Spectacle Buildings from the territory of Bulgaria converted into Churches in Late Antiquity

Spectacle Buildings from the territory of Bulgaria converted into Churches in Late Antiquity
Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski"                                                                DOI                                                 
Archaeology Department   
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Abstract:  The paper focuses on those spectacle buildings, which have been used for the construction of early Christian churches. In the territory of modern Bulgaria, which falls within the boundaries of both the Roman and Eastern Roman Empire, evidence of a such transformation of buildings is scarce and uncertain. The available information is examined along with the chronology and interpretation of the buildings, while at the same time examples of such conversions are sought.

Keywords: Late Antiquity, spectacle buildings, churches, Marcianopolis

The fate of spectacle buildings is part of the subject of public space in Late Antiquity. Public buildings related to mass entertainment are some of the most typical places of Roman culture. It is not completely clear whether the practice persisted in Late Antiquity or whether there were modifications. It is important to establish whether and when exactly the spectacles ceased to be organised. The specific aim of this paper is an attempt to look for a link between buildings for spectacles and the construction of early Christian churches within them.

At the present time there is only one example of the construction of a church in an earlier building related to the carrying out of spectacles[1] (Fig. 1): this is the amphitheatre of the ancient Marcianopolis[2] (Fig. 2 – 6), capital of the Late Antique province Moesia Secunda. It was built[3] in the second half of the 2nd – early 3rd century, while its function is dated to the late 4th century, despite the lack of stratigraphic observation and published material (apart from the architectural details)[4] (Fig. 2, 3). The city was destroyed in 447 as a result of Attila’s Hun invasion, but its walls were rebuilt during the reign of Justinian I[5]. The Avars captured  Marcianopolis in 586 AD, while the last mention of the city, with this name, dates from 596, during the military campaign of the strategos Peter. It is considered that after these events, the city did not function anymore as an urban site of Late Antiquity, although evidence suggests that life did not cease. During the reign of Khan Omurtag (814 – 831)  a fortress was built partly on the amphitheater[6] (Fig. 3). Medieval buried houses with stone walls have been also identified, which disturb the earlier cultural layers and a supposed model of a yurt stands out among these findings (portable round tent, author’s note)[7].

Besides all the discovered early Christian churches[8] of Marcianopolis, the three-aisled basilica, located in the amphitheater, dates back to the 5th – 6th (Fig. 2, 3)[9]. The subsequent function of the rooms beneath the seats of the spectacle building is interpreted as contemporary with the church due to the materials found within them[10]. Concerning early Christianity in the city, it is known that it was the seat of a bishop in the period 325 – 431. Moreover, several martyrs are known to us: Maximus; Theodotus; Asclepiodotus; Melitina and Alexander, who came from Puteoli near Rome[11].

Regarding the interpretation of the site, there is a lack of clarity between the suggested theories – on the one hand, the basilica in question was erected in the amphitheater, while subsequently an early medieval fortress was built (Fig. 3). It is not clear until when and how the church functioned and what happened to it during the Middle Ages. The relationship between all construction periods has not been conclusively established, and later construction activities have further disturbed the stratigraphy. Concerning the acquired material over the years only the inscriptions, architectural details and the stone model of a dwelling have been published[12]. It is clear from the presented information that the building in the amphitheater, which is interpreted as an “early Christian basilica”, has not been proven undoubtedly to bear these features. We need new evidence in order to clarify this situation, as well as, the publication of material from the excavations and only then we will be ready to proceed to more general conclusions. Due to the state of information on Marcianopolis, the possibility that the amphitheater was not converted into a church, but used for residential purposes and later converted into a fortress is not to be excluded. The architectural plan of the ruins itself hardly supports such an interpretation (Fig. 3 – 6). It is supposed that Maximus, Theodotus and Asclepiodotus were tortured in the local theatre (amphitheater), while the church was erected to honor their memory. It is not impossible that the amphitheater was actually incorporated into a later fortification, of which there are many examples from the territory of the Western Roman Empire (Fig. 7), however, in this case, the hypothesis of a Christian basilica must be reconsidered.

