Archaeologist Figures Out Thracian Name of Roman Danube City Sexaginta Prista, Bulgaria’s Ruse

Archaeologist Figures Out Thracian Name of Roman Danube City Sexaginta Prista, Bulgaria’s Ruse

Antiquity inscriptions mentioning goddess Diana with the nickname Plestrensis from the vicinity of the Danube city of Ruse have lent further credibility to the new hypothesis that the original and Thracian name of the city of Sexaginta Prista, today’s Ruse, was Plestrodava. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

The Ancient Thracian name and thus the earliest name of today’s Danube city of Ruse in Northeast Bulgaria, the successor of the Roman Empire city of Sexaginta Prista, was probably Plestrodava, a Bulgarian archaeologist hypothesizes.

The discovery of the likely original name of Sexaginta Prista, today’s city of Ruse, has been presented in the “Ring Keepers" exhibition of the Ruse Regional Museum of History, which showcases three fabulous gold rings from various ages and sites found recently in the region.

Archaeologist Varbin Varbanov from the Ruse Regional Museum of History has figured out the Thracian name of the ancient Danube city, “Plestrodava", by examining old finds and records and by conduct new field research, the Museum has announced.

Until now, archaeologists and historians have been aware that the Ancient Roman city and fortress of Sexaginta Prista, later a major fortress and city in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the medieval Bulgarian Empire, was built on top of what originally had been an Ancient Thracian settlement but its name has been unknown.

Modern-day scholars’ knowledge of the Ancient Thracian language is scant as the Thracians are not known to have had a script or a literary tradition; their surviving inscriptions are mostly in Ancient Greek save for very few which seem to be in Thracian but using Greek letters.

The discovery of the likely Thracian and earliest name of the Danube city is underscored by the importance of the city itself throughout the ages: Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships") was a major stronghold on the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the Lower Danube frontier of the Roman Empire; it was an interior city for the First Bulgarian Empire; in 1864-1878, Ruse (Ruscuk in Ottoman Turkish) was the capital of the Danube Vilayet (district) of the Ottoman Empire; and ever since Bulgaria’s restoration in 1878, it has been the largest Bulgarian city and port on the Danube River.

Archaeological research has proven that the Roman Empire’s Sexanginta Prista Fortress was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement existing as early as the 3rd century BC, and that the hill where the settlement is located was a Thracian shrine for performing cult rituals.

“The new exhibition by Ruse’s archaeologists, “Ring Keepers", contains an impressive discovery… ‘Plestrodava’, the Thracian name of the Roman [city of] Sexaginta Prista," the Ruse Museum of History says, as it tells the story of how Varbanov has figured out the ancient name.

It reminds that in the 1980s, local archaeologist Dimitar Stanchev carried out excavations of a shrine dedicated to goddess Diana located at the merging of the Beli (“White") Lom and Cherni (“Black") Lom Rivers to the southwest of the city of Ruse, forming the Rusenski Lom River.

Antiquity inscriptions mentioning goddess Diana with the nickname Plestrensis from the vicinity of the Danube city of Ruse have lent further credibility to the new hypothesis that the original and Thracian name of the city of Sexaginta Prista, today’s Ruse, was Plestrodava. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

There, between today’s towns of Ivanovo and Koshov, the archaeologist found ancient buildings and three stone inscriptions. While he did not publish any papers on the discovery, the inscriptions in question have been kept at the Ruse Museum of History.

In 2018, local archaeologists Varbin Varbanov and Nikola Rusev from the Ruse Museum decided to trace Stanchev’s field research in order to establish the actual archaeological “whose location nobody remembers any more".

Their excavations led to the discovery of buildings which were auxiliary to the Ancient Thracian shrine of goddess Diana. The actual shrine itself has not be localized.

Nonetheless, one of the partially preserved stone inscriptions from the site mentions the name of a deity called Plestar who was the patron of the nearby river. It is taken to mean that today’s Rusenski Lom River was named Plestar by the Ancient Thracians.

“Bulgarian archaeological science has multiple examples showing that at the mouth of rivers flowing into the Danube River there usually are cities bearing the same name as the respective river," the Ruse Museum of History says.

