Recent excavations in the ancient city of Nicopