Nicopolis ad Istrum was founded by Emperor Trajan in AD 106 to commemorate his victory over the Dacians to the north of the Danube. It is located near the present-day village of Nikyup whose name originates from the similarly named Roman town. The first archaeological excavations in Nicopolis ad Istrum were carried out in 1900 by the French archaeologist Georges Seure. The regular excavations began in 1975, while from 1985 onwards the town has been explored by a Bulgarian–British archaeological team. One of the most fascinating objects discovered by chance near Nicopolis ad Istrum was a bronze head of a statue of Emperor Gordian III, nowadays exhibited in the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia. Recently, America for Bulgaria Foundation provided a grant for the preservation of the inscriptions discovered in the forum of the town.
Nicopolis ad Istrum consisted of two parts, both protected by fortification walls. The earlier Roman part was quite extensive, while the later southeastern part was additionally built during the Early Byzantine period and was much smaller in size. The Roman Nicopolis ad Istrum covered an area of 21.55 hectares and supposedly, its population was about 5000 citizens. In addition, there were many villages, villas, pottery production centers and emporia in its vicinity. The town had a strategic location on the junction of the important Roman provincial roads from Odessos to Serdica and from Novae on the Danube to Byzantion. Initially, Nicopolis ad Istrum was situated within the borders of the Province of Thracia, but in AD 193 it entered within the borders of the Province of Moesia Inferior. Due to the fact that many citizens of Nicopolis ad Istrum were Hellenized people who originated from Asia Minor, the official language in the town was the ancient Greek. However, there were citizens with Latin names, too, and some citizens of Thracian origins, as evident in the inscriptions. In addition, there were Roman veterans living in the vicinity of the town. The following phylae, or town regions, were attested in Nicopolis ad Istrum: Apollonias, Athenias, Capitoline and Arthemisias, named after Apollo, Athena, the Capitoline Triad and Arthemis. The town was governed by the Council of Archonts chaired by the Protoarchont, Boule, or the City Council, and Demos, or the Assembly. There was a Gerousia, or the Council of Elders, too. A special collegium of priests was taking care of the Imperial cult. Many deities were worshipped in the town: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Heracles, Asclepius, Dionysus, Mithra, Kybele, etc. In AD 138–244, or from the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius to the reign of Emperor Gordian III, Nicopolis ad Istrum minted own bronze coins, some of them showing its public buildings, temples and fortifications. About one thousand different types of bronze coins are currently known.
The Roman town had a rectangular layout and was planned according to the orthogonal system of Hippodamus of Miletus. The streets: cardines and decumani, were oriented north – south and east – west. They were paved with stone slabs and had sidewalks. There were drains with shafts and water-conduits of terracotta pipes situated under the slabs of the streets. The rectangular insulae of the town, each one surrounded by four streets, usually measured 30 m by 70 m. Initially, the town was not fortified. The fortification walls were constructed after AD 172 during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, following the devastating invasion of the Costobocs in the Roman provinces in the Balkans. The walls were built in opus quadratum with four gates and were 8 m high. There were four circular towers in the corners and semicircular towers on the walls. The fortification towers were about 12 m high. Nowadays, the northern gate and the cardo maximus which began there are entirely explored and accessible to the public. However, the western gate was the main one and it was called Porta Romana, since it was directed towards Rome. The decumanus maximus began there.
The forum was pedestrian and it was located in the center of Nicopolis ad Istrum. It measured 42 m by 41 m and was surrounded by a monumental Roman Ionic colonnade. Monumental Propylaea in the Roman Corinthian style, built in the period from AD 145 to 161 during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, led to the forum. There are pedestals of bronze and marble statues in the forum and an equestrian imperial statue was located in the center. A number of shops were situated at the eastern and southern sides of the forum, behind the Ionic colonnade. The Bouleuterion was located in the northwestern part of the forum. A number of inscriptions with official decrees dated to the 2nd and early 3rd century AD were discovered in the building. There was an Odeon in the southwestern part of the forum. It hosted up to 400 spectators. A three-aisled Roman civic basilica was situated in the northern part of the forum. A large public building was located to the east of the forum. According to an inscription, it was called Thermoperipatos, or a walking area with a heating system, and it was built in AD 184 – 185, during the reign of Emperor Commodus. The building contained a number of shops, while the central part was a large two-storey heated hall, used for walking and meetings. The Palestra of Nicopolis ad Istrum was situated to the north of the forum and the public baths dated to the 3rd – 4th centuries AD were located near the northern fortification gate. The reservoir of the town was situated at 200 m to the west of the fortification wall and the water was supplied via the main aqueduct which was 28 km long. Two smaller aqueducts from the northwest and a number of wells within the town supplied additional quantity of water. The necropolis of Nicopolis ad Istrum was situated on the both sides of the northern road leading to Novae and around the western road going to Serdica. More than 120 tumuli are situated there. The rich citizens were buried in monumental family tombs and sarcophagi.
Nicopolis ad Istrum is a remarkable historical site not only because of its well preserved Roman monuments, but also because it may be considered as the birthplace of Germanic literary tradition. In AD 348, the Gothic bishop and missionary Wulfila obtained permission from Emperor Constantius II to emmigrate from Asia Minor together with his Arian followers and to settle in Moesia near Nicopolis ad Istrum. Once he settled there, he invented the Gothic alphabet and translated the Holy Bible from ancient Greek to the Gothic language. Manuscripts with the Gothic translation of Wulfila survived and the most important one is Codex Argenteus of the 6th century AD, probably produced in Ravenna and nowadays stored in the library of the Uppsala University in Sweden.
In AD 447 Nicopolis ad Istrum was destroyed by the Huns, but in the 6th century AD, during the reign of Emperor Justinian the Great it was rebuilt as a powerful fortress enclosing barracks and churches. However, the larger area of extensive ruins of the Roman Nicopolis ad Istrum was not reoccupied, while the Early Byzantine fortress covered only 5.75 hectares in the southeastern corner of the town. In that period the fortified town became an Episcopal residence. It was destroyed during the invasions of Avars and Slavs at the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 7th century AD and a few centuries later, during the 10th century a medieval Bulgarian village appeared over the Roman ruins.
Nicopolis ad Istrum was one of the important Roman towns in the Balkans and it is very well preserved and accessible to the public, which makes the site an attractive tourist destination.
By Nikola Theodossiev,