August City of Victory

During the summer of 2023, the author spent several weeks excavating a Roman city in Northern Greece. This article examines the city’s effect on the landscape of the area from inception to abandonment.

Leon Corneille-Cowell

Nicopolis, which literally means “City of Victory”, is situated in the northwest of Greece, in the province of Epirus. The site has a long history. Its origins are Roman, but it enjoyed a Byzantine revival before being left to ruin. The Ottomans built around it, and later Italian troops used various parts of the ruins for military installations (Schoder 1974, p. 154).

In recent years, the Greek government has conducted work in and around Nicopolis so that it can be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. This work includes changes in the layout of the road network to preserve the monuments by preventing vehicles, especially large trucks and tractors that frequent these roads, from damaging the structural integrity by causing the ground to shake.

Constant change in the surrounding landscape has been characteristic of Nicopolis throughout its various phases of occupation, starting at its very inception.

Founding of the city

Nicopolis was founded to commemorate the Roman victory in the Battle of Actium (31 BC). Octavian, who would only a few years later, in 27 BC, become emperor of Rome and be given the honorific name Augustus, watched the battle from his camp on a hill overlooking the valley, where he later built his victory monument. His opponents were Mark Anthony, his main political rival for control of Rome, and Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt.

On the dawn of the battle, the story goes that Octavian encountered a donkey driver, Eutychos, and his donkey, Nikon. He took this as a good omen and erected statues of them on his victory monument, along with 36 rams taken from Anthony and Cleopatra’s fleet. Standing on this hillside monument and looking out over the bay, one can imagine Augustus watching his navy, facing off against the markedly larger ships of his enemies as they fought.

The Victory monument of Augustus. Photo by the author.

Augustus founded Nicopolis and made it the capital of the region. Many of the monuments still visible today are remnants of this city, including the theatre and odeum, where audiences would watch dramatic performances, musicians, orators, and debates. Hundreds of miles of aqueduct, which transported water to the city from the nearby Pindus mountain range, were also constructed (Saltagianni et al, 2015).

Many dwellings were built such as the Domus of Ekdikos Georgios, where I myself excavated last year. The houses were protected by walls (Pavlidis, 2015). However, a city requires people lest it be an empty shell and to this end, Augustus relocated the people from the surrounding areas such as the mountain settlements of Kassope and Horreum. It is believed that this relocation was not done willingly and led to the abandonment of many of the Greek cities in the area (Merkouri et al 2015, 18).

It is worth noting that this region had seen Roman activity and warfare before Actium with the Molossians, a tribe ruled by the Aeacidae Dynasty, creating a centralised power structure in the region. Notable Molossians include Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, as well as Pyrrhus (319/318–272 BC), King of Epirus, who was also based in the region. Pyrrhus fought in several battles against the Roman Republic and secured costly victories at Heraclea and Asculum, conquering Sicily before being driven out. His victories incurred casualties that were so costly they were tantamount to defeat; hence the phrase “Pyrrhic victory” (Goldsworthy 2010, p. 29).

The theatre. Photo by the author.

Archaeology shows evidence of conflict in the Roman republican period, with settlements in the area such as Horreum and Kassope showing signs of being razed by a republican army in 167 BC (Merkouri et al. 2015, p. 18). These fit into the timeline of the Macedonian War between King Perseus of Macedon (212-166 BC) and the Roman Republic. Rome’s victory in this war ended the Antigonid Dynasty, who had ruled Macedonia since its founding by Antigonus I, general of Alexander the Great. It also resulted in the annexation of Macedonia by Rome.

It is important to mention that Nicopolis is located relatively close to Italy. It is just 6 km north of the contemporary city of Preveza, which sits on the northern peninsula of the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf. The modern site is so close to Italy that it is possible today to pick up Italian radio stations. The site’s proximity to the Italian peninsula may have made it a convenient place for Octavian/Augustus to found a new city.

Once Augustus had relocated people from the surrounding areas the estimated population of the city is estimated to be 200,000, occupying 375 acres: a bustling metropolis of the ancient world.

Life in the ancient city

The archaeological museum of Nicopolis showcases a wealth of evidence about life in the ancient city. The museum, opened in 2009, is set out in chronological order from inception to abandonment, and holds an accumulation of finds from many archaeological excavations undertaken over the years. (Of particular interest to me were the many amphorae that would have been used to import products such as olive oil from North Africa.)

After Augustus, the city was shown favour by several emperors such as Trajan (r. AD 53-117) who set the contemporary boundaries of the modern province of Epirus. Hadrian (r. AD 76-138) also showed favour to the city and visited with his wife Sabina (AD 83-136) in AD 128. The imperial couple were honoured and shrines relating to their worship have been found by archaeologists.

Septimus Severus (r. AD 145-211) required the city, among several others, to mint special coins to help fund his campaigns in Mesopotamia against the Parthian Persian empire from AD 193 to 197. Coins are an invaluable source of evidence for Classical archaeologists for information on dates and trade; coins depicting various Roman emperors have been found scattered around various sites in the city (Chalkia 2013, p. 140; Kray 1976).

The theatre and stadium would have been fonts of culture and sports with the Roman theatre built in an freestanding manner and not into the slope in the Greek manner (Zachos, Pavlidis and Tranoylidis 2015, 27). The difference in theatre styles and size are stark and visceral when compared to the native Greek city of Kassope, merely a 30-minute drive away.

The difference may be explained by a mixture of reasons, related to both cultural aspects and the landscape. Firstly, the larger population of Nicopolis, compared to Kassope, meant that no natural slopes would be large enough to build a theatre of a size large enough. Secondly, Nicopolis was a distinctively Roman city situated in a low-lying area on the coast, while Kassope sits high in the Pindus mountains, with plenty of slopes.

Nicopolis hosted the Aktion Games in honour of the archer-god Apollo. These games were modelled after the great Panhellenic Games, of which the Olympic Games are perhaps the most familiar to modern readers. Like the Olympic Games, the Aktion Games were organized every four years (Zachos 2015, p. 60). During our time excavating at Nicopolis, we were gifted a copy of a children’s comic titled την πόλη της νίκης (“In the City of Victory”), depicting the history of Nicopolis through the tale of a wrestler and a flute player from the games as characters.

During the imperial period, Nicopolis was visited by many. Among the visitors were Emperor Nero (one of Rome’s most infamous rulers), St. Paul or “Paul the Apostle” (who spread the teachings of Christ around the Mediterranean world in the first century), and Strabo (philosopher and geographer), who was known for his work Geographica, a descriptive history of places and people from different regions of the world known during his lifetime (Schoder 1974, p. 154; Zachos 2015, p. 33).

The city began to decline in the third century AD due to the third century “Barbarian” crisis (AD 212-305), a period of raids within the borders of the Roman Empire conducted by Germanic tribes from north of the Rhine River. Nicopolis particularly suffered raids at the hands of the Goths and Herulli.

The Goths migrated south to escape invasion by the nomadic Huns led by Attila. The Goths later split into the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, who went on to establish kingdoms in Spain and Italy as the western half of the Roman Empire disintegrated. The Herulli were from Germany, or possibly Scandinavia, and later migrated to the Pontic-Caspian steppe. They later joined the Hunnic confederation of nomadic tribes by Atilla.

The Byzantine period

Nicopolis would flourish again during the Byzantine period. The city was now a lot smaller, and new walls dated to the early Christian era (AD 340-800) were constructed. These walls remain visible today.

Another unique feature of the Byzantine cityscape are the four early Christian basilicas: Basilicas Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta (Chalkia 2015; Papadopoulou 2015). A basilica is an architectural form of a rectangular building with a central nave flanked by two or more longwise aisles, with the roof at two levels.

In the early Roman period, a basilica usually served as a public building for civic functions such as holding court. In later antiquity, this building style was adopted by several religious cults, which included Christianity when it became the primary religion of the empire. The basilicas of Nicopolis all served as early Christian churches with Basilica D being unique for its location outside the city walls due to having a funerary function.

The remains of Basillca Delta at Nicopolis. Photo by the author.

Though archaeologists know little about what occupied the sites before the basilicas, signs of earlier occupation were found under Basilica D. Indeed, to reach Basilica D, you only had to walk one minute past the older Roman north cemetery (Zachos and Karampa 2015, 29).

Basilica D was also the home of an expensively made marble sarcophagus, believed to have been imported from Constantinople (now housed in the archaeological museum of Nicopolis). It’s believed that this tomb housed a martyr or a saint though the body it contained has been lost due to past archaeological blunders (Chalkia 2015, 57-59).

Interestingly, a small orthodox Christian church stands next to the site, demonstrating how even archaeological sites retain their holiness to religious people throughout the millennia.

Nicopolis fell into its final decline after years of constant attacks by Bulgarians, as well as outbreaks of plague. The slowly declining imperial power of the Byzantine Empire showed even in its distant regions. Events such as the Fourth Crusade (AD 1202-1204), which resulted in Constantinople being sacked by Latin crusader armies from western Europe in 1204 (Norwich 1995, p. 163).

Epirus became a separate state known as the Despotate of Epirus ruled by the Despot of Epirus. This position first belonged to a Greek family, the “Komnenodoukas dynasty”, before passing to a series of Italian families. Around this period, Islam had risen from the deserts of Arabia and the caliphates had conquered Persia North Africa and Spain (Zachos 2015, 39). Incursions by the Islamic Seljuk Turk greatly contributed to the decline of the Byzantines.

Nicopolis was supplanted the rise of the medieval Greek town of Preveza, which still perches on the coastline as a popular tourist spot for Greeks today.

The modern landscape

Various locations around the city have been excavated in the past century, slowly revealing the ruins and monuments to the world. These began in 1913 after a shift in the political climate of the region when it was liberated from the Ottomans (Zachos 2015, p. 46).

The Ottomans had ruled Epirus for five centuries, notably during the reign of despotic governor Ali Pasha of Ioannina (r. AD 1788-1822). Ali Pasha conquered independent parts of the region, resulting in the “Dance of the Zalongo” in 1803, a mass suicide by 60 women from the village of Zalongo village in which to escape Ottoman troops. The women danced a traditional folk dance off a cliff, falling one by one. A statue commemorating this event was put up in the 1970s and can be seen from the archaeological site of Kassope today.

Ali Pasha conducted several excavations on Nicopolis searching for treasure and plundering building material. Danish traveller Olaf Bronstad, who took part in these excavations noted that “a large number of marble columns and other architectural members from the ruins have been removed” (Zachos 2015, 40).

The landscape as seen from the Victory monument. Photo by the author.

Epirus remained under Ottoman control even after the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829). After the fall of the Ottomans in 1913, excavations were primarily led by the Archaeological Society of Athens, an independent scholarly society, founded in 1837 by Konstantinos Bellios. The excavations in this period focused on the four basilicas under the direction of Georgios Sottiriou and Anastasios Orlandos.

There was a brief interlude during the Second World War in which Italian troops from Mussolini’s fascist government occupied the area from 1941 until 1943 before occupation was taken over by German troops, who remained there until 1944. Italian troops notably surveyed and recorded the early Christian walls in sketches and set up artillery positions in the theatre, which led to structural instability that remains until today.

From 1946 to 1949, during the Greek Civil War, the landscape of Epirus became a major theatre of guerrilla warfare between the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Republican Greek League (EDES). Of note, on the site of Basilica D, we found several bullet shells in the topsoil that are possible remnants from this period.

Closing remarks

Recent excavations were primarily directed by Dr Eugenia Chalkia and Dr Stavroula Oikonomou, respectively (Chalkia 2015; Pavlidis 2015). Since 2014, this work has accelerated with the bid by the local antiquities authority to make Nicopolis a UNESCO World Heritage site beginning in 2014 (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2014). This is not only causing a flurry of archaeological activity but also the construction of a new road that bypasses the monument to protect them from future damage.

The new road plans to circle around the ruins of the city rather than cutting through them. Speaking to locals in Preveza revealed rather mixed opinions on this, with one man telling me that he “knew it was necessary for preservation but loved the view when driving past the ruins.” The overall sentiment seems to be pride at the ruins but worry about more tourists spoiling the area and its green unspoiled landscape, though many appreciate the economic benefits increased tourism will bring.

Excavating and exploring these sites was eye-opening for me, as a burgeoning archaeologist at the start of my career. The people, both professional archaeologists and locals, were very welcoming and more than happy to discuss archaeology and the local culture. Nicopolis is not only the site of several important historical events, but also an interesting case study in the cyclical nature of urbanism.