Fine Marbles in 14 Different Colors from Constantine the Great’s Danube Bridge Opening in 328 AD Found in Roman City Ulpia Oescus in North Bulgaria
Archaeologists have discovered a total of 14 different kinds of highly sophisticated colorful marbles used in lavish wall decorations of a grand hall in the huge Roman city of Ulpia Oescus in North Bulgaria, and believe they most likely had to do with Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s visit there for the opening of Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube River in 328 AD, an engineering wonder and the greatest bridge built in ancient times.
The ancient city of Ulpia Oescus (today the Ulpia Oescus Archaeological Preserve) was one of the most important cities in the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire. “Oescus” was the Roman name of the Iskar River, the longest river to flow only through Bulgaria’s modern-day territory, a Danube tributary.
Ulpia Oescus was one of only three Roman cities in today’s Bulgaria to have enjoyed the status of a colony of Rome (the other two being Ratiaria and Deultum), and had around 100,000 inhabitants at its height.
Located just 5 kilometers (3 miles) away from the Danube River, Ulpia Oescus was the starting point of Roman Emperor Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube connecting it with Sucidava (near today’s Corabia in Romania) in the 4th century AD – the largest river bridge in Antiquity times.
A bustling spot in the Roman Era, the archaeological site with rather well preserved Roman streets and ruins today lies in a distant and depopulated region of Bulgaria, and the ancient city has thus been largely neglected by Bulgarian and international tourists, undeservedly so. It is repeatedly raided by treasure hunters, ruthless modern-day looters. In 2016, its ruins were badly damaged by two fires, apparently caused by arson by treasure hunters.
The 14 different types of marble with various colors have been discovered in the Aula, or a grant hall, of a complex of public buildings in Ulpia Oescus, also including thermae (public baths), during the 2020 archaeological excavations of the Ancient Roman city.
Some of the astonishing colorful marble samples have been displayed in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia, which was opened in February 2021, and have been noted among the top artifacts showcased in the event.
The 2020 digs in Ulpia Oescus were carried out by a team including Gergana Kabakchieva and Silva Sabkova from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology and Sonya Lazarova and Tinka Krasteva from the Pleven Regional Museum of History.
The excavations have focused on the large architectural complex of public buildings containing both the Aula, or Grand Hall of the city, and sophisticated thermae (public baths), as well as world-famous mosaic depicting a scene from “The Achaeans”, a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright from Athens, Menander (342 – 291 BC).
“The Achaeans” play by Ancient Greek Athenian playwright Menander first became known to the world solely thanks to the discovery of the mosaic in Ulpia Oescus identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander”.
Learn more about the “Achaeans” mosaic in the Background Infonotes below!
Archaeologists today conditionally refer to the main complex of public buildings in the Roman city as “Building with the Achaeans Mosaic and the City’s Grand Hall”.
“[In 2020, we] carried out digs in the Grand Hall, and have established the architectural layout of its interior,” the archaeological team explains in the official catalog and poster for the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology exhibition.
It adds that in the middle of the space, the archaeologists have found ruins from brick pillars separating the grand hall in two.
The researchers have also established how the Aula (Grant Hall) of the Roman city of Ulpia Oescus was heated: they have brick columns from the heating system. Warm air would circulate beneath the floor between the brick pillars thus heating up the hall.
The most impressive discovery, however, has been the wide variety of luxury marble wall encasings leading to the conclusion that they were installed precisely for a visit by a Roman emperor. Their dating to the first half of the 4th century AD further points to the known visit by Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great to Ulpia Oescus on or around July 5, 328 AD, for the inauguration of the 2.5-kilometer bridge on the Danube River.
“[We have] found numerous types of marble, at least 14 different colors,” the archaeological team says, explaining further,
“The wall marbling [in the Grand Hall of the city] was crafted very finely, some of it is really thin. The digs have revealed parts from columns made of decorative striped calcite. These, as well as wall encasings made of red jasper [that we] found here last year are very rare, and are known from imperial residences, temples, and places where [Roman] emperors were received,” the researchers explain.
“The[se] new findings in the Aula of Oescus could be connected with the visit of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) in the city in July 328 AD on the occasion of the opening of the bridge on the Danube River,” the archaeologists conclude.
The most impressive ancient bridge in the world, one of the most famous Roman bridges of all time, and the first ever bridge on the Danube River, Constantine’s Bridge near today’s Gigen in Central North Bulgaria was unveiled on or around July 5, 328 AD, in the presence of Emperor Constantine the Great.
The ancient engineering miracle was long nearly 2.5 kilometers (1.55 miles) (more precisely, 2,437 meters); of those, 1137 meters (0.7 miles) spanned the bed of the Danube River.
