3rd Century BC Decree Found on Black Sea Island Proves Ties between Ancient Greek Cities Apollonia Pontica in Bulgaria, Heraclea Pontica in Turkey

3rd Century BC Decree Found on Black Sea Island Proves Ties between Ancient Greek Cities Apollonia Pontica in Bulgaria, Heraclea Pontica in Turkey

The stone inscription decree provides evidence about the cordial relations between Apollonia Pontica (today’s Sozopol in Bulgaria) and Heraclea Pontica (today’s Karadeniz Eregli in Turkey). Photo: Archaeologia Bulgarica NGO & Journal

A rare ancient document, a decree of the assembly of the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica, today’s Sozopol in Southeast Bulgaria, has been discovered during excavations on the Black Sea island of St. Ivan (St. John), providing a first-hand testimony to cordial ties the аcity had with Heraclea Pontica, another Ancient Greek colony but located in today’s Turkey.

Bulgaria’s Black Sea resort of Sozopol, the successor of Apollonia Pontica / Sozopolis, is known for its extremely rich archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage – both on the mainland (where an Attica red-figure pottery krater depicting the myth about Oedipus and the Sphinx was discovered recently), and on the nearby St. Ivan (St. John) Island.

The island is best known for the discovery of the relics of St. John the Baptist in 2010 by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov. However, the excavations there keep yielding new finds such as the 2015 discovery of a tomb possibly containing the bones of the monastery founder, a Syrian monk who brought the relics.

The St. Ivan Island is located about 900 meters away from the closest point on the Bulgarian mainland, the Stolets Peninsula (Cape Stolets, or Scamnia) in the town of Sozopol.

The notable 3rd century BC decree of the assembly of Apollonia Pontica has been discovered on the St. Ivan Island during the 2018 excavations led by Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov in the ruins of the Early Christian and Early Byzantine monastery St. John the Baptist.

The discovery has been announced by Archaeologia Bulgarica, an NGO promoting Bulgarian archaeology and cultural heritage chaired by Prof. Lyudmil Vagalinski (presently Director of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia), which is also associated with the Archaeologia Bulgarica academic journal.

The 3rd century BC decree of the assembly of the Ancient Greek polis of Apollonia Pontica is inscribed on a marble rock, which was apparently brought from the ancient city on the mainland to the island.

It likely stood in a pagan shrine there before the stone block was re-used in the construction of the monastery in the Late Antiquity / Early Middle Ages.

The surviving part of the decree has been read and translated by Bulgaria’s best epigraphist, Assist. Prof. Nikolay Sharankov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.

The 3rd century BC decree was probably placed in a pagan shrine on the St. Ivan Island before it ended up as a “brick” in Early Christian era construction. Photo: Archaeologia Bulgarica NGO & Journal

“The official records of this city, not unlike those of any other city in the Antiquity, were thousands but most of them were inscribed only on papyrus and kept in city archives. Only decrees that granted honorary citizenship and privileges for people who great contribution to the city were inscribed in stone,” the NGO explains.

The such stone inscriptions were usually placed in shrines or city squares so they can be read by everyone, thus simultaneously glorifying the rewarded citizens and encouraging the rest to take after them.

According to epigraphist Sharankov, the newly discovered decree is even more precious in that it also casts light on the international, or, rather, inter-state relations of ancient Apollonia Pontica with another Black Sea city, the Ancient Greek city of Heraclea Pontica on the southern Black Sea coast, today’s city of Karadeniz Eregli in the Asian part of Turkey.

(Heraclea Pontica should not be confused with Heraclea Sintica, another ancient city named after hero Hercules (Heracles) but whose ruins are located in today’s Southwest Bulgaria, and have recently been yielding incredible finds.)

There have been hypotheses about connections between the Ancient Greek colonies of Apollonia Pontica and Heraclea Pontica for a long time based on archaeological findings in Bulgaria’s Sozopol.

However, for the first time those hypotheses have been corroborated by a written source, the NGO points out.

A map showing both Ancient Greek Black Sea colonies in question, Apollonia Pontica (Sozopol, Bulgaria), and Heraclea Pontica (Karadeniz Eregli, Turkey). Map: Wikipedia

The 3rd century BC decree of the assembly of Apollonia Pontica lauds the “wonderful and virtuous citizens” sent to it by “the always friendly and well-disposed towards our people Heraclea” [Pontica].

