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The Ancient City of Adrianople

posted Nov 19, 2015, 2:33 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Dec 9, 2018, 5:33 AM ]
Above: a panoramic of Edirne (looking southwest), the modern Turkish city that sits on the site of Ancient Adrianople. Click on the image to view full size.

Earlier this year, I travelled to the northwestern (European) part of Turkey, A.K.A. Roman Thracia, in search of the site of the Battle of Adrianople, where the Goths and the Roman legions met in a clash that turned history

But before those mud-soaked exploits in the countryside, I took a trip to the nearby ancient city that gave its name to that historic battle. It felt only right; after all, in the 4th century AD, the city of Adrianople was at the epicentre of the Gothic War, and its streets and taverns would have been well-known to many of the heroes of the XI Claudia - indeed, it was Sura's old stamping ground and Zosimus' home too. Of course, the high-walled Roman metropolis of Adrianople is long gone, but the site has been constantly occupied since those times, and the present-day city of Edirne sits bang on top of the Roman site. 


Left: Gothic-occupied Roman Thracia in the 4th century AD, with the city of Adrianople at the heart of the troubles.
Right: A Map of Western/European Turkey, with modern Edirne highlighted.

And that brings me to a grave aside I wish I did not have to write: since my visit, Edirne has sadly become embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis. I recently watched a news report, which followed swathes of hungry, frightened and homeless families trekking down the Istanbul to Edirne highway. It really brought home to me the scale of the troubles. Indeed - and I don't mean to trivialise or use this in any way to sell my books - I have spent the best part of the last decade reading about the impact upon this very same tract of land caused by the flight of the Goths into Roman Thracia in the 4th century AD. Then, it was tribesmen and their families who came in their hundreds of thousands. The Romans made an utter mess of the situation. Today, we are seeing millions of displaced and desperate families entering those lands. I truly hope that in their search for a solution, the European nations can employ wisdom and compassion and dispense with petty squabbles and talk of throwing up walls on their borders. Pragmatism is required to a degree, of course, but let us not forget the lessons of the past.

The Syrian refugees on the Istanbul to Edirne highway; a troubling sight. Let's hope the European nations get this one right.

Adrianople: A Brief History 

Legend has it that the site was first settled in the early Iron Age (roughly 1200-1100 BC) by the Odrysians, a Thracian tribe who called the place 'Odrysia'. It's easy to see why they chose the location - a sizeable tract of arable land cupped on its southern and western sides by the confluence of the River Maritsa (the ancient Hebrus) and the River Tundzha (the ancient Tonsus). The rivers would have served as a protective arm around two sides of the settlement, while providing an excellent water source and a ready-made highway for transport and merchant boats. 

The Romans first claimed the Balkan region in the 1st century AD, but it was a hundred years later when Emperor Hadrian came along and gave his name to a Romanised incarnation of the city - 'Hadrianopolis' or 'Adrianople'. By the 4th century AD, Adrianople was a thriving metropolis right at the heart of the imperial Diocese of Thracia and would have been well known to the legions embroiled in the Gothic War that raged across those lands. Despite the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and perilous times in the East, Adrianople remained in Roman (then Byzantine) hands until the 9th century AD, when Khan Krum of the Bulgars wrested it from imperial control. Over the centuries that followed, it slipped in and out of the hands of various conquerors - Byzantines, rebel despots, Bulgarians and Ottomans. It was in the 14th century that the Ottomans first graced the city with its modern name 'Edirne' (which is in fact an adapted Turkish form of 'Hadrianopolis').

Modern Edirne

The present-day city finds itself perched on the Turkish side of the meeting point of the Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish borders. While the Roman city occupied just the northeastern bank of the Hebrus and Tonsus confluence, Edirne spreads over onto the Tonsus' (Tundzha's) western banks, and sprawls much further eastwards than the imperial city would have - making it perhaps 6 or more times the size of the Roman-era settlement. Edirne combines an interesting mix of Turkish/eastern architecture with more practical Balkan/western structures. Parts of the city are splendorous, with the beautiful Selimiye Mosque - surely a rival of any of the Islamic wonders in Istanbul - the majestic Maritsa bridge, and the picturesque stretch of restaurants along the northern banks of the river. There's also the Balkan War Museum, the Archaeology Museum, Ottoman palace ruins and an art Museum and a bazaar (far less congested that the Istanbul equivalent, making for a more relaxed visit), so even if you're not into the Roman era of the city (which is sadly underplayed, in my opinion), there's still bucket-loads of stuff to see and do (and the delicious food on offer at the many cafes and restaurants is half the price of that in Istanbul!).

