A Glimpse of Late Roman Moesia

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Imagine being a rich Late Roman landowner (Possessor) standing on the entrance of your villa outside the city of Marcianopolis in Moesia and seeing a mass of men on horseback preceded by clouds of dust rushing towards your family and your Latifundia. This is how Roman Moesia looked back in 376 AD, when a group of Goths, Huns and Alans ravaged the countryside in search for food and plunder after having revolted against the local Roman administration headquartered in Marcianopolis. Was Moesia, a region so far away from the riches of the Roman capital, always like this?

Teres’s mask is crafted out of 23 carat gold and dates back to 5th century BC. It has been created specifically for the funeral of a Thracian ruler. National Archaeological Museum in Sofia. © Adriano Zampolini

The area was initially inhabited by Indo-European Thracian and Dacian tribes who lived in fortified towns built on hilltops similar to those found in Celtic Gaul (Oppida). Tribal Thracians were renowned for their martial culture, ferocious war lust and war cries, with many of them serving as mercenaries in the armies of Alexander the Great and his successors. The area was also known for its gold mines, from which Thracian chieftains, kings and foreign rulers got much of their jewelry, riches and lavish royal panoplies.

After the Roman colonization, Moesia had been ravaged by continuous wars with Gothic tribes which raided the empire in the 3rd century AD, with Roman emperor Decius dying in battle with his son near Abrittus (north of Nicopolis) in 251 AD.

Remains of Christian tomb. Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis in Sofia. © Adriano Zampolini

By the time of the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens however, Moesia had blossomed from a poor frontier region into a rich and prosperous land dotted with rustic villas, walled towns, military Stationes and citadels on the lower Danube. Contact with the peoples living on the other side of the Danube had always been strong here, enriching both the Roman and local populations of Moesia, made up of Thracians and Illyrians. Great urban centers like Marcianopolis, Nicopolis, Philippopolis, Dibaltum and Serdica (some of them built over previous Thracian and Illyrian fortified towns) showed foreigners and locals alike what it was like living under the protection of the late Roman Augustus. Trade from the Black Sea ports (mainly old Greek colonies), strategic urban markets (including slave markets) like the ones in Marcianopolis and Serdica and a strong agrarian economy made Late Roman Moesia a great asset for the Roman administration. Due to the constant contact with foreign populations, slave traders came to Moesia to buy or sell. Cities and local areas were administered by local governors (Praesides or Correctores) and magistrates, while armor and weapon factories (Fabricae) were controlled by local Praepositi.

Mosaic in a necropolis under Sveta Sofia church in Sofia, Bulgaria. © Adriano Zampolini

These cities were also where Christianity spread the most, and from which missionary expeditions like the one of Bishop Wulfila to the Goths could be launched (around 348 AD when he was nominated missionary and Bishop to the Goths by the Bishop of Constantinople). Great Christian burial sites have been discovered under Late Roman churches in cities like Serdica and Marcianopolis, confirming a major Christian presence among the local population, slaves and military personnel.

This does not mean however that this region was a peaceful paradise. On the contrary, it was an incredibly militarized frontier region, something every Late Roman Emperor was keenly aware of. With this knowledge, Emperor Valens set off to fortify military harbors (for the river flotillas) along the Danube, Burgi (late roman fortified frontier towers), Quadriburgi, (late roman Burgi fortified with additional walls and towers) and military bases such as Durostorum and Noviodunum. These fortifications had to be always manned, maintained (by the soldiers) and kept functioning so that the emperor could launch Translimitanean raids across the Danube, just like the one launched by Valens against the Goths of Athanaric.

North gate tower of Sofia’s Western Gate. Archaeological Park “West Gate of Sofia”. © Adriano Zampolini

These strategic cities, forts and stations (Stationes/Mansiones) were interconnected by an intricate system of roads and road stations (roads with typical roman milestones), which had to be supervised by magistrates, governors, Agentes in Rebus, the emperors themselves and policed by local militias, Limitanei units and Milites Stationarii. Slavic Late Roman walled towns in Moesia were always considered a safe haven by the local inhabitants. These towns had the typical fortifications of late antiquity, with half square and half round defensive towers, arranged around the typical square perimeter of a roman Civitas, that can also be found in the Late Roman gates of the Aurelian walls in Rome. These fortified cities were strong enough to keep most invaders out, as they were equipped with fortified gatehouses, “Tormenta Muralia” (artillery on walls) and guard posts. Famously, the Goths under Fritigern, could not take Marcianople by siege in 376AD. Most of these city walls would be guarded by local military units or citizen militias led by local bishops.

Archaeological Park “West Gate of Sofia”. Archaeologists recovered part of the western fortress wall, the north gate tower, parts of a main ancient street, a northwest triangular tower, an antique canal, buildings and fragments of a mosaic. ©  Adriano Zampolini

Being a frontier region, Moesia was also always a great source of military recruits during the Late Roman period. These recruits, if able and with connections, could become commanders or even emperors, like the Moesian Constantine I or the “Serdican Galerius”. According to the Notitia Dignitatum, the Late Roman military in Moesia was controlled by the Dux Moesiae and a Comes. The Dux Moesiae mainly controlled Limitanei and Auxiliary units like the Praeventores and the Moesiaci, the Comes (count) based in Marcianopolis, also the location of an imperial mint administered by a Procurator, controlled the field armies (Comitatenses). During the reign of Valens, the Comes who controlled Moesia was Flavius Lupicinus, an able military commander and ambitious man who controlled the immigration and settlements of Goths around the city of Marcianople.

The stability and prosperity of Moesia was however not to last. Following the Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, Moesia and Thrace suffered from Hunnic raids. In the 7th century AD, Moesia became a primary target for Turkic proto-Bulgarians and marauding Slavic tribes which de iure remained imperial subjects until the arrival of the Bulgarians. The fusion of proto-Bulgarians and Slavic tribes resulted in the birth of the First Bulgarian Empire and its grandiose capital, Pliska, modeled on the city of Constantinople, with a palace complex similar to that of the Eastern Roman metropolis.

The area would then again become a battleground between the Eastern Romans and the Bulgarians, locking the land of Moesia in a vicious cycle of war, devastation, renewal, and more violence.

By |2019-10-21T13:12:18+00:00October 9th, 2019|Armies, Church History, Religion, Towns and Cities, War|1 Comment

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Ulrich Windisch
Ulrich Windisch

Can you please suggest me which book to buy to read more abou the archaeology of Moesia .

Ulrich Windisxh