The newly discovered 1st century AD Roman inscription in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv provides invaluable information about ancient Philipopolis and the Roman Province of Thrace. Photo: Plovdiv24
By Ivan Dikov / 11.28.2016
A missing fragment from an Ancient Roman inscription from the 90s AD has been discovered by archaeologists in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv revealing much about the early history of the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace), including the fact that Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater is several decades older than previously thought.
Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, which is also considered “Europe’s oldest city“, is the successor of the Ancient Thracian and Roman city of Philipopolis, and was also known as Trimontium in the Roman period (1st-4th century AD).
The newly found Roman inscription is in Greek. It has been discovered by archaeologist Maya Martinova from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology, and epigraphist Assist. Prof. Nikolay Sharankov from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, reports local news site Plovdvi24.
The inscription has been discovered during archaeological excavations in the underground galleries underneath the stage of Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater (also known as “the Antiquity Amphitheater”), the city’s most famous cultural and historical landmark. The digs began two weeks ago as part of a project for the restoration of the theater stage.
In October 2016, Plovdiv marked the 35th anniversary since the highly successful archaeological restoration of the Antiquity Theater which, among all else, is an operational performance venue.
The first military clashes of the Romans with Thracian tribes are believed to have occurred as early as the first half of the 2nd century BC.
All of Ancient Thrace south of the Lower Danube, including what had been left of the Odrysian Kingdom (5th century BC – 1st century AD) (which had been reduced to a client state of Rome by the early decades of the 1st century), was conquered by the Roman Empire in 46 AD.
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.)
Just recently, Bulgarian scholars presented their latest research through which they found out the name of the last King of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom before it was made a province of the Roman Empire.
The significance of the newly found inscription underneath the stage of the Antiquity Theater of ancient Philipopolis, today’s Plovdiv, is manifold.
First, it reveals that the first de facto “mayor” of Roman Philipopolis was a man named Titus Flavius Cotys (also spelled Kotys), son of Rhescuporis, an aristocrat who was a descendant of the royal family of the Ancient Thracian Odrysian Kingdom (5th century BC – 1st AD). He held the titles of high priest of the Imperial Cult of Ancient Rome, high archon, judicial representative, and was in charge of construction and public works in the city.
Second, the inscription provides more context of a conflict between the city of Philipopolis and the city of Perinthus (Heraclea) on the European coast of the Sea of Marmara (in today’s Turkey) over the status of capital of the Roman province of Thrace. As Sharankov has pointed out, originally Perinthus was made the provincial capital but towards the end of the 1st century AD Philipopolis rose in status, and two cities had to settle their dispute for primacy.
Last but not least, the newly found inscription also reveals that Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater was not built between 108 and 114 AD, during the reign of Roman Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) but is at least 20-30 years older.
The Roman Province of Thracia (Thrace). Map: Wikipedia
The inscription was carved into the stone base of a statue of Titus Flavius Cotys. Another fragment of the same inscription, namely its upper right corner, had been known for years, and had been studied by Sharankov but it did not reveal a sufficient amount of information.
“The text of the inscription is about Titus Flavius Cotys who was the high priest of the [Roman] Imperial Cult in the Province of Thracia (Thrace). He was a descendant of the last Thracian kings. This is the first source of information about him which also makes possible the dating of the Antiquity Theater to an earlier period,” Sharankov is quoted as saying.
“He was in fact the first mayor of the city of Philipopolis as we know it,” adds the epigraphist.
“We found the [remaining part] of the inscription in a Late Antiquity staircase from the early 4th century AD, when Christianity was being adopted, and those pagan monuments were of little meaning, and were hence used as construction material,” archaeologist Maya Martinova is quoted as saying.
She adds that the fragment containing the inscription is to be removed, conserved, and exhibited properly in the space underneath the stage of Plovdiv’s Antiquity Theater together with other archaeological structures.
According to media reports, part of the inscription designed to honor the de facto first mayor of ancient Philipopolis, roughly reads as follows,
“To the man who is from his ancestors, is a notable in the province, three times high priest of the Province of Thracia and the cities in it, judicial representative of the metropole and the person in charge of construction works, who during his terms as high archon decorated his motherland with splendid buildings.”
One of the splendid buildings in question is apparently the Antiquity Theater, a splendid performance venue even by modern standards fitting 3,500 spectators.
The discovery of the second fragment of the Roman inscription about Titus Flavius Cotys has been like finding a piece of a puzzle.
