A brief presentation


Heraclea Sintica or Herakleia on the Strymon is located in the Rupite region, on the land of the eponymous village in the municipality of Petrich, in south-west Bulgaria (fig. 1).

Heraclea occupied mainly the southern slope of the Kozhuh
elevation, as well as the field to the south and west (figs. 2, 3).

Fig. 3

Heraclea Sintica was founded by Macedonian colonists in the middle of 4th century BC, during the reign of Philip II of Macedon. From the middle of 2nd century BC, the city belonged to the Roman province of Macedonia.
In Antiquity, the city lay on the boundary between Thrace and Macedonia (fig. 4).

As early as the first year of archaeological excavations (2007) we identified four settlement periods. At that time, they loosely covered the first four centuries AD. In the process of research over the following years, this archaeological chronology, which resulted from field work, was expanded and refined:

  • first period = after 88 BC to the middle of the 1st century (after 41 AD);
  • second period = after 41 AD until the end of the 3rd century (after 282/283 AD);
  • third period = after 282/283 until the end of 4 th century (after 388);
  • fourth period = after 388 – second quarter of 5th century (between 425 and 457);
  • fifth period = after 457 until the end of 5th century.

To avoid confusion, we retained the initial numbering of the periods,
despite the fact that Heraclea has an approximately 250-year-old history prior to the so-called “first” period.

Unearthed city architecture

1. The Central Square

The central square (agora, forum) is located at the south foot of the Kozhuh elevation (fig 3).
The Hellenistic agora of Heraclea lies on a comparatively flat place, at the foot of its Acropolis. From its beginning, i.e. from the second half of the 4th century BC, the Heraclea agora had a bearing wall, which supported the selected terrace from the north, west and south. Thus, the agora measured 56 m (north-south) x almost 56 m, or an area of 3136 sq.m (fig. 5/yellow).

Figure 5

It appears that an attack provoked by the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BC) lead to a significant re-modelling of the agora, which took place during the first settlement period. An agora of almost rectangular shape can be traced. The alteration of the agora was accompanied by the application of mortar in the agora construction (fig. 5/red).

The second settlement period introduced the most considerable changes in the plan of the central agora. A rectangular forum was constructed. It was surrounded by three sides with strong porticos built with mortar and provided with marble stylobates – the so-called porticus triplex (fig. 5/green). The west and south portico of Heraclea had a lower floor, which was underground as per the paved area. This construction allowed for increasing the area of the forum to the west and the south. It seems Heracleans included elements of the Doric order in the new forum. It is likely that the enemy attack during the 60ies of the 2nd century was launched before the completion of the forum construction. After the assault, the
forum was lavishly renovated in the Corinthian style (fig. 5A).

Figure 5A.

During the second period, the Heraclean forum measured 70.60 m (east-west, including the east and the west portico) x 61 m (north-south, together with the 15 chain premises and the south portico), amounting to an area of 4306.60 sq.m. What makes a strong impression is that the central square of the Roman colony Philippi exceeded the Heraclean one by only 10%. The latter, however, was larger than the one in Dion – the official religious centre of Macedonia. In general terms, these figures imply that Heraclea had significant financial (and demographic?) resources at its disposal during the first three centuries AD. The forum in Heraclea exceeded the area of its preceding agora by approximately 27%. It is reasonable to assume that Roman
Heraclea was larger than the Hellenistic one. The economic advantages of the inclusion of the city in the Roman state, which controlled the entire Mediterranean and the regions belonging to it, were considerably more than the disadvantages of the loss of state sovereignty in 168 BC.

A powerful enemy attack at the end of the 3rd century (282/283 AD) left its traces all over the forum. After that, the Heracleans started its ambitious restoration and renovation (fig. 5/blue). The three porticos were reconstructed with preserved elements of the architectural order of the second period. The ruins over the area were levelled out and on top of them was laid a new pavement made of reused limestone slabs of the former. The walking level was raised by approximately 1 m. The two cisterns in the south-west corner of the forum from the second period also functioned during the third one. Next to the north-west corner of the forum was erected a civic basilica. Most probably, it was the reason for the addition of fourth, north portico, constructed with spolia. The northern side of the new portico was occupied by fifteen newly-built chain premises. The semi-circular plan of the large ones, the alcoves in the northern walls, the colour plaster, the altars, the marble decoration and tiling are indicative of their religious function. One of the premises was the temple of Nemesis. The two newly-constructed buildings (the civic basilica to the west and a pagan temple (?) to the east) confirm the impression of the administrative, political and representative character of the north part of the agora.

A massive earthquake struck at the end of the 4th century (after 388), when the forum was still unfinished. Nature destroyed the central square in Heraclea. Its citizens could not afford to restore it. The public building (pagan temple?) next to the north-east corner of the forum was converted to an early Christian church (fig. 5/violet). The civic basilica was turned into economic premises. The two cisterns were also buried. The canals, however, were repaired and adjusted to the higher daytime surface. Organized life in Heraclea, which had lost its splendour, continued during the fourth period.

The hope was short-lived. Another severe earthquake after 425 broke the fighting spirit of the Heracleans. After a short interruption, life in the centre of the city was restored (after AD 457), but only partially and in a very modest way. Only the early Christian three aisle(s) basilica was extended to the west during the fifth period but it was also built only with masonry and clay binder (fig. 5/brown). The walls inside however, were plastered in white mortar again. The forum was totally derelict. The Heracleans buried their closest people in it and in preferred proximity to their church. An anthropological analysis confirms their difficult life.

2. The Acropolis

It is located on the southern slope of the Kozhuh hill, in whose foothills lies the forum (figs. 3, 6).

Figure 6.

The earliest traces of human presence on the Acropolis are pieces of clay vessels relating to the Late Neolithic period (generally speaking, c. 5000 BC) and the Late Chalcolithic period (as a whole, c. 4000 BC)

The Early Hellenistic coins indicate habitation of the Acropolis at that time. They belong to the east Macedonian city of Crenides and the future Philippi, and were minted in the periods of 360-356 BC and 353-352 BC; Alexander the Great (336-323 BC) and Cassander (305-297 BC). Life continued on the Acropolis in the 3rd – 2nd century BC according to fragments of cups with relief decoration (the so- called Megarian bowls).

Figure 7.

The fortification wall constructed with mortar binder is the oldest persevered in situ construction we unearthed (fig. 7/3).

The curtain wall was reinforced with a rectangular turret (fig. 8/2). This Roman fortification wall was built prior to 28-27 BC. Perhaps it was erected after the enemy attack during the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BC) and suffered damages in an enemy assault in the middle of the 1st century AD. Today, this protected area is approximately 8063 m2, but 2000 years ago it was larger due to the intense erosion in the very steep eastern periphery (fig 6). The wall was repaired and continued to protect the Heracleans even after the middle of the 1st century AD.

We also excavated a late antique residential building with two construction stages (fig. 8/6). The year 450 AD is terminus post quem for stage 1 of this house. Its existence was quite brief. It burned down after 461/465. A group of people settled (or were accommodated) on the Acropolis after the second major earthquake. Phase 2 of the late Antiquity building on the Acropolis is dated to the middle of the 6th century. It was exactly during phase 2 that a fortification wall was erected (figs. 7/5, 8/5). To the south, it leaned against the earlier Roman curtain wall, following its course. The end of phase 2 occurred soon after 569/570 AD, following an enemy attack. Most probably, the Acropolis was damaged during one of the first Avar onslaughts against the Eastern Roman Empire. During the second phase, the people were militarised and with a good standard of life. It is very likely that they guarded/controlled the roads along the two rivers – Struma and Strumeshnitsa.

After the end of the 6th century there are no traces of inhabiting the Acropolis whatsoever.

3. Fortification system

3.1. East fortification wall (fig. 9/6)

Based on stratified finds, we managed to date this fortification wall to after the 1st century and before 253-257 AD.

3.2. Fortification walls on the Acropolis (fig. 9/2)

The mortar curtain wall was built around the middle of the 1st century BC, which might have resulted from an enemy attack during the First Mithridatic War (figs. 7/3, 8/1, 2). Today, this wall encircles the semi-elliptic highest part of Dzonkov peak, with an area of a little more than 8 decares (fig. 6). It appears that the protected area was larger in Antiquity, but the steady erosion reduced it. The defence of the Acropolis from the west, north and east was facilitated by steep slopes. Undoubtedly, it was fortified as early as the foundation of the city but so far, we have not established the Hellenistic fortification at the top. Five hundred years later, a new curtain wall doubled the Roman one (figs. 7/5, 8/5). It, however, had nothing in common with the city destroyed after two consecutive, strong earthquakes (at the end of the 4th century and in the second quarter of the 5th century) but protected the militarised group of people controlling the roads along Struma and Strumeshnitsa Rivers. This last fortification in Heraclea was deserted at the end of the 6th century.