It points out some of the most notable examples such as Oescus (today called the Iskar River) and the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Ulpia Oescus; Almus (today called the Lom River) and the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Almus; Iatrus (today called the Yantra River) and the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Iatrus.

Varbanov has thus arrived at the name Plestrodava by combining the newly established Thracian name of the Rusenski Lom River, “Plestar", and the word “dava", which was the Thracian word meaning “city".

“That is why, following this model of naming [of Danube tributary rivers and settlements], Dr. Varbanov hypothesizes about the name of the Thracian settlement [later the Roman city of Sexaginta Prista, today’s city of Ruse] by reconstructing it through the name of the river Plestar and the suffix ‘-dava’, which was the Thracian word for ‘city’," explains the Ruse Regional Museum of History.

The closest local known Thracian name of a settlement in Ruse’s region using the “-dava" suffix is Scaidava, an ancient fortress overlooking the Danube near the town of Batin.

One of the most famous Ancient Thracian city names is that of Dausdava, or the “city of wolves", near Razgrad and Ruse in today’s Northeast Bulgaria, the presumed capital of the Getae (or Gets), one of the most powerful Thracian tribes which also had its own state.

“The name ‘Plestrodava’ [as the original name of Sexaginta Prista and Ruse] is a fully logical hypothesis which is also supported by a nickname of the goddess Diana, ‘Diana Plestrensis’, which is known from another inscription found in a nearby area called ‘Smestsite’," the Ruse Museum elaborates.

Antiquity inscriptions mentioning goddess Diana with the nickname Plestrensis from the vicinity of the Danube city of Ruse have lent further credibility to the new hypothesis that the original and Thracian name of the city of Sexaginta Prista, today’s Ruse, was Plestrodava. Photo: Ruse Regional Museum of History

“In the past, some researchers attempted to link this nickname to the known name [of the city of Sexaginta Prista] by spelling it as ‘Pristensis’, which would have supposedly meant ‘Diana from [Sexaginta] Prista" but it has now become clear that such scientific speculations aren’t necessary," the Museum adds.

“It is possible that in the future the scientifically grounded hypothesis about the name of Plestrodava will be confirmed by a preserved stone inscription but even without one there already is an indisputable discovery with respect to the Thracian Antiquity and the city of Ruse," the Regional Museum of History concludes.

Learn more about the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Plestrodava / Sexaginta Prista in the Background Infonotes below!

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Background Infonotes:

The Ancient Thracian and Roman settlement and fortress of Sexaginta Prista (meaning “Port of the Sixty Ships") in today’s Bulgarian Danube city of Ruse was built on top of an earlier Ancient Thracian settlement.

Archaeological research has proven that the Sexanginta Prista Fortress was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement existing as early as the 3rd century BC. In fact, the hill where the settlement is located was a Thracian shrine for performing cult rituals which remain unknown to this day.

There the Bulgarian archaeologists have discovered hundreds of Ancient Thracian ritual pits dating to the 1st century BC-1st century AD, of which about 50 have been studied. The archaeological discoveries from the Thracian ritual pits include pottery vessels, bronze artifacts, coins, bones; a unique richly decorated zoomorphic vessel depicted an eagle’s head as well as several fibulas.

Other archaeological findings include an Ancient Thracian jug from the 2nd-1st century AD containing organic matter from domestic animals, an ancient ceramic vessel from the Greek island of Rodos dated to the 3rd century BC, household vessels, and transportation vessels, which are taken to mean that the settlement had a well developed trade.

The first written account about the Fortress of Sexaginta Prista comes from “Geography", the 2nd century AD work of Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD). The city was also mentioned as Sexantapristis in the so called Antonine Itinerary (Itinerarium Antonini Augusti, “The Itinerary of Emperor Antoninus").

The name of Sexaginta Prista has been compared to the name of a Roman port on the Italian Peninsula meaning “100 chambers" because one hypothesis about its name has it that in Roman times Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse in Bulgaria) had 60 dock spots for Roman ships.

Another hypothesis claiming to be based on all available historical sources has it that the name of the Sexaginta Prista Fortress stems from events at the end of the 1st century AD during Roman Emperor Domitian’s (r. 85-89 AD) wars with the Dacians, the powerful Thracian people living north of the Danube River. Back then, an entire Roman legion consisting of 6,000 men was ferried across the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River where it flows into the Danube. Exactly 60 Roman ships were used for this effort.

