• Ancient mosaics of Sofia



Cities in the Balkans like Serdica entered an entirely new stage of development in Late Antiquity, between the late 3rd and beginning of the 7th century CE (Dinchev 2014). In these centuries, the importance of many cities increased because of numerous historical changes such as:

  • the establishment of a new form of government – the Tetrarchy, the rule of four emperors, towards the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century;
  • the persecutions of the Christians during this period;
  • Christianity becoming an official religion in the Roman Empire in 311 and 313 and the only official religion at the end of the 4th century;
  • the founding of Constantinople in 330 as the new capital of the Roman Empire and the division of the empire in 395 into Western and Eastern halves;
  • the ongoing conflict between Christian Orthodoxy and numerous heresies;
  • and the constant barbarian invasions in the Balkans and the creation of new states as a result.

A factor that strongly influenced the development of cities in the Balkans in Late Antiquity was that most emperors came from this area of the Mediterranean, which led to their long-term presence here and increased patronage of particular cities. For example, the famous utterance “Serdica is my Rome” was ascribed to Constantine the Great. While this declaration is not attested in authors from the time of Constantine, it still reflects that Late Antique emperors favored certain cities in the Balkans. After Emperor Aurelianus in 271 or 272 chose Serdica as the capital of the new province of Dacia (later divided into Dacia Ripensis and Dacia Mediterranea), Serdica rose in importance among surrounding cities.

Under Aurelianus’ successors, Serdica developed further, particularly under the Tetrarchy and Galerius the junior emperor of the Roman Empire’s eastern provinces. The tetrarchs built imperial residences not only at Rome but also at many other cities like Treverorum (modern Trier, Germany), Nicomedia in Asia Minor (modern Izmit, Turkey), and several cities in the Balkans. Emperor Diocletian built his residence in his home city Spalato (modern Split, Croatia), where he retired after his abdication. Galerius had two residences: one in Thessalonica (modern Thessaloniki, Greece) and a second in Romuliana (modern Zaječar, Serbia). Constantine the Great also built a couple residences in the Balkans in addition to his palaces at Rome and Constantinople: one at his birth city Naissus and likely a second one on the Via Militaris (Via Diagonalis) at Skretiska near Serdica (modern Kostinbrod, Bulgaria). One of his sons Constantius II built another residence at his birth city Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia).

Because they came from the Balkans, both Emperors Justin I and Justinian the Great contributed significantly to the development of Constantinople and other nearby cities. In the capital, they began intensive construction works that included the third phase of the “St. Sophia” church, which became an important world heritage monument. Both archaeological evidence and written sources confirm that under Justinian I, many fortresses were rebuilt and many new ones established in response to the numerous barbarian invasions. Serdica’s magnificent fourth and final “St. Sophia” basilica (there are three earlier churches in that location) also dates to Justinian’s reign (Dinchev, 2014).

Thus, the Balkans and its cities rose in profile from distant provincial lands that were occasionally visited by the emperors to dynamic political, economic, military, religious, and cultural centers adjacent to the new capital Constantinople. At the same time, a well-maintained road network spanning the Balkans allowed for fast travel between the two capitals of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire and facilitated exchange between them.


The city of Serdica has one of the richest mosaic collections of those found at Late Antique cities in Bulgaria such as Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv), Augusta Traiana-Beroe (Stara Zagora), Parthicopolis (Sandanski), Pautalia (Kyustendil), Nicopolis ad Nestum (Garmen, near the town of Gotse Delchev), and Odessos (Varna). The remains of Late Antique Serdica are spread out in two sections: Serdica I and Serdica II, which later became medieval Sredets and modern Sofia. At present, 22 buildings decorated with mosaics have been found during excavations in Sofia and its environs.