Figure 9

3.3. Chronology of the fortification system

The Hellenistic fortress of Heraclea currently remains unknown. Undoubtedly, the city had one from its very beginning, at least on the Acropolis. The archaeologically registered enemy attacks at the end of the 4th century BC, the middle of the 3rd century BC, in 168 BC, in the second half of the 2nd century BC and at the beginning of the 80ies of the 1st century BC necessitated the maintenance of the fortification by the Heracleans. Until the middle of the 1st century AD, the city remained on the border (first of the Macedonian kingdom, and later of the Roman state) and was regularly threatened from the north by enemy onslaughts of various tribal groups, among which the Thracians-Medi and the Celts-Scordisci were especially persistent. The violent Thracian (?) incursion during the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BC) appears to have provoked the reinforcement of the Acropolis defence with a strong mortar fortress. After the 1st century AD was erected the first (?) fortification wall, which protected the central part of the city and the southern slope of the Kozhuh hill (fig. 9/6, 7, 9, 11). This Roman curtain wall presses so tightly against the mortar fortress of the Acropolis (fig. 9/2) that the latter was integrated into the north-west corner of the new stronghold. The resulting irregular quadrangle measures approximately 380 m along the axis north-south at about 626 m along the axis east-west and about 23.35 ha protected area and a perimeter of approximately 2000 m. This fortress was built during the second phase of the thriving second period of Heraclea (the middle of the 2nd – the end of the 3rd century).

4. Necropoleis and burial rite

With one exception, these have not been systematically studied by archaeologists.

4.1. Western necropolis in the Metlata locality (fig. 9/5)

It lies to the west of Heraclea. 167 graves have been studied, with an area of approximately 750 m2, which fit the chronological framework of the late 4th century BC – the late 4th century AD. During the initial period of the end of the late 4th century BC to the middle of the 3rd century BC, the burial structures were large and various. Over the next period of the middle of the 3rd century to the middle of the 2nd century BC, it can be observed that the burial structures became smaller and more uniform. There is a noticeable continuity in the types of burial structures before and after the middle of the 2nd century BC, when Heraclea became a part of the Roman state. After the middle of the 3rd century AD, the Hellenistic grave plates started to be reused as building material for the Late Roman burial structures. There are two noticeable coincidences between the development of the burial structures and the archaeological history of the city. A reduction in the variety and size of the former started after the enemy attack in the middle of the 3rd century BC. The re-use of old tombstones began after Heraclea was destroyed by fire at the end of the 3rd century. This strong attack forced Heracleans to resort to using the gravestones of their predecessors.

Graves containing rich grave goods were typical of the period until the middle of the 3rd century BC. Gold ear-rings and pectorals are dated to the “Macedonian period” of Heraclea. The gold gifts were reserved for the Macedonian royal family and those closest to them. Weapons (spears; a curved fighting knife) are also discovered in burials until the middle of the 2nd century BC,

i.e. until the fall under Roman dominion. The researcher established impoverishment (in terms of number of objects and luxury) and uniformity of the grave goods after the middle of the 2nd century BC. As regards the manner of burying, cremation was practiced until the second half of the 2nd century AD, with the two forms being in use – in situ (in the grave) and outside the grave structure. Inhumation was predominant throughout the period, and during the 3rd – 4th century it was the only way of burial in the necropolis. During the early Hellenistic period, the east orientation (of the head of the deceased) was widespread. After the middle of the 3rd century BC, other kinds of orientation were used increasingly often. There is no clear ordering of graves before the middle of the 2nd century BC, whereas the later ones were arranged in rows. Steady continuity in the necropolis can be observed, with the changes being gradual. This situation suggests a large enough and economically dominant ethnic and cultural nucleus, which remained intact over the centuries while successfully and quickly absorbing alien individuals allowed in or imposed in the city.

4.2. Burials in the city

They are dated to the 5th century, when the city was declining after the two consecutive massive earthquakes at the end of the 4th century and the second quarter of the 5th century.

