Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.43

Ian P. Haynes (ed.), Early Roman Thrace: New Evidence from Bulgaria. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, 82.   Portsmouth, RI:  Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2011.  Pp. 158.  ISBN 9781887829823.  $87.00.  

Reviewed by Graziela Byros, Northwestern University (

Table of Contents.

Seven years after the publication in the JRA Supplementary Series of a landmark synthetic study on Roman Dacia,1 the present volume on neighboring Roman Thrace represents another valuable addition to a growing field of works intended to familiarize a broader, international scholarly audience with various aspects of archaeological research ongoing in the former Eastern European provinces of the Roman Empire.2 The volume, edited by I. P. Haynes, brings together eight essays, based on papers presented at a Roman Archaeology Conference session held at the University of London on 31 March, 2007. As the editor points out in the introductory essay, the geographic focus of the archaeological research presented here is on the territory of modern-day Bulgaria (the Roman provinces of Thracia and Moesia Inferior), while its chronological span covers roughly the period from the establishment of Roman dominion in the area (in the first century A.D.) to the administrative reforms of Diocletian, towards the end of the third century A.D.(11).

In the opening essay, I. P. Haynes offers an overview of the influences which helped shape the evolution of civilization in Thrace: from the war-like native Thracian tribes; to the Greek and Macedonian colonists who provided the main impetus for the process of urbanization mainly on the fringes of Thrace; and finally the Roman administration and the presence of the Roman army. But it is Haynes’ main contention that, despite the evident process of evolution and change, elements of continuity persisted, especially with regard to the customs and traditions of the native Thracians (for example, in certain funerary and religious practices, in a distinct preference for rural, as opposed to urban living, as well as in certain forms of local government). Indeed, the other seven contributions of the volume illustrate this overarching theme of continuity and change by investigating different aspects of “the evolving picture of provincial life” (11) in its various manifestations: urban life, economic production, funerary and religious rites, language and society.

In “Greek traditions and Roman taste: continuity and change in Odessos/Odessus (3rd c. B.C.–3rd c. A.D.),” A. Minchev surveys the cross-historical development of the Black Sea Greek colony of Odessos, by examining its evolving economic, political, cultural and religious life, as well as its demographics, administrative structures, city planning and architecture. The author attributes the survival and relative thriving of this Greek apoikia well through the chaos of the third century A.D. to its successful “blend of strong and long-lived Greek traditions, a refreshing Roman taste, and more than a pinch of ‘Thracian spice’” (37). In support of his argument, Minchev marshals a diverse range of evidence: literary, epigraphic (citing at least one yet unpublished inscription), numismatic, sculptural and architectural.

“Light industry in Roman Thrace: the case of lime production” by L. F. Vagalinski, presents an in-depth archaeological report on the Roman military lime-works recently excavated near Krivina (southwest Bulgaria), which appeared to have functioned for a brief period during the second half of the first century A.D.(55). This study of the seven lime kilns fully excavated thus far succeeds in offering fresh insight into the economic operations of the Roman army, while also raising new questions regarding the particular use of the lime produced here, and challenging previously accepted theories concerning the chronology of the particular type of kiln illustrated by the Krivina discoveries.

In “Thracian pit sanctuaries: continuity in sacred space,” K. Hawthorne, V. Varbanov and D. Dragoev examine a new type of site, yet one that is quite common in the Bulgarian archaeological landscape. The authors provide both a general overview of pit sanctuary sites (from the point of view of content and chronology), and a more detailed case study of one such site, lying beneath the Roman fort of Sexaginta Prista, on the banks of the Danube. Although the great number and contents of the pits suggest that they are “remains of ordinary people’s lives,” (60), at this relatively early stage of research the pit sanctuaries excavated thus far “raise more questions than they answer,” particularly with regard to their functions, as the authors cautiously admit (81).

D. Boteva’s paper, “The ‘Thracian Horseman’ reconsidered,” advances a provocative reinterpretation of evidence pertaining to the chronology and iconography of this mysterious cultic/funerary figure, which has constituted a source of scholarly debate for over a hundred years. In support of earlier studies by Vagalinsky and Hannestad,3 Boteva challenges the generally accepted dating of most Thracian Horseman votive reliefs, thus calling for a reconsideration of the chronology of the Thracian sanctuary of Asklepius near Slivnica (northwest Bulgaria), where fragments of 91 plaques and 37 statuettes of the Thracian Horseman were attested. The author also builds a compelling case for a semiotic approach to the interpretation of the iconography of this cultic figure, one based on an understanding of the visual elements of Thracian Horseman reliefs not merely as a “collection of symbols,” but rather as connected parts of a visual narrative, with its own precise “syntax, semantics and pragmatics.” (95-97)

In “Mortuary archaeology in Roman Thrace: the ‘Helikon’ funerary complex (Debelt Archaeological Reserve),” P. Balabanov investigates a traditional Thracian mound-shaped burial site known as the ‘Helikon tumulus,’ located not far from the Roman colonia Flavia Pacis Deultensium (Deultum). As the author demonstrates, the evidence from the 33 burials covering a period of roughly 1500 years testifies both to the endurance and continuity of local Thracian funerary traditions associated with the site through the 4th century A.D., and to significant changes in burial customs over a millennium and a half (including several so-called ‘nailed’ burials, a type of burial as of yet unattested elsewhere).