Evidence for spectacle buildings converted into churches, from across the Roman Empire, is available from at least 27 sites (Fig. 1): Tarraco (Spain)[13], Salona (Croatia)[14], Cesarea (Israel)[15], Thessaloniki 1 (Greece)[16], Thessaloniki 2 (Greece)[17], Gerasa (Йордания)[18], Priene (Turkey)[19], Athína (Greece)[20], Nicaea (Turkey)[21], Dyrrachium (Albania)[22], Constantinopolis (Turkey)[23], Aphrodisias (Turkey)[24], Manavgat (Turkey)[25], Ashkelon (Israel)[26], Tomi (Romania)[27], Leptis Magna (Libya)[28], Cartage (Tunisia)[29], Roma 1 (Italy)[30], Roma 2 (Italy)[31], Roma 3 (Italy)[32], Spoleto (Italy)[33], Arelate (France)[34], Nemausus (France)[35], Aezani (Turkey)[36], Mettis (France)[37], Chersonesus Taurica (Ukraine)[38], Roma 4 (Italy). Following Kim Bowes's summary study in 2014, interest in the topic and the number of examples is going to increase. It is important to note that due to the small number of cases of such transformations, the minor differences in the numbers of the respective spectacle buildings are likely to vary (Fig. 8). At present, no definite predominance can be established of any particular type of building that would necessary be transformed into a church. This fact, along with the small number of examples in general, can easily be explained by the assumption that their conversion into churches is not the only possibility. As previously noted in the case of Marcianopolis – the largest share, in the transformation of this type of building, is not related to religion, but to fortification, as evidence from the territory of the Western Roman Empire indicates (Fig. 7)[39]. These buildings are then mostly used for housing, or as quarries from which to extract spoliа. Only then comes the turn of those to be converted into churches. On the other hand, the periodization of spectacle buildings converted into churches cannot give a certain idea of the timing of transformation, apart from the general observation that in the 6th century the number of reused sites increased compared to those of the 4th century. (Fig. 9)[40]. This periodization should be interpreted carefully, because the quality of publications, respectively the state of publication of the objects is different, and along with the accumulation of new examples - the picture may change. An iconic example of the state of research is the church at the theatre of Dionysus, located under the acropolis of  Athína [41] (Fig. 1, blue 8). The church has been dated to the 5th-6th century, although there is no clear evidence for this. In addition, the interest in the site was related to the earlier theatre structure, and for this reason the church was removed. Another important example is that of Gerasa (Fig. 1, blue 6), where next to the suburban hippodrome on the road  a church was built in the late 6th century.[42] Although building elements from the stadium have been found in the church, it is likely that its northern half was functioning. It was enclosed by an oval wall and was used as an amphitheater. On the one hand, it is assumed that the church was built to gather pilgrims due to the Christians who lost their lives in the stadium; on the other hand, the suggestion that the church and the spectacle building functioned simultaneously is not logical.  If it is only assumed for Gerasa that the stadium (converted into an amphitheater) and the church functioned simultaneously, there is written evidence for the one in Constantinopolis from the “Book of Ceremonies”, that on entering the track, the riders used to pass through the Church of “St. Mary, Mother of God”, which is located on the propylae [43] (The Spectacle Buildings of Constantinople).

In order to understand completely the fate of public space in Late Antiquity, of which spectacle buildings were a part, not one or two features need to be taken into account, but a complex explanation must be sought. Douglas Underwood pays attention to the fact that the reuse/transformation/decline of public buildings is a consequence of a change in public needs[44]. In the case of spectacle buildings converted into churches - there are cases where Christian buildings occupy only part of the earlier architecture. It is not impossible that different parts of the spectacle buildings served different needs. The reuse of this type of building for churches is not the most common option - more often they are incorporated into fortresses, dwellings, or used as quarries for building materials. Perhaps this is the reason why there is no discernible difference in typology regarding spectacle buildings converted into churches (Fig. 8) – actually, the public needs dictate the fate of the building. Like dominoes, the causes and effects of these actions are followed by irreversible consequences, which in this case lead to the disappearance of the spectacle buildings (Fig. 10): the end of the curia system; a change in the financial maintenance of buildings; a shortage of building material, resulting in the widespread use of spoil that leads subsequently to a decline in the crafts associated with building construction. These examples are not meant to show that Christianity did not contribute to the disappearance of these buildings. The point is that monotheistic religion is not the main driving force of this change. Actually, this change began long before the granting of equal rights and the final establishment of the new religion, while the subsequent fate of these buildings –although taking into consideration the similarities in different monuments from the territory of the Empire– should be considered individually for every building without generalizations.

Although the mass disappearance of theatres, stadiums and amphitheatres is associated with the era of Late Antiquity, the holding of various mass entertainment activities, even without a specially constructed building but without bloodshed, seems to have persisted. Although public finances supported the construction of churches, some spectacle buildings continued to function into the 4th – 6th century. (Spectacle Buildings in Late Antiquity). It is clear from this overview that the conversion of spectacle buildings into churches is far from the most common practice. The only example from the territory of Bulgaria - the amphitheater in Marcianopolis - should actually be reconsidered due to the uncertain identification of a church.


[1] Uncertain is the evidence of a theatre located next to the two churches and a baptistery, discovered and demolished during the construction of the former Party House in Sofia, in front of the eastern gate of Serdica. (Бобчев 1958, 212-213; Бобчев 1989, 40 № 34а, 45 Обр. 1; Станчева 1964, 159-168; Бояджиев 1994, 5-11; Бояджиев 2002, 142-143; Иванов и др. 2006, 84). There is definite evidence of a theatre and amphitheatre to the east of this site, with no early Christian church yet uncovered, although three burials from Late Antiquity have also been found (Spectacle Buildings in Late Antiquity from Bulgaria);

In the scholarly literature one finds the opinion that an early Christian church was built near the theatre of Philippopolis (Вагалински 1997, 26-35; Мартинова, Боспачиева 2002, 188-189; Vagalinski 2002, 281-283; Иванов и др. 2006, 81-82, 84, 86-89; Sear 2006, 423-424; Вагалински 2009, 76-79, 211 № 143; Мартинова-Кючтова 2009, 385-386; Мартинова-Кючтова 2010, 390-391; Топалилов 2012а, 131-137; Топалилов 2012b, 391-398; Topalilov 2012c, 296; Шаранков 2014, 276-292; Мартинова-Кютова, Шаранков 2017, 328-329; Martinova-Kytova, Sharankov 2018, 67-76; Minchev 2019, 210-213; Georgieva, P. - in print.), built in the late 1st - early 2nd century. (Martinova-Kyutova, Sharankov 2018, 67-71) (Топалилов 2012а, 136-137; Topalilov 2012b, 397-398; Динчев 2016, 316; Dintchev, V. 2018, 359). The claim is substantiated by the conducted archaeological excavations, (Боспачиева 2001, 102-103; Кесякова и др. 2004, 289-290, 314 Fig. 40; Bospačieva 2005, 24, 29), as well as from the excavated „early Christian necropolis“ located west of the entrance to the theatre (Мартинова-Кютова 2009, 385). In fact, in the original publication about the excavation on the road „Княз Церетелев 10-10А“, does not suggest that the exposed walls are a part of a church. The so-called “necropolis” is a single grave covered with teguli, while the distance between the buildings is more than 100 m on a straight line. This evidence is insufficient and rather refutes the connection between the two ancient buildings, (for my part, I interpret the published information in the following way - the church was built to honor the Christians who lost their lives in the arena despite the fact that we do not know anything about them), along with the cause for the destruction of the theatre (Топалилов 2012а, 136-137; Topalilov 2012b, 397-398). In addition to this, an earthquake in the late 4th century is given as the reason for abandoning the spectacle building. (Topalilov 2012b, 397; Martinova-Kyutova 2018, 68), rather than fire from the same period. (Vagalinski 2002, 282; Кесякова 2006, 146; Вагалински 2009, 76; Топалилов 2012а, 136; Topalilov 2012b, 397). A mixed option has also been suggested for the destruction of the building, in which there is first a burning, followed by an earthquake, and finally the plundering of the building (Иванов and others 2006, 89). Another hypothesis proposes that the closure of the theatre was a consequence of imperial regulations affecting the whole Empire, dating from 392 AD. (Топалилов 2012а, 136). The lack of a thorough study of the theatre, providing information about the general issues, along with the material acquired from the research, leads to many fragmented publications, which in turn reinforce the general misunderstanding and ignorance about the site.