4.3. A summary regarding the Heraclea necropoleis

The location of the necropoleis of the antique cities marks the boundaries of their built (and often protected) area (fig. 9/4, 5, 8). The west and south necropolis of Heraclea hold burials from the early Hellenistic to the late Roman period, i.e. throughout the effective functioning of the city as such. The so-called “horizontal stratigraphy” of its necropoleis has not been established. According to the position of the cemeteries, the area of the Macedonian Heraclea coincided to some extent with that of its Roman continuation, which is an indication of the comparatively constant number of citizens during all these centuries. The topographic continuity in the graveyards of Heraclea also implies an ethnic and cultural one. The data about the burial rite in the necropolis in the Metlata locality support this conclusion.

5.  Governed territory and administrative structure

5.1. Governed territory

Neither the ancient sources, nor the present archaeological research shed light on the boundaries of the surrounding territory governed by Heraclea (chora) or even changes in its area over the centuries. Results from our archaeological GIS field surveys reveal how the settlement system in the region developed. The sites pre- dating the foundation of Heraclea are really few. This conclusion coincides with information from written antique sources about a sparsely populated region during the 5th – 4th century BC. The Roman conquest in the middle of the 2nd century BC caused significant changes in the use of the land. The settlement network was most dense in the period of the 1st – the 4th century owing to pax romana. It was especialy populated around (south and north of) Heraclea (fig. 10).

Figure 10.

5.2.  Administrative structure

There are no direct data about the period of the second half of the 4th century BC – the beginning of the 1st century AD (= from the foundation of Heraclea to the Principate of Tiberius). Therefore, the presented global picture of Macedonia from those times serves to provide some guiding information about Heraclea.

We have at our disposal reliable facts about the city authorities and institutions in Heraclea during the Roman, imperial period thanks to the availability of inscriptions. The earliest one dates from 34/35 AD. The body of agoranomoi comprised three people. During the second half of the 1st century – the beginning of the 2nd century the city was governed by five politarches. Heraclea had a treasurer and an agonothetes. A donation from the 80ies of the 2nd century mentions a “treasurer”, a gerusia headed by έπιμελητές (curator), and a registrar (mnemon).

From the inscriptions it becomes clear that during the 1st century in Heraclea there already existed a stable city elite, with a hereditary leading social position. The ephebic institution was documented in an inscription from 214/215 AD. A letter of Emperor Galerius and Caesar Maximinus Daza in 307-308 AD to the Heracleans was addressed to “IIII viri” [= politarches or archontes ) – chief magistrates of the city. There was a change at the beginning of the 4th century at least in their number – from five (politarches; see above) to four. It is likely that there were other adjustments in the Heraclean administration, which occurred in the 3rd century; however, new epigraphic data about them are necessary.

6.  Economy

6.1. Crafts

Two quarries for the mining of aragonite were established on Kozhuh hill. The beautiful aragonite colours were the reason why the Heracleans used it as facing tiles in the northern premises of the square from the third period. It is possible that the easy working of the aragonite tempted the Heracleans to use it for columns despite its medium strength. Unfinished marble capitals from the period of the middle of the 2nd – the beginning of the 3rd century point to their making (or at least finishing) in situ. The local craftsmen diligently shaped the edges of the stone blocks with masonry chisels both during the 4th century BC and during the 2nd – 4th century AD. Gravestones were sculpted in the Heraclean sculpture workshop during the 2nd – 3rd century. Its decorative style has been identified. At the same time, the local stonecutters made votive plates of various quality, with some of them remaining unfinished. The question about visiting/hired stonecutters to work on the architectural decoration of the square during the second period remains open. The columns, which collapsed from the north stylobate of the forum, were made of marble, which is still mined near the village of Petrovo, Sandanski municipality, located 20 km to the east of Heraclea. The production of ceramics in

