Ivo Topalilov


Institute for Balkan Studies & Center of Thrakology                                              DOI                                                   
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Bulgaria  20 June 2020

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Abstract: After the collapse of Hadrianopolis, it became clear that a new imperial ideology was needed which to unite the divided society, especially in the eastern part of the empire, and an integral part of which was Christianity. And since Arianism is associated with the old, unsuccessful period, logically the new emperor's turned to that of Nicene dogma. Thrace, being the arena of these events, and located near the new imperial capital, is one of the first places where the new policy manifests itself. In the present study, it is traced to the material evidence obtained during archaeological excavations both in urban centers and rural ones.

Key words: Christianity, Heresies, Arians, Late Antiquity


The writing of this article on the Christianization of the urban topography in Thrace is brough about by the author’s opinion that in carrying out some of the construction activities in this direction, this was the main driving idea.[1] In fact, this should not be surprising, not only because Thrace was one of the bastions of Arianism in the empire (Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesiasitca 9),[2] but also because of the unstable position of the empire itself in the region, due to the unsuccessful wars against the Goths which after the disaster for empire near Hadrianopolis in 378 AD were left to rampant in Thrace for at least two years. The written sources unequivocally reveal that during these unfortunate years a closer connection between the barbarians and the local population was firmly established, which at some points developed into a general campaign against the state. Thus, Ammianus Marcellinus explicitly stated of the ‘fugitives who told them everything,’ and the locals referred to them ‘rich villages, especially those where, in their words, there were large quantities of food’ (Marc. Amm. 31.16.1; Marc. Amm. 31.6.5.). In addition, it seems that some part of the local population in the villages was converted into Christianity by the Goths,[3] which means that they accepted the Arianic variant. Given that the Gothic Arians could not be persecuted by the authorities, not only because they were a homogeneous paramilitary group, but also because the empire actually concluded a humiliating treaty with them in 382, it is clear that it is not possible to be threatening as being heretics in the new world, established by the new emperor Theodosius I; [4] the edicts issued against heresies were specific to specific places and had nothing to do with the Goths in the Balkans.[5] In fact, this is to be found not only in Thrace. [6] Nevertheless, the policy of Theodosius I was precisely to promote the Nicene Creed of Christianity and against heresies, so it is logical to expect some action from him in this direction. In a sense, the political crisis that occurred as well as the psychosis that helped immensely to take action against Arianism, moreover, that with the defeat of Valent, and the change of the state course to Christianity and support for Nicene Orthodoxy, arose the idea that the military catastrophe near Hadrianople should be seen as the result of God’s punishment for the emperor's Arianic proentation.[7] Indeed, the imperial power tried to nipp in the bud this, though unsuccessful as the idea itself continued to live on in the society as we are aware from the written sources, moreover, the imperial authorities and the emperor himself in their attempt to transform the existing imperial ideology in fact acted in unison with these beliefs. The break with the old, not-functioning ideology should not be officially regarded as some action undertaken against the Arianic heresy. The fact that the new imperial ideology is closely associated with the Nicene Orthodoxy allowed Theodosius to conduct of an unannounced struggle against Arianism, which is now associated with the old regime of decline of the Roman world. In this way, abandoning the old regime of Arianic rulers as not functioning and leading to the catastrophe, indeed exaggerated in the sources, also permits the change in the attitude of a part of society to the Arianic themselves that occurred, with the Arians now associated with the catastrophe of the Roman world. The break with the old regime of the Arianic emperors and the Arisns, respectively, is clearly demonstrated by the renunciation of Theodosius I and Gratianus of the title of pontifex maximus title. For these reasons, it should surprise as that the actions in this direction which Theodosius I initiated were extremely diplomatic, but deliberate.

The results of the archaeological excavations reveal that some activities that may be relevant to this aspect. They also show that certain actions were not only or mainly carried out by the imperial authorities, but rather, most of the initiatives actually came from the local Christian community and its leaders, who were following the government’s new course in this direction. Some of the main examples that can be considered are ambiguous, while in others the interpretation may not, as we will see in the text that follows. One such example might be the Episcopal basilica in Philippopolis.

