A marble slab inscription invoking a goddess sheds light on Thracian history
A marble slab with an inscription to the goddess Demeter, which gives vital clues to the last ruling kings of ancient Thrace before Rome conquered the enigmatic people, has been unearthed in Bulgaria. The inscription brings to mind Percy Bysshe Shelley's lines in his poem “Ozymandias” about a large statue found alone in a desolate desert with the inscription:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
The inscription, from around 26 to 37 AD, was found in the ruins of Thermopolis or Aquae Calidae, which means “hot waters.” While there is more than a desolate desert in the ruins of Thermopolis today, the lines incised in marble name people who ruled so long ago they are forgotten by all but those well-read in history.
The marble slab, excavated in June and announced this month, was probably part of a temple to Demeter, a goddess shared by Thracians, Romans and others in Asia, the Near East and Europe.
Thermopolis was a spa city visited by many monarchs and even emperors around that time. It is being excavated now because workers are doing water-supply and sewerage works in the area and because the ruins are being transformed into a tourism destination.
This 2012 archive photo shows part of the ruins of the ancient and medieval spa resort of Aquae Calidae – Thermopolis. Photo: Burgas Municipality
“The real value of the discovered inscription has to do with the fact that it mentions the names of three of the last Thracian kings of the Odrysian Kingdom from the Sapaean Dynasty as well as their dynastic links,” reports Archaeology in Bulgaria . “The inscription is the first historical source ever discovered to mention the children of Odrysian Thracian King Rhoemetalces II (r. 18-38 AD) and his sister Pythodoris II (also known as Pythodorida II (r. 38–46 AD)), and confirms that the Thracian Queen Pythodoris was the daughter of King Cotys III (r. 12-18 AD), who in turn was the son of Rhoemetalces I (r. 12 BC – 12 AD). … The immediate interpretation of the meaning of the inscription is that Aquae Calidae was much more than just an ancient resort with mineral baths; rather, it appears to have been a developed administrative center in Ancient Thrace, and was probably a completely separate settlement from Anchialos.”
While scholars are arguing over exactly how the text should be translated, Archaeology in Bulgaria gives it thus:
'Apollonius, (son) of E(p)taikenthos, military governor of Anchialos, (dedicates) this altar to Demeter, for the well-being/salvation of his masters: King Rhoemetalces (II); and (his sister) Pythodoris (II), the daughter of Cotys (III/VIII), the son of King Rhoemetalces (I); and their children.'
While Demeter is usually listed as a Greek goddess, she was worshiped from Asia to Italy, according to The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. She was a goddess of the fruitfulness of the earth and of women, nature, harmony and health.
Barbara Walker's Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets says in Greek meter means “mother.” Demeter is the same as the Asian goddess called “the Doorway of the Mysterious Feminine … the root from which Heaven and Earth sprang,” Walker says. Demeter is identified with the Great Mother, known in so many myths and religions around the world.
Eleusinian trio: Persephone, Triptolemos, and goddess Demeter, on a marble bas-relief from Eleusis, 440–430 BC ( Wikimedia Commons )
While the inscription found in June in Bulgaria points to her as a savior, ancients regarded her son as the savior, Walker wrote. She was invoked at the Eleusian mysteries, which to modern people are a mystery in themselves because their exact nature is unknown. But Eleusis means “advent,” Walker says, and the rites brought about the advent of the savior, given as Dionysus, Brimus, Triptolemus, Iasion or Eleuthereos.
The Archaeology in Bulgaria blog says Thracians settled the area near the mineral waters of Thermopolis in the mid-1 st millennium BC. It was called the Sanctuary of the Three Nymphs by the 1 st century AD. The site is near the modern Black Sea port city of Burgas. Archaeologists have found evidence that the mineral baths were used in the Neolithic and have found three settlements there dating to the 6 th to 5 th millennium BC.
A relief of three nymphs from Thermopolis from the 2 nd century AD (Photo by Spiritia/ Wikimedia Commons )
“The Roman baths at Aquae Calidae were rebuilt and expanded in the early years of the Byzantine Empire– the 4th-5th century, with fortress walls constructed during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great,” the blog states.
Archaeologists have found many important artifacts in Thermopolis, only 10 percent of whose territory has been excavated. They hope to find many other objects to shed light on this period and what is apparently an important city. The mayor of Burgas calls the marble slab with the inscription “worth more than gold.”
Other finds include another inscription with part of the name of the Roman governor around 172 AD, Gaius Pantuleius Graptiacus; fragments of bronze maces; brooches; belt buckles; wooden and bone combs from various eras; coins from various eras, including ancient and medieval; Byzantine lead seals; and a Christian reliquary.
A bronze clasp from Thermopolis or Aquae Calidae (Photo by Burgas municipality)
Ancient Greek and Roman historians reported that the Thracians were great fighters and prized mercenaries and only political fragmentation kept them from conquering large areas of the northeastern Mediterranean. Ancient historians considered the Thracians primitive, but they had fine poetry and music and relatively advanced culture for the time. Macedonians and Romans made use of Thracian mercenaries. The Thracian people's territory was from the Aegean Sea on the south, to the Danube on the north, and from the Black sea on the east to the Sea of Marmara on the west. A tenth of the historical area of Thrace was in Turkey, a fourth in Greece and the rest in Bulgaria.
Featured image: The inscription in ancvient Greek on marble was probably part of a temple to Demeter, a goddess shared by Thracians, Greeks and other peoples in Europe, the Near East and Asia (Photo by Burgas municipality)
By Mark Miller