All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in February 2021.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in February 2021.
June 24, 1805. Augustus founded
this place and he gave it the name of Nicopolis in honour of the naval victory which he gained (in 31 BC) before the mouth of the
gulf over Antony and Cleopatra, who was herself
William Martin Leake - Travels in northern Greece - 1835
The further part of the ruins of Nicopolis, are in Aly
Pasha's dominions: the nearer ruins, belong to Prevyza. The road thither leads for two miles through the olive plantations and vineyards, which occupy
all the south-western part of the peninsula of Prevyza, and for another mile over a shrubby uncultivated plain. The first ruins that occur are some
small arched buildings of brick, probably sepulchral; a little beyond which are the remains of a
strong wall following the crest of a height. (..) The situation
and direction of this wall, and the position of the
sepulchres on the outside of it, seem to show that
it was a part of the southern inclosure of the city. Leake
Wednesday, August 25th, 1813. - At noon I set off on horseback to see the ruins of Nicopolis, which are about five miles distant from Prevesa. The road (which is still very good) was formerly covered with the Venetian country-houses, all which the Turks have destroyed.(..) About a mile and a half of our road lay along the olive-grove, and we then came to a flat open country interspersed with a few trees. (..) The walls are in good preservation, and inclose, I should think, five miles.
William Turner - Journal of a Tour in the Levant - 1820
The foundation of Nikopolis was not dictated solely by the desire to commemorate the victory, but it responded to military and trade needs. Its Roman walls were not properly maintained or perhaps had only a monumental purpose.
Museum of Nikopolis: Augustus (right) and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (left)
I found a few copper medals, but was disappointed in my hope of getting one with the head of Augustus, in a city built by him, in commemoration of a victory on which so many must have been struck. Turner
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa is generally known as the son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, but the two were about the same age (in 31 BC they were in their early thirties); Agrippa married Julia, Octavian's elder daughter in 21 BC. Gaius and Lucius, the first two male children Julia bore to Agrippa, were adopted by Augustus who named them his heirs, but they both died before him (see the inscription celebrating Lucius in the Roman Forum).
Byzantine walls of Nikopolis
Two or three hundred yards beyond which are the ruins called the
Paleokastro. This is an extensive enclosure of irregular form flanked with towers, and composed in great part
of the materials of former ruins: courses of large
squared blocks of stone, which seem to have belonged to Hellenic walls, alternate with thick
strata of Roman tiles cemented with an abundance
of mortar. (..) At the beginning of the fifth century,
the Goths of Alaric retreating before Stilico in the
Peloponnesus, spread desolation over Epirus, and
soon afterwards the Huns ravaged this
coast, on which occasion Nicopoli particularly
suffered. It was chiefly perhaps on these occasions that its buildings sustained the injuries which
called for the repairs bestowed upon the city by
In the second half of the IIIrd century AD the pressure of the barbarian tribes could no longer be stopped at the Danubian border and Greece became exposed to raids. In 267 Athens was sacked by the Heruli.
The situation worsened in the late IVth century: the Huns, a nomadic people of Central Asia invaded eastern Europe; the Germanic tribes who lived there were forced to move southwards and settled inside the northern border of the Roman Empire. These events coupled with earthquakes and pestilences led to a general decrease of the population which affected also Nikopolis. By the end of the Vth century, thus before Justinian, its inhabitants realized they were too few to defend the whole city and they decided to fortify with new walls a section of the town which was approximately one sixth of its former size.
Byzantine walls towards the inner harbour
Nicopolis was considered the capital of Southern
Epirus and Acarnania during the three first centuries of the Roman Empire; but before the close of
this period, it had so far declined as to cease to
strike its own money, of which there exist great
numbers in copper, either autonomous or of the
emperors prior to Galerian (Gallienus). The coins of this
prince and his wife Salonina are the latest. Leake
The bay, in which the city stood, must have formed a most excellent port, though it is now choked up and divided from the sea by a narrow neck of land, that runs entirely across it. Turner
Nikopolis was founded at the narrowest point of the peninsula which closes the north-western part of the Gulf of Arta aka Ambracic Gulf. It had two harbours: one on the Ionian Sea and another on a lagoon of the Gulf. The Byzantine town relied solely on the inner harbour which was mainly used by fishermen.