Recent archaeological excavations, which are still awaiting its proper publication, reveal that, in fact, beneath the early floor mosaic that adorned the nave of the basilica, there was another, earlier floor made in opus signinum.[8] If so, it seems that in the late fourth century – the beginning of the fifth century, the Episcopal basilica received its first floor mosaic decoration. Its iconography is geometric, and given the huge area it seems that it was constructed in two phases.[9] Standard geometric iconography, despite the indisputable link between the iconography of floor mosaics and the functions of the building or of individual sections of the building,[10] does not a allow to go further and draw any more definite conclusions in this direction. Undoubtedly, the mosaic setting should be regarded in the course of a deliberate action at least due to the fact it covered a huge area which was extremely expensive undertaking. The chronological coincidence of the start new religious policy of the empire with the emergence of this new mosaic floor, which was most probably produced by metropolitan workshop[11] may be accidental, but a possible connection between these two events should not be entirely excluded. As one may observe, one of the emphasis of the mosaic floor may be found within the southern aisle, where the construction inscription is displayed, representing the bishop of Philippopolis named [---] κιανοῦ rather as a magistrate than as merely the head of a religious community.[12] It is logical to see in this event the desire of the Christian bishop pf Philippopolis to express his new role in society, and why not a change in this direction that has already taken place.

A number of initiatives can be found against Arianism, which Christianity has in fact used so far against paganism, and which have proved their impact, namely the creation of new, sacred places for Christians and the abandonment of old ones, but already not related to pagan sites, but rather to Christianity up to this point. In fact, given that these practices were successful, it was not necessary to invent new ones.

One aspect of such an initiative may be observed in the necropolises, in this case the Eastern necropolis of Philippopolis on one hand, and from the other by the newly founded Christian necropolis of Augusta Traiana. Thus, archaeological excavations reveal that at the end of the fourth century, Augusta Traiana received a new Christian necropolis, unlike the existing ones until now.[13] In this case, this fact is significant because in this way it breaks with the centuries-old tradition of the old urban necropolises, but on the other it also breaks with the existing up to this time Christian necropolises and burial fields.

Similar cases are found in the necropolises of Philippopolis. Thus, on the one hand, the practice of burial within the pomerium was abandoned, a practice that began in the time of Constantine I, but flourished under Constantine II and probably Valens.[14] On the other hand, in the place of the older Eastern necropolis abandoned in the fourth century,[15] a new, already entirely Christian necropolis appeared. In the course of its use, in some cases the older pagan burials were affected and destroyed, mainly by being cut. This practice, however, which is typical for the early Christians showing their attitude to the non-Christian burials, should be applied only to the latter. In some case, the archaeological excavations reveal that such an attitude was also shown to the older Christian burials as for instance those that occupied in the northern part of the necropolis. In these sectors, such as for instance on the eastern slopes of Nebet Tepe, the archaeological excavations reveal that when later Christian burials occurred to earlier Christian ones, the latter were treated in the way how the burials of the Gentiles were, namely by cutting and disregarding them. [16] This practice is in contrast to the one used so far concern the treatment of the bones found in earlier Christian burials, where the bones were collected in leather bags and placed at the feet of the newly buried.[17] Such a treatment of older Christian burials as pagan ones, in my view, is no accidently and deserves some attention. In fact, in the course of this exposition we can also raise the question of the fate of the Christian tombstones of the fourth century, which are currently missing. [18] It is true that their absence may be due to prosaic reasons, such as the degree of preservation and destruction over the centuries, but it is a fact that no Thracian tombstones that can be associated with Arianism have been found at present. In contrast, however, a plate has been found that associates with, for example, Gnosticism.[19] This lack can be explained by their deliberate destruction at the end of the fourth century.

These examples illustrate the dramatic changes in one of the major components, not only of urban topography, but also in the lives of local communities as a whole, which began in the last quarter of the fourth century. The abandonment of existing burial fields, and hence tradition, is significant and is currently not found in other urban necropolises explored so far, such as for instance the eastern one in Serdica. In the latter, Christian and pagan burials continue to coexist, and subsequently, when pagan burials disappeared and remained solely Christian, no change is detected.[20] On the one hand, the presence of the Christian basilica itself may had played a huge role for this, but on the other, the lack of an Arianic community in Serdica. The treatment of the early Christian funerals in Philippopolis, like those of the Arians, as pagan, is, in my opinion, very indicative of the new attitude towards the Arians and outlines their fate of Arians, which also seems to have reflected on their tombstones.

I believe that another way for officials and local authorities to cope with the strong Arianic influence in Thrace is to be find in the initiative of construction of martiria. It makes impression that the main part of them was built rather by the last quarter of the fourth century. [21] And here the interpretation in the aspect of interest is not unambiguous. Given the psychosis that followed the military disaster near Hadrianopolis and the ensuing years of chaos, the idea of the end of Earth and the coming of the Judgment Day became widespread at that time. We may assume that at that moment, the members of the local Christian community, but also the Christian pilgrims and guests of each city in Thrace, and not only they, but probably the Gentiles, sought the opportunity to find protection from the only possible power that could give them, but namely, that of the Christian saint. In this way, the place where his relics were laid received special magnetism[22] for both Christians and Gentiles, but also for Orthodox, Arians and other heretics. In this sense, during the celebrations of the Christian saints, in their martiria and martial basilicas, differences between the various groups in the community remain at second place, with all the participants united by one common goal, namely salvation. And this was one of the main goals of the imperial authorities, which in turn saw another such opportunity in organizing processions related to the translatio reliques translation of relics). It is no accidently that, unlike previously organized similar processions, those that took place during the time of Theodosius I and onward are now already under direct imperial control, either with the participation of the emperor himself or a member of the imperial family. Uniting many people around one cause can quickly prove dangerous for the empire if it is not under its direct control. The examples of processions organized by Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom in Constantinople as bishops of the city are particularly illustrative in this respect. In the end, these processions gained such popularity that threatened even the emperor, who was forced to expel the bishops and exercise strict control over this type of processions.