Left: the Selimiye Mosque. Click on Image to see full size. 
Right: The Maritsa Bridge. Click on Image to see full size.

Left: The Bazaar. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: Ruins of the Ottoman palace. Click on Image to see full size.

Digging a Little Deeper...

But I was here to cast a little light on the few remnants of the Adrianople of late antiquity, the Adrianople of Pavo, Gallus and Sura. In truth, there isn't a great deal to see, and as previously mentioned, the Roman era and the Battle of Adrianople itself is barely mentioned or alluded to in the city's tourist information (the same could be said for certain aspects of Istanbul - many of the Roman and Byzantine remnants there are only now being polished and shown off as the archaeological jewels that they are). But fortunately there was enough to set my imagination alight, particularly in the city's western quarter around the archaeological site containing the sturdy turret known as 'The Macedonian Tower'. This small part of the Roman-era city was excavated in 2002, and the findings are nicely laid out and well-served with plaques and diagrams.

Left: The 'Macedonian Tower'. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: The surrounding excavations (looking eastwards).

The Macedonian Tower was built in the 10th century AD and derives its name from the Byzantine ruling dynasty of the time. The tower served as the northeastern bastion of the Byzantine-era settlement, linking with the innermost curtain wall of similar, typically Byzantine style (alternating bands of white dressed stone facing and red, burnt brick masonry sealing in a rubble core). The outermost curtain wall, running just proud of the Byzantine one, belongs to Hadrian's original Roman settlement - the larger limestone blocks are certainly an indicator of more opulent times! This original wall would have remained in place till the time of Pavo, Sura and the XI Claudia in the 4th century AD. Presumably there was also a Roman precursor to the Byzantine tower on roughly the same site. In effect, it seems that the general size and shape of Adrianople did not change vastly over the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Based on the tower's location, I could see how ancient Adrianople was nestled snugly into the protective arm of the river confluence. This map should help illustrate:
Map: The two coloured polygons represent the Roman and Byzantine walls, and the outer line speculates as to the course of the moat Emperor Valens' army excavated when they set up camp outside the city immediately prior to the Battle of Adrianople.

Immediately outside the northern wall, it seems that there was a necropolis. Rather fitting, then, that Emperor Valens chose to set up a moated camp at this spot when he brought his army to the city just prior to the Battle of Adrianople...
Inside the walls, many pottery kilns have been discovered - some of which show signs of damage attributed to attacks by the Goths! The ruins of a Byzantine church lie just a little further inside the city boundaries.

Left: The remains of a pottery oven seemingly damaged or destroyed by the Goths in the 4th century AD. Click on Image to see full size.
Right: A view of the Macedonian Tower from inside the walls. Parts of Hadrian's curtain wall can be seen abutting the tower. Click on Image to see full size.

Standing in that small patch of ruins from long-lost antiquity in a gentle mizzle of rain, I couldn't help but feel detached from the working-day hustle and bustle going on in the surrounding streets. The babble and buzz of the many voices, cars and motorbikes faded into nothing, and I was in another place. Emperor Valens once brought his army to these walls  - just days before the battle that he would never return from, and one that would spell disaster for the Eastern Empire...

Hopefully the Turkish government will one day re-open and extend the excavations. There's an off-chance they might find the outline of Valens' moat. Maybe they'd find some late 4th century Roman armour - after all, the city was known to house a mighty fabrica (arms and armour workshop). Or perhaps they'd find scrolls or tablets containing evidence of some of Sura's more outlandish claims - finest javelin-thrower/fire-walker/weight-lifter/climber/orator of Adrianople? :)


Thanks for reading! If you're interested in taking a mosey back into 4th century Thracia, why not try my Legionary series?