Roman Emperor ‘Lied’, Thanked City for ‘Bribe’, Reveals Newly Decoded Inscription from Ancient Nicopolis ad Istrum in Bulgaria
A newly decoded ancient stone inscription in Ancient Greek reveals that Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and his son and Co-Emperor Caracalla told “political lies” and demonstrated corruption in the Roman Empire by expressing gratitude for a large-scale “bribe” from the residents of the huge Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, today near Veliko Tarnovo in Central North Bulgaria.
The huge Ancient Roman city 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.
Nicolis ad Istrum was founded in 102 AD (or some time between 101 and 106 AD) by Roman Emperor Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus) (r. 98-117 AD) to honor his victories over the Dacians, Thracian tribes inhabiting the region north of the Lower Danube River.
Its researchers allege that Nicopolis ad Istrum is the best preserved Ancient Roman city in today’s Bulgaria, although the country has many contenders for the title in question due to its very rich heritage from the period of the Roman Empire.
The huge stone inscription revealing a form of corruption in the Roman Empire dates back to 198 AD. It contains a Roman imperial letter is in Ancient Greek, and has a total of 37 lines. (The text of the inscription is available below.)
The inscription copies a letter sent to the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (r. 193 – 211 AD) and his son and Co-Emperor Caracalla (Co-Emperor in 198 – 211 AD, Emperor in his own right in 211 – 217 AD; his younger brother Geta was also Co-Emperor of Septimius Severus in 209 – 211 AD).
The inscription conveying a sense of political corruption in the Roman Empire is from the year when Septimus Severus made Caracalla an augustus, or Co-Emperor.
The huge stone inscription in the Ancient Greek language was discovered by some of the first archaeologists to explore the ruins of Nicopolis ad Istrum starting in 1900. The inscription was found in 1923. However, it has only been read now, and, respectively, its content has now been revealed to the public for the first time.
At the time of its discovery, the huge stone stele containing the inscription, which weighs about 2 metric tons, was found broken in four large and several smaller pieces, with all pieces bearing traces of fire.
Since its discovery back in 1923, the pieces have been preserved at the Veliko Tarnovo Museum of History. They have been put together just recently, and the inscription, a copy of a Roman imperial letter, has been read by Bulgaria’s top expert in Latin and Ancient Greek, epigraphist Assist. Prof. Nikolay Sharankov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.
The massive stone inscription has turned out to contain the only fully preserved authentic text of a letter by Roman Emperors to have ever been found in Bulgaria, a country, as mentioned above, very rich in monuments from the time of the Roman Empire (1st – 4th century AD), after Rome conquered all of Ancient Thrace south of the Danube River in 46 AD.
In his imperial letter revealed by the newly decoded inscription, Roman Emperor Septimius in reality thanks the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum for a large bribe that they paid to him – even though he evades styling the payment a bribe, the experts say.
The “bribe” in question was a “donation” of 700,000 denarii, the standard Roman silver coin currency up until the second half of the 3rd century AD, which the residents of the major city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in today’s Central North Bulgaria paid to Emperor Septimius Severus after he rose to power.
“This [sum] is like several million [euro]. That is precisely a bribe,” explains with a smile epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov who read the Roman inscription in the Ancient Greek language, as cited by Nova TV.
“That is why the text itself says: ‘I accepted this money given by well-meaning people.’ That is, [the Emperor] did not accept it as a bribe but as a present,” Sharankov elaborates on the skillful wording used by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and his Co-Emperor Caracalla in the imperial letter.
He adds that the residents of the city of Nicopolis ad Istrum made the payment, the de facto bribe styled a donation, to Septimius Severus in order to buy their way out of disfavor with the Roman Emperor.
That was necessary because the city had supported one of his rivals for the imperial title in 193 AD, the Year of the Five Emperors (when five men claimed the title after the murder of Emperor Commodus in 192 AD – Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Septimius Severus). According to the researchers, there are reasons to believe that the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum had supported Pertinax.
In addition to the corruption “Thank You” note for the bribe, the imperial letter revealed by the inscription from Nicopolis ad Istrum also contains an explicit “political lie”.
More specifically, in his letter on accepting the “donation” from the city residents, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus presents himself as an heir of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161 – 180 AD) even though the Septimius Severus’ heritage was from North Africa, and had nothing to do with the Nerva – Antonine Dynasty of Marcus Aurelius (r. 96 – 192 AD).
Septimius who gave the start of the Severan Dynasty (r. 193 – 235 AD) was born in the city of Leptis Magna in today’s Libya.
“That way [through this political lie] [Septimius Severus] traced his lineage all the way back to Emperor Trajan (r. 98 – 117 AD), and thus, with this letter, the Emperor sought to legitimize himself before the people,” epigraphist Sharankov explains.
The 3-meter-tall, 2-metric-ton Roman limestone stele containing the copy of the imperial letter riddled with “bribes” and “political lies” by Roman Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla to the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum has been pieced back together and restored by experts from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.
The stele has been erected back in its original place, amid the ruins of Nicopolis ad Istrum, on the occasion of the ancient city’s 1908th birthday, so that it can be viewed by tourists visiting the archaeological preserve near Bulgaria’s Veliko Tarnovo. Its original text in Ancient Greek is accompanied with translations in Bulgarian and English.
“I hope that [the letter] is going to generate additional interest because there are very few [Roman] imperial letters surviving to this day,” states Ivan Tsarov, Director of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History and a long-time researcher of Nicopolis ad Istrum.
He notes that during the rule of Septimius Severus, many of the cities from the further provinces of the Roman Empire, such as Nicopolis ad Istrum, saw a boost of their development, whereas the Empire as a whole enjoyed a degree of stability.
The epigraphic monument with the original inscription from the end of the 2nd century AD has been restored under a project of the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History and the Future for Nikyup Association, with funding from German-owned retail chain Lidl.
The restoration of the large stone monument has been carried out by Ruen Hadzhinikolov, a restorer from the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History.
“Ruen Hadzhinikolov has worked with the latest conservation methods used by major museums for the processing of lapidarium monuments,” archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Pavlina Vladkova, an expert in Roman archaeologist from the Veliko Tarnovo Museum, told the local Borba daily back in July 2020.
Back then the Museum had announced the upcoming unveiling of the restored monument but had kept secret the content of the imperial letter.
Vladkova said the restorer had undergone a special training and had taken part in the restoration of a pedestal from a statue of Roman Emperor Gordian III (r. 238 – 244 AD) discovered in another large Ancient Roman city in Bulgaria, Novae near today’s Svishtov on the Danube River. The long-term excavations of Novae have been aided by archaeologists from Poland, and the restoration of the Gordian III statue pedestal was led by the Conservation and Restoration Institute of the Academy of Arts in the Polish capital Warsaw.
In the Antiquity period, the actual letter from Roman Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla was kept at the tabularium, the official records office, of Nicopolis ad Istrum, whereas the stone stele copy was erected on the city square so that the letter could be read by everyone.
“This ‘thanks-giving’ address [in the inscription] is from Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla, with the inscription dating from 198 AD,” says archaeologist Kalin Chakarov from the Veliko Tarnovo History Museum.
“Since several years prior, the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum had taken the side of a contender for the throne who had lost the battle with Emperor Septimius Severus, in order to placate the new Emperor and his family, and to save their lives and properties, they made the exceptional donation of 700,000 Roman silver coins (denarii) to the imperial family,” Charakov explains, summing up once again the meaning of the Roman imperial “bribe” and “political lies” letter which has just been decoded 120 years after its discovery in Central North Bulgaria.
Following is the full text of the letter of Roman Emperors Septimius Severus and Caracalla to the residents of Nicopolis ad Istrum as copied on the stone stele:
“Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus,
Conqueror of Arabia and Adiabene, and Greatest Conqueror of Parthia
Son of the deified Marcus Aurelius Pius, the victor in Germania and Sarmatia
[Marcus Aurelius], brother of the deified Commodus, grandson of the deified
Anthonius Pius, great-grandson of the deified Hadrian, and descendant of
The deified Trajan, the victor in Parthia, and of the deified Nerva,
Supreme priest, holding the tribune power for the sixth time,
Eleven times proclaimed emperor, twice consul,
Father of the fatherland, proconsul, and Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Autonius
Augustus [Caracalla], son of
Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus,
Conqueror of Arabia and Adiabene, and Greatest Conqueror of Parthia,
Grandson of the deified Marcus Aurelius Pius, the victor in Germania and Sarmatia,
[Marcus Aurelius], great-grandson of the deified Anthonius Pius,
Descendant of the deified Hadrian, the deified Trajan,
The victor in Parthia, and of the deified Nerva, with tribune power and proconsul,
Greet the archons, the city council, and the people of Nicopolis ad Istrum.
We have seen your remarkable devotion declared in our decree.
As well-meaning and loyal people striving to receive a more
Favorable assessment in our eyes, you have clearly shown
That you share our joy from the recent events; you have also conducted
Mass celebrations at the news for our successes – the common peace
Which has arrived for all people thanks to the victory
Over the barbarians who constantly embolden themselves to attack the empire,
And the joint leading of the state by the two of us in just collaboration,
Together with the legal Caesar [Geta] belonging to our family.
That is why we have read the decree with the due respect to
The monetary installment of 700,000 [denarii] as coming from well-meaning people.
Our friend and legate, the excellent Ovinius sent the decree.”
(*Note: The above translation into English is based on the translation into Bulgarian. )
Learn more about the Ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum in the Background Infonotes below.
Also check out these other recent discoveries from Nicopolis ad Istrum:
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria, among other books.
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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