Views of the inner side of the walls
Although these works are lofty and solid, they
do not resemble those of the Augustan age; indeed
the variety of marble fragments, and even remains
of inscriptions, of the time of the Roman empire,
inserted in the masonry, prove the whole to have
been a repair, though upon the exact site perhaps
of the original citadel, and restored so as to form
an inclosure sufficiently large for the diminished
population of the place, it may not improbably
be the work of Justinian, who repaired Nicopolis. Leake
The new walls were built with the same technique used for the walls of Constantinople. Their horizontal white and red stripes are due to the use of alternate layers of stones and bricks. The buildings immediately outside the new boundaries of Nikopolis were pulled down and the resulting material was used for the walls: this explains why one can spot some reliefs or pieces of columns on them (the image used as background for this page shows a Roman decorative relief).
(left) Main Byzantine gate (Arapoporta); (right) tower protecting the gate
The western side of the inclosure is
the most perfect, and here was the principal gate,
situated near the south-western angle between two
semi-circular towers. The other towers are quadrangular. All of them internally have flights of
steps supported upon arches, for the purpose of
ascending to battlements on the summit of the
walls. (..) It continued to be the capital of
southern Epirus, either as the chief town of a
ducal province, according to the arrangement of
the earlier ages of the Byzantine Empire, or as
that of a Theme in the tenth century. Leake
The main gate of Byzantine Nikopolis faced (at some distance) the Ionian Sea, which means the city retained a role in the trade between Italy and Greece; when the Byzantine Emperors established a new system of provincial divisions (thema) a large territory from the Gulf of Patras to southern Albania was named after Nikopolis.
Ruins of Roman baths in the foreground, behind them the upper part of the theatre and to its left the hill from which Octavian watched the fight
On the side of the last falls of the hill of Mikhalitzi stands the greater theatre, sufficiently elevated
above the other remains of Nicopolis to be a very
conspicuous object. (..) The historian Dio
relates that Octavian, on arriving, previously to
the battle of Actium, at the place where Nicopolis afterwards stood, encamped upon a height,
from whence he could see both the Ambracic Gulf
and the outer sea towards Paxi, as well as the
ports before Nicopolis; he not only fortified the
camp, but built walls from it to the outer port,
Comarus; and after the battle, having surrounded
the place where his tent was pitched with squared
stones, he adorned it with the beaks of the captured
ships, and built within the inclosure a sanctuary
of Apollo (as he did in Rome), open to the sky. Such a view as Dio
here describes, Augustus could not have obtained
from the isthmus of Nicopolis, or from any
spot in the immediate vicinity, except Mikhalitzi, from whence all the objects stated may be seen. (..)
The tent of Augustus therefore was placed on the
summit of the mountain, his camp occupying the
slope and the foot of the hill. Leake
One bath remains, but, like most part of the ruins, has been unmercifully injured by the Turks, Ali Pasha having picked out every where the finest pieces of marble for the ornaments of his new palace at Prevesa. Turner
The personal record of Octavian as military leader is rather poor; he chose to watch the naval battle from his tent on a hill north of Nikopolis, perhaps because he suffered of of seasickness.
There are two theatres, a larger and a smaller; the former was a considerable ruin, and had some beautiful remains of arched windows (as they appeared) at the top; but the latter was the most interesting. There were still seen the gradual ascents on which the benches were placed, and the external staircase supported on arches. There were three arched passages, without, even with the ground, and one within the other; the two internal ones were under the theatre; the external one projected from it. This was the most interesting remnant of antiquity I had yet seen, and gave me the best idea of a Roman theatre: but I could not help being astonished at the smallness of the stage, which could not have been above fifteen feet wide, nor more than eight deep. Turner
Nikopolis was the first ancient town Turner visited and he did nor realize that the "small theatre" was used for poetry reading or music and thus it did not require a large stage. Very often odeons and theatres were built next to each other e.g. at Philadephia (Amman).
Paleokastro by the great gate the first remarkable object
that occurs is a theatre, so overgrown with vegetation in the lower part that it is not easily examined.
20 rows of seats and the proscenium still remain. Leake
The mortar used for the construction was of such a good quality that it has kept together the bricks and parts of the decoration even after the upper part of the structure collapsed. It is interesting to note that when the boundaries of Byzantine Nikopolis were drawn they did not include the odeon, although this building stood very close to the new walls. This was probably due to the more severe way of life brought about by the Christian faith, which regarded entertainment with suspicion. You may wish to read an excerpt of a letter written by St. Augustine to the citizens of Bulla Regia in Tunisia.
Odeon: (left) vaulted structures supporting the steps; (right) marble inlays of the stage
Being built on level ground, the back or highest
part is entirely supported upon an arched corridor,
18 feet high, and 8 feet 6 inches wide, lighted by
openings in the wall which slope outwards, and
supporting the entire superstructure, which contains the seats, formed of tiles and mortar. Leake
The steps where the audience sat were not cut into the rock of a hill, but they were supported by a complex system of vaults.
