Nicopolis (Greek: Νικόπολις, “City of Victory”) or Actia Nicopolis was a city of Epirus (western Greece) founded by Octavian in commemoration of his victory in 31 BC over Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium nearby. It was later the capital of the Roman province of Epirus Vetus.
In 28 BC, in the aftermath of the naval battle of Actium in the Ambracian Gulf, Octavian founded on a promontory of the gulf a new city, which he called Nicopolis, the City of Victory. Symbolically, it represented his successful unification of the Roman Empire under one administration. Geographically, it constituted a major transportation and communications link between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean.
On the spot where his own tent had been pitched, Octavian built a monument adorned with the beaks of the captured galleys; and in further celebration of his victory he instituted the quinquennial Actian games in honor of Apollo Actius.
The city proved highly successful, and it was considered the capital of southern Epirus and Acarnania. Among other things, it obtained the right to send five representatives to the Amphictyonic Council.
The new polis was given the territories of southern Epirus including Ambracia, most of Akarnania, and western Aetolia. Many inhabitants of the surrounding areas –Kassopaia, Ambracia, parts of Acarnania (including Leukas, Palairos, Amphilochikon, Calydon, and Lysimachia) and western Aetolia – were forced to relocate to the new city.
The exact legal status of Nicopolis is the subject of some dispute, having the characteristics of civitas libera, civitas foederata, and as colonia, implying that Roman military veterans also settled there.
In 27 BC, Octavian implemented an Empire-wide administrative reform. Achaea – including Thessaly, Acarnania and the territory of what later became the province of Epirus – was detached from Macedonia and made into a province in its own right. The imperial government assigned the administration of both Macedonia and Achaea to senatorial praetor-rank proconsules, with capitals at Thessalonica and Corinth, respectively. Achaea included Euboea, Attica, the Cyclades, Thessaly,Peloponnese, Aetolia, Acarnania, the Ionian Islands, and the southern part of Epirus.
At that time, as a city in a senatorial province, Nicopolis began minting its own copper coins (until 268).
During the first five years or so of the city’s foundation, local authorities supervised the construction of the city walls, the majority of the public buildings, including the odeion and the aqueduct. The city’s south gate was connected by a road to the Ionian harbor Komaros (the modern Nikopoli-Mytikas road leading to the Gulf of Mytikas).
In 18 AD, Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of Augustus, stopped over at Nicopolis on his way to Syria.
In 30-31, the Roman consul Poppaeus Sabinus visited Nicopolis.
Around 63, the apostle Paul decided to spend the winter at Nicopolis and in his Epistle to Titus 3:12 invited his co-worker Titus to join him there from Crete.
In 66, in the wake of a terror campaign and financial constraints in Rome, Emperor Nero made a more modest trip to Greece in lieu of a planned great journey to the east. He visited Nicopolis during his tour of Greece to take part in the Aktian games.
In 67, while in Greece, Emperor Nero granted tax-exempt status to the cities of Achaea and in return he conferred administration of Sardinia and Corsica to the Senate.
Around 93, Emperor Domitian (81-96) expelled philosophers from Rome, including the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who went to Nicopolis where he died around AD 135.
Around 110, under Emperor Trajan (98-117), the Roman government carved out the province of Epirus from parts of Macedonia and Achaia, making it a separate province in its own right. Aprocurator Augusti headquartered at Nicopolis governed Epirus. The new province of Epirus included Acarnania to the south as far as the Achelous, but not Apollonia to the north, plus the Ionian Islands – Corfu, Leukas, Ithaca, Cephalonia, and Zacynthus. The reason for the reform was that the territory needed a stricter government to yield higher revenues. The new province was put under the control of an Imperial procurator, together with other special procuratores, including a procurator of the purple fisheries, whose sphere of office, however, extended to Achaea and Thessaly. This administrative set up appears to have remained intact through the reforms of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211) and up until Emperor Diocletian (284-305).
In 128, Emperor Hadrian (117-138) visited Nicopolis and Corinth.
Around this time the city’s western gate was constructed, several hundred meters north of the south gate, becoming the main gate of Nicopolis.
Around 180, the next mention of Nicopolis in Church history concerns a bishop of Rome, Pope Eleutherius, who reigned from around 174-189. He was born in Nicopolis, according to the Liber Pontificalis, and served as a deacon in Rome. During his term in office as Bishop of Rome, the Church was involved in the Montanist controversy.
Around 193-198, Emperor Severus (193-211), based in Syria, campaigned in Mesopotamia, with indirect consequences for Achaea and Epirus: to help pay for these campaigns, Emperor Severus apparently required several cities to mint special coins, including Nicopolis, Patrae, Epidaurus, Apollonia, Thuria, Plautilla, and the Thessalian koinon.
Later Roman and Byzantine period
In 268, the Goths launched a combined land-sea invasion against the Roman Empire, assisted by Heruli sailors and other tribesmen. Their naval forces ravaged Byzantium and Chrysopolis, though the imperial fleet successfully counter-attacked on the Propontis. Meanwhile the land forces overran Thrace and continued into Achaea as far south as Sparta; the invading Goths and Heruli sackedAthens, crossed the isthmus, sacked and burned the lower part of Corinth, and advanced to Argos and Sparta, ravaging the countryside along the way and burning the two cities. Here imperial land and sea forces counter-attacked, and the invaders wandered their way through Boeotia, Acarnania, Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace on their way back to Moesia.