Constantine’s Bridge was 5.7 meters (18.7 feet) wide, and rose about 10 meters (33 feet) above the waters of the Danube. It had masonry pillars and a wooden superstructure.
The Roman bridge on the Danube was located in the middle between the 634th and the 635th kilometer of the Danube, approximately 5 km (3 miles) north of today’s Bulgarian town of Gigen, and the large Ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus.
Constantine’s Bridge was used by the Romans mostly for the relocation of troops to fight with the barbarians in Dacia, north of the Danube. The bridge survived for about 40 years. There are hypotheses that it was destroyed in 355 AD during a barbarian invasion, or that its wooden superstructure was burned down by the Romans so as to prevent barbarians such as the Goths from using it in their invasions.
Learn more about Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube River in this article.
Apart from the impressing marble encasings from the Grand Hall of Ulpia Oescus, during their 2020 excavations, the archaeologists found astonishing marble samples in the neighboring building of the same architectural complex, namely, the thermae, or public baths.
“[We have] unearthed hypocaust (underfloor heating) systems, pools and marbling from the grand bath which is set off as a separate part in the northeastern section of the complex,” the archaeological team says.
The researchers explain the Roman public bath section in question had a total of four rooms.
“The first one was a changing room. The second one was for cool baths. The third one was for warm and hot bathing. And the fourth one was for graduate cooling off of the body,” they say.
Room No. 3 is the largest of those. Inside it, the archaeologists have found traces of hypocaust made up of clay pipes, and tiny pipes from the in-wall heating.
“The most impressive are the results from the research of room No. 4. We have dug up a pool in its southern part. It was filled up with marble encasings, murals, and construction ceramics. There is green and white marbling, the other rooms have white and purple marbling predominantly or white and pink marbling. These remains are mostly from the first half of the 4th century AD,” the archaeological team concludes.
The Ulpia Oescus archaeological preserve’s property, which was reclaimed by the central government in Sofia in 2018, has a territory of 210 decares (appr. 52 acres), and covers most of what once was the large Roman city.
Ulpia Oescus was declared a monument of culture of national importance, the highest possible status in Bulgaria, back in 1965, and in 2011, it was declared an archaeological preserve.
The filming crew stumbled upon fresh pits dug up by treasure hunters a few hundred meters outside the partly enclosed section of the Roman city but within what it was its huge urban area.
Treasure hunting and the looting of archaeological sites all over Bulgaria is a monstrous crime of mind-boggling proportions causing irreparable damage to the global cultural heritage found on Bulgarian territory, and the Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus is no exception.
Among other things, Ulpia Oescus is known for its Temple of goddess Fortuna whose four-meter-tall main statue is kept at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
Learn more about the Ancient Roman colony of Ulpia Oescus in the Background Infonotes below!
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Ivan Dikov, the founder of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com, is the author of the book Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together, among other books.
The Ancient Thracian, Roman, and Byzantine city and fortress Ulpia Oescus (also known as Palatiolon or Palatiolum) is located near the town of Gigen, Gulyantsi Municipality, Pleven District, in Northern Bulgaria, about 5 km south of the point where the Iskar River (whose Roman name was Oescus) flows into the Danube. It was originally an Ancient Thracian settlement from the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age.
In his work “Geography” in the 2nd century AD, Greco-Egyptian ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 90-168 AD) described Ulpia Oescus as a city of the Triballi, the independent Ancient Thracian tribe which inhabited today’s Northwest Bulgaria. In the 1st century AD, Oescus grew out of the military camp of Roman legions Legio IV Scythica (“Scythian Fourth Legion”) and Legio V Macedonica (“Macedonian Fifth Legion”) set up next to the Thracian settlement.
It was founded as a Roman city in 106 AD by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) in favor of his victory over the Dacians north of the Danube. What is more, it was founded with the status of a colony of Rome, the highest status for a city in the Roman Empire. In today’s Bulgaria, there are only three Roman cities which enjoyed this status – Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, Colonia Ulpia Oescus near Gigen, and Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium) near Burgas.
Ulpia Oescus thrived economically and culturally in the 2nd-3rd century AD as major city in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior during the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty (r. 96-192 AD) and the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD). However, in the 3rd century AD, this happy state of affairs was put an end to by the barbarian invasions from the north of many barbarian tribes including the Goths.
The city recovered during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337 AD) when the first permanent bridge on the Lower Danube was constructed near Ulpia Oescus. The so called Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube was 2.5 km long (1.3 km over the river), 5.7 meters wide, and was the largest river bridge in ancient times. It was opened on July 5, 328 AD, in the presence of the Emperor himself. According to historical sources, it existed from 328 AD till ca. 355 AD when it was destroyed by a barbarian invasion.
It connected Ulpia Oescus with Sicudava (today’s Corabia, Romania) on the northern bank of the Danube. In the first half of the 5th century AD, Ulpia Oescus suffered from the invasions of the Huns. In 444 AD, it was conquered by the Huns under Attila who tried to turn the city into a Hun settlement, the only Hun settlement on the territory of today’s Bulgaria, under the name Hunion (which turned out to be short-lived).
Its fortress wall was rebuilt during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (527-565 AD) but the entire city was destroyed in 585 AD by the barbarian invasion of the Avars, not unlike many Late Antiquity cities all over today’s Northern Bulgaria. At the end of the 6th century AD, it was settled by the Slavs. In the 10th AD, a settlement from the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) was founded on top of the ruins of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Oescus. It existed until the 14th century, the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) but its name remains unknown. After the cities destruction by the invading Ottoman Turks, its surviving residents were moved to today’s town of Gigen.
The archaeological excavations of Ulpia Oescus have revealed that in the 1st-2nd century AD the city was populated by Thracians and settlers from the Italian Peninsula, the Western Roman provinces, and Asia Minor (judging by the discovered Latin inscriptions, among other things). The initial territory of the city called by the archaeologists “Oescus I” includes the urban center, city square, and public buildings; it covers of an area of 180 decares (app. 44.5 decares), while the eastward expansion of the city called Oescus II has an area of about 100 decares (app. 24.7 acres).
Thus, in the Late Roman Era, Oescus had a total territory of 280 decares (app. 69 decares), which roughly equals the area of other major Roman cities in Central Northern Bulgaria – Novae near the Danube town of Svishtov, and Nicopolis ad Istrum near the town of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo District. Ulpia Oescus had typical Roman urban planning – with a rectangular shape and streets oriented east-west and north-south. About one third of the city was occupied by public buildings, and remainder – by workshops and homes, with its population estimated at about 100,000 inhabitants at its height.
During their excavations in the late 1940s, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered a large public building containing one of the most impressive colorful Roman floor mosaics in Bulgaria, dated to the time of Emperor Septimus Severus (r. 193-211 AD) which features a scene from “The Achaeans”, a lost play by Ancient Greek playwright from Athens Menander (342-291 AD). The play was identified by an inscription reading “Achaeans by Menander”.
It was unknown until this discovery at Ulpia Oescus in 1948, which was confirmed in 1961 by a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt containing an alphabetical list of Menander’s works. The scene shows three masked man and one without a mask.
According to Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov, Menander based this play on Book I of Homer’s Iliad, on the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles over the damsel Briseis. The other two men are Nestor, King of the island of Pylos, who tries to reconcile the men, and Patroclus (unmasked), Achilles‘ friend who accompanied him to the ships of the Myrmidons after the quarrel. The Achaeans mosaic is kept today at the Pleven Regional Museum of History.
The archaeological excavations have also revealed the city’s forum, the temples of the Roman deities from the Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, a large basilica, thermae, and other public buildings. The Ulpia Oescus Fortress had thick and tall stone walls with fortress towers. It was partly destroyed in the 5th century AD by the Huns, and rebuilt under Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.
Probably the most interesting ancient building is the Temple of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of fortune and luck built in 190-192 AD with funding provided by Roman Emperor Commodus (r. 161-192 AD); it was painted in red, and had white columns, and was 22 meters tall. The statue of Fortuna discovered in its middle is kept today at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The temple of Fortuna was not destroyed after the adoption of Christianity but was walled up; however, it was shattered by an earthquake at the end of the 6th century AD.
At least five Roman Emperors are known to have visited Ulpia Oescus, including Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), who even served there as a legatus, a senior officer. Another interesting building found in Ulpia Oescus is the so called civic basilica, a public building with judicial and business functions. It was 105 meters long, and was surrounded with caryatids, sculpted female figures serving as architectural supporting pillars.
The ancient ruins near Bulgaria’s Gigen were first connected with the city of Ulpia Oescus at the end of the 17th century by Italian military engineer Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (Marsigli) who was seeking for the location of Constantine’s Bridge. The first archaeological excavations of the Roman city of Oescus were carried out in 1904-1905 by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Vroclav Dobruski, Director of the then National Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. The next excavations were conducted in 1941-1943 by Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova.
In 1947, the archaeological exploration of Ulpia Oescus was continued in 1947 by Bulgarian archaeologist Teofil Ivanov with a team from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and the Regional Museum of History in the northern city of Pleven.
Since the 1980s, Ulpia Oescus has been excavated by Assoc. Prof. Gergana Kabakchieva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology. In 1965, Bulgaria’s government declared Ulpia Oescus a monument of culture of national importance, and in 2011, the Ministry of Culture granted it the status of an archaeological preserve.
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