Novae in northern Bulgaria was an important military center in Roman and Byzantine times – the seat of the famous first Italic legion (legio I Italica) – as well as a civilian city of the province of Moesia inferior.
Novae’s location, at the point where the Danube reaches its southernmost point, opposite the Romanian Plain (Wallachia), at the intersection of the Danube road leading to Byzantium and the route through the Balkan passes to Thrace, emphasizes its military importance.
Lying on a high escarpment on the Danube, the camp could effectively resist the attacks of enemies. Today, the area of ancient Novae is referred to as Pametnicite (monuments) because of the monuments that were erected near the ancient ruins to commemorate the crossing of Russian troops in 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War that led to the liberation of Bulgaria.
Initially – probably until the end of the 1st century AD. – the fortress was built of wood and earth. The only stone buildings were the headquarters building (principia) and a large bathhouse (thermae legionis). During the reign of Trajan, in preparation for war with the Dacians, the fortress was rebuilt, replacing the wood and earth structures with stone ones. As a result, the defensive wall surrounded an area with dimensions of 372 by 485 m.
In 250 Novae was attacked by the Goths led by Kniva, but they did not capture the camp. Reforms at the beginning of the fourth century probably caused a reduction in the number of the legion. Also, archaeological studies show that at that time in the area of the former legionary buildings, such as valetudinarium were built the first civil structures. Already at the end of the 3rd century the eastern defensive wall of the camp was dismantled and built anew – with an irregular course extending Novae towards the east.
The period of the second flourishing ended in Novae with a new invasion of the Balkans by the Goths in 376-378. In 441 Novae was hit by another invasion, this time by the Huns. From then on it ceased to have a military role. In the 5th and 6th centuries Novae became the seat of the bishopric of the late antique province of Moesia secunda.
Probably already in the period of the First Bulgarian Kingdom, Novae became an important settlement point again. This is demonstrated by the discovery of a relatively large early medieval necropolis of skeletal burials.
Excavations at Novae have been carried out continuously since 1960 by a joint Polish-Bulgarian team. Today there are three Polish expeditions working in Novae, one of which is the team of the Research Centre for Southeast European Antiquities at the University of Warsaw. The Centre conducted fieldwork in the so-called Sector IV, known mainly for its excellently preserved military hospital (valetudinarium).
After the completion of the exploration of the valetudinarium in 2006, the Centre’s archaeologists switched to studying the layout of the earlier structure below the hospital, which was the bathhouse of the legionary camp (thermae), which functioned here between c. 70-101 AD, that is, until Trajan’s Dacian wars necessitated the construction of a large military hospital, and the thermae were moved towards the center of the fortress, west of the headquarters building .
The Centre is currently conducting research in what is known as Sector XII, which was designated in 2011 immediately to the east of the camp headquarters building (principia). Although the nature of the main legion building has not yet been fully determined, one can certainly admire the complex architecture built here, the excavated high-grade movable relics, and the sophisticated network of drains. According to the standard layout of a Roman fortress, one would expect to find here the praetorium or houses of soldiers of the immunes category (who did not participate in ordinary service), or the barracks of legionaries, perhaps those of the prestigious first cohort of the legion.
T. Derda, P. Dyczek, J. Kolendo (eds.) Novae I – Novae. Legionary Fortress and Late Antique Town, Volume One. A Companion to the Study of Novae, Warszawa 2008.
P. Dyczek, „The Most Splendid Town of Novaesians”, Limes XXII. Proceedings of the 22nd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies Ruse, Bulgaria, September 2012, eds. L. Vagalinski, N. Sharankov, Sofia 2015, 169-177.
M. Lemke, The Dwindling Legion. Architectural and Administrational Changes in Novae (Moesia inferior) on the Verge to Late Antiquity, in: R. Collins, M. Weber, M. Symonds (eds.), Roman Military Architecture on the Frontiers in Late Antiquity: Armies and their Architecture, London, 90-97.
P. Dyczek, Wooden Barracks of the First Cohort of the Legio VIII Augusta from Novae (Moesia Inferior), Limes XXXIII, Proceedings of the 23rd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, Mainz 2018, 530-536.