkable because it describes Dionysus, a deity worshipped also by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as a “leader” of the Ancient Thracians.
The inscription mentions Roman Emperor Valerian (r. 253 – 260 AD) and his son and Co-Emperor Gallienus (Gallien) (r. 253 – 260 AD as co-emperor, and 260 – 268 AD as emperor).
It has been found on a large stele which was used as construction material during the building of the Early Christian, Late Roman, and Early Byzantine Great Basilica in Philiopolis, today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria.
The Great Basilica in Plovdiv has been under further excavation, conservation, and restoration since 2015 with funding from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, and it set to be opened for visitors in September 2019. Before that, the foundation helped restore another Early Christian monument in Plovdiv, the Small Basilica.
The 5th century AD Great Basilica’s lavish and intricate floor mosaic decorations have made international headlines in the past few years.
The newly discovered Roman inscription left behind by members of the secretive Dionysus cult secret society is connected with the massive barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire in the territories of today’s Bulgaria by the Goths in 250 – 251 AD.
During that invasion, the Goths not only invaded south of the Lower Danube but they also crossed the Balkan Mountains (Stara Planina) into Thracia (Thrace) and burned down Philipopolis. Evidence of the ancient city’s burning by the Goths in 251 AD have been found by Bulgarian archaeologists at numerous occasions, including a recent discovery of traces from during rescue digs at the city’s Antiquity Odeon.
After devastating Philipopolis, the Goths retreated north of the Balkan Mountains and during in the 251 AD Battle of Abritus killed not one but two Roman Emperors – both Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (r. 249-251 AD) and his co-emperor and son Herennius Etruscus (r. 251 AD).
Trajan Decius thus became the first Roman Emperor to die in battle, and in 2016 Bulgarian archaeologists identified the battlefield of the Battle of Abritus where he was killed near today’s town of Dryanovets, near the ancient city of Abritus, close to today’s city of Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria.
The discovery of the Roman stele with the inscription left behind the mystic secret society dedicated to the cult for ancient god Dionysus has been described as a “historic hit” by lead archaeologist Zheni Tankova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, who is in charge of the rescue excavations at the Early Christian Great Basilica, and by epigraphist Assist. Prof. Nikolay Sharankov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” who read and translated the inscription, as cited by local news site PodTepeto.
The stele containing the inscription has been discovered when the archaeological flipped over one of the marble slabs covering the floor in what used to be the atrium of the huge early Christian Great Basilica.
The discovery of the stele with the Dionysus cult inscription meaning also the two Roman Co-Emperors, Valerian and Gallienus, demonstrates that the site of the Early Christian Great Basilica from the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period used to host a pagan temple before that. Subsequently, construction material from the destroyed pagan temple was used for the building of the Christian basilica.
The stele containing the Dionysus cult secret society inscription is an architectural element that is 1.40 meters (nearly 5 fee) long and 1.20 meters (4 feet) wide.
The Bulgarian scholars have described the inscription as very valuable for revealing the history of the Roman Empire, Philipopolis, the Early Christian Great Basilica, and the cult for Dionysus who was one of the deities cherished the most by the Ancient Thracians and Ancient Greeks as well as the Ancient Romans who called him Bacchus.
In the inscription dedicated to Roman Emperors Valerian and Gallienus, a total of 44 members of the mystic secret religious society worshipping the cult for god Dionysus in ancient Philipopolis, some of them mentioned with their titles inside the Dionysian society, who were survivors from the barbarian invasion of the Goths in 251 AD, express their thanks for having survived the devastation caused by the Goth attack.
The inscription reads, as follows (this is a translation into English from the Bulgarian translation provided to the media by epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov),
“For the victory, [good] health, and eternal survival of emperors Publius Licinius Valerianus and Gallienus Augustus, and for their entire house, for the sacred Senate, and for the Roman people, and for the Council of the people’s assembly of Philipopolis and to the Thracian leader Dionysus dedicated the surviving mysts (people who worshipped the Dionysus cult – editor’s note), when leader of the [Dionysian] mysteries and priest for life was Aurelius Mukiniadus, son of Mukianus.”
This quote is then followed by a list of a total of 44 members of the Dionysus cult secret society who survived the Goth invasion that almost obliterated Philipoplis; some of these “mysts” are mentioned with the positions that they occupied inside the secret cult society.
The stele containing the inscription of surviving members of the secret society that practiced the cult for Dionysus in Philipopolis after the city was burned down by the Goths in 251 AD has been very well preserved.
Only a small part of the stele has broken off but it is to be reattached by restorers, according to lead archaeologist Zheni Tankova, who also says the stele should be featured prominently in the newly restored Early Christian Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv after it gets opened for tourists in September 2019.
The marble stele with the Dionysus cult inscription was made about 100 years before the start of the construction of the Early Christian Great Basilica on top of the ruins of what seeming was a Roman Era pagan temple.
The inscription from the 250s AD from ancient Philipopolis is the first time in which god Dionysus was described as “Thracian leader” – a clear indication that the Ancient Greeks shared lots of the mythology of their neighbors, the Ancient Thracians. Subsequently, the cult for Dionysus spread to the Romans who referred to him as Bacchus.
“We’ve found [the inscription] in the atrium of the basilica, turned upside down. It was used as a pavestone during the construction of the Early Christian temple,” lead archaeologist Tankova is quoted as saying.
She points out that the discovery has been made as her team has been overseeing the conservation and restoration works in the Great Basilica in Plovdiv, including by inspecting all marble slabs that are being lifted up from the floor.
Once the slab that turned out to contain the highly valuable Dionysian Mysteries inscription, Tankova noticed it had decoration and quickly figured out it was a stele. The inscription in Ancient Greek itself was read the same evening by Nikolay Sharankov.
The newly discovered inscription is the third inscription left behind from the Roman Era building that preceded the Early Christian Great Basilica.
“We have [don’t know of] any other Dionysian society with such a complex organization, judging from their titles,” says Sharankov, who has been very excited about the discovery of the Roman inscription.
“Apparently, this here was a very important place where supporters of the emperors would put list with their names. This is a list of the religious society [of] Dionysus. What’s even more interesting is that [it is] from the time of Gallienus, more precisely, [Roman Emperors] Valerian and Gallienus, those signed here write that they have survived the Gothic invasion. The font is identical with that of another inscription honoring Emperor Gallienus that is kept at the [Plovdiv] Museum of Archaeology,” the epigraphist elaborates.
“The dedication [of the inscription] is to the Leader of Thrace, Dionysus, and it’s interesting that they don’t mention a provincial governor since the situation in [the Roman Province of] Thracia (Thrace) at the time was probably rather complicated,” Sharankov adds.
“This mystic society had some interesting positions apparently also connected with the Imperial Cult [of Ancient Rome]. The find is exception also because we practically have no other inscriptions from this period, except for the one about Gallienus kept in the [Plovdiv] Museum, and one about his general Marcianus which is presently exhibited near the [Roman] stadium,” he notes.
The researchers are yet to work on establishing the precise dating of the Roman inscription but it is believed to be from the start of the reign of Roman Co-Emperors Valerian and Gallienus in 253 AD, and not so long after the Goths destroyed Philipopolis in 251 AD.
The discovery of the stele with the Dionysus cult secret society is seen as evidence that the building that predated the Early Christian Great Basilica of Philipopolis was somehow connected with the Imperial Cult of Ancient Rome.
One of the secret society cult titles mentioned in the inscription is that of a sabostophorus, a person holding the image of the Roman Emperor. In this case, two men out of the 44 on the list are mentioned with that title, probably because there were two co-emperors at the time.
“This is a list of society for holding mysteries honoring Dionysus. What’s interesting is that the titles of the members of that organizations are listed as well, and they are very diverse. There were several leaders of the mysteries, different types of priests, people who carried specific sacred objects. We’re seeing here a very complex structure of this secret society that we have never encountered before in other inscriptions,” Sharankov explains.
In his words, the list also includes people called “currettes” who performed dances clad in military body armor. The name of their leader who walked while holding a stick from a Cornelian cherry dogwood is also included.
Epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov elaborates further on the significance of the newly discovered Roman Era inscription from after the Goths’ ransacking of ancient Philipopolis, Bulgaria’s Plovdiv,
“Probably the people who were the members of this society were largely settlers from Asia Minor. These people had an inclination towards such types of cult organizations to begin with. Here they listed their names first in order to show that they had survived the invasion of the Goths, during which almost the entire population of the city [of Philipopolis] was killed or abducted.
“They apparently attributed their survival to the fact that they were members of this religious society, for which they thank Dionysus. They also raised this monument with a plea asking this god to take care of the new emperors since in the period prior to that, there were Goth invasions, the entire [Roman] Empire was in a crisis, there were constant changes of emperors.
“Only when Valerian and Gallienus came [to power], who are father and son, the Empire managed to become stabilized for a period of 15 years. This inscription is an expression of these people’s hope that they will be able to restore their lives.
“Making such a huge and beautiful inscription was a big effort since at the time the city [of Philipopolis] had been completely destroyed, and most of its people had been killed. These people invested everything in order to restore their lives with the help of god [Dionysus] and the new [Roman] emperors.
“Up until now, we have been finding just the destruction from the Goths’ invasion, after which nothing was left. But here we see hope for the first time. Imagine a destroyed city where people have nowhere to live, and this stele rising solemnly as a symbol of its restoration, as a symbol of the future.”
Also check out our stories about other ancient inscriptions recently discovered in Plovdiv and eslewhere in Bulgaria:
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.
In just some of the 2018 archaeological excavations in Plovdiv, the archaeologists have discovered six luxury Antiquity quarters which had a brothel likened to Pompeii’s Lupanar, and a 1st century AD Roman triumphal arc;
They have found traces from the Goth invasion of the Roman Empire in 251 AD during rescue digs at the city’s Antiquity Odeon;
A Roman tomb from the western necropolis of Philipopolis has been unearthed by accident on the campus of Plovdiv Medical University;
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;
This is also the same site where the archaeological team has found a very rare piece of lusterware pottery from medieval Egypt in a richly decorated medieval building.
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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