Archaeologists Unearth Roman Empire’s Danube Road, Mysterious ‘Fortresslike’ Building in Ancient Novae near Bulgaria’s Svishtov
A section of the main road of the Roman Empire which ran all along the southern bank of the Danube River has been unearthed by the Bulgarian and Polish archaeologists excavating the city of Novae near today’s town of Svishtov.
The newly exposed Roman road section is the Via Principalis, one of the main streets of the military camp and later major city of Novae.
However, Novae’s Via Principalis was in fact part of the strategic Roman highway lining the Danube’s southern bank for hundreds of years in the Antiquity and Late Antiquity.
The discovery also pinpoints the spot where the Novae military camp was first established by the soldiers from the Augustus’ Eight Legion (Legio VIII Augusta) who were later replaced by the troops from the First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica).
The newly found section of the Danube road dates to 40s-60s AD. It is paved with huge flat stones slabs, and is in a very good condition, reports the Bulgarian National Television.
The fortress and city of Novae was the headquarters of the Roman First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica) from 69 AD until at least the 430s, i.e. for almost four hundred years it was one of the major Roman and later Byzantine strongholds defending the so called Limes Moesiae, the Danubian frontier of the Roman Empire.
Ancient Novae and today’s Bulgarian town of Svishtov are situated at the southernmost point of the Danube River. This is also a location where the banks of the Danube are low, the river is narrow, and easier to cross, so it is considered no accident that the Romans picked the spot to build the Novae military camp there.
In its Lower Danube section, the Roman Empire’s Danube road was instrumental in the preparation of Emperor Trajan’s (r. 98-117 AD) campaign against the Thracian tribes north of the river, the Dacians.
Thus, the Thracian (Getian / Dacian) regions north of the Lower Danube were conquered by the Romans under Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) in 106 AD, and were lost in 271 AD, while the rest of Ancient Thrace, south of the Danube, remained part of the Roman Empire and later the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) up until the expansion of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) south of the Danube in 680-681 AD.).
It is noted that the significance of the newly found section of the Roman Danube road cannot be overstated.
“The [Roman] military had no way of moving without a road because it moved in a certain formation. What is more, the supply units follow the army, and all of this is a heavy line stretched out for kilometers,” explains lead archaeologist Assoc. Prof. Evgeniya Gencheva from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia.
She emphasizes the importance of the fact that the Roman legionnaires were specialized in road construction, and that even a durable and complex facility such as the newly discovered section of Novae’s Via Principalis and the main Roman Danube road was built in months.
“The entire legion would be divided in cohorts. Each cohort would be assigned a section of a road to construct, and would build it very quickly and in an organized fashion… The [newly unearthed] Via Principalis [of Novae] coincides with the route of the Danube road, which started almost at the sources of the Danube, and followed the river, serving almost all Roman military camps [along it],” Gencheva elaborates.
Until the 2016 archaeological season, the researchers were aware Novae was started by legionnaires from the Augustus’ Eight Legion but did not know exactly where this happened. The archaeological layer from the 40s-60s AD left behind by them has also been found underneath the military headquarters and a centurion’s home.
Prof. Piotr Dyczek from Warsaw University in Poland, whose team has also taken part in the 57th season of archaeological excavations in the Roman city of Novae near Bulgaria’s Danube town of Svishtov, has pointed to wooden remains from the structures built by the first Roman legionnaires on the spot.
“At the beginning, everything was made of wood… This was in 40-60 AD. They weren’t sure yet if they were going to stay here. Their situation was unclear for a period of about 20 years,” he explains.
Massive stone buildings were constructed in Novae after the original legionnaires were replaced by the troops of the First Italian Legion stationed there in 69 AD. The archaeologists have found a black stamp of the Legion on one of the structures.
The fact that the First Italian Legion was stationed in Novae is seen as testimony to the importance of the military camp, which later grew into a major Late Antiquity city, to the Roman Empire.