The decree enumerates the contributions of the said citizens of Heraclea towards the well-being of Apollonia, and proposes that they be granted the highest possible honors.

The list of the honors and privileges in question remained in the lost part of the stone inscription.

“However, it is not hard to presume what were the honors in question, they were customary for these types of documents,” says Sharankov.

“The citizens of Heraclea [Pontica] became honorary representatives of their own city in Apollonia [Pontica], they received the right to buy real estate property there and to trade there without additional taxes and duties, not to wait their turn in judicial trials, to be given the floor with priority in the council and the assembly, to occupy the front row seats in the theater, and so on. A copy of the decree was supposed to be sent to their home city [of Heraclea Pontica],” explains the epigraphist.

Among the other valuable information, the discovery of the stone inscription on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island offers evidence that a large pagan shrine must have existed on the island long before the construction of the Early Christian monastery and church.

Such a shrine was most likely dedicated to Apollo, the main deity of the Ancient Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica, today’s Sozopol.

A Google Maps image showing the islands of St. Ivan and St. Petar, and the town of Sozopol with the St. Cyricus Island (today a peninsula), and the Stolets (Scamnia) Peninsula. Photo: Google Maps

Bulgaria’s St. Ivan (St. John) Island off the coast of Sozopol (left) with the smaller St. Petar (St. Peter) Island to the right. Photo: Spiritia, Wikipedia

Learn more about Sozopol (Apollonia Pontica) and the St. Ivan Island in the Background Infonotes below!

Also make sure to check out these listicles:

6 Amazing Artifacts with Ancient Greek Mythology Scenes Discovered in Bulgaria

12 Awesomely Inspiring Ancient Inscriptions Discovered by Archaeologists in Bulgaria Recently and What They Reveal


Learn more about the excavations of the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea of the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol and the Apollo Colossus of Apollonia Pontica:

St. John the Baptist Relics Ended Up in Bulgaria’s Sozopol to Counterbalance Huge Ancient Apollo Statue and Temple, Archaeologist Hypothesizes

Bulgaria’s Sozopol to Restore Ancient Statue of Apollo, ‘Colossus of Apollonia Pontica’, Not Unlike Greece’s Plans to Rebuild Colossus of Rhodes

Archaeologist Finds Two Human Skeletons, One Ram Skeleton in Early Christian Tomb on St. Ivan Island in Black Sea Off Bulgaria’s Sozopol

Bulgarian Archaeologist Discovers Early Christian Tomb of Senior Clergyman on Sozopol’s St. John Island in Black Sea

Bulgaria’s Sozopol to Celebrate 5 Years since Discovery of St. John the Baptist Relics with Archaeological Exhibit

St. John the Baptist Relics Found in Bulgaria’s Sozopol ‘Could’ Be Authentic, Oxford Archaeology Dating Expert Finds

Relevant Books on Amazon.com:

The Greeks Overseas: The Early Colonies and Trade

Colony and Mother City in Ancient Greece


Background Infonotes:

The history of the resort town of Sozopol (ancient Apollonia Pontica, Sozopolis) on Bulgaria’s Southern Black Sea coast started during the Early Bronze Age, in the 5th millennium BC, as testified by the discoveries of artifacts found in underwater archaeological research, such as dwellings, tools, pottery, and anchors. In the 2nd-1st millennium BC, the area was settled by the Ancient Thracian tribe Scyrmiades who were experienced miners trading with the entire Hellenic world.

An Ancient Greek colony was founded there in 620 BC by Greek colonists from Miletus on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The colony was first called Anthea but was later renamed to Apollonia in favor of Ancient Greek god Apollo, a patron of the setters who founded the town. It became known as Apollonia Pontica (i.e. of the Black Sea). Since the Late Antiquity, the Black Sea town has also been called Sozopolis.

The Greek colony of Apollonia Pontica emerged as a major commercial and shipping center, especially after the 5th century AD when it became allied with the Odrysian Kingdom, the most powerful state of the Ancient Thracians. As of the end of the 6th century BC, Apollonia Pontica started minting its own coins, with the anchor appearing on them as the symbol of the polis.

Apollonia became engaged in a legendary rivalry with another Ancient Greek colony, Mesembria, today’s Bulgarian resort town of Nessebar, which was founded north of the Bay of Burgas in the 6th century BC by settlers from Megara, a Greek polis located in West Attica. According to some historical accounts, in order to counter Mesembria’s growth, Apollonia Pontica founded its own colony, Anchialos, today’s Pomorie (though other historical sources do not support this sequence of events), which is located right to the south of Mesembria.

