An Archaeological Guide to Nicopolis: rambling through the historical, sacred, and civic landscape

An Archaeological Guide to Nicopolis: rambling through the historical, sacred, and civic landscape
Konstantinos L Zachos
Ministry of Culture & Sports
ISBN 978-6188222502
Reviewed by: Oliver Gilkes


On 2 September 31 BC, a young man stepped from his tent in northern Greece to meet a wet and blustery day. From his vantage point on a hill, he could see the sails of his enemy’s fleet beginning to put out from the gulf. He issued his orders, battle was joined, and the world changed.

The place was to the north of the Ambracian Gulf, and its city was Actium. The young man was to become ruler of the known world and gain the title ‘Augustus’. The great victory won by his forces that day was marked by the building of a new city, the first of a long line of imperial foundations and refoundations of cities to mark victories, accessions, or simply to beautify favoured home towns: Leptis Magna, Durrës, Justiniana Prima. Nicopolis – the city of victory – was, however, the first.

While comparison with Butrint up the coast in Albania is inevitable, that evocative place is small beer in contrast. Nicopolis is one of the great archaeological sites of the Mediterranean, a vast model city equipped with the latest mod cons: an impressive aqueduct, theatre, and odeon, gridded streets for housing, impressive walls. But the centrepiece of the place, its raison d’être, was the great sanctuary to house the Actian Games, given in honour of Augustus’s victory. Its theatre and stadium still dominate the landscape, and the hill on which his command tent was pitched was transformed into a mighty altar, decorated with a triumphal frieze and the bronze ramming beaks taken from Antony and Cleopatra’s ships.

Professor Konstantinos Zachos was for many years Ephor (Superintendent) of Classical antiquities in Greek Epirus. Taking in hand the rambling site and disjointed prior excavations he has pursued an up-to-date research strategy combined with tourist development at this woefully under-visited masterpiece. He has now written the first full archaeological guide to the site, An Archaeological Guide to Nicopolis: rambling through the historical, sacred, and civic landscape, one of a series of publications dealing with various aspects of Nicopolis and its archaeology. The site is certainly big enough to justify rambling – Augustus planned big! This particular volume, however, provides a fine overview of the old work and his latest researches.

The Augustan victory monument at Nicopolis. (Photo: Oliver Gilkes)

Zachos covers all the major aspects of the city, the remarkable story of its ‘discovery’, which includes a battle between a Napoleonic French army and the forces of Byron’s acquaintance, the Albanian Despot Ali of Tepelena, the wanderings and paintings of Edward Lear and others, and the first and then the modern excavations. The main part of the book is made up of the sections on the city and its monuments, illustrated with dozens of fine photographs and very convincing reconstructions. The entire range of facilities eventually realised in Augustus’s scheme are presented, up to and including the mighty late wall circuit and famous early Christian churches and their mosaics, made when Nicopolis was the capital of a Byzantine province. What strikes me most forcefully was that the city took almost 200 years to fill up the allocated space, and many of its monuments followed the same timescale. Entire cities were evacuated to provide the population, and one wonders what the new citizens thought of their life in the world’s largest building site.

The guide is published by the Ministry of Culture & Sports in Athens, but – sad to say – you cannot buy it: this book had a very limited print-run that was funded for non-commercial purposes. This is a tragedy as Nicopolis, and Greece, need guides just like this. The great experiment that is Nicopolis, and Greek Epirus, are places of wonder and excitement. Visit them.

There are a limited number of copies that are available to be given away. If you would like one, then please email Oliver Gilkes at ogilkes@gmail.com. While the book is free, a donation to the Nicopolis Foundation (details can be provided) would be appreciated. Alternatively, the guide – and its stablemates – can be read and downloaded for free at Professor Zachos’ Academia page: www.academia.edu/22578684/An_archaeological_guide_to_Nicopolis.

This review appeared in CWA 85Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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