Continuing the funerary archaeology theme, R. Nenova-Merdjanova’s paper, “Production and consumption of bronzework in Roman Thrace” offers a survey of various types of bronze vessels deposited as grave-goods in the burials of provincial Thracian élite (although it is not entirely clear from the essay what the criteria are for labeling such graves as “élite” burials ––presumably the wealth of luxury goods found in such graves would contribute to such a qualification). The author explains in detail the specific uses of such vessels in the daily life of the Thracian household, and also, potentially, in traditional burial ceremonies. Manufacturing techniques and the provenance (whether produced locally or imported) of the bronzeware are discussed in some detail, thus offering interesting insights into the quality and artisanship of the objects, as well as into the luxury goods trade patterns in Roman Thrace. The chronology of the vessels is only minimally dealt with, mainly because, as the author points out, “it is not easy to establish the exact date of production since they were probably in use over a long period and handed down from generation to generation before being placed in a grave” (124).

The final essay of the collection, N. Sharakanov’s “Language and society in Roman Thrace,” analyses the patterns of linguistic usage in the Roman province of Thracia, insofar as they can be traced in the epigraphic record of the province (it should be noted that several of the inscriptions cited here are recently published, or still unpublished). Not surprisingly, given the position of Thrace in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire, Greek dominated the linguistic landscape of Thracia, even at the official level of provincial government. Despite the predominance of Greek, substantial onomastic evidence also seems to suggest that Thracian continued to be used by many natives as a spoken language at least through the sixth century A.D., and is taken by the author as a sign that “a large section of the rural population was not greatly affected by the process of Hellenisation/Romanisation” (136). On the other hand, the usage of Latin appears to have been limited to three main groups: Roman soldiers stationed in the province and veterans from the two Roman colonies of Thracia, and to Roman officials from the provincial administration.

On the whole, the volume constitutes an important contribution to the fields of both Roman archaeology and Roman frontier studies, making accessible to a broader scholarly audience an overview of the latest research on Roman Bulgaria. The presentation of the volume is nearly flawless, with very helpful figures, maps and bibliographies (some quite comprehensive) provided for each essay, as well as a useful general index, although a list of maps and one of figures, and perhaps also a consolidated bibliography at the end of the volume might have been helpful. The few typographical errors I was able to detect are in Figure 1.1 (6): “Marcianapolis,” “Hadrianapolis,” “Slivniea,” “Silven” and “Mesimbria.”


1.   Roman Dacia. The Making of a Provincial Society. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 56, edited by W. S. Hanson and I. P. Haynes (Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2004).
2.   Given the scope of the present review, it would be impossible to list all the relevant recent publications in languages of international circulation pertaining to the former Eastern European provinces of the Roman Empire. Regarding the former Roman provinces roughly covered by the territory of modern Bulgaria (which constitute the focus of the present volume), most publications are listed, as relevant, in the individual bibliographies of each article contained in the volume. I mention here a few of the more recent and potentially relevant publications not listed in the volume: M. Zahariade and N. Gudea, The Fortifications of Lower Moesia (A.D. 86-275) (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1997); M. Minkova, The Personal Names of the Latin Inscriptions in Bulgaria (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2000); The Roman and Late Roman City: the International Conference, Veliko Turnovo, 26-30 July, 2000, edited by L. Ruseva-Slokoska, R. Ivanov and V. Dinchev (Sofia: Prof. Marin Drinov Academic Publishing House, 2002); R. T. Ivanov, Roman Cities in Bulgaria (Sofia: National Museum of Bulgarian Books and Polygraphy, 2006); the English-Bulgarian bilingual volume Frontiers of the Roman Empire: the Lower Danube Limes in Bulgaria = Granici na Rimskata Imperija: Dolnodunavskija Limes v B' lgarija, by D. J. Breeze, A. Thiel, P. Dyczek and S. Jilek (Vienna: Universytet, 2008); M. Zahariade, The Thracians in the Roman Imperial Army: From the First to the Third Century A.D. (Cluj-Napoca: Mega, 2009).
3.   N. Hannestad, Tradition in Late Antique Sculpture (Aarhaus: Aarhaus University Press, 1994); Id., “How did rising Christianity cope with pagan sculpture?” in E. Chrysos and I. Wood (eds.), East and West: modes of communication (Leiden: Brill, 1999) 173-203; Id., “Castration in the baths,” in N. Birkle (ed.), Macellum: culinaria archaeologica. R. Fleischer zum 60. Geburtstag (Mainz: N. Birkle, 2001) 67-77; L. Vagalinski, “On the upper chronological limit of the votive reliefs of the Thracian Horseman,” Archaeologia Bulgarica 1.2 (1997) 46-50.

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