Apollonia managed to preserve its independence during the military campaigns of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon under Philip II (r. 359-336 BC), and his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BC). Apollonia, today’s Sozopol, is known to have had a large temple of Greek god Apollo (possibly located on the Sts. Quiricus and Julietta Island, also known as the St. Cyricus Island), with a 13.2-meter statue of Apollo created by Calamis, a 5th century BC sculptor from Ancient Athens. In 72 BC, Apollonia Pontica was conquered by Roman general Lucullus who took the Apollo statue to Rome and placed it on the Capitoline Hill. After the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in the Roman Empire, the statue was destroyed.

In the Late Antiquity, Apollonia, also called Sozopolis lost some of its regional center positions to Anchialos, and the nearby Roman colony Deultum (Colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium). After the division of the Roman Empire into a Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire (today known as Byzantium) in 395 AD, Apollonia / Sozopolis became part of the latter. Its Late Antiquity fortress walls were built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Anasthasius (r. 491-518 AD), and the city became a major fortress on the Via Pontica road along the Black Sea coast protecting the European hinterland of Constantinople.

In 812 AD, Sozopol was first conquered for Bulgaria by Khan (or Kanas) Krum, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD) in 803-814 AD. In the following centuries of medieval wars between the Bulgarian Empire and the Byzantine Empire, Sozopol changed hands numerous times. The last time it was conquered by the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) was during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Todor (Teodor) Svetoslav Terter (r. 1300-1322 AD). However, in 1366 AD, during the reign of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander (r. 1331-1371 AD), Sozopol was conquered by Amadeus IV, Count of Savoy from 1343 to 1383 AD, who sold it to Byzantium.

During the period of the invasion of the Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century AD, Sozopol was one of the last free cities in Southeast Europe. It was conquered by the Ottomans in the spring of 1453 AD, two months before the conquest of Constantinople despite the help of naval forces from Venice and Genoa.

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Sozopol was a major center of (Early) Christianity with a number of large monasteries such as the St. John the Baptist Monastery on St. Ivan Island off the Sozopol coast where in 2010 Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov made a major discovery by finding relics of St. John the Baptist; the St. Apostles Monastery; the St. Nikolay (St. Nikolaos or St. Nicholas) the Wonderworker Monastery; the Sts. Quriaqos and Julietta Monastery on the St. Cyricus (St. Kirik) Island, the Holy Mother of God Monastery, the St. Anastasia Monastery.

During the Ottoman period Sozopol was often raided by Cossack pirates. In 1629, all Christian monasteries and churches in the city were burned down by the Ottoman Turks leading it to lose its regional role. In the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829, Sozopol was conquered by the navy of the Russian Empire, and was turned into a temporary military base.

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, Sozopol remained a major fishing center. As a result of intergovernmental agreements for exchange of population in the 1920s between the Tsardom of Bulgaria and the Kingdom of Greece, most of the ethnic Greeks still remaining in Sozopol moved to Greece, and were replaced by ethnic Bulgarians from the Bulgarian-populated regions of Northern Greece.

The modern era archaeological excavations of Sozopol were started in 1904 by French archaeologists who later took their finds to The Louvre Museum in Paris, including ancient vases from the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the golden laurel wreath of an Ancient Thracian ruler, and a woman’s statue from the 3rd century BC. Important archaeological excavations of Sozopol were carried out between 1946 and 1949 by Bulgarian archaeologist Ivan Venedikov.

The most recent excavations of Sozopol’s Old Town started in 2010. In 2011-2012, Bulgarian archaeologists Tsonya Drazheva and Dimitar Nedev discovered a one-apse church, a basilica, and an Early Christian necropolis. Since 2012, the excavations of Sozopol have been carried out together with French archaeologists.

In 2010, during excavations of the ancient monastery on the St. Ivan (St. John) Island in the Black Sea, off the coast of Bulgaria’s Sozopol, Bulgarian archaeologist Prof. Kazimir Popkonstantinov discovered a reliquary containing relics of St. John the Baptist. In 1974, the Bulgarian government set up the Old Sozopol Archaeological and Architectural Preserve.

A 2012 National Geographic documentary featuring the discovery of the St. John the Baptist relics in Bulgaria’s Sozopol can be seen here (in English and here in Bulgarian).


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