The earliest traces of human occupation in present-day Plovdiv date back to the Neolithic period in the 6th millennium BC. Later on, during the 1st millennium BC the area was occupied by the Thracians. According to some Greek sources, the name of the Thracian town that existed on that place was Eumolpia, after the name of Eumolpos, a mythical Thracian king. In 342 BC, the Thracian town was conquered by Philip of Macedon who reconstructed and enlarged the urban area, built monumental fortification walls, settled a Macedonian military garrison there and renamed the settlement to Philippopolis, or “the Town of Philip” in his own honor. The local Thracians called the town Pulpudeva, which was the Thracian translation of Philipopolis, a name later inherited by the Bulgars in the Early Middle Ages who called the town Plavdin. During the Hellenistic period the town again became under the Thracian control, although in 183 BC it was conquered by the Macedonian King Philip V and was under Macedonian control for a short period. In 72 BC Philippopolis was seized by the Roman general Marcus Lucullus during his military campaign against the Thracians, but soon after it became under Thracian control again. In AD 46, the town was incorporated into the Roman Empire by Emperor Claudius who liquidated the last Thracian kingdom and founded the Province of Thracia. The Romans called the town Trimontium, or the “Town with Three Hills”, and it was the administrative center and the most important town (metropolis) in the Province of Thracia. Philippopolis had its own Senate and the Provincial Assembly of Thracia was situated there as well. The town was located on Via Diagonalis, the most important Roman road in Southeastern Europe, which connected Singidunum (present-day Belgrade) with Byzantion, later renamed Constantinople by Constantine the Great.
The Roman times were a period of glory and an advanced development for the town. Philippopolis was a beautiful and vibrant place with a forum, temples, baths, a stadium, a theatre, an odeon and a treasury. It was planned according to the orthogonal system and its streets were oriented north – south and east – west. Of special importance was the praetorium, or the Residence of the Imperial Governor of the Province of Thracia, which was located on one of the three hills in the northern part of the town. The Roman emperors who visited Philippopolis, like Caracalla in AD 214 and Elagabalus in AD 218, usually resided in the praetorium. The town had an advanced water and drain system. Several aqueducts supplied water from the springs on the northern slopes of the Rhodope Mountains. According to epigraphic evidence, in AD 172, during the German and Sarmatian War, Emperor Marcus Aurelius built a new fortification wall to protect the enlarged Roman town, most of which occupied areas located outside the older Macedonian fortification wall. In that period, the town covered an area of about 43 hectares and had a pentagonal layout. From the reign of Emperor Domitian to Emperor Elagabalus, Philippopolis minted its own bronze coins. According to the famous satirist Lucian who lived in the 2nd century AD, Philippopolis was “the largest and most beautiful of all cities”.
In AD 251, Philippopolis was conquered and burned by the Goths under the leadership of Cniva. It was subsequently restored and in the 4th century AD, the town became an Episcopal seat and several Christian basilicas were built there. Philippopolis was destroyed again during the invasions of the Huns in AD 444 – 447. During the 6th century AD, Emperor Justinian the Great restored and completely renovated the city and its fortification walls and in the Early Middle Ages it was one of the most important towns in the Byzantine Empire. In the first half of the 9th century AD, during the reign of the Bulgarian Khan Malamir, Philippopolis was included in the borders of the First Bulgarian Kingdom and in the following centuries the town was either under Bulgarian, or Byzantine control, before it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1364.
A number of architectural complexes and buildings in Philippopolis have been excavated by the archaeologists and nowadays some of them are among the main attractions for the visitors of Plovdiv. The most emblematic building is the Roman theatre constructed on the southern slope of the two hills of Trimontium. According to a recently identified building inscription, the construction of the theatre dated to the reign of Emperor Domitian at the end of the 1st century AD. It was one of the most remarkable public buildings in the Roman town and accommodated up to 7000 spectators. The seats were orientated to the south, towards the Roman town in the lowland and the Rhodope Mountains. The theatre had a semicircular layout with a diameter of 82 m. According to some inscriptions, the theater was also used as the seat of the Provincial Assembly of Thracia. Presumably, some gladiatorial games were also held in the theatre, probably especially set up for the visit of Emperor Caracalla. At the end of the 4th century AD the theater was destroyed. It was excavated from 1968 to 1979 and was reconstructed in 1981.
The Roman stadium was another remarkable building in Philippopolis and it is an attractive landmark in Plovdiv. The building was discovered in 1923, restored in 1977 and recently renovated and opened to the public. The northern curved part of the stadium with the seating area and the imperial lodge is the only part of the building accessible nowadays. The stadium was built in the first half of the 2nd century AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. It was situated to the north of the forum close to the fortification wall of Philippopolis. The stadium was approximately 240 m long and 50 m wide. The length of its track was 600 Roman feet. The building accommodated up to 30,000 spectators. The relief decoration of the main entrance indicated that Hermes and Heracles were patrons of some of the games. According to many inscriptions and coins, Pythian Games in honor of Apollo Pythius were periodically organized as well. During the visit of Emperor Caracalla, the games were called Alexandria in honor of Alexander the Great, while during the visit of Emperor Elagabalus, the games were called Kendreiseia, according to the Thracian epithet of Apollo Kendrisos worshipped in Philippopolis. Antinoos, the young favorite of Emperor Hadrian who was deified after his death, was probably also honored with special games.
Another Roman landmark in Plovdiv is an aristocratic peristyle residence with remarkable mosaic floors, known to the public as the House of Eirene. It was built during the last decades of the 3rd or the beginning of the 4th century AD when Philippopolis was in the process of architectural reconstruction after the destructive Gothic invasion in AD 251. The residence was discovered during excavations in 1983 – 1984. In 2003 it was restored with a grant provided by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and opened to the public, being accommodated within the Trakart Cultural Center. The most remarkable part of the mosaic floors is an emblema showing a portrait of a young woman identified as Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, according to the inscription. Another Greek inscription on the mosaic floor around the fountain in the atrium reads “Kalikrates the fortunate”. The aristocratic residence was abandoned at the end of the 6th century AD.
The so-called Small Basilica with an impressive mosaic floor, built around AD 470 in the eastern periphery of Philippopolis next to the fortification wall, is one of the remarkable Early Christian monuments in the town. It was discovered in 1988 and restored in 2010 – 2013 with a grant provided by America for Bulgaria Foundation, the Plovdiv Municipality and the Ministry of Culture, being accommodated in a special shelter with modern facilities. More than 110 square meters of the mosaic floor are fully restored and display the features of the Early Christian art and iconography, particularly the baptistery with a cross-like pool showing deer and pigeons. The mosaic floor includes an emblema with a partly preserved Greek donor inscription that mentions someone who was “patrician” and “winner”, supposedly referring to Basiliscus, an unpopular Byzantine Emperor who ruled in AD 475 – 476. At some point the basilica was burned and subsequently it was reconstructed and functioned until the end of 6th century AD.
The most remarkable Early Christian monument in Philippopolis is the Episcopal Basilica discovered in 1982 and being excavated and restored since 2015 with a major grant provided by America for Bulgaria Foundation. The church was the seat of the Bishop of Philippopolis. It was built during the second half of the 4th century AD and functioned until the middle of the 6th century AD when it was demolished during unknown circumstance. The basilica was an extremely impressive building and was 90 m long and 38 m wide. Most remarkable are the two levels of mosaic floors that covered an area of about 2000 square meters in total. The mosaics of the earlier floor show geometric motifs, including crosses, while the mosaics of the later upper floor show a unique variety of over a hundred of birds, which are among the most beautiful examples of the Early Christian art known so far. Of special importance are the Greek inscriptions on the mosaic floor which provide important information on the date and the status of this impressive church. The Episcopal Basilica will undoubtedly become one of the most important cultural landmarks in Plovdiv once the restoration was completed and it became accessible to the public.
Nikola Theodossiev, Sofia University