Subsequently, the fortress was called Sexaginta Prista to celebrate the ensuing victory over the Dacians. It is possible that until then the fortress in question was known by the Thracian name of the Rusenski Lom River.

Whatever the real origin of Sexaginta Prista’s name may be, the fact of the matter is that the name itself underscores the city’s importance for the Roman Navy because the “Port of the Sixty Ships" (today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse) is one of only two Roman frontier outposts on the Limes Moesiae, i.e. the Lower Danube frontier region, which have names connected with sailing. The other one is Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria whose name is derived from the Latin word “ratis" (raft) or from “ratiaria", a type of vessel.

Archaeological excavations conducted at Sexaginta Prista in 2005-2006 have demonstrated that the location of the original Roman military camp which existed between the 1st and the 3rd century AD remains unknown. There are hypotheses that it was built near the mouth of the Rusenski Lom River.

The Roman archaeological finds on the hill of the fortress date to the 2nd-3rd century AD. The discovered structures include building remains from the canabae, a temple of god Apollo with votive tables of Apollo and the supreme Thracian deity, the so called Thracian Horseman also known as Heros, pottery, coins, and a sacrificial altar dedicated to Apollo, among others.

The orientation and planning of the Apollo Temple reminds of a Christian temple. It is similar to pagan temples in the town of Ruchey, Southern Bulgaria; Benwel, England; and Porolisum in Dacia (today’s Romania). Its planning is construed as evidence that the early Christians modeled their churches on the Roman pagan temples.

Apollo’s temple in Sexaginta Prista existed until the end of the 3rd century AD, and after that, possibly in connection with the adoption of Christianity, it was demolished, and a principium (the main building of the command staff of the Roman camp (castra)) was built in its stead, most probably during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-337 AD).

This is also when the Late Antiquity fortress walls of Sexaginta Prista (unearthed in 1976-1978) were erected. The principium was in use until the early 380s when the city was damaged by the barbarian invasions of the Goths, and again until the beginning of the 5th century. Out of a total of 204 coins discovered in Sexaginta Prista during the latest archaeological excavations in 2005-2006, about 100 date to the 4th century AD.

Archaeological finds of coins and pottery indicate that the hill of Sexaginta Prista was inhabited during the Late Antiquity and Early Byzantine period (5th-6th century AD), and during the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th-11th century.

Not unlike the rest of the Roman fortresses on the Limes Moesiae, the Roman city of Sexaginta Prista was overran by barbarian invasions several times, the last one being the invasions of Avars and Slavs at the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century AD, which put an end to the life of the city in the Early Byzantine period. In the 9th-10th century AD, during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), the Bulgarian settlement Ruse was built on the site of the Roman ruins of Sexaginta Prista.

The discovery of a Christian grave and other human bones are taken to mean that in the 12th-14th century, i.e. during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1186-1396 AD), the hill was one of the necropolises of the medieval Bulgarian city of Ruse. The other archaeological finds on the hill of Sexaginta Prista are from the end of the Ottoman period, i.e. the 19th century.

The ruins of Sexaginta Prista are located in the northwestern part of today’s Bulgarian city of Ruse on a hill next to the Danube River. They were first designated by Austro-Hungarian geographer and archaeologist Felix Kanitz at the end of the 19th century based on the distances marked on Roman road maps.

The first major archaeological excavations of Sexaginta Prista were conducted at the end of the 19th century by the Czech-Bulgarian bothers Karel and Hermann Skorpil, who are the founders of modern-day Bulgarian archaeology. Further rescue excavations were made in the first half of the 20th century during the construction of Ruse’s Military Club. Regular archaeological excavations were conducted in 1976-1978 and again in 2005-2006.

The excavations have revealed a 50-meter section of Sexaginta Prista’s northwestern wall, a fortress tower, six Roman buildings, and a temple of Apollo. The excavations in 2006 discovered the ruins of the Roman military headquarters which was used from the first quarter of the 4th century AD until the 410s AD (it was dated based on the discovered coins and pottery).

Since 2002, part of the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Sexaginta Prista have been exhibited in situ as a cultural tourism site.

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