[2] Геров 1952-1953, 315-318; Велков 1959, 84-85; Чичикова 1959, 151; Чичикова 1960, 77-78; Велков 1964, 383; ГИБИ VI, V.4-5, 21; Тончева 1967, 8-10; Тончева 1968, 233-234; Hoddinott 1975, 155-156; Рашев 1976, 39; Velkov 1977, 99-100; Tončeva 1981, 138-142; Овчаров 1982, 83, 131-132; Golvin 1988a, 139; Golvin 1988b, pl. XIV, 9; Ангелов 1999, 20, 26, 29; Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 184; Вагалински 2000а, 54-59; Ангелов 2002, 117-118; Георгиев, П. 2002, 94-100; Vagalinski 2002, 279-280, 286 Fig. 1; Иванов, Р. и др. 2006, 83; Димитров 2007, 93, 96-97, 388-390 (№ 82-84), 572; Вагалински 2009, 72-73, 157-158 № 23-24, 209 № 140; Dodge 2009, 30, 32-33, 36-37; Аладжов 2010: 29-30; Ivanov, M. 2012a, 216; Minchev 2012, 140-143; Dimitrov 2015, 494; Динчев 2016, 310, 312-313; Dintchev 2018, 358, 361, 365; Tenekedjiev 2019, 143 Fig. 21, 144, 149; Динчев 2020, 211-212; Dintchev 2021b, 241-242; Minchev 2021, 279, 281-282.

[3] Given the limitations in the length of the paper, as well as the multiple repetitions of the general information in the scholarly literature, the latter will not be included here.

[4] Вагалински 2000а, 55-57; Vagalinski 2002, 279-280; Иванов and others. 2006, 83; Димитров 2007, 388-390 (№ 82-84); Вагалински 2009, 73. On one of the seats is preserved an inscription, the palaeography of which relates to the 3rd – 4th centuries, which testifies to its functioning in the late Roman era (Tončeva 1981, 141; Вагалински 2000а, 55; Vagalinski 2002, 279;  Вагалински 2009, 73).

[5] Велков 1959, 84-85; Ангелов 1999, 4, 9; Ангелов 2002, 108; Ivanov, M. 2012a, 215.

[6] Рашев 1976: 39; Овчаров 1982: 83, 131-132; Ангелов 1999, 55-56; Ангелов 2002, 120; Георгиев, П. 2002, 95; Аладжов 2010, 29-30; Ivanov, M. 2012a, 217.

[7] Тончева 1967, 16; Рашев 1976, 39-44; Георгиев, П. 2002, 95.

[8] Ангелов 1999, 46-48; Ivanov, M. 2012a, 216; Tenekedjiev 2019, 129-156.

[9] Чанева-Дечевска 1999, 184; Ivanov, M. 2012a, 216.

[10] Чичикова 1960, 78.

[11] Велков 1964, 383 = Velkov 1980, 140; ГИБИ VI, V.4-5, 21; Ангелов 1999, 45; Вагалински 2000а, 56; Ангелов 2002, 113; Vagalinski 2002, 279; Шаранков 2014, 281-283, 291; Martinova-Kytova, Sharankov 2018, 73.

[12] IGBulg II, 797-826; Рашев 1976, 39; Димитров 2007, 93, 96-97, 388-390 (№ 82-84), 572.

[13] Bowes 2014, 95; Underwood 2019, 237.

[14] Bowes 2014, 95-98.

[15] Ibid., 97-98

[16] Ibid., 98-99.

[17] Ibid., 100.

[18] Ibid., 100-101.

[19] Ibid., 102-104.

[20] Ibid., 103-105.

[21] Ibid., 105.

[22] Ibid., 105-107.

[23] Golvin, Faquet 2007, 209-210, 213; Bowes 2014, 107.

[24] Bowes 2014, 106-108.

[25] Ibid., 108-109.

[26] Boehm and all. 2016, 315.

[27] Rădulescu 1991, 35-36; Buzoianu, Bărbulescu 2012, 176.

[28] Underwood 2019, 234.

[29] Ibid., 239.

[30] Ibid., 239.

[31] Ibid., 240.

[32] Ibid., 240.

[33] Ibid., 241.

[34] Bowes 2014, 102; Underwood 2019, 241.

[35] Bowes 2014, 102; Underwood 2019, 241.

[36] Bowes 2014, 101-102.

[37] Ibid., 102.

[38] Розпендовски 2016, 311-346; Газда 2016, 347-366.

[39] Underwood 2019, 164-165.

[40] Ibid., 165. The general trend towards the reuse of buildings for spectacles in the 6th century is due to the fact that on the one hand, some were still functioning in the 6th century while others, remaining completely unused, were probably protected by the city government/law, indicating still some control over these buildings.

[41] Bowes 2014, 94, 103-105.

[42] Ibid., 100.

[43] Golvin, Fauquet 2007, 209-210, 213.

[44] Underwood 2019, 191-194.



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