Heraclea consisted of pottery, clay lamps, terracotta, bricks, roof tiles, pipes, antefixes and others. The amphorae stamps from the end of the 4th century BC reveal local production of clay containers in the city from its very foundation. A clay mould attests to the synchronous making of terracotta. Its production continued until the end of the third period, i.e. until the end of the 4th century AD, with the most numerous examples being available from the 2nd – 3rd century AD. The surviving moulds date from the same time. The terracotta was the trademark of Heraclea. Moulds and some candlesticks prove the production of lamps in the city, at least during the second period. The Heracleans must have produced various ceramic tableware. Clear evidence of glazed production are the clay sticks used for arranging and hanging clay vessels in the kiln during the 3rd century AD. Previously, this manner of firing was dated not earlier than the Late Byzantine Empire (11th – 13th century). We established local imitations of Attic clay lamps from the 3rd century AD. Weaving was typical of every household in antiquity. Hundreds of weights for a vertical loom – clay, lead and stone – confirm this fact for the entire duration of the existence of the city. It is likely that the weaving manufacture functioned during the 4th century AD north of the forum. The regular use of adobe in Heraclea suggests its local production. During the late Hellenistic period work was performed in the square, Hellenic format, which was replaced during the late Empire with the rectangular, Roman one. The presence of metallurgy is implied by the lumps of of mill-bars (late Hellenistic period). A glass furnace from the first half of the 4th century AD is the only production facility we have discovered. The wall paintings in Heraclea known to us so far were executed in a simple way both during the Hellenistic and the Principate period. The existing examples were created by people lacking specialist qualification. Bone working is represented by numerous hair pins and needles (but much fewer), spoons, knucklebones, counters, pendants, etc. The identified workpieces are made from antlers and ram horns, from long and tubular bones of farm and wild animals, and from birds. Traces left on the animal bones undoubtedly indicate the slaughtering techniques of professional butchers. Archaeobotanical studies established the predominant use of oak in the buildings (for the roof, doors and floors) in Heraclea during all periods. On some samples there were visible traces of carving. The local carpenters also used white and pitch pine in the construction process.

6.2.  Farming

6.2.1. Agriculture

Pieces of bread in a culture layer from the first decades of Heraclea, i.e. the end of the 4th century BC reveal the fast agricultural development in the surrounding region. The two samples under consideration were exceptionally well preserved.

For this reason, two types of wheat were clearly identified (soft and large-grain) and millet. The hand mills from the site are the usual archaeological proof of growing cereal crops. A hoe from the 4th century AD is among the few agricultural tools known to us. Reaping hooks are predictable for a region with developed viticulture even today: second period, the dwelling estate north of the forum; third period, south of the northern stylobate; 6th century, the Acropolis. Pithoi finds in situ document the preservation of agricultural foods. For the entire duration of Heraclea we discovered fruit trees – plums and cherries. How was agriculture organised on the territory of Heraclea? Undoubtedly, the Macedonian colonists were given ownership of some pieces of land by the king, which was the usual practice of Philip II. Our GIS field surveys established a dense network of antique settlement sites north and south of Heraclea. However, without geo-physical studies followed by archaeological excavations, it is not possible to determine their exact settlement form: villae rusticae, village households or others.

6.2.2.   Stock-breeding

Archaeozoological study of about 15000 animal bones discovered during our excavations in Heraclea shed light on this sector of the economy. What makes a strong impression is that throughout the existence of the city the percentage ratio remained unchanged. Swine took the first place, sheep and goats – the second, and cattle – the third. Farm animals constituted over 92% of all animal bones. They were the main source of animal food. The general impression of the Heracleans’ diet is: no indulgencies, but no privations, either.

6.3.  Trade

Heraclean amphorae stamps from the end of the 4th century BC are a sure sign that the city exported agricultural produce. At the same time, the city imported foods from the North Aegean – from the Chalcidian city of Akanthos and from a certain unspecified settlement. The Heracleans’ commercial contacts were directed from the very beginning to the south – the Aegean and the Mediterranean. As indicated by the circulation of coins in the city, Heraclea retained this economic orientation throughout its history. Soon after the annexation of Macedonia by Rome in 148/146 BC amphorae with olive oil (?) arrived at the Heraclean market from the west.

They were produced in the region of Brindisi. Meanwhile, according to another amphorae stamp, Heraclea imported products from the East Mediterranean, namely from Rhodes. During the second half of the 2nd century – the beginning of the 1st century BC, Heraclea imported clay lamps from Attica as well as other parts of continental Greece. Import of pottery from Pergamon during the 2nd – 1st century BC has also been recognized. An inscription by agoranomoi illustrates a well- organised market in Heraclea at the beginning of the 1st century AD. The import of clay lamps from Attica also continued around the new era. It probably increased during the 3rd – the beginning of the 4th century AD. During the 1st – the middle of the 2nd century, in the city were sold ceramic lamps from Central Italy. What is notable is that even in the difficult last decades of the 6th century AD the people on the Acropolis had access to the import of pottery from the capital of Constantinople.

