Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Apollonia in Bulgaria

I have written previously about the lovely city of Apollonia in present day Albania, a Greek city ‘founded’ by Corinthians and Corcyraeans colonists invited in by the locals to form a new community, presumably ratified by the god Apollo himself via his oracle at Delphi.


As with other colonies, it seems that there was a pre-existing settlement. After all, the locals would know a good site better than newcomers. Often the locals already have contact with the colonists, through trade or other activity, and invite them into the city for a good reason. In the case of the Albanian Apollonia it may have been because the existing settlement was on the border of the Illyrian and Epirote tribes and the locals may have wished for protection.

Once a colony was founded the city was often renamed, with Apollonia being a popular choice if the new venture came about from, or was blessed by, an oracular pronouncement from Delphi. This is the reason for the prolific number of cities named Apollonia in the Greek world of which there are more than 30 that we currently know about.

In addition to the name, the city would also celebrate their connection to Apollo with a temple or sanctuary to the deity, and often feature the god on their coinage. This is the case with Apollonia Pontus Euxinus, in Bulgaria, a site on the Black Sea at the present day resort town of Sozopol. 

Coin of Apollonia Pontica with Apollo and anchor


The ancient sources reveal differing dates for the founding of the colony. Pseudo-Skymnos says that it was founded 50 years before Cyrus which would give a date of 610. Aelianus, on the other hand, says it was founded by Anaximander who was born around 610 or 609 BC so this would give a later foundation date. Both agree that the colonists were from Miletus in Turkey. The earliest pottery on the site is dated to the end of the 7th C BC, which appears to support Pseudo-Skymnos’s account. 


The colony was founded on a small island that was ideally situated to give shelter to ships making their way along the Black Sea coast, also easily defensible and with access to agricultural land. Today Sozopol is on a peninsula, reflecting the changing coastline since ancient times. There is some confusion about the name of the earlier settlement, with some sources naming it as Antheia after a misreading of Pliny, however, the name became Apollonia, with a major sanctuary dedicated to Apollo in the town, in which was a famous colossal statue of the god by Kalamis, 30 cubits high, later carried off to Rome by Marcus Lucullus and placed in the Capitol.


Little is known of the city in the 6th century BC, but by 425BC it is important enough to be mentioned in an Athenian assessment list, but the city seems to have flourished during the Hellenistic period. 


Since 2010 a French-Bulgarian team has been excavating on the hill of St Marina, a site that appears to be outside the main area of the ancient town (above). They have found the remains of a villa dating to the 4th-3rd century BC, showing all the signs of a typical Hellenistic house. Within the villa, however, was an unexpected find: a cache of 30 bronze coins. The coins feature the head of Apollo, unsurprising for an Apollonia, and on the other side they show the god sitting on an omphalos. This is in contrast with most of the city’s coinage, which featured an anchor, emphasising the city’s links with the sea (see above). The choice of the omphalos is interesting, and may relate to the founding of the colony. 



In Greek, omphalos means ‘navel’. According to Greek mythology, Zeus sent out two eagles to fly across the world to meet at its centre or navel. Although several sites claimed this honour, the most famous was at the oracle in Delphi. The place itself was marked with a stone, a Roman copy of which is now in the Delphi museum.

Roman copy of omphalos at Delphi
Apollonia choosing to feature the god seated on the omphalus, and therefore at Delphi, may hark back to the earliest colonists obtaining the god’s direction or blessing in the founding of their city. Why the shift from the anchor to the omphalos was made must remain conjecture at this stage, but it is just possible that this is in some way related to alliances with the successors of Alexander the Great, some of whom put this image on their coinage. Further excavation may be able to shed light on the change of symbol. 


The excavations are part of a project to create a map of archaeological sites from the Ropotamo River in the south to Cape Atiya in the Sozopol municipality. It is to be hoped that projects of this kind will give extra protection to the archaeological sites in the area, some of which are said to be under threat due to the rapid development of tourism. 
Site in town of Sozopol at risk due to development

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