Nymphaeum (monumental fountain, see the Antonine Nymphaeum at Sagalassos)
The next ruins seems to have been a palace, as it has numerous apartments with many niches
in the wall for statues, and some remains of a
stone pavement. It stands just within an aqueduct
supported upon arches, which enters the valley of
Nicopolis on the western side of the hill of Mikhalitzi. Leake
The first monument which travellers who arrived to Nikopolis from Italy saw was a double nymphaeum which was located near the western Roman gate; it was covered with marble and statues were placed in the niches. Unfortunately the first archaeological museum of Nikopolis was housed in a former mosque of Preveza which was destroyed by bombs during WWII with the consequent loss of all exhibits.
Near are the ruins of a building
probably a bath. It stands on the
lowest and narrowest part of the
isthmus. A little above it are some
other remains on the foot of Mount
Mikhalitzi, from whence the stones of a pavement,
and a statue of white marble are said to have been
transported lately to Prevyza. Both these and the baths belonged perhaps to the gymnasium. (..) A sacred inclosure for the use of the
quinquennial contest has been constructed in the
suburb in a grove containing the gymnasium and a stadium. The
Lacedaemonians have the superintendence of the
games which are named Actia, as being sacred to
Apollo Actius, and which have been declared
Olympian. (..) The
ruin of paganism, by depriving the Actian games
of their importance, was the first great blow inflicted upon the prosperity of Nicopolis. Julian restored both its edifices and its games; but the
effect was momentary, and the decline of the imperial authority at sea having been followed by
piracy, the inevitable consequence in the Grecian
seas of the want of a controlling naval power, Nicopolis lost the maritime commerce which had been its
main support. Leake
The area between the northern Roman walls and the hill where Octavian watched the battle was called Proasteion (suburb) and it was the temenos (sacred land reserved to gods) where every four years the games were held. These games were promoted by Augustus. This explains the presence of large baths and other facilities for the athletes in this area. The games included a variety of competitions including poetry, singing, cithara playing and mime.
The stadium is circular at both ends, unlike all the
other stadia of Greece, but similar to several in
Asia Minor (e.g. at Afrodisias), which have been constructed or repaired by the Romans. The length of the course,
however, seems to have been the same as in the
other stadia of Greece ( e.g. at Olympia), namely, 600 Greek feet;
for I measured 676 feet m the clear between the
two curved extremities of the seats, which are now
mere ruins overgrown with bushes. In winter the
inclosed space is a pool of water. The ruins of
the seats occupy a breadth of about 75 feet, but the
total length of the construction was probably not
more than 750 feet; underneath the seats are a
range of arched chambers, intended apparently
for no other purpose than to diminish the mass
of masonry. Leake
The great theatre was partly excavated in the
side of the hill; but all the superstructure, with
the appurtenances of the scene, and a vomitory on
either side of the stage, was constructed of large
flat Roman bricks, united with a great quantity of
mortar, and was faced with stone. Although the
corridor above the cavea has fallen in, and the stone
seats have been removed, it is still one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in existence, and well
deserves to be accurately measured and delineated
by an architect. The total diameter is about 300
feet, but the earth, which has been washed from
the superincumbent hill during the fourteen
centuries which have elapsed since the decease
of Pagan civilization, renders an exact measurement unattainable without excavation; in the
present season a dense vegetation is a farther
impediment, and, in particular, a forest of gigantic
thistles, now in the full strength of their growth,
mixed with other plants. (..) The
scene had three doors and a large square apartment at either end, but the stone door-cases not
having been spared any more than the seats of the
cavea, the building is deprived of all its external
decoration. (..) The scene
is 120 feet long, and 30 in depth. It was decorated with a range of statues of deities facing the
cavea, as appears by some blocks below, on which
are remains of the names of Venus and Minerva.
From the back of the theatre,
the hill of Mikhalitzi rises steeply to the summit,
which is about 500 feet above the theatre. Leake
Byzantine basilica "B"
In the middle of the Paleokastro is a pool of fresh water which appears to have been covered with a large arched building. Not far from
the spring to the north-west, a ruined building,
called the Metropolis, is supposed to have been the
episcopal church of the extinct see of Nicopolis.
If so, it way be the oldest church in Greece, for
the intention of St. Paul to winter here, expressed
in his letter to Titus, would seem to indicate that
he had a congregation at Nicopolis. Leake
The archaeological site of Nikopolis covers many square miles and excavations are still going on. The area inside the Byzantine walls shows evidence of early Christian churches which have the shape of a basilica, a Roman building used for law courts and assemblies. The external walls of these basilicas had alternate layers of stone and bricks and the interior was split into naves by rows of columns (see a large basilica which was turned into a church at Ephesus).