And since the events described took place in Constantinople at the time when the Nicaeans were still a minority and the Arians a majority, these processes became the emperor’s primary weapon in his fight against the heresies, and especially Arianism. [23] With the onset of psychosis and the belief in Constantinoples in the miracle powers of the Christian martyrs and saints represented by John Chrysostom, the processions with translatio reliquie have become a powerful ideological weapon for strengthening not only the unity of Christianity and church itslef, but alos of the whole society in the empire, and especially in its Eastern half. In this case, coincidentally or rather deliberately, anti-Arian policy coincided with Theodosius I’s policy of affirming the new imperial ideology and hence could be regarded as inextricably linked from this point forward. It was not by chance that in Theodosius I time, the authorities began to opposite the heresy in Christianity through the use of civil law, that is, by issuing civic edicts directed against the heretics. The legal basis for this has been discovered.

The success of such a policy can be clearly traced to the inability of the martiria to accommodate the multitude of faithful who wish to attend the liturgical activities dedicated to the Christina saint venerated there, which in turn led to the need and construction consequently of the monumental Christian basilicas adjacent to them. Moreover, a suburban monastery was formed near Philippopolis, which also contained a crypt with relics. [24] In this case of interest is the martirium located near the Eastern gate of Augusta Traiana, which was converted into a cemeterial church and did not follow any such development.[25] However, the martyrium discovered near the modern town of Perushtitsa, also known as the ‘Red Church,’ became a Christian temple.[26]

For a major change in the Christian topography that occurred in the last quarter of the fourth century, we can again point to Philippopolis with the creation of the new domus episcopalis. Thus, based on the change in the floor mosaic decoration, but also on the functions of the main premises of the complex, it can be assumed that the so-called domus Eirene was transformed into domus episcopalis at the end of the century.[27] In this case, the image of Eirene’s personification received a nimbus, clearly was distinguised the owner’s reception hall (aula), decorated now with a marble fountain with fish, but mosaic pavement decoration also received the lobby, the southern portico of the atrium, providing access to the aula and to the vast triclinium, which was created at that time.[28] Moreover, it is very indicative of the new status of the owner of the domus the fact that a special cardo was constructed, which established a direct connection between the domus episcopalis and the Episcopal basilica, regardless of the existing network system and insulae. [29] In this way, a new power center of the city was finally formed, which could be seen not only in contrast to the old, classical pagan city center, but also in contrast to the old Christian one. Even if the idea was to show the new status and place of the Christian bishop in the provincial metropolis, being already an integral part of its elite, the transformation was made not in place of the old domus episcopalis, whose location so far remains unclear, but in a new place different from it. The new holy place thus created will change the route of some of the existing lithian processions, but it will also establish a new route for others to develop in the city at the expense of those who have so far been performed.

The study of the process under consideration is difficult for a number of reasons, many of which are objective – the lack of specific sources, an incomplete archaeological picture of the main urban centers, but last but not least the lack of a detailed picture of the process of Christianizing the urban topography. This, by all means, does not allow the topic to be fully developed. In addition, one must also take into account the nature of the manifestation of Arianism in material culture, which, is unknown so far and still need a detail and profound study, if possible, while even being denied.[30]

The emperor’s policy agains the Arisnism was cleverly concealed under his intention to introduce a new imperial ideology, which, given the important role of Christianity in it, became a major instrument of Christianizing the topography, whether urban or not. The examples offered here are incomplete, as is the study of the Christianization of society in Thrace during Late Antiquity, but may be used as a starting point for further research in this direction. In some cases, as noted, interpretations are not unambiguous and allow other hypothesis to develop. In this case, however, the exceptional politicization of the process by Theodosius I is evident, which may also explain the failure of the endeavor. Indeed, things change visually, but when in the third decade of the fifth century bishop Nestorius of Constantinople (428–431) developed the Nestorianism,[31] he received support from Thrace and the old Arian provinces, which is hardly accidental.


[1] See some preliminary notes on this topic in Topalilov 2020.

[2] See for this in Sozomenos, Historia Ecclesiasitca 9: Έν γὰρ τῷ πλείονι τῆς ὑπὸ Οὐάλεντος ἀρχομένης, καὶ μάλιστα ἀνά τε Θρᾴκην καὶ Βιθυνίαν καὶ Ἑλλήσποντον, καὶ ἔτι τούτων προσωτέρω, οὔτε ἐκκλησίας, οὔτε ἱερέας εἶχον’.

[3] See Dintchev 1998, 64–87; Динчев 2002, 136–157.

[4] See Топалилов 2017, 14–28.

[5] We can insert the case of the construction of a Christian basilica in Constantinople by the Arians during the time of Theodosius II, which shows the extent of these prohibitions.

[6] In the case of the edicts that concern Constantinople and hence, probably Thrace, it seems that they are not aimed at the existence of the Aryans, but are associated with specific initiatives, such as prohibiting the passage of their processions through the city. In this case the impression is that the processions themselves are not forbidden and they continue to be practiced, but only extra moenia.

[7] This is discussed in Lenski 1997.

[8] Кантарева-Дечева 2018, 365–372.

[9] Pillinger et al. 2016.

[10] See for instance in this aspect the study of V. Popova in which she also deals with other examples in Thrace – Popova 2016.

[11] See recently for this problem in Pillinger et al. 2016; Topalilov 2015; 2016.

[12] For the discussion of the inscription – see Шаранков 2016, 969–970.

[13] Калчев 2002, 33.

[14] The coins of Constantine I and Constantius II found the burials present terminus post quem of the burial themselves.

[15] Ботушарова 1962, 192.

[16] Топалилов 2004, 139; 2009, 244–246. 

[17] See for example in Цончев 1946.

[18] For the Early Christian inscriptions – see Beševliev 1964; Марков 1995.

[19] See for example SGLIBulg 207: ΩΠΗ {Ἰησοῦς} Δ[— —]/τοῦτον ἐμοὶ Τατιανῷ ἐργολ̣[άβῳ]/δόμον δώρου χάριν ἐξετέλεσ[εν]/ἀγάπην ἔχων παρὰ θ(εο)ῦ Ζώσιμος ἀ-/δελφὸς Χρυσογόνου, ἧς χάριν/ἀντάξ[ιο]ν μισθὸν δώσε<ι>Κ(ύριο)ς μισθ[α]-/ποδότης. ἐξ Ἀσίης δ’ ἐξελθὼν πᾶ-/σαν πόλιν περινοστήσας ἦλθον/ ἰς μητρόπολιν Θρήκων Φιλιπ-/πόπολιν. ἐνθάδε ζῶ. ἐξ Αἰγύ-/πτου δέ με ῥύσας [Κύριος πᾶσαν]/ γνῶσιν ἔδωκε θ(εο)ῦ ΛΟΥϹΑϹ[— — ὧ]-/δ’ ἐν ἀιδίοι<ς> ὕδασι Κ(υρίο)υ· νῦ[ν δ’]/ ἀμέριμνον ἔχω ζωὴν δῶρον/ ἔχων τοῦτον δόμον {ον} π[αρὰ]/ πάπα {α} Ζωσίμου. ζῶ ἅ[μα βρο]- τοῖσι θ(εο)ῦ δοῦλος ὑπά[ρχων ἐμοὶ]/ πλείονα ἵλεον ΟΙΝ[— — —]/ ΝΩΝ νύκτας ὅλας [— — —]/ΜΕΙΜΗΜΑ γράφων Δ[— — —]/ θ(εο)ῦ/ ΝΖΝ. The inscription is available on the online platform, consulted on 30.01.2020.

[20] See for instance the burials discovered in the course of excavation the area beneath ‘St. Sophia’ church – cf. Филов 1913; Динчев 2014.

[21] See the discussion proposed in Topalilov & Ljubenova 2010. The later date of the conch martyrium near the eastern gate of Philippopolis which is proposed has been accepted in the literature – cf. Mitchell 2019.

[22] See for this in Браун 2000.

[23] Various types of Christian processions and the emperor’s participation in the fourth century will be discussed in another paragraph with this project.

[24] Topalilov 2007.

[25] Николов & Калчев 1992, 29–39.

[26] See for instance Панайотова 1956; Бояджиев 1998.

[27] Pillinger et al. 2016, 174–198; Topalilov 2018.

[28] Topalilov 2018.

[29] This is one of major requirements – see in Müller-Wiener 1984, 103–145.

[30] See for example Ward-Perkins 2010, 265–266.

[31] See for the Nestorianism in Bulgarian literature for example in Коев 1968.


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This page is part of the project LABedia: Еncyclopedia of Late Antique Balkans, 4th-5th c.,
financed by the National Science Fund, contract КП-06-Н30/6, 13.12.2018