The earliest mosaics from late antique Serdica are from the supposed martyrium under the basilica of St. Sophia, and the latest are remnants of wall mosaics from the same basilica. There are another seven early Christian/Byzantine basilicas with mosaics at Serdica and in its vicinity, and another basilica mosaic found at nearby Germanea (modern Sapareva Banya) was influenced or even laid by a workshop based at Serdica. Serdica’s mosaics also include floors in three supposed imperial residences and three other elite houses. Moreover, two Roman villas with mosaics were found in the territory of Serdica, and a cist grave decorated with floor mosaics was discovered in Serdica’s Eastern necropolis near the basilica of St. Sophia.

Five basic techniques were used to craft Serdica’s mosaics:

Opus signinum was the cheapest and quickest technique used in the 4th century. In this technique, crushed brick and pottery fragments and dust are added to the mortar, which gives a typical red-pinkish color to the mosaic’s surface. Until the last decade of the 20th century, researchers thought that use of this technique ended sometime in the 2nd century CE. At both Serdica and Philippopolis, however, monuments marked by opus signinum and dating to the second quarter of the 4th century were discovered in the earliest churches for the provinces of Thrace and Dacia (Popova 2022). It is quite likely in these cases that the Christian Church could not at that time afford more expensive opus tessellatum pavements.

Borisova-Katsarova 2015 I. Borisova-Katsarova, „A New found Late Roman Mosaic from Serdica“, M. Rakocija (ed.), Niš and Byzantium, v. XIII, 2015, 151 – 160.

Горянова 2018 С. Горянова, „Базиликата при Бухово в контекста на раннохристиянските средища около Сердика“, Базиликата „Св. София“ на прехода между езичество и християнство, Сердика Средец София, т. 7, 59 – 60 ( S. Goryanova, „The Basilica at Buhovo in the Contex of the Early Christian Centres around Serdica“, The Basilica of St. Sophia on the Transition from Paganism to Christianity, Serdica Sredetz Sofia, v. 7, 59 – 60).

Динчев 2020 В. Динчев, Скретиска – Кратискара, Т. II, София, 2020 (РП, т. ХLIII (V. Dinchev, Scretisca – Kratiskara, v. II, Sofia).

Динчев 2014а В. Динчев, „Св. София“ и Сердика, София, 2014 (V. Dinchev, Die „Hl. Sophia“ und Serdica, Sofia, 2014).

Dintchev 2014b V. Dintchev, „Serdica II“ Project, V. Vachkova, D. Dimitrov (eds), Serdica Edict (311 AD): Concepts and Realizations of the Idea of Religious Toleration, Sofia, 195 – 217.

Динчев 2003 В. Динчев. Късноримската резиденция Scretisca и ранновизантийското селище Kratiskara (Археологическите проучвания в м. Градището през 1990 – 1994 г.), Разкопки и проучвания, т. XXX, Sofia (V. Dinchev, The Late Roman Residence Scretisca and the Early Byzantine Settlement Kratiskara (Archaeological Research in the locality Gradishteto during 1990 – 1994). Excavations and Research, v. XXX, Sofia.

Динчев 1997 В. Динчев, Римските вили в днешната българска територия, София, Агато, 1997 (V. Dinchev, Roman Villas in the present-day Bulgarian Lands, Sofia, Agatho, 1997).

Ivanov 2017 M. Ivanov, „The „Felix“ Mosaic from Serdica“, I. Topalilov (ed.), Transition from Late Paganism to Early Christianity in the Architecture and Art in the Balkans. Krassimir Kalchev in memoriam (1954 – 2004), Studia academica šumenensia, v. 4, 2017, 181 – 201.

Ivanov and Cholakova 2021 M. Ivanov, A. Cholakova, „Glass Furnaces from Serdica – an Example of Roman Practice of Glass Mixing“, Orhan Sevindik (ed.), Annales du 21 Congres de l’Association Internationale pour l’Histoire du Verre, Istanbul, 2021, 207 – 220.