“These were only people from Italy, not from the provinces. They came from the best families in the Italian Peninsula. They could read and write. For example, there are inscriptions on the bricks such as a love inscription in which a legionnaire says he loves some woman, an illegal wife. It is well written,” Dyczek says.
During the excavations of a centurion’s home, the archaeologists have found a very well preserved bronze candelabrum (candle holder) with a cross.
The most surprising discovery from the recent digs, however, has been a very massive stone building unearthed in the already excavated and even partly restored section of the Roman city of Novae.
“This is an extremely interesting find. A building made of such large stone blocks – this type of construction is typical for the fortress walls only. We have never encountered such a structure inside the fortress walls,” notes Gencheva.
For the time being, the archaeologists remain bewildered by the function of the mysterious massive building described as “a fortress within the fortress”.
The discovery of small household artifacts inside it has only added to the mystery. What is more, the building had a large yard, a well, and 2-3 floors.
“It was built still at the time of the military camp. We thought it might have been a cavalry barrack but… It was very expensive to build, a lot of money was invested in it, and it is very solid. What it was used for [is still unknown,” Gencheva says.
A section of the ruins of Novae were partly restored and exhibited in situ under a project financed with EU funding worth almost BGN 6 million (app. EUR 3 million) back in 2014.
It is also reported that Svishtov Municipality is working on a new restoration project to build upon the previous one, with the stated goal of making Novae the best and most fully exhibited Roman military camp in Europe.
Also check out our stories about the recent archaeological excavations and discoveries in the Ancient Roman city of Novae in Bulgaria’s Svishtov:
The Roman Military Camp and Late Antiquity City of Novae is located 4 km east of the Bulgarian Danube city of Svishtov in an area called Staklen (meaning “made of glass” – because of the Ancient Roman glass fragments on the site).
It was a legionary base and a Late Roman city which formed around its canabae, a civilian settlement near a Roman military camp, housing dependents, in the Roman province Moesia Inferior, later Moesia II, set up after the Roman Empire conquered Ancient Thrace south of the Danube in 46 AD. It had a total area of 44 hectares (108 acres), according to a decree of Roman Emperor Vespasian (r. 69-79 AD).
Novae is located near the southernmost point of the Danube where in 48 AD the 8th August Legion (Legio VIII Augusta) was stationed after participating in the suppression of a Thracian uprising.
In 69 AD, it was replaced by the First Italian Legion (Legio I Italica), which was headquartered there for the next almost 4 centuries, at least until the 430s AD, and was a major force in the defense of the so called Lower Danube limes (frontier) against barbarian invasions together with other Roman strongholds such as Sexaginta Prista (today’s Ruse), Durostorum (today’s Silistra), and Ratiaria (today’s Archar).
A testimony to the importance of Novae was that it was visited by three Roman Emperors: Trajan (r. 98-117 AD), Hadrian (r. 117-138 AD), and Caracalla (r. 198-217 AD). The most prosperous times for Novae was during the Severan Dynasty (r. 193-235 AD).
In 250 AD, about 70,000 Goths led by Gothic chieftain Cniva invaded the Roman Empire by crossing the Danube at Novae; regardless of the siege, however, the fortress of Novea did not fall into the hands of the Goths.
With the continuing Goth invasions and settlement in the Balkan provinces of the Roman Empire and East Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the 4th and the 5th century AD, in 418-451 AD Novae became the residence of Ostrogoth Chieftain Theodoric Strabo who was a rival of his kinsman, Theodoric the Great, King of the Germanic Ostrogoths (r. 475-526 AD).
The last traces of major construction at Novae date to the rule of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565 AD). At the end of the 6th and the early 7th century Novae was attacked by the Avars and the Slavs which led the Ancient Roman and Byzantine city to decline.
In the late 5th and 6th centuries Novae was the center of a bishopric. Novae was last mentioned as a city in written sources in the 7th century AD.
In 2014, the local authorities in Svishtov unveiled the partial restoration of the ruins of Novae with almost BGN 6 million (app. EUR 3.1 million) of EU funding.