7.  Religion and festivals

7.1. Sanctuaries and temples

The Thracian sanctuary in the Skalata locality on the land of the near village of Levunovo is among the few documented settlement sites in the region immediately preceding the foundation of Heraclea. It was abandoned after the settlement of Macedonian colonists.

The sanctuary of Nemesis is one of the few known/excavated ones in the vast Roman Empire (fig. 11). It is the only one of the 15 chain premises of the north portico, whose purpose we recognized with certainty. The sanctuary functioned in the 4th century AD. However, the votive plates discovered in it were created the previous century.

Figure 11.

A temple which presumably belonged to Heracles was located to the east of the forum. We uncovered a small part of its west end with a brick concha, stone floor and mortar plaster inside, together with parts of a marble human-sized statue of the hero – a club and a leg.

The Acropolis of the Hellenic cities sheltered their citizens in times of danger, and also accommodated their main sanctuaries/temples. It is unlikely that during the Hellenistic period Heraclea was an exception in this respect. An indication of such a location are a marble torso of a goddess (?) and a piece of a votive plate on the Acropolis.

An early Christian basilica was recognised by its plan (NE corner of the forum (fig. 5). The church is among the few (stratigraphically) reliably dated, late Antiquity, Christian temples in south-west Bulgaria – after 388 AD and before 425 AD. In the 5th and probably also the 6th century, the basilica was the central and maybe the only public building of the Heracleans. A roof-tile stamped with a cross reveals the Christian affiliation of the buried underneath it and that of the producers. The ceramic image of a warrior-saint (?) reveals the presence of Christian population on the Acropolis in the 6th century.

7.2.  Gods and festivals

Heracles was the city’s eponymous. It is only natural that we discovered numerous proofs of the cult of him – terracotta, a votive plate, a bronze figurine, a lead pendant, fragments from a marble statue. Heracles’ club is depicted on bronze coins of Heraclea minted as a reaction to the founding of the rival city of Parthicopolis at the end of Emperor Trajan’s rule (98-117). Undoubtedly, the city’s ephebes also honoured their patron.

Artemis was among the most worshipped deities in Antiquity in the region of Middle Struma River. A graffito on a clay loom weight is evidence of a cult of the closely related goddess Bendis among the local Thracians in the Late Hellenistic period. We have an anepigraphic votive plate from the imperial period (second settlement period) and a fragment of another one from an unclear archaeological context. Paleographically, the inscription can be dated to before the 1st century BC. The History Museum in Petrich houses another anepigraphic votive plate of the goddess.

The cult of the god of wine Dyonisus was obviously very popular in such a viticultural region as Middle Struma River. Terracotta from Heraclea of him and his thiasus is dated mainly to the 3rd century AD. Many Heracleans carried the theophoric name of Dionysius, including the city dignitary and agonothetes Tiberius Claudius Bacchius. Theatre performances accompanied the festivals of Dyonisus. Heraclea had its own theatre and also locally produced theatrical masks.

It is believed that the cult of Nemesis was introduced in Macedonia in Roman times. The archaeological data in Heraclea are from the 3rd – 4th AD. The gladiators’ attributes on the plates are a clear indication of holding ludi gladiatorii in the city. A marble relief with a running/chasing dog, which we discovered in the same sanctuary of Nemesis, is a reflection of organised venationes.

It remains unclear what kind of games the agonothetes Tiberius Claudius Bacchius organised c. 100 AD, nor with the funds of which goddess they were financed. It is assumed that the festival and its accompanying contests were dedicated to Artemis because of her popularity in the region. Recently, a hypothesis was proposed that the goddess in question was probably Isis, whose cult spread in the region of Middle Struma River during the imperial period.

The multiple images of Hermes in Heraclea imply the power of his cult in the city during the imperial period. Hermes was certainly honoured in the gymnasion as well. Most probably, the local ephebes organised contests in his and Heracles’ honour. The fact that Hermes also protected the Heraclean marketplace is made clear in the inscription by the three agoranomoi, who erected his image.

