Bronze Dionysus Chariot Bust, Venus Terracotta Found in Home Burned Down in 251 AD Goth Invasion of Roman Empire in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv
A bronze bust of Ancient Thracian and Greek god Dionysus, which was part of the decoration of a chariot, and a terracotta (statuette) of Roman goddess Venus have been discovered inside a large 2nd century AD building from ancient Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria, which was burned down during the first large-scale barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths in 250-251 AD.
The bronze chariot bust of Dionysus and the Venus terracotta have been discovered in the same archaeological excavations in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv which have yielded a hoard of nearly 600 Ancient Roman silver coins (denarii) minted by all Emperors, Empresses-consorts, and some other royalties of the Roman Empire from Antonius Pius (r. 138 – 161 AD) until Philip I the Arab (r. 244 – 249 AD) and Philip II.
Invasion of the Roman Empire by the Goths in 250-251 AD when the Goths went as far south as Philipopolis (Plovdiv’s predecessor).
That was when much of ancient Philipopolis, including the buildings where the Dionysus bust, the Venus terracotta, and the hoard of 1st – 3rd century Roman silver coins have been found, was burned down by the Goth invaders.
The bronze bust of Dionysus, which used to decorate a local Thracian or Roman chariot, and the Venus terracotta statuette have been showcased as some of the most intriguing finds from last year in the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition at the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
The exhibition which shows the top archaeological discoveries in Bulgaria from the preceding year was opened in February 2021.
In fact, the bronze bust of Dionysus from the ancient city of Philipopolis as it was destroyed by the Goths has been chosen as the “face” of the 2020 Bulgarian Archaeology Exhibition, and has been featured on its main official poster.
Dionysus was one of the most popular gods in Ancient Thracian, Ancient Greek, and Ancient Roman mythology – although its Roman equivalent was known as Bacchus. He was the god of wine, winemaking, grape harvesting, fertility, festivity, ritual insanity, and religious ecstasy, among others.
Bulgarian archaeologists discovered the bronze bust of Dionysus in a room inside a large building in Philipopolis built in the 2nd century AD, alongside an iron axis. Both artifacts were part of a chariot, with the Dionysus bust used for its decoration.
The Venus terracotta found in the same building in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv is headless, with the goddess fully dressed. Venus, the Roman mythology equivalent of Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite was the deity of love, beauty, sex, and fertility, among others.
Archaeologists excavating the ruins of ancient Philipopolis in today’s Plovdiv have found wide-ranging evidence of the burning of the city by the Goths in 251 AD during the very first large-scale barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire, which also resulted in the first ever killing in battle of a Roman Emperor, or, rather, two Roman Emperors.
In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae.
They were initially halted by Emperor Trajan Decius at Nicopolis ad Istrum (near today’s Nikyup) but then went on to raid a number of Roman cities reaching as far south as Philipopolis (today’s Plovdiv) which was ransacked.
Upon retreating north, from Thrace (Thracia) into Moesia, the Goths were met by the forces of Emperor Trajan Decius and his son Herennius Etruscus near the major Roman city of Abritus (near today’s Razgrad in Northeast Bulgaria).
In 2016, near the town of Dryanovets, Bulgarian archaeologists discovered the battlefield of the Battle of Abritus, one of the greatest battles in the Late Antiquity.
In the Battle of Abritus in July 251 AD, 1765 years ago, the Goths routed the Roman forces, and killed not one but two Roman Emperors: Roman Emperor Trajan Decius (r. 249-251 AD) and his co-emperor and son Herennius Etruscus (r. 251 AD).
The Goths prevailed even though Roman Emperor Trajan Decius probably selected deliberately the location of the battlefield because of the flat terrain which gave the Roman legions an advantage.
The bronze chariot bust of Dionysus, the Venus terracotta, and the hoard of the hidden nearly 600 Roman silver coins have been found during rescue excavations in Plovdiv at 13 Leonardo Da Vinci Street by a team led by archaeologists Elena Bozhinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology and Ivo Topalilov from the Institute of Balkan Studies and Center of Thracology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
The particular excavation site is located south of the Early Christian Bishop’s Basilica of ancient Philipopolis, on a plot with an area of 200 square meters.
During the rescue digs there, the archaeologists have found ruins of buildings from the Roman, Late Antiquity, and medieval period.
The earliest building on the site was built at the end of the 2nd century and beginning of the 3rd century AD. It was partially exposed by the researchers, including parts of the two-floor building proper, its inner year, and its auxiliary structures.
The inside of the rooms in the building was restructured numerous times in order to raise its floor and hearth levels, the archaeologists explain in the official exhibition catalog and poster for the site.
During the reconstructions, at least one of the building’s rooms was decorated with murals including a Pompeiian red background, and a palm tree on a white background inside a brown frame.
It was in one of the building’s rooms that the archaeologists have found the two chariot fragments: the iron axis, and the bronze bust of ancient deity Dionysus, which was used for the chariot’s decoration.
“The building perished as a result of a fire in the middle of the 3rd century AD during the capturing of the city by the Goths as demonstrated by the excavated layer containing mudbrick and roof destruction,” the archaeological team informs.
The Roman silver coin hoard itself – containing a total of 593 silver coins, 2 bronze coins, and a bronze bracelet and a bronze earring – have been found next to a skeleton in the yard of the building.
After Philipopolis was burned down by the Goths in 251 AD, the site in question was redeveloped at the beginning of the 4th century AD with the construction of a large public building.
It had an aula (grand hall) decorated with floor mosaics and murals with multicolored geometric motifs. The building in question was also destroyed in a fire although its precise dating is yet to be determined through the further study of the recovered artifacts.
Remains from the Middle Ages at the excavated site have included the cellars of houses from the 11th – 13th century, and a small part from a massive building.
Learn more about the ancient city of Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv in Southern Bulgaria, in the Background Infonotes below!
Also check out these other relevant stories:
Please consider donating to us to help us preserve and revive ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com to keep bringing you more and more exciting archaeology and history stories. Learn how to donate here:
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.
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). Recent excavations, however, have disputed that title.
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.
Your contribution for free journalism is appreciated!