Мешеков 2018 Ю. Мешеков, „Последни археологически разкрития в и около Базиликата „Св. София“, източен некропол на Сердика“, Д. Ботева-Боянова, П. Делев, Ю. Цветкова (ред.), Общество, царе, богове, Jubilaeus VII, Сборник в памет на професор Маргарита Тачева (J Meshekov, The Recent archaeological Discoveries in and around the Basilica of St. Sophia, the Eastern Necropolis of Serdica’, D. Boteva-Boyanova, P. Delev, J. Tzvetkova (eds.), Jubilaeus VII, Recueil in Memoriam Professoris Margaritae Tachevae, Sofia, 301 – 318.

Noeva 2017 V. Noeva, ‘Ancient mosaic techniques and materials. Differences in terminology and possible solutions’, I. Topalilov (ed.), and B. Georgiev (eds.), Transition from Late Paganism to Early Christianity in the Architecture and Art in the Balkans. Krassimir Kalchev in memoriam (1954-2004), Studia academica šumenensia, v. 4, 40 – 56.

Pillinger et al. 2016 R. Pillinger, A. Lirsch, V. Popova (Hg.), Corpus der spätantiken und frühchristlichen Mosaiken Bulgariens, Wien.

Pillinger et al. 1999 R. Pillinger, V. Popova, B. Zimmermann, Corpus der spätantiken und frühchrilichen Wandmalereien Bulgariens, Wien.

Popova 2022a V. Popova, ‘Chrismons and Crosses on the Late Antique Mosaic Pavements from Bulgaria’, Journal of Mosaic Research 15, 333 – 350.

Popova 2022b V. Popova, „The Early Non-Figural Mosaic Pavements in the Metropolitan Basilica of Philippopolis in Thracia“, M. Rakocija (ed.), Niš and Byzantium XX, 175 – 210.

Popova 2018 V. Popova, „Liturgy and Mosaics: the Case Study of the Late Antique Monuments from Bulgaria“, Ni and Byzantium XVI, 135 – 160.

Popova 2017a V. Popova. „Late Antique Glass Workshop in Parthicopolis“, E. Nankov (ed.). Papers of the American Research Center in Sofia, 2017, 284 – 367.

Popova 2017b V. Popova. „Vons vitae on Late Antique Monuments in Bulgaria“, I. Topalilov and B. Georgiev (eds.), Transition from Late Paganism to Early Christianity in the Architecture and Art in the Balkans. Krassimir Kalchev in memoriam 1954-2004), Studia academica šumenensia, v. 4, 154 – 198.

Попова 2016a В. Попова, „Късноантичната резиденция и баня (обекти „Kореком“ и „Рила“) в Сердика I и техните мозайки, Сердика-Средец-София 6, Сб. в памет на Магдалина Станчева, София, 2016, 67 – 81.

Popova 2016b V. Popova, „Monuments from the Tetrarchy and the Constantinian Dynasty in Bulgaria“, M. Rakocija (ed.), Niš and Byzantium XIV, 157 – 186.

Попова 2010 В. Попова, „Мозайките на вилата в квартал Филиповци на София“, Изкуствоведски четения, 186 – 193 (V. Popova, „Тhe Mosaic Pavements of the Villa in the Quarter Filipovtsi in Sofia“, Art Historians’ Readings, 186 – 193).

Rehren, Cholakova 2010 Th. Rehren and A. Cholakova „The Early Byzantine HIMT glass from Dichin, northern Bulgaria“, Интердисциплинарни изследвания XXII-XXIII, София, 81 – 96 (Interdisciplinary Studies XXII – XIII, Sofia, 81 – 96).

Шалганов, Козарев 2012 K. Шалганов, Н. Козарев, „Проучвания на терена на пл. „Независимост“ (Ларгото), София 213 – 315 (K. Šalganov, N. Kozarev, ‘Research of the terrain of the piazza „Nezavisimost“ (Largo), Sofia, 313 – 315.