I was aware that Bulgaria was once part of the Roman Empire, and that there were impressive Roman remains in some parts of the country. However I hadn’t expected to find much in Sofia, the capital city. So I was surprised at how much evidence there was of the Romans in Sofia. This is a guide to the currently accessible sites of Roman Sofia (but please let me know if I’ve missed any…)
History of the Romans in Sofia
But first, a bit of history. The Romans arrived in Sofia around 29 BC. They built a settlement around the hot mineral springs, and named it Serdica (or Serdika). It was strategically situated on the Via Militaris, a major road linking the Eastern and Western Empires, and by the 3rd century Serdica had increased in importance. The city expanded, and there were many new buildings. The Emperor Constantine based himself here: he is reputed to have said “Serdica is my Rome”.
Although we know when the Romans arrived in Sofia, it’s not quite so clear when they left. In western Europe we tend to talk of the “Fall of the Roman Empire” as having occurred in AD 476, when German armies deposed the last emperor in Rome. However, by this time the empire had divided into eastern and western sections. The Eastern Roman Empire, which became known as Byzantium in the 4th century, lasted until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
There is no clear transition between the Roman and Byzantine empires. This can cause a bit of confusion for tourists, as old buildings might be described as Roman, or Byzantine, or even both! In particular, the early churches date from the Byzantine era (as Christianity was not formally adopted by the Roman Empire until 313). However, they may also be “Roman”, and might be built upon the site of earlier Roman religious buildings.
Roman Sites in Sofia
The main Roman town was compact, and surrounded by a wall, with burial sites and the amphitheatre outside. Most of what you see today is within the original walled area, although there isn’t much left of the wall itself.
Not all of the known Roman sites are visible to tourists. And new sites are still being discovered and excavated. So I recommend you keep your eyes open as you walk around – you may spot some sites that I missed.
Map of Roman Sites in Sofia
Serdica Archaeological Complex
The most important and extensive site is the Serdica Archaeological Complex. This was discovered during the construction of the Serdika metro station in 2010-12. Most of the remains date from the 4th to 6th centuries, although some are earlier. The site includes eight streets, an early Christian basilica, baths and other buildings.
Part of the site is underground, and can be accessed from the metro station. This part is extensive, and includes remnants of Roman mosaic floors and the Eastern Gate, as well as of a late medieval church. Another section runs, below street level, between the church of St Petka of the Saddlers and the Bania Bashi Mosque. A large glass building beside this area looks as if it may contain further remains, but had not yet opened to the public at the time of my visit (April 2019).
The Western Gate of Serdica
The Western Gate of Serdica is beside the Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph, on Bulevard Todor Alexandrov. The site was first discovered in the 1970s, but the excavation work is not yet complete.
You can see fragments of the original fortifications, including the West Gate, a fortress and a tower. This was the boundary of the city, so everything else you see here would have been outside of the enclosed area. The remains include a Roman road, and part of a basilica with mosaics.
St Nedelya Square
A very recent discovery is the remains beneath St Nedelya Square (close to the Church of St Nedelya). Work began here in 2015-16 and is still going on. It is hoped that the site will be open to visitors at some time in 2019.
This was the centre of the Roman town and it is likely that the forum was in this area. The part now being excavated consists of two buildings from the 2nd to 6th centuries, as well as some medieval buildings. There are also remnants of water pipes and sewage channels. Several Roman artefacts have been found in St Nedelya Square, including a large hoard of coins.
St George Rotunda Church
The St George Rotunda is a Roman/Byzantine church from the 4th century. It was probably built on top of an earlier pagan temple. There is a small archaeological site beside the church. This includes part of a basilica with underfloor heating, and other public buildings.
The church and the remains are in a courtyard surrounded by various government buildings and the Sofia Balkan Hotel.
St Sofia Church
St Sofia Church is a 6th century Byzantine church, but it was built above at least two early Christian basilicas. The churches themselves were built above a 2nd century necropolis. St Sofia is situtated outside of the original city walls (Roman burial places were always away from the city).
The crypt is now an archaeological museum where you can see the remains of the earlier structures. These include several tombs, including one with the wall paintings still visible. There are also some fragments of Roman mosaic floors.
Minor Roman Sites in Sofia
The Roman Amphitheatre
It might seem perverse to describe the Amphitheatre as a minor site, but there is very little to see today. The remains are in the basement of the Arena di Serdica hotel, and visitors are welcome to explore. There are some fragments of the walls and floor, and attempts have been made to show how the area would have been arranged.
When I visited it looked as if there was another archaeological site close to the hotel. So it is possible that there will be more to see in the future.
North-East Corner of the City Walls
Not far from the Regional History Museum, you can see part of the north-east corner of the 2nd century walls. There are also fragments of a fortified tower.
The Banya-Bashi Mosque was built over the remains of an old Roman bath-house. You can still see some ruins of Roman buildings beside the mosque.
Central Market Hall
There are some very minor remains in the basement of the Central Market Hall. These include small parts of the city wall and of Roman baths.
Roman Exhibits in the Museums of Sofia
National History Museum
The National History Museum concentrates on the history of the whole of Bulgaria, and not just Sofia. It has extensive displays and collections from the Roman period.
Outside the museum are the remains of two tombs from the old necropolis, which have been moved from their original location closer to the city centre.
National Archaeology Museum
The National Archaeology Museum includes Roman artefacts from across Bulgaria. There are some stone monuments outside the museum, mostly of a funerary nature.
Regional History Museum
The Regional History Museum covers the history of Sofia from the earliest times. Its collections are thematic, with a concentration on more recent history. However, it does include several Roman artefacts.
The Roman Wall
And, finally, you may see references to the “Roman Wall”. However, although it is impressive, it is not Roman! It dates from the Ottoman period and was probably built in the 16th or 17th century, and formed part of a religious building (possibly a tomb).
More About Sofia
You may also enjoy the following:
- Top things to do in Sofia
- Hidden art galleries: the churches of Sofia
- Visiting Boyana Church, Sofia: a World Heritage Site