Not long after the catastrophe, the Athenians built a wall to enclose the Acropolis and a small area to the north. In Epirus, while the inhabitants of Nicopolis made hasty repairs to fortifications and managed to avert the danger, the leaders of Corfu organized their own army, crossed over into Epirus and defeated the Goths on land.
Nicopolis ceased to mint its own copper coins.
The imperial army chased the Goths and their allies and defeated them at Naissus.
In 293, as part of Diocletian’s reforms, the province of Epirus became known as Epirus Vetus (including Adrianopolis, Phoenice, Ogchismos, and Buthrotum as the most northerly major cities, and Acarnania and the islands of Corfu, Ithaca, and probably Leucas to the south). The capital was Nicopolis.
Meanwhile, the territory of northern Epirus (including, Apollonia, Byllis and Amantia on its southern borders) became known as Epirus Nova, with the capital at Dyrrachium. Both provinces, along with Macedonia, Thessaly and Achaea, were included in the diocese of Moesia, which also included four provinces in the northwestern Balkans. The islands of Cephalonia, Zacynthus, and Cythera were included in the province of Achaea.
Both Epirus Vetus and Epirus Nova were governed by a praeses.
Writing around 300, one Arnobius of Numidia mentioned the existence of Christian communities in Achaea, Macedonia, and Epirus.
In about 330, the first great recorded Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea mentions that bishops from Epirus attended the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. This implies that bishoprics and an episcopal administrative system had been set up some time before 325. Until the time of Constantine, it is supposed that the bishopric of Nicopolis came under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Corinth, but with the administrative reforms under Emperor Diocletian and Constantine (306-337), Nicopolis itself became the metropolitan city of Epirus Vetus.
In 327, Emperor Constantine split the diocese of Moesia into Dacia and Macedonia. The two provinces of Epirus, along with the provinces of Macedonia, Thessaly, and Achaia, became part of the diocese of Macedonia (capital Thessalonica).
In 343, in the Acts of the Council of Sardica, we have the first mention by name of a bishop of Nicopolis, one Isidoros.
In 361, newly appointed Consul Claudius Mamertinus delivered a panegyric to the young Emperor Julian (360-363), mentioning heavy taxation in Dalmatia and Epirus.
Based on the record of Julian’s close ties with certain leading men from Epirus involved in the Empire-wide cultural circuit led by Libanius and Themistius, it appears that Christianity was not widespread in Epirus in the mid-4th century, but after his death it spread far and wide in the region, judging from legislation issued by Valentinian in 371 and 372, trying to offset some negative effects of its rapid spread, and the fact that there is no written record of the bishops of the cities of Epirus until the 5th century, except for the bishop of Nicopolis in 343.
The Acts of the Council of Constantinople in 381 – as well as of the Third (431) and Fourth (451) Ecumenical Councils – recognized the see of Thessalonica as holding sixth place in the Church administrative hierarchy, after the five patriarchs. Among the sees of Illyricum, Thessalonica held the first position in the hierarchy, followed by Corinth and Nicopolis.
In 431, the Acts of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus list the bishops of Epirus, including metropolitan Bishop Donatus of Nicopolis (c. 425-432).
The majority of the bishops from Epirus and Illyricum and other representatives upheld the Orthodox theological position of the Bishop Celestine I of Rome (422-432) and Bishop Cyril of Alexandria against the Patriarch of ConstantinopleNestorius. During this time, Bishop Donatus of Nicopolis maintained a correspondence with Bishop Cyril of Alexandria concerning Nestorianism.
In 451, six Epirote bishops attended the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, including Bishop Atticus of Nicopolis. All these bishops without exception signed the Council’s decisions in favor of the Orthodox position of Dyophysitism, also backed by the bishop of Rome.
In 457-458 the bishops of Epirus then held a provincial synod to ratify the validity of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. We have a list of as many as nine bishops signing a letter written by Bishop Eugenius of Nicopolis to Pope Leo I of Rome.
This was also the time of Bishop Diadochos of Photiki (c. 450-458), a saint and Father of the Church. Not only was he the bishop of what was the major city of an Epirus sub-region called Thresprotia, he was also the author of important theological treatises, three of which are extant.
In combination with the notice of the correspondence between the bishop of Nicopolis and the bishop of Alexandria mentioned previously, from the writings of Diadochos we can infer that learned texts, along with amphorae, traveled between the eastern Mediterranean and Epirus in the 5th century.
Diadochos’ texts also show us that both theoretical and practical ideas about theology and the organization of monastic life also spread from the eastern Mediterranean to Epirus. In fact, a reference in one of Diadochos’ own writings suggests he was also the hegumen of a monastery in Photiki and that Epirus in the 450s at least had both anchoretic and coenbitic monastic communities.
From around 460, a series of six basilicas were built, beginning with the five-aisled metropolitan basilica B. Artisans decorated many of the basilicas with high-quality mosaics, developing their own workshop, and operating until the 550s. Their influence extended to the rest of Epirus and perhaps further afield in eastern Illyricum.
Basilica B was the largest of the Nicopolis basilicas and probably served as the metropolitan bishop’s main church. An inscription informs us that Bishop Alcison (491-516) sponsored some additions to the southern annex of Basilica B, possibly around 500.
In 474, Emperor Zeno (474-491) initiated peace negotiations with the Vandals. But during the negotiations, in order to strengthen their position, the Vandals again devastated the coast of Greece during which they captured Nicopolis and took prisoners who had to be ransomed to secure their release.
Evidently the walls of Nicopolis built in the time of Augustus were not for defensive purposes, or at least were not functioning in 474, since the Vandals took the city apparently without being equipped with siege tools, while they failed to take the walled city of Taenarum. If this is so, the walls of Nicopolis attributed to Justinian, enclosing only one-sixth of the city founded by Augustus, were erected not before 474. In any case, the Nicopolis walls, probably of the 480s-510s period (like those of Dyrrachium), were made of bricks, mortar, and rubble.
This raid and prisoner-taking probably had a devastating effect on the infrastructure of Nicopolis and the mentality of its citizens, affecting the city’s social and economic life. It is probably directly related to the reduction of the city’s population to one-sixth of what it had been, confining it to the north-east section, the area where the citadel stood, and fortifying it with thick walls to provide better defence.
Around 500, as mentioned, Bishop Alcison (491-516), an opponent of the Monophysite policy of Emperor Anastasius, supervised the addition of annexes to the five-aisled metropolitan basilica B, which has taken his name.
Around 515, the three-aisled basilica Δ, with fragments of floor mosaics, was built.
In 516, all eight bishops of Vetus Epirus held a synod and elected Ioannes as successor to the martyred Bishop Alcison. Bishop Ioannes sent a deacon, Rufinus, with a letter to Pope Hormisdas, reaffirming their steadfastness in the Orthodox faith. The synod appears to be the seventh local episcopal synod for Epirus Vetus.
In 551, King Totila of the Ostrogoths, in response to reports of a Byzantine military build-up in the eastern side of the Adriatic, sent a 300-strong fleet to Corfu. The Ostrogoths sacked it and nearby islands. They also sacked the area around Dodoni inland and Nicopolis, and captured several Byzantine ships on their way to bring supplies to Narses.
Around 555, according to Procopius, Emperor Justinian (527-565) renovated the fortifications of Nicopolis, as part of his huge program involving the renewal of city fortifications and the erection of new defences.
Construction of the three-aisled Basilica Α, decorated with an extensive series of extant floor mosaics. was begun. Bishop Dumetius I also made some additions (the pastophoria) to Basilica B, and the three-aisled basilica Ε, near the southern harbor Magaronas, was built.
Around 575, the three-aisled basilica Γ was built and Basilica Α was completed under Bishop Dumetius II.
In 587, Slavic tribes invaded Thrace, Macedonia and Achaua, including Thessaly, Attica, Euboia, and Peloponnesos, as well as Epirus Vetus, where the invasion seems to have reached as far as Euroea, but not Cassope and Nicopolis.
In 625, Pope Honorius I sent a letter to Metropolitan Hypatius of Nicopolis]] referring to the difficult travel conditions that prevented the bishop from reaching Rome.
Middle Ages to present
The province of Epirus Vetus, of which Nicopolis was the capital, was part of the western patriarchate as arranged by Justinian I- and was directly subject to the jurisdiction of the pope; but, about 732, Leo the Isaurian made it subject to the patriarch of Constantinople because of the pope’s resistance to the emperor’s iconoclastic policy.
The last known bishop of Nicopolis was Anastasius, who attended the Ecumenical Council of 787. Soon afterwards, owing to the decadence into which Nicopolis fell, the metropolitan see was transferred to Naupactus. which subsequently figured as such in the Notitiae episcopatuum.
In the course of the Middle Ages Nicopolis was supplanted by the town of Preveza. The ruins of Nicopolis, now known as Palaea Preveza (“Old Preveza”), lie about 5 km north of that city, on a small bay of the Gulf of Arta (Sinus Ambracius) at the narrowest part of the isthmus of the peninsula which separates the Gulf from the Ionian Sea. Besides the Acropolis, the most conspicuous features are two theatres (the larger with 77 rows of seats) and an aqueduct which brought water to the town from a distance of about 43 km. It continued under Roman and later Byzantine rule, experiencing three brief periods of Bulgarian rule in the 10th century (920-922, 977-983, and 996-997).
In 1798 French Revolutionary troops, stationed in Preveza by Napoleon, dug into the graves and ruins of ancient Nicopolis and looted various treasures. These were later taken by the troops of Ali Pasha, who defeated the French and their Greek allies.
Various battles fought in this area, the latest in 1912, when it was captured by the Greek army during the First Balkan War, have been named “Battle of Nicopolis” rather than “Battle of Preveza”.