Europe's greatest river is dotted with ancient remains
A mountain is a better protection than a river, but in 15 AD, when the Romans took over the Thracian lands between the Danube and the Stara Planina mountain, they had no choice: The mighty river, whose upper course they had already mastered, became the frontier of the expanding empire, setting a clear line between the civility of Pax Romana and the unruliness of the independent people on the other side of the river, the Barbarians, as the Romans called them.
The Danubian limes, or border, was one of the crucial fringes of the empire, a giant line of fortifications created to stop invasions from the north. The section of the river which is now in Bulgaria was fully incorporated into it. To guard their new border, the Romans created a set of castra, or military camps, castella, or small fortresses, and watchtowers along the river. Four legions were deployed in the camps along the Danubian shore of present-day Bulgaria: in Ratiaria, Oescus, Novae and Durostorum. An estimated 60,000 soldiers protected the porous river border, helped by a developed infrastructure net. A river fleet, probably stationed in the castellum of Sexaginta Prista (modern Ruse), patrolled this part of the river. Along the shore ran a military road ensuring secure connections. The Romans knew the importance of roads for military campaigns, and used to build these almost immediately after establishing their power over conquered lands. Sadly, modern-day Bulgaria lacks a similar riverside road along the Danube, and this leg of your Roman journey will regularly lead your far from the river and then back to it.
The Roman-built riverside infrastructure included also a bridge over the river at Oescus built in the early 4th Century.
The soldiers were not alone in the Roman realms along the river. The conquered Thracians were still there, and many of them lived in their old settlements close to the Roman camps and strongholds. And there were the civilians who would gather around each legion: merchants, craftsmen and publicans, prostitutes and soldiers' wives (legionaries were banned from marrying before the end of their 20-plus years of service; they would start families though not legal ones). This motley gathering of people from all corners of the empire would settle near the legion's camp, in civic settlements the Romans called canabae. After completing their service, many veterans would move to the canabae or would become landlords somewhere nearby.
By the beginning of the 2nd Century the military camps and their canabae had grown to such an extent that Emperor Trajan promoted some of them to the rank of colonia, recognising them as representatives of the imperial power. Being a colonia bore both prestige and practical gains, among them tax and judicial privileges. Happy with their new status, Ratiaria and Oescus added the emperor's family name, Ulpius, to theirs. In the 160s Emperor Marcus Aurelius went further, and promoted some lower Danube settlements to the rank of municipia, which granted them self-governance.
Marcus Aurelius's decision probably had something to do with the fact that after long decades of calm on the Danubian border (bar the Dacian attacks of 85/86 AD and the subsequent Dacian Wars), the enemy was finally at the border. In 170-171 the Costoboci ravaged the Balkan provinces of the empire.
Eventually the border was pacified, but in the 3rd Century the so-called Barbarians used the opportunity to make the most of the economic and political crisis in the empire, and crossed the Danube several times, to disastrous effect. The tumult began in 239, and peaked with the invasion in 250 of the Goths led by Cniva, who wreaked havoc in the Danubian Plain, crossed the Stara Planina mountain and captured Philippopolis.
It was all downhill from then on. In 269 an estimated 300,000 Barbarians crossed the Danube, and in the early 270s Rome was forced to abandon the territories north of the river, which it had controlled since the times of Trajan. The settlements on the Danube became frontier outposts. At the end of the 3rd and in the early 4th centuries, an administrative reform, the change of the imperial capital to nearby Constantinople and controlled settlements of Goths in the Danubian Plain eased the pressure on the border for some time. This didn't last. In the 360s the Goths crossed the Danube again, reaching, in 378, as far as Hadrianopolis (today's Edirne, Turkey).
The surviving Roman fortifications gave the name of the modern town of Kula: in Bulgarian, kula means "tower." The tower was nearly destroyed in the 19th Century, when a local Ottoman administrator decided to demolish it in a bid to give the town a more modern look
In the 5th Century a new horror crossed the Danube: the Huns, led by a fearsome man, Attila. The Huns eventually continued westwards only to be replaced by another menace – the Avars, the Slavs and, later, the proto-Bulgarians. In the 6th Century the empire tried to ease the pressure on the Danubian border with military campaigns and reinforcement of fortifications, mainly under the emperors Justinian I (527-565) and Maurice (582-602).
But by the 580s the Avar destruction on the Danubian towns and forts had proved too much for the people there. Many forts and towns along the lower Danube were abandoned and the locals moved to the hills, in easier to defend fortresses.
The remains of the Roman border outposts, camps and cities dot the lower Danube today and are fascinating exploration sites. Sometimes they lie hidden in overgrowth or under buildings and streets from centuries of continuous inhabitation, sometimes they are exhibited and reconstructed. In the past few years Bulgaria and Romania have been campaigning for the inclusion of these sites in the UNESCO World Heritage List, as a cross-border monument of culture.
The first remains of ancient Roman fortification on the Bulgarian part of the Danube are soon after the Serbian border and the isthmus of the Timok River, near the village of Vrav. Dorticum castellum was built in the 1st Century and soon grew to a local trade and tax collection point. It was abandoned in the 6th and 7th centuries. The remains of the fortification have been preserved, together with the necropolis and the vicus, or civilian village near the fortification, but there is little to be seen in situ.
In the centre of the nearby town of Kula you will find the more spectacular remains of a 16-metre circular tower. It belongs to the Castra Martis castle, built in the 3rd Century to secure the border after the Roman withdrawal from the lands north of the river. The fortification was reinforced under Justinian I, but was completely abandoned after the ruinous Avar invasion of 586.
Vidin is the first major stop on the route of discovering Roman heritage along the Danube. The city's modern name is a derivation of its Roman one, Bononia, which according to some historians stems from Dunonia, the name of a 3rd-Century BC Celtic settlement. Interestingly, Bononia is also the old name of Bologna in Italy.
In the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, Bononia on the Danube was a major Roman outpost as it controlled a crucial bend of the river. In 320 its fortifications were heavily reconstructed, covering an area of over 20 ha. In the times since, most of the castrum has been overbuilt with streets and buildings, but the initial layout of the later Baba Vida Fortress, the city's most popular site, is from the Roman era. The local history museum, situated in a beautiful 18th-Century house, has an interesting though not extensive collection of artefacts from Roman Vidin. Among them stands out the 2nd-Century bronze portrait of a young man.
Some of the most interesting exhibits in the museum, like the marble statue of Hercules and the floor mosaic from a villa rustica were found not in ancient Bononia but in the biggest settlement in the region in the Roman times.
Today one could hardly recognise the muddy hills around the village of Archar, about 27 km east of Vidin, as Ulpia Ratiaria, the famed city which grew from the camp of a succession of Roman legions stationed in the 1st Century AD at this part of the Danube course.
In Roman times, Ulpia Oescus was one of the major cities in the region, standing at the one end of a bridge over the Danube. Today its quiet ruins lie by a sleepy village, Gigen
Ratiaria (the name supposedly comes from the Latin words for either raft or river ship) appeared during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79). Initially a military camp, it became a colonia in 106, attracting a number of settlers from Italy and Asia Minor. The city was abuzz with activity, flourishing from the trade along the river and the roads leading to the Bosphorus and the Aegean. Crafts flourished inside Ratiaria, and its surroundings nurtured the prosperous mansions and villas of local landlords.
Yet the city couldn't recover from the 586 Avar attack, and was abandoned.
Ratiaria might have easily become one of most attractive Roman sites on the Bulgarian section of the Danube if it hadn't fallen in the hands of local treasure hunters. In spite of archaeologists' efforts, since the 1990s illegal digging has been a constant plague for the ruins of this ancient city.
Once the village of Archar is behind you, Lom appears, where the humble remains of Almus are preserved. The small fortress guarded the northern end of a provincial road whose south section ended in Serdica. It was built in the 2nd Century and probably controlled a river harbour, but in spite of large reconstructions by emperors Diocletian and Constantine, it fell to the Huns in the 5th Century and was later abandoned.
Then come the ruins of Augustae, 3 km north of the village of Harlets. Established in the 1st Century as a fortified post, the settlement grew between the 2nd and 6th centuries until the Avars put an end to life there.
The Augustae's remains are far from spectacular, but don't miss the opportunity to stop at the village of Gigen and the city of Ulpia Oescus, about 70 km to the east. In the 1st Century AD the Romans established a major military camp here, the seat of Legio V Macedonica and later of Legio IV Scytica. In 106 Emperor Trajan promoted the settlement to a colonia and later the growing number of inhabitants required the extension of the initially fortified space of 18 ha with an outer city, covering additional 10 ha. In 328 Emperor Constantine visited Oescus for a special event – the inauguration of the bridge over the Danube.
The city withstood a number of Barbarian attacks, until the Avars brought about complete destruction. Situated now on the outskirts of Gigen, the ruins of Oescus are not signposted, and the site is in a picturesque state of dilapidation, with marble friezes and columns lying among the undergrowth – a real delight if you grow tired of modern reconstructions of ancient sites.
Belene, about 70 km to the east, has the dubious fame of the place where one of the most atrocious political prisons in Communist Bulgaria operated, and where the controversial second nuclear power plant in the country may one day be built. The town has also Roman heritage – the remains of the Dimum castellum. Established in the 1st Century as the seat of an auxiliary cavalry unit, it later grew in importance as a major customs, providing the current local authorities to advertise Belene and Dimum as "the customs of the Moesia province."
Restorations of the central parts of Roman Novae
The most visually striking Roman remains on this part of the Danube are in nearby Svishtov. There, outside the city on the road to Ruse, you'll see arches and walls of exposed concrete and stainless steel, a tasteless reconstruction of the central part of Novae, with a military hospital, a small temple and the praetorium, or the seat of the garrison's commander of Legio VIII Augusta and, later, of Legio I Italica.
Novae appeared as a military camp in the 1st Century, and sometime between the mid-2nd Century and the beginning of the 3rd Century became a municipium. At the time of its greatest prosperity the city spread on about 44 ha, and had a lively canabe attached to it. Over the years Novae witnessed major events like the imperial visits of Trajan, Hadrian and Caracalla, and the 250 Goths invasion. In the 5th Century Goths were allowed to settle around, and Novae became the centre of their political representation in the region.
Novae has been excavated by Bulgarian and Polish archaeologists, and in springtime it hosts the Eagle on the Danube, Bulgaria's most significant historical reenactment event, in which dozens of people dressed like legionnaires, priests, senators and noble ladies walk around the out-of-style concrete of the reconstructed Roman city.
The next bit of Roman heritage by the Danube is Iatrus, a 4th-Century castellum in the modern Krivina village. It was built as a fortification, but by the beginning of the 5th Century it had attracted significant civilian population, probably including Goths. Iatrus was abandoned after the Hun invasion in the 5th Century.
Today Ruse, about 70 km to the east of Krivina, is Bulgaria's largest city on the Danube and the best place in the country to see fin-de-siècle architecture – the remains of an economic and cultural boom experienced between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries. In Roman times, Sexaginta Prista castellum was more humble, a fortification stretching along the river bank. The name of the castellum can be interpreted as "the port of 60 ships" and indicates that Sexaginta Prista was a major military port.
Unlike the concrete mess which the reconstructed Novae is, the remains of Sexaginta Prista have been preserved and exhibited much more sensibly. About 50 m from the walls, in the company of temples and the principia of the fortress, discovered during excavations, is the small museum, partly based in a Cold War-era bunker. A reconstructed wooden watchtower and a scaled model of a Roman river ship are the exposition's main attractions. For more, visit the excellent Regional History Museum. There, besides looking at Roman-era artefacts, you can experience history firsthand, learning, for example, how much a soldier's half-yearly salary weighed.
Sexaginta Prista, the Roman predecessor of Ruse, was a major Roman military port on this part of the Danube
From the end of the 1st up to the 6th centuries, the Transmarisca castellum near modern-day Tutrakan, was the home of an auxiliary military unit and served as an important road station. Its remains are far from impressive, but were lavishly restored recently.
The ruins of another castellum and road station, Tegulcium, by the village of Vetren, were not that lucky. The Danube destroyed a significant part of the once lively settlement, and the hostilities during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and the First World War obliterated much of what had remained.
The Roman remains of Durostorum, in Silistra, the last Bulgarian city on the Danube, are worthy of special attention.
Durostorum was the seat of the Legio XI Claudia, and was promoted to a municipium by either Marcus Aurelius or Caracalla. In the following centuries Durostorum became the major imperial outpost in this part of the Danube. The city's remains are a national archaeological reserve which effectively covers about two-thirds of the area of the modern town.
The massive fortifications of the ancient town are partially exhibited in the city park. In 2015 major repairs led to the discovery of fragments of murals which decorated a 2nd-Century official building, and parts of the early-6th-Century fortifications. Sadly, some of the city's archaeological heritage was lost recently, when a flashy hotel was built over it. The citadel of Durostorum has also fallen prey to new construction – a shopping centre was built over it, leaving visible only bits of the ancient structure.
Long before Christianity became the official religion in the Roman Empire, it had a strong following in Durostorum. During the anti-Christian persecutions which marked the reign of Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd Century, 12 Durostorum citizens were martyred because of their faith. In the 5th and 6th centuries the city became the centre of a bishopric and a large basilica was built in it to correspond to the newly acquired status. Its ruins can be seen in the city garden.
Ancient Durostorum's most astonishing Roman site is far from the riverbank. It is a lavishly painted tomb from the 4th or 5th Century. An array of birds covers the ceiling, and on the central wall is the portrait a man, probably a high-ranking magistrate, and his wife. To the left and right of the couple, several servants carry clothes and expensive objects, giving us an idea of the everyday life in the Balkans in the Late Antiquity.
Besides the owners in the main scene, two of the persons depicted in the tomb are of particular interest. A man carrying a pair of trousers for his master sports the typical hairstyle of the Goths, a clear indication that a man from this Germanic people was living in Roman Silistra at the time. The other is a beautiful girl, thought by some to have been the master's mistress, holding a heavy incense burner.
The man who commissioned this beautiful tomb never used it – the sepulchre was found empty in 1942. Whether the owners were killed before their times during a Barbarian invasion or were forced to leave Durostorum for good remains a mystery – one of the many concerning the Roman history of the Bulgarian Danube.
A servant of a wealthy family, depicted on the Silistra tomb. His haircut suggests that he was of Germanic origin, indicating the multinational mixture that was Roman Bulgaria
Early Christian basilica and fortifications by the Danube, in Silistra
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.