Basilica of Doumetiou: mosaics (1)
The use of coloured mosaics for the decoration of floors and walls expanded greatly during the Late Roman Empire; this form of art, unlike sculpture, continued to be highly regarded in Byzantine time; in Nikopolis a large VIth century basilica named after a local bishop was decorated with a series of very high quality mosaics. The scenes of fishing and hunting followed traditional patterns (see similar earlier mosaics at Philippopolis in Syria and Tripoli in Libya).
Basilica of Doumetiou: mosaics (2)
The decline of Byzantine Nikopolis was due to a series of raids by the Arabs in the IXth century and by the Bulgarians in the two following centuries. Eventually at the end of the XIth century the last inhabitants abandoned Nikopolis and founded Preveza, a new town at the southern tip of the peninsula.
At 8.15 we cross the river of Arta, which is here
about 200 yards wide-deep, winding, and rapid
by a handsome bridge, said to have been built by
one of the Palaeologi. Leake
Thursday, August 26th. As I went on, the road became more delightful, till I began to imagine myself on a turnpike road in England. It was strait for I should think three miles (..) and on each side the most luxuriant crops of grapes, figs, peaches, etc., just ripe, and enclosed from the road and all round by a very neat open fence and a ditch. On proceeding, I passed, at about a mile from the town, a river, (which is now but narrow, but in winter is greatly swelled by the waters from the mountains for twenty leagues round) over which was a bridge very pretty, but of a very extraordinary shape, as instead of being uniform in its ascent and descent, it began by rising very high, and about half way sunk into a hollow, from which it rose again into a very insignificant ascent. Turner
Arta was founded in the VIIth century BC by Corinthian settlers (its name was Amvrakia). The decline of Nikopolis favoured the development of Arta which was located inland and on a fortified hill. Today the town is chiefly known for its stone bridge on a nearby river. It was probably built by the Romans, but its current aspect is due to a XVIIth century Ottoman reconstruction. You may wish to see Malabadi Koprusu, a similar bridge in eastern Turkey.
Fortress of Arta
We ascended the height
which commands Arta to the eastward, and returned to the Metropolis by the modern castle,
visiting several remains of Hellenic antiquity in
the way. (..) The ancient wall is again seen in the lower part of
the structure of the castle towards the river, and
here it is most remarkable, consisting of courses
nearly regular, and not less remarkable for the
close and finished junction of the stones, than
for their magnitude. Leake
Arta has a well preserved XIIIth century Byzantine fortress which was built on an ancient one and was eventually strengthened by the Ottomans.
At 8.30 arrive at the church of Parigoritissa, a
lofty building constructed chiefly of brick, nearly
cubical on the outside, but within surrounded
with vestibules and galleries, so as to leave in the
middle a katholiko, which is more than twice as
high as it is square at bottom, and is surmounted
by a dome around which are six smaller domes over
the aisles. (..) The bishop states, that the church was built by
the Comnenus Ducas here recorded, that his name
was Michael. (..) He was probably the same Michael
Angelus Comnenus who, under the title of Despot
of Etolia, or of Epirus, governed all Western
Greece at the time of the Frank conquest of Constantinople in 1204, and who appears to have been
the most-powerful of the despots of the West. This
would make the date of the building not long
posterior to the time when Arta became a bishopric
of the province of Naupactus. In the sixteenth
century it was made a metropolis, and the see of
Naupactus having been transferred hither, the prelate received the title of Bishop of Naupactus and
Arta, which he still retains.
I walked about the town in the morning. It has a Greek church of the low empire. The church is a quadrangular building, with four irregular turrets on the top, and has been much injured by the Turks. (..) We went to the church, which they say was an ancient Greek temple, but has been barbarously defaced by the Turks, who have taken all the finest columns with which it was adorned inside to decorate their mosques. The roof is very high, and the naked walls painted with the figures of all the saints that ever were. Turner
In 1204 the Byzantine Empire collapsed, but the region of Arta remained in Byzantine hands because it became the capital of the Despotate of Epirus, a state founded by Michael Doukas, a cousin of the former emperor. It was a golden period for the town which was embellished with many fine churches and monasteries. In the XIVth and early XVth century it was a possession of the Counts of Cephalonia or of Albanian/Serbian warlords. In 1449 it was occupied by the Ottomans.
Agios Vasilios (Basil) single-aisled basilica with two conched chapels dedicated to St. Gregory and to St. John Chrysostomos. The walls are lavishly decorated on the outside with patterns in brick and tile. Two glazed clay icons depict the three saints and the Crucifixion