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Nikopolis: An Extraordinary Time Capsule of Roman-Era Greece

The ancient city of Nikopolis in Preveza, Greece. Credit: Bgabel at wikivoyage/CC BY-SA 3.0

The ancient city of Nikopolis located in Epirus the western part of the modern state of Greece, which was once home to as many as 150,000 people, is extraordinary in several ways. As it was founded in its classical form by the Romans at the end of their Republic, and flourished during the first years of the Roman Empire, it marks the beginning of the Empire itself.

Octavian’s crushing naval victory at Actium in 31 BC put an end to not only Mark Antony’s ambitions but to the whole Hellenistic era of the successors of Alexander. Less than a year later, on August 29, 30 BC, Octavian officially declared the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, thus marking the end of the entire Hellenistic era.

Nikopolis (Nike-polis, “city of victory”) was created ex nihilo, by the first Roman Emperor Octavian, who was given the title of “Augustus,” in order to celebrate his victory and symbolize his autocracy. As the first city of this new era, sealing the establishment of the Empire under his reign, it was remarkable in scale and included a series of monuments created to glorify the Emperor.

Unlike many other ancient cities across Europe, however, it was inhabited continually since antiquity, with many monuments from throughout the ages still in existence. With most of its inhabitants relocating and the nearby city of Preveza expanding in its place, Nikopolis stood untouched from medieval until modern times, forming a time capsule of the glories of the Roman Empire.

The original inhabitants of Nikopolis were the Cassopeans

Located just outside of the modern city of Preveza in the southwestern part of Epirus, what would later become known as the city of Nikopolis was originally inhabited by the Greek tribe of Cassopeans, part of a larger tribe, the Thesprotians. Their capital city was Cassope (today located near the village of Kamarina).

King Pyrrhus founded the town of Berenikea, or Berenike, named after his mother-in-law, Berenice I of Egypt, at the southernmost part of Epirus, in 290 BC. Today, it is believed that Berenikea lies on the hills near Preveza following the excavations by Sotirios Dakaris in 1965.

Built at the crossroads of land and sea merchant routes, it was the center of Greek culture and a meeting point between the eastern and western worlds for many centuries.

The province of Nikopolis extended southwards from the mountains of Cassopeia to the province of Roman Patras and northwards from the river Acheloos to Leucas (present-day Lefkada).

The beginning of the Roman Empire

The foundation of Nikopolis as a result of Octavian’s victory in the naval battle of Actium against the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra marks the city’s rebirth in Roman times. An event of tremendous historic significance, it altered the entire political and cultural worlds of the time since it marked the last of the civil wars of the Roman Republic and signaled the beginning of the Roman Empire.

The most powerful man in the Roman world, named “Augustus” by the Senate, Octavian became the first Roman Emperor; he transformed the oligarchic/democratic Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire. By definition, the establishment of the city of Nikopolis also marks the beginning of the Pax Romana, a time of relative peace and stability in the lands under its rule.

Situated on one of the most important routes connecting the western world with the Greek province, Nikopolis proved to be a city of great military and political importance, ensuring Roman control of the East Mediterranean. After Octavian’s victory at Actium, people from the adjacent cities of Epirus, Leucas, and Acarnania were forced to live in the Nikopolis area along with Roman settlers. The large number of buildings of monumental importance allow us to this day to visualize key aspects of a city of the late antiquity.

Because Nikopolis was designed from a blank slate, it was one of the most well-organized Roman cities to be found throughout the Mediterranean world. Structures built during the “saeculum augustum” (the Augustan era) established and shaped the character of Roman cities well into late antiquity.

Nikopolis was granted the status of a free city, or “civitas libera,” which meant that it enjoyed special political and financial privileges and became a major cultural and political center.

Monuments from all eras of history in Nikopolis

Nikopolis was inhabited continuously from the first century BC to Middle Byzantine times up to around the ninth century AD, and its inhabitants eventually resettled in the nearby city of Preveza. The city, therefore, boasts spectacular monuments originating from all these time periods. It is, hence, “one of the best examples of the creation, evolution and transformation of a Roman city into an Early Christian/Early Byzantine city, with a set of monuments for every historical period of its life,” according to a report from UNESCO justifying its inclusion as a World Heritage site.

The Augustan era created a culture remarkable for its creativity, which is represented in the monumental structures and buildings (including the Monument of Augustus, Odeion, Theatre, Nymphaeum, and  Mausoleums), in its civic planning and in the advanced engineering and construction techniques used.

Augustus Caesar granted the city substantial political and economic privileges and adorned it with magnificent monuments while also reviving the Actium Games. Nikopolis served as the capital of Epirus and Acarnania during the first three centuries of the Roman Empire.

The city, with its fortified walls and cemeteries, occupies a fertile strip of land between the Ionian Sea to the west and the Ambracian Gulf to the east, where two of the three city harbors were located. The third harbor ran along both sides of the inlet known as Ormos Vathy at the north edge of the modern city of Preveza.

Nikopolis was constructed within walls with four main gates at the compass points. The southern quarters included the Odeion while the northern section saw the construction of the Monument of Augustus, the Theatre, the Gymnasium, and the Stadium.

This area, known to ancient writers as the “Suburb,” is located outside the Roman fortification walls on the hills surrounding the city with a magnificent view of the Ionian sea and the Preveza peninsula. The city had an impressive water-supply system as well with a 50-km (31-mile) long aqueduct consisting of a series of arches (arcade) and tunnels which carried water from the Louros springs to the Nymphaeum from where it was distributed within the city.

Related: The Apostle Paul traveled through Nikopolis on his journey to spread the word of Christ

St. Paul founded first Christian church of the city

In the winter of 63 AD, Saint Paul, according to written sources, founded its Church; a few years later, in 89 AD, Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher from Hierapolis in Phrygia left Rome for Nikopolis in order to avoid the Emperor Domitian’s persecution and founded a philosophical school there.

In its thriving Christian era, from the mid-5th century AD onward, Nikopolis became the administrative, artistic, spiritual, and religious center of its region. The Church of Nikopolis was founded by the Apostle Paul. During the early Christian period, the city experienced a major economic and spiritual boom with fortifications begun by Emperor Justinian and the building of a plethora of monuments to further adorn the city.

The administrative reorganization of the Byzantine Empire in the ninth century and the transfer of the capital of the Theme of Nikopolis from Nikopolis to Nafpaktos led to the city’s decline and abandonment, however; this was a process which was completed during the 13th century. The nearby city of Preveza then grew in prominence, leaving Nikopolis to serve as an invaluable time capsule of the past.

It was in early Christian times that additional fortification walls, known as the Christian or Byzantine Walls, were built at the site. Two great basilicas and a Bishop’s Palace constructed around this time are evidence of the city’s flourishing splendor during this time period.

UNESCO singles out Odeon, Thermae baths, Basilicas as particularly important

As noted by UNESCO’s report on Nikopolis, several buildings stand out for their great historical importance, including the Odeion, which consists of the auditorium, the orchestra, and the stage building. It was built in the first century AD, remaining in use until the second half of the third century AD. The cultural authority also singled out the Nymphaeum for special note; situated on the west side of the Roman fortification walls, it consists of two U-shaped brick structures, parts of which still stand today.

The North Thermae is another Roman public building, situated on the west side of the Roman fortification walls, parts of which survive to this day. There were also no less than seven notable Christian Basilicas in the city, four of which lie within the perimeter of the Byzantine Walls.

One of them was founded by Bishop Doumetios, who lived from 525-575 AD; this is decorated with elaborate mosaics. Similar mosaics are also identified in another basilica, built at the time of Bishop Alkison, who lived during the reign of Emperor Anastasios, from 491-518 AD.

Just a century later, from 575-600 AD, another basilica, which UNESCO refers to as “Basilica C,” was built in the northern part of the Byzantine fortification while in the south, a fourth Basilica, called “Basilica ST” was discovered in 1981. Two other basilicas – the Asyrmatos Basilica and the Basilica of the Holy Apostles – are situated outside the perimeter of the Byzantine walls, UNESCO notes in its report.

The existence of the nearby city of Preveza was first attested to in during the Middle Ages in the Chronicle of the Morea in 1292. After 1204, it came under the Despotate of Epirus. It then came under Venetian rule until it was captured by the Ottomans in 1463.

The Ottomans re-founded Preveza, most likely in 1477, with a subsequent strengthening of the fortifications in 1495. The naval Battle of Preveza was fought off the shores of Preveza on September 29, 1538, during which the Ottoman fleet of Hayreddin Barbarossa defeated a united Christian fleet under the Genoese captain, Andrea Doria.

Prize of the city of Preveza contested by Venetians, Ottomans

The city was hotly contested over in several Ottoman-Venetian wars. In September 1684, in the early part of the Morean War, the Venetians, aided by Greek irregulars, crossed from the island of Lefkada (Santa Maura) and captured Preveza, as well as Vonitsa, thus giving them control of Acarnania – an important morale booster towards the main campaign in the Morea.

However, at the end of the war in 1699, Preveza was handed back to Ottoman rule. Venice captured Preveza again in 1717 during its subsequent war with the Ottomans and was finally able to hold on to the town and fort it; this was a meager achievement in a war which otherwise didn’t go well for the Republic.

Venetian rule would persist until the very end of the Venetian Republic itself in 1797. During this period, in 1779, the Orthodox missionary Kosmas visited Preveza. It is said he founded a Greek school there which would be the only school of the city during the 18th century.

Modern-day archaeological excavations of Nikopolis began as early as the 1910s and have continued ever since. In 2009, the archaeological site of Nikopolis won a Europa Nostra award in the category of conservation.

An exquisite sculpture of a head made of Pentelic marble was discovered in the sea off Preveza in Epirus in western Greece in October of 2021.

With an intricate headdress that is now adorned with barnacles, the sculpture is thought to have stemmed from the time of the Emperors Antoninus or Severus, dating from the second to the third century AD.

Found at a depth of about 10 meters (thirty feet), the head is almost completely intact, with the exception of parts of the headdress, the nose, right ear, and part of the chin.

Desalinization and restoration work on the bust commenced immediately, thanks to experts at the Archaeological Museum of Nikopolis.

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