“We’ve known about the existence of this inscription for 10 years. [Back then] I researched the upper right corner of this inscription which, however, gave us incomplete information. Back then I saw that the rest of the inscription, judging by its size, was probably [built] in the Late Antiquity staircase. Unfortunately, for lack of time, [the staircase] had not been completely researched during the main excavations of the Theater. I told my colleagues from the Plovdiv Museum of Archaeology and Maya Martinova that if they get the chance, they should excavate this staircase to search for the other, lower part of the inscription, and it really turned out to be there,” Sharankov explains.
The architectural fragment bearing the 1st century AD inscription was discovered built into a 4th century AD straicase underneath the stage of the Antiquity Theater of ancient Philipopolis in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv. Photos: Plovdiv24
He points out that the new find is the earliest known ancient inscription providing information not only about the city of Philipopolis but also about its institutions and the establishment of a general assembly of the cities in the Roman Province of Thrace, and the leading role that Philipopolis began to play in the province under Roman Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96 AD).
“This was an honorary inscription underneath a statue. The upper part of the base still bears the marks of the spots where the feet of the statue were situated. It belonged to the most prominent citizen of Philipopolis at the end of the 1st century AD. This man was the descendant of the last [Odrysian] Thracian kings. As the inscription says, he was “from his ancestors, the first man in Thrace,” Sharankov points out.
He explains that during the said period a general assembly of the cities of the Roman province of Thracia (Thrace) was established. The assembly was supposed to look after the practice of the Roman Imperial Cult which signified loyalty to the government, and to protect the rights of the cities before the Roman authorities. Letters on part of the Roman authorities to the union of the cities in Thracia have been preserved, Sharankov notes.
“At the time when the Province of Thrace was created in 46 AD, the city of Perinthus on the Marmara Sea coast was declared its capital. However, Emperor Domitian decided that Philipopolis which was in the center of the province had to be the seat of this newly formed assembly of the cities, so it was granted the title of metropole, i.e. mother city of the entire province. The earliest known document about this is the newly discovered inscription dating back to ca. 90 AD,” elaborates the epigraphist.
Sharankov says further that the conflict for primacy in the Roman Province of Thracia between Perinthus, the original capital, and Philipopolis, the city granted more privileges by Emperor Domitian, was eventually resolved with an agreement reached between the two Roman cities.
“In fact, it was precisely in the Theater of Philipopolis where two monuments were erected [as a result of the agreement]. Their foundations can still be seen. They were the bases for two statues – one symbolizing the Province of Thrace, and another standing for the city of Perinthus. Thus, Philipopolis in a way paid tribute to Perinthus, and the conflict was settled in this way,” he explains.
The newly found inscription reveals the Antiquity Theater in Bulgaria’s Plovdiv was built by Flavius Titus Cotys ca. 90 AD, i.e. 2-3 decades earlier than previously thought. Photos: VisitPlovdiv, Plovdiv Municipality
The scholar also emphasizes the interesting name of Titus Flavius Cotys, which is a combination of Latin and Thracian names.
“Titus Flavius Cotys, son of Rhescuporis. He was Titus Flavius because Emperor Domitian or his father Emperor Vespasian granted him Roman citizenship. But he was also, Cotys, son of Rhescuporis, because these were two common names in the dynasty of the Thracian [Odrysian] kings whose heir this man was,” Sharakov adds.
He says the fact that Titus Flavius Cotys, in addition to being a high priest of the entire Roman Province of Thracia, was also a judicial representative of the city means that he probably legal education. The inscription also makes it clear that during his term as high archon, Titus Flavius Cotys “decorated the city with splendid buildings”, including what is known today as the Antiquity Theater of Bulgaria’s Plovdiv.
“[The fact that this man was an heir of the Thracian kings] is something typical about the Romans. When they would conquer some territory or would make it part of the Empire, they would use the local aristocracy, tasking it with the leadership positions in the newly established Roman administration. That is why they chose this man. We know that his descendants held senior positions in the city up until the 3rd-4th century AD, i.e. in a way the Thracian kings preserved their authority in Philipopolis,” Sharankov says.
He emphasizes that the family of Titus Flavius Cotys was probably very rich because in the Antiquity senior officials such a high priest or archon were usually expected to pay for public projects or events such as feasts with their own funds.
“[Titus Flavius Cotys was three times the high priest of the province and the cities in it. You can imagine what kind of wealth and expenditures this signified. He also probably funded his public construction projects with his own money, not with the city’s funds which weren’t plentiful. This was very typical of the Antiquity – the fact that a rich man would want to spend their wealth for the common good and thus boost his image before his fellow citizens,” Sharankov concludes.
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).
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 powerfulAncient 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 makingPhilippopolis 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 underKhan (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 tunnelwhich, 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.