Today our journey takes us to the ancient site of Nikopolis (Actia Nicopolis), located south of the mountains of Kassopeia (will be presented in another blog post), in the Epirus landscape of western Greece. It was founded in 28 B.C. on a site dedicated to the worship of Apollo, and given its name “city of victory” personally by Gaius Julius Octavianus (later to become Augustus) after his victorious battle at Actium in 31 B.C. against female Pharaoh Kleopatra VII and her famous lover and member of the Roman triumvirate, Markus Antonius (Dio LI.l.2-3; Suet. Aug. 18.2; Paus. VII.18.9, X.38). However, Nikopolis was not only a symbol of defeating purely Markus Antonius and Kleopatra, but one signifying the entire campaign.
As a lover of all things Ptolemaic, it was a rather remarkable experience to visit this site and walk on the streets named after the person finally responsible for the fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. While most people interested in ancient history adore Augustus, I (Maria) cannot help but feeling just a little bit of sadness as he marks the end of a great cultural era – measured in my eyes. Admittedly, it was an overall paradox experience as feelings of grief were mixed with great admiration of the ancient beauty that was presented before my eyes. So, while bearing with me the entire significance of the city name and in my head walking proud with steps honouring Queen Kleopatra and her ancestors, I had to surrender to the ancient historian within me, to allow the archaeological remains to speak their own language and take me by storm with a message that knows no victory or defeat, simply being pure material culture charged with historical energy of each individual ever to have walked these streets. (Photos below show "garden items" surrounding the small local museum.)
Returning to the factual bit on the site, Nikopolis was made an example (among others) by the Romans, who used it as a show room of Rome’s strength and power: Nikopolis was “Romanized” meant to symbolise Rome’s domination over Greece. As such it was decorated with various monuments, some of which you can see on the photographs. One of the most evident features is the huge fortification (red brick) walls that surround the rectangular shaped city. However, the walls presented for visitors today date primarily to the early Christian and Byzantine period. The walls contained four main gates and it is said that the city walls originally held bronze details captured from the boat of Markus Antonius, accompanied by a large inscription emphasising the price of betrayal:
“Imperator Caesar, son of the divine Julius, following the victory in the war which he waged on behalf of the republic in this region, when he was consul for the fifth time and commander-in-chief for the seventh time, after peace had been secured on land and sea, consecrated to Neptun(us) and Mars the camp from which he set forth to attack the enemy now ornamented with naval spoils” (for the text, see Murray W.M. and Petsas P.M., Octavian’s Campsite Memorial for the Actian War, 1989, 86)
As most Roman cities Nikopolis was created in accordance with intersecting decumanus – a main street oriented east-west– and cardo – a main street oriented north-south. Among the best preserved monuments today stands the Odeon, which you can see on the photographs, and as a show piece of Roman control it naturally included also a Gymnasium, Stadium and theatre. The Odeon is estimated to have had a two stories high scene provided with three arched doorways. On the photos you can view the scene through the eyes of a spectator focusing on the scene and the orchestra, notice especially the beautiful, multicoloured marble mosaic floor. Supported by three semicircular porticos of different height, the auditorium was reached via three corridors. Located in the centre of the city, the Odeon was used for lectures and various forms of performances, most importantly during the Nea Aktia games honouring Apollo. The cavea had nineteen rows of seats made of limestone, divided into two sections. In accordance with the archaeological material the Odeon was used at least until the late 3rd century AD.
Again, similar to the majority of Roman cities this one had an advanced aqueduct system providing water from the spring of Louros to its inhabitants. Whether anyone considered a possible link to the River Styx located in the vicinity is another story... This aqueduct system provided water also for the traditional Roman thermae – the baths – which was a public building located in the northern section of the city, to the west of the fortification walls. Archaeological evidence suggests that the city was populated to some degree of Roman veterans combined with regular families and workers specialising in minting of copper coins. Nikopolis was one among other Greek sites which enjoyed donations from the Roman aristocracy and elite. It could count to its benefactors men like Herodes I, King of Judea, Emperors Nero and Hadrianus, and, of course, its founder Octavianus.
In terms of religion, Nikopolis was already during Greek rule dedicated to the worship of Apollo, respected by Octavianus who dedicated a war monument to the solar deity, and re-established in his honour the Actian Games. In addition to Apollo, and as mentioned in the inscription sited above, Nikopolis included also the veneration of Mars and Neptunus, both a logical choice as far as location and symbolism is concerned. Augustus was later to be identified with Neptunus in Virgilius’ Aeneid (Vir. Aen. 1.148-56), and their link is documented also in art, as Octavianus is depicted holding a trident while charging his chariot past an enemy caught by stormy waves. Octavianus’ connection with Mars was that of Mars Ultor, who as the god of war protected and guided the emperor to be during his campaigns against Markus Antonius and Kleopatra.
In addition to the Roman remains Nikopolis has several Byzantine monuments to show. Most impressive are the seven preserved basilicas founded around the century shift of 5th and 6th centuries, decorated with detailed mosaics, some of which you can see on the photos. However, prior to receiving its Byzantine basilicas Nikopolis saw a couple of centuries of decline, only to rise up again during the 5th century, again becoming not only an administrative centre of trade, but also one that included a more artistic side as well as religious. Prior to accepting Christianity as a state religion, Nikopolis functioned also as a centre of philosophy, including the Stoic philosopher Epiktetos who was expelled from Rome during the reign of Emperor Domitianus.
As in many additional situations the Christian church incorporated previous traditions in their own, dismissing any credit to previous inhabitants. Thus, Nikopolis was no longer the victorious symbol of Octavianus, but instead a place founded by the Apostle Paulus, who describes in his epistle how he invited Titus to join him from Crete to spend the winter in Nikopolis. As the Byzantine period came to its end handing over to the Dark Ages and eventually the Medieval period, Augustus’ symbol of victory fell into decline and was replaced by the fortress of Preveza, close to the ancient city of Berenike named in honour of Berenike I, mother of female Pharaoh Arsinoë II and her husband-brother Ptolemaios II Philadelphos. I guess you all understand where I felt most at “home”?!
The overall impression of visiting the ancient site of Nikopolis is that of awe as there is so much still preserved and well looked after. It is a site where you can spend not only hours but days, walking in the footsteps of learned philosophers arguing on the topics of existence and spirituality, things still debated today and by far taken any further than it did back then. To some extent I believe that they understood more back then than we do today as there are too much distractions surrounding us today, too much modern interference, and too much socio-political interaction. Regardless of looking at the monuments created by Emperor Augustus to be or those of his imperial followers, those dating back far earlier than the Romans, or those dating to the Byzantine, Christian devotees, they all seem to have a natural and unquestionable respect for nature and the natural surroundings in which they lived and functioned. As for the ancients, pre-Christians, this is of course even more evident as the site honoured deities that originally sprung up from natural phenomena. However, while various sites around Greece do have a rather heightened spiritual energy that resonates within each visitor in different ways, Nikopolis had a an energy of pride and glory rather than that of religion. As with all ancient monuments one can walk on the streets once crowded by an active ancient community, feeling a deep respect and connection with our ancient forefathers, and regardless of how we react when visiting these sites, we all feel it in one way or another. This is what brings us back time after time, to explore and learn more, in an attempt of understanding and reconnecting with our own past, our history. This is at least what drives us forward, a historical calling that will never end as each day brings something new to consider.
As always thank you for joining us!
John & Maria
Ps. Please note that all names are spelled in accordance with the original language, thus making Marc Anthony Markus Antonius and Cleopatra VII Kleopatra VII.