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The reconstructed stele and the Roman inscription on it that tells of bribery and political lies. (Regional Museum of History-Veliko Tarnovo)

SCIENCE & TECH:
Roman Inscription Reveals That The Emperor Took Bribes And Lied

An ancient stone monument with a Roman inscription is revealing the truth about the corrupt politics of Imperial Rome. The find was discovered near a ruined Roman city in Bulgaria. The Roman inscription reveals a bribe paid to an emperor and a ‘political lie.’ This find is helping researchers to better understand Roman history at a crucial period just before the 3 rd century AD crisis that almost brought the empire crashing down.

In the 1920s, archaeologists found a 3 meter-tall (9.8 feet) stone stele. The monument came from the ancient Roman city of Nicopolis ad Istrum, which is 18 km northwest of Veliko Tarnovo in northern Bulgaria. The stele was shattered into four pieces. Whole, it had a 37-line Roman inscription carved on it in Greek, which had never been deciphered. This was in part because the fragments had been scorched by fire.

Roman Inscriptions: Important Messages Set In Stone

Recently, a team of Bulgarian researchers, including the epigraphist Nikolay Sharankov, began to examine the engraving. They reassembled the stele, and they were able to decipher the text. The stone inscription was a copy of a letter that was sent from emperor Septimus Severus (145 – 211 AD) and his two sons to the people of Nicopolis ad Istrum. Such a letter from a Roman ruler would have been regarded as something very prestigious and the citizens would have wanted to commemorate it.

The fragments of the broken stele before they were reassembled. ( Regional Museum of History-Veliko Tarnovo )

In the Roman inscription the emperor expressed thanks to the citizens and people of the city for their financial support. The city had paid him a donation which was, in fact, a bribe. Archaeology.org quotes Sharankov as saying that “the emperor treated the bribe as a gift from the people.”

Archaeology in Bulgaria reports that the text “evades styling the payment a bribe.” The kickback was paid to Septimius after he became emperor sometime after 193 AD. He was born in North Africa and after the assassination of the vicious tyrant Commodus, he prevailed over his rivals and became sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Bribing The Emperor And A Lying Emperor

According to Archaeology in Bulgaria , “The ‘bribe’ in question was a ‘donation’ of 700,000 denarii, the standard Roman silver coin currency up until the second half of the 3rd century AD.” Today, the sum would be the equivalent of several million dollars or euros. In the inscription, the Emperor states that “I accepted this money given by well-meaning people,” reports Archaeology in Bulgaria .

The people of Nicopolis ad Istrum had been in trouble with Septimius and he was a man who had no hesitation in destroying those who crossed him. They had backed one of his rivals for the throne, possibly Pertinax, who was killed by the Praetorian Guard in 193 AD. The donation or bribe was a way for the citizens of the city to buy their way into the emperor’s favor.

The Roman inscription, written in Greek, was not only a thank you for a bribe. It also revealed what experts have called a “political lie,” reports Archaeology in Bulgaria . In the inscription, Septimius Severus presents himself as the heir of the great philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180 AD). This was pure propaganda as Severus was in no way connected to Marcus or the Antonine dynasty, who had arguably led Rome at the height of its power. Indeed, Septimius was a usurper and he founded his own dynasty, the Severan Dynasty, that lasted from 193-235 AD. Archaeology in Bulgaria quotes Sharankov as saying, “with this letter, the Emperor sought to legitimize himself before the people.”

The reconstructed stele and the Roman inscription on it that tells of bribery and political lies. (Regional Museum of History-Veliko Tarnovo)

The reconstructed stele and the Roman inscription on it that tells of bribery and political lies. ( Regional Museum of History-Veliko Tarnovo )

The Rise And Fall Of Nicopolis ad Istrum

The imperial Roman inscription inscribed on the stele has provided scholars with exceptional insights into the history of Nicopolis ad Istrum (Victory on the Istrum). It is believed that the city was built by emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 AD) after his victory in the Dacian Wars. The Dacians were a Thracian people and, after their defeat, Trajan annexed most of their kingdom. Nicopolis was a major military center and protected the Roman Empire from the tribes that lived across the Danube River. The bribe appeared to have worked and the city prospered during the reign of Septimius.

The ruins of the ancient Roman town Nicopolis ad Istrum where the Roman inscription stele was found. (crimip / Adobe Stock)

The ruins of the ancient Roman town Nicopolis ad Istrum where the Roman inscription stele was found. ( crimip / Adobe Stock)

However, for reasons unknown, Nicopolis ad Istrum fell out of favor during the reign of Caracalla (188-217 AD), the heir of Septimius and one of the most depraved and brutal of Roman emperors. According to Heritage Daily “Caracalla removed the status of civitas stipendaria and closed the city’s mint,” which resulted in the decline of Nicopolis. After the emperor was assassinated, the city was able to regain imperial favor by hosting games in honor of the new ruler of the Roman world.  Nicopolis was sacked by Attila and his Huns in the 5 th century AD, and in the 7 th century AD by the Avars and the Slavs.

The city was eventually abandoned, and it was only in the 19 th century that archaeologists began to investigate it. According to Archaeology in Bulgaria the stele or stone column “has turned out to contain the only fully preserved authentic text of a letter by Roman emperors to have ever been found in Bulgaria.” The stele has been re-erected in the ruins of Nicopolis and can now be visited by members of the public.

Top image: A closeup of the Roman inscription recently deciphered by Bulgarian researchers.       Source: Regional Museum of History-Veliko Tarnovo

By Ed Whelan

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