The earliest example of the Emperor’s cult in Heraclea and generally in the region of Middle Struma River is the above-mentioned inscription by the three agoranomoi. Their dedication from 34-35 AD was directed at Augustus’ adopted son and incumbent Emperor Tiberius. The ruler is called “divine” – the earliest use in Macedonia of this epithet for a Roman Princeps. He was also the dedicatee of the games which Tiberius Claudius Bacchius organised c. 100 in honour of an unnamed goddess. A construction inscription on an architrave from the 2nd century is chronologically the next example of the cult to the Roman Emperor – most probably of Hadrian. A manifestation of the same veneration is a relief bust of the same Emperor at the bottom of a ceramic cup. In the period of 256-258 AD, the Heracleans erected a honorary statue of Emperor Gallienus’ son – Caesar Valerianus Iunior, who was responsible for the Balkan provinces. The gladiator and hunting spectacles in the city were certainly dedicated to the ruling Emperor, too.

The cult of the Thracian Horseman in Heraclea can be identified through his terracotta tablets from the end of the 3rd and the end of the 4th century AD.

The goddess of victory is represented in Heraclea with a marble statue. The stratigraphic dating of the sculpture is the middle of the 1st – the middle of the 2nd century AD. The iconography resembles the famous early Hellenistic statue of “Nike of Samothrace”. A terracotta figurine from the second period is the second proof of the cult of Nike during the Principate.

The scene with Mithras slaying a bull (the so-called “tauroctony”) was typical of reliefs placed in his sanctuaries. This conclusion is valid to an even greater extent for free sculptures, like the Heraclean one. During the second period, Heraclea had a sanctuary of Mithras. The years 282/283 AD are terminus ante quem for the marble sculptures during the second period – most probably after the middle of the 2nd century.

The same archaeological context and dating are valid for the terracotta bust of the Egyptian god Sarapis.

A marble eagle can be associated with the cult of the “Most High” god Hypsistos, or Zeus Hypsistos. The cult was really powerful in Macedonia.

We learn about the Rosalia festival in an inscription from the end of the 2nd century.

Annaia, the daughter of Antigonos, dedicated to Demeter in the period of the 2nd – the beginning of the 1st century BC.

Demetrius – the younger son of Philip V of Macedon – was murdered during some holy feast in Heraclea in 180 BC.

As a whole, the available information about the cults and festivals in Heraclea is consistent with the religious practice in antique Macedonia. The only peculiarity is the presentation of various gladiators’ attributes on votive plates of Nemesis.

8.  Ethnic composition

The city keeps its Macedonian names all the time. The data about foreign settlers are so far scanty – from Miletus and Carthage. They are dated to Hellenism and the Principate. The available archaeological and epigraphic evidence leads to the conclusion that the local Thracian population was driven away at least from the nearby region around the newly founded Heraclea. Until the beginning of the 3rd century, the data about the Thracians in the city are few. The Thracians mainly lived on the administrative territory of the city, mostly in the mountainous areas. It seems the conservative Heraclean elite did not allow Thracians to the positions of power until 212 AD, when Constitutio Antoniniana made all free subjects of the Empire legally equal, granting them Roman citizenship. We can see the result of this cardinal social act in the ephebic cataloque of Heraclea from 214/215 AD. Twelve out of twenty-four ephebes were of Thracian origin. The Edict of Caracalla created the normative conditions for the “Thracian Renaissance” during the 3rd – 4th century AD.


Founded as a Macedonian colony on Thracian lands in the middle of the 4th century BC, Heraclea demonstrated enviable adaptability in the changing political and economic framework over the centuries. This was also achieved by other cities in ancient Macedonia. What is extraordinary in this case is that the Heracleans combined their flexibility with remarkable ethnic and cultural conservatism, at least until Constitutio Antoniniana. The centuries-old border location of the city requiring strong collective cohesion represents a possible explanation of this social phenomenon.

It was a matter of chance that the two earthquakes and the following floods from the end of the 4th and the second quarter of the 5th century “sealed” the city, preserving its architecture in good condition to the present day. It only depends on us how long the historical account of “the city of Heracles” will be. The most interesting parts are yet to come!


www.archaeologia-bulgarica.com Including a two volumes book (2022; ArchBulg Supplements # 4)

Lyudmil Vagalinski
head of the archaeological research of Heraclea Sintica
National Archaeological Institute with Museum
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences