In July 251, the swamps at an all but forgotten corner in the Balkan realms of the Roman Empire were about to become the witness of a devastating event. Two armies stood against one another, in the summer heat. The legions of Emperor Decius (249-251) and his son and co-ruler, Herennius Etruscus, stood against the army of the Goth leader, Cniva, in the final meeting of a long cat-and-mouse game.
Several months ago, Cniva had crossed the Danube in the biggest Gothic invasion in the Balkans so far and has wrecked havoc in the lands on both sides of the Stara Planina mountain. Now, Cniva was trying to take his men and booty into safety north of the Danube.
But Decius had guessed Cniva's intentions, and was now there, near the city of Abritus, in a bid to stop the Goths from withdrawing unpunished.
The manpower of the two armies were probably equal (estimates vary) but Decius had the confidence that he would defeat his enemy, as he had done earlier, at Nicopolis ad Istrum. Yet, in a fit of strategical brilliance, Cniva hid some of his regiments at a marshy part of the battlefield. When the Romans broke the Gothic lines and stormed deeper, they were besieged by the men in the marshes.
What followed was a massacre. The emperor, reportedly, had the misfortune to see his son and heir killed before his eyes; his military discipline provided him with enough strength to brush the tragedy away with the words "Do not mourn, as the death of a soldier is not a great loss to the Republic." Soon, however, Decius was himself dead, in one of the most devastating defeat the Roman army had ever experienced. Neither his, nor his son's bodies were ever recovered from the mud.
Abritus, the town near which the drama unfolded, is one of those Roman settlements that appeared in the region as military camps soon after the Roman conquest, and were later promoted to full-scale cities. It was founded sometime in the end of the 1st or the beginning of the 2nd centuries, either by Emperor Vespasian (69-79) or Emperor Trajan (98-117). The region is generally flat, and the camp was built on an easily defensible hill, which is now called Hisarlaka. The location was wisely chosen, as Abritus stood on the main road connecting Sexaginta Prista (modern Ruse) on the Danube with Mesembria (modern Nesebar) on the Black Sea and Hadrianopolis (modern Edirne). Two lesser roads intersected here, too, leading to Nicopolis ad Istrum and Odessos (modern Varna).
By the early 3rd century, the camp and the civic settlement nearby had grown big enough to be promoted to the rank of a true city.
The towers of Abritus came in a variety of shapes to impede wartime destruction
Ancient Abritus had straight streets, a forum and an aqueduct, shrines and devotees to a number of deities. Some of them were local, like the Thracian God Rider, others were Graeco-Roman, like Zeus, Artemis and Apollo. There were as well arrivals from the Middle East, like Sabazios, Cybele and Mithras, and from Central Europe, like Epona. The citizens also worshiped a local deity, the mysterious Goddess of Abritus. In the city, there were workshops dedicated solely to the production of votive tablets of metals. Their presence is now known by the number of bronze masters moulds, that are one of the most interesting exhibits in the museum of Abritus Archaeological Reserve.
The citizens of Abritus numbered local Thracians and veterans from the Roman legions, settlers from Italy and Gaul, and Greeks from Asia Minor. In the early 4th century, these were joined by Goths who were settled in the city as foederati, or "Barbarian" allies of the Roman Empire.
The city got its first proper fortification wall much after the fateful battle of 251. Constructed at the very beginning of the 4th century, the fortress was at the easily defensible height of Hisarlaka. It had 35 towers and 4 major gates, enclosing roughly an area of 15 ha. A section of it is today well preserved and exhibited, showing an interesting variety of towers – rectangular, U- and fan-shaped – that modern archaeologists have named Abritus system. The strange shape of the towers was for a purpose: during a siege, it was harder to hit with a catapult a target that had bent walls. Still, the walls proved useless in 376, when the Visigoths raided Abritus and burnt it to the ground.
The city remained a major regional centre in the 5th-6th centuries, but danger was never far. In 447, for example, the Huns of Attila took it and pillaged it. The fortifications were restored a century later, under Emperor Justinian (527-565), along with dozens of other fortresses in his Balkan realms. Soon, however, the pressure from the so-called Barbarians was too much for the citizens of Abritus. After a devastating pillage from the Avars, probably in 586, the city was abandoned and soon even its name was forgotten.
The remains of Abritus attracted the attention of archaeologists in the 1880s, when an early-Christian basilica on Hisarlaka hill was excavated and – wrongly – interpreted as a temple to Apollo. Systematic digs began in 1953, but sadly a lot of the city is now under a pharmaceutical factory.
Through the decades that have passed since the beginning of excavations, the complete course of the fortification wall was discovered, together with a number of private and public buildings, stone reliefs and artefacts.
In 1971, by the fortress wall of the city was discovered the biggest treasure of gold late Roman coins ever found in Bulgaria. It consists of 835 gold coins, weights about 4 kg and is from the 5th century. According to a hypothesis, it was hidden in 487, when the Goth foederati living around Novae (modern Svishtov), on the Danube, rebelled. Apparently, someone in Abritus decided to take preventive measures against impending pillage. The danger never materialised: led by Theodoric the Great, in 488 the Goths headed west, to Italy, where they established a kingdom. For some reason, the money of the Abritus hoard remained in their hiding-place.
Abritus was declared an archaeological reserve in 1984. Recently the site was sensibly renovated, with informative and well laid museum exhibition and a multimedia centre which brings to life the past of this Roman city.
A bronze helmet-mask from the 1st-2nd centuries. Probably worn during official ceremonies, it was an expensive object and is evidence for the wealth of early-Roman Abritus
A bronze master mould used by a local workshop to manufacture votive tablets. Abritus was a centre of production of cult objects. 14 such matrixes were discovered in its vicinity, in 1922, shedding light not only on the local production, but also on its most popular deities. They included Zeus and Hera, Heracles, Artemis and an unidentified goddess and god riders from the East
Tombstone with the portraits of the deceased family it belonged to. The relief follows the imperial fashion of the time, but its crude execution reveals that it was made by a provincial sculptor
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 opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.