Dionysopolis: Temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods (Part One of Three).


Marble shrine (aedicula) depicting the Pontic Mother of the Gods.  Dated to 1-3rd century CE.  Museum of History-Balchik.  Photo by author.

In 2007, during the rather mundane excavation of an apartment building, an ancient temple was uncovered.  Subsequent investigation determined the temple had been dedicated to the Pontic Mother of the Gods, commonly known in Greek mythology as Cybele.

Not far from the modern city of Varna, Bulgaria is the small port-city of Balchik.    This ancient city, founded at some time during the 7th century BCE had originally been called Krounoi, but later was renamed Dionysopolis. Krounoi had been founded by a collection of local Thracians, semi-nomadic Scythians, and Greek colonists from Miletus.  What caused the inhabitants of Krounoi to adopt the name of Dionysopolis– the city of Dionysus?  While it does not relate directly to the Temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods, the cult-mythology of Krounoi’s renaming is intriguing and serves to illustrate the pervasiveness of origin mythology within Greek culture:

Let us go through the places here one at a time. For near the Pontic mouth is the country of the Byzantines called Philia …. Thrace, after which, sharing a border, is the city [of] Apollonia [modern Sozopol, Bulgaria]. Fifty years before the reign of Cyrus [c. 610-600 BCE] the Milesians came here and founded the city; for they sent many colonies from Ionia to Pontos which, before called inhospitable (axenos) due to the attacks of the barbarians, they made to take on the epithet hospitable (euxeinos). Round the foothills of the so-called Haimos is a city named Mesembria, the bordering land to Getic Thrace. Chalcedonians and Megarians founded it, when Darius I was waging war on the Skythians…. Odessos [modern Varna], which the Milesians found, when Astyages [r. 585-550 BCE] was ruler of Media; this has the Krobyzan Thracians in a ring around it.  Dionysopolis, which first was named Krounoi from the nearby founts of water, they say is called Dionysopolis after a Dionysiac statue which was retrieved from the sea there.  In the border territory of the Krobyzans and Scythians the country has mixed Greek settlers. – Pseudo Scymnus, also known as Pausanias of Damascus (c. 150-100BCE), Circuit of the Earth.

Examining Greco-Thracian Cultural Transmission


Map depicting the western coastal region of the Black Sea and the city of Varna, Bulgaria.

The focus of my current postgraduate research is the examination of the dynamic range of cultural exchange which occurred between Greeks and Thracians along the western coast of the Black Sea.  In particular, the 6th through 3rd century BCE, in regions commonly referred to as Thrace and Scythia.  In modern geographical terms, these regions range from Turkish Thrace in the south, through Bulgaria, Romania and the Ukrainian province of Odessa in the north.  The goal of my research is to make a detailed examination of the material culture of the region for identifiable, and presumably quantifiable, ‘transitional’ forms which are highly indicative of cross-cultural transmission.  Comparing this material evidence against (as well as in support of) extant textual evidence, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of how Greek colonists, particularly those living along the western portions of the Black Sea, traded with, lived with, married and eventually hybridized with the native Thracian tribes.  My current hypothesis being that the commonly repeated trope of there being distinctly ‘Greek and non-Greek groups/cultures’ is often blurred and at times dissolves entirely in this particular region of the ancient world.

The Dedicatory & Cult Inscriptions


Marble table dedicated to the Pontic Mother at Dionysopolis, dated c. 270 BCE.  Museum of History- Balchik.  Photo by author.

The earliest dedicatory inscriptions at the temple date from the first half of the 3rd century BCE (c. 270 BCE).  This dedication, made by Agathion, son of Agathon, to the ‘Pontic Mother’, consisted of an elaborately-carved marble table, used for cultic worship.  We will examine this particular item more closely in part two of this series.  After this, there are numerous additional inscriptions spanning the next six centuries, the last dated to the early 4th century CE (c. 320 CE).

One of the more fascinating pieces of evidence in the analysis of my hypothesis is a Cultic Stele (marble plaque) which lists the prominent members of the Cult of the Pontic Mother of the Gods at Dionysopolis.   Of the 72 original names listed within the cult membership are two names which are identifiable as being of Thracian origin (Daletralis and Bakes).  The stele dates to the 3rd century CE, during the  period of Roman control of the region, known then as the Roman province of Moesia (Inferior) .

On the one hand, this inscription does suggest that two males of Thracian ancestry were associated with the temple of the Pontic Mother of the Gods.  These men were of such social and/or political standing as to warrant their inclusion with the other neomeniastai, the majority of whom have typically Greek and/or Latin names.  On the other hand, this inscription must be approached cautiously as it dates to nearly dates nearly five centuries after the period of focused examination.

In part two, we will examine the various aspects of cultic worship which occurred in veneration of the Pontic Mother of the Gods at Dionysopolis.


References and source materials:

I. Lazarenko, E. Mircheva, R. Encheva, D. Stoyanova, and N. Sharankov. The Temple of the Pontic Mother of Gods in Dionysopolis. Slavena Publishing House, 2013.

Pseudo Scymnus or Pausanias of Damascus, Circuit of the Earth.  ToposText.  Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation. https://topostext.org/work.php?work_id=130


About Patrick Lowinger

Patrick Lowinger holds a M.A. in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University (AMU) and B.S. in Microbiology (1993) from California State University, Long Beach.
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