5th Century AD Byzantine Thermae (Public Baths) Discovered in Downtown of Bulgarian Black Sea City Varna

5th Century AD Byzantine Thermae (Public Baths) Discovered in Downtown of Bulgarian Black Sea City Varna

The newly discovered Late Roman / Early Byzantine thermae are the second public baths of ancient Odessos, today’s Varna, dating from the 5th – 6th century AD, after the already known Small (South) Roman Thermae. The much more sizable Large Roman Thermae of Odessos go back earlier, dating to the 2nd century AD. Photo: BTA

The ruins of a building of thermae (public baths) from the 5th century AD, the time of the early Eastern Roman Empire, today more commonly known as Byzantium, have been discovered in the downtown of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna.

The discovery has added a new layer of information about the life of the Ancient Greek, Thracian, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus), the Antiquity predecessor of today’s Varna.

Bulgaria’s Varna is already known for its especially well preserved Roman baths, or thermae, including both the Large Roman Thermae and the Small Roman Thermae, with the former being the largest known Roman remains from a single structure in Bulgaria, the largest Roman baths in the Balkans, and the fourth largest known Roman public baths in Europe.

In recent years, Varna Municipality built a new visitor center for the Large Roman Thermae of ancient Odessos to enable tourists to see the impressive archaeological site.

The Large Thermae of ancient Odessos were built in the 2nd century AD, while the Small Thermae were built in the 5th – 6th century AD – which is roughly the period that the newly discovered public baths are also dated to.

The newly found thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna have been exposed during the excavation of a private property.

The archaeologists first reached their ruins last year but at first decided that they had discovered a water storage facility with a water fountain as part of a nymphaeum, i.e. an Antiquity Era shrine dedicated to the Nymphs and Aphrodite from Ancient Greek, Thracian, and Roman mythology.

During their 2019 excavations on the site, however, the researchers discovered evidence that the building in question was likely built for the purpose of being used as thermae, i.e. public baths, reveals archaeologist Elina Mircheva from the Varna Museum of Archaeology, who is deputy head of the archaeological team, as cited by BTA.

The excavations have exposed different parts of the Late Antiquity building which have a hypocaust, i.e. Roman underfloor heating, a typical feature of ancient public baths.

The previously unknown Late Antiquity building in downtown Varna from the 400s AD was at first thought to be an urban water reservoir with a shrine dedicated to the Nymphs and Aphrodite, before the discovery of hypocaust (underfloor heating) suggested it was a public bath. Photos: BTA

According to Mircheva, when it was constructed in the early 400s AD, the building in question was certainly meant as thermae (public baths).

Subsequently, it might have been restructured, and possibly used as a water storage facility for early medieval Odessos.

In her words, the newly excavated site is not very big but is extremely rich in terms of archaeological finds and information that can be derived from them.

The material and artifacts confirm that the newly discovered Early Byzantine thermae in the Black Sea city of Varna was in used in the 5th and 6th century AD.

A total of more than 200 coins have been discovered in the two rooms of thermae, which are found to have had hypocausts, i.e. underfloor heating.

The building of the previously known Late Roman / Early Byzantine themae in downtown Varna used to be very impressive judging from its rich decoration, including floor mosaics, marble fragments, and luxury plasters in different colors.

While the current excavations there are being wrapped up, Mircheva says a contract has been signed for the excavation of the adjacent property where the rest of the 5th century AD pubic baths is located.

Archaeologist Elina Mircheva (above) and her colleague and lead archaeologist are seen showing the newly discovered 5th century AD structures. Photos: BTA

In the spring of 2019, archaeologists discovered for the first time one of the fortress gates of the Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman city of Odessos (Odessus), namely, its southwestern gate, in Varna, the largest modern-day city on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

The begging of Varna‘s history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis known for containing the world’s oldest gold treasure dating back to the 5th millenium BC, the Varna Gold Treasure).

Ancient Odessos known as Odessus in Roman times, the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement. Odessos (Odessus) became part of the Roman Empire (late the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire) in 15 AD. It was called Varna by the Ancient Bulgars after the First Bulgarian Empire conquered it in the late 7th century AD.

In 2017, the accidental discovery of an Early Byzantine U-shaped fortress tower from Odessos confirmed data about the existence of Quaestura Exercitus, a peculiar administrative district in 6th century AD Byzantium (i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire), under Emperor Justinian I the Great, uniting much of today’s Northern Bulgaria with Cyprus, parts of Anatolia, and the Cyclades.

Learn more about ancient Odessos (Odessus), today’s Varna, and about its Large Roman Thermae and Small Roman Thermae in the Background Infonotes below!

A map showing the known information about the fortress walls of ancient Odessos and modern-day Varna. The known section of the earliest fortress wall (dating back to the Thracian settlement and the Greek colony) is shown in blue. The known sections from the wall built by Roman Emperor Tiberius is shown in purple. The Late Antiquity / Late Roman / Early Byzantine fortress wall is shown in brown. The substantially smaller fortress from Middle Ages, the time of the medieval Bulgarian Empire, is shown in green. The 18th – 19th century Ottoman fortification is shown in red. The location of the newly discovered Southwestern Gate on the Late Antiquity wall (brown) is circled in red. Map: Sveti Mesta

Background Infonotes:

The dawn of Varnas history dates back to the dawn of human civilization, the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis being especially well known with the discovery of the world’s oldest find of gold artifacts which date back to the 5th millenium BC (the Varna Gold Treasure).

Ancient Odessos (known as Odessus in Roman times) is considered the precursor of the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna. It was founded by Miletian Greek colonists at the end of 7th century BC, the earliest Greek archaeological material dating back to 600-575 BC.

However, the Greek colony was established within an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement, and the name Odessos had existed before the arrival of the Miletian Greeks and might have been of Carian origin. Odessos as the Roman city of Odessus became part of the Roman Empire in 15 AD when it was incorporated in the Roman province Moesia.

Roman Odessos is especially known today for its well preserved public baths, or thermae, the largest Roman single structure remains in Bulgaria, and the fourth largest Roman public baths known in Europe.

The First Bulgarian Empire (680-1018 AD) conquered Odessos (Varna) from Rome‘s successor, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, in the late 7th century.

It is even believed that the peace treaty in which the Byzantine Empire recognized the ceding of its northern territories along the Danube to Bulgaria was signed in Odessos. The wall (rampart) that the first ruler of Danube Bulgaria, Khan (or kanas) Asparuh built at the time as a defense against future Byzantine incursions is still standing.

Numerous Ancient Bulgar settlements around Varna have been excavated, and the First Bulgarian Empire had its first two capitals Pliska (681-893 AD) and Veliki (Great) Preslav (893-970 AD) just 70-80 km to the west of Varna. It is suggested that the name of Varna itself is of Bulgar origin. In the Middle Ages, as a coastal city, Varna changed hands between Bulgaria and Byzantium several times. It was reconquered for the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) by Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207 AD) in 1201 AD.

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The Large (North) Ancient Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the first and larger public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna. With a total of area of 7000 square meters, and a height of 20-22 meters, the thermae in Varna are the largest public building from the Antiquity period unearthed in Bulgaria.

The Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Varna are ranked as the fourth largest preserved Roman thermae in Europe after the Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian in the imperial capital Rome and the baths of Trier, and as the largest in the Balkans. They were built in the 2nd century AD, after the previously Ancient Thracian town and then Greek colony of Odessos was made part of the Roman province of Moesia in 15 AD, and were in use for about 100 years. Coins of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193–211) have been found among their ruins. The Thermae featured facilities such as an apodyterium (changing room), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (warm pool), and a caldarium (hot pool) as well as a palaestra (a space with social and athletic functions). They were heated with a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system of pipes.

The Roman Thermae in Varna were first seen an archaeological site by Austro-Hungarian researcher E. Kalinka in 1906, and were later excavated by Czech-Bulgarian brothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are known as the founders of Bulgarian archaeology. They were also excavated in 1959-1971 by a team led by Bulgarian archaeologist M. Mirchev. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 150,000 (app. EUR 75,000) for the rehabilitation of the Large Roman Thermae.

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The Small (South) Ancient Roman Thermae in Bulgaria’s Black Sea city of Varna are the ruins of the later and smaller public baths that functioned in the Ancient Roman city of Odessus (known as Odessos in Thracian and Greek times). They are located in the southeastern part of today’s Varna but further south than the Large Roman Thermae. They were built in the 5th-6th century AD as the city of Odessus experienced a decline (at the time the entire Roman Empire was in decline), after the Large Thermae were abandoned and partly destroyed in the 3rd-4th century AD.

The Small Roman Thermae were erected on top of an Ancient Thracian temple or sanctuary that honored Ancient Greek god Apollo as well as a female deity that the Varna achaeologists at first believed was Ancient Thracian goddess Bendis but have recently changed their interpretation to believe that it was in fact Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite that the Thracian had worshipped. In 2013, Varna Municipality allocated BGN 130,000 (app. EUR 65,000) for the rehabilitation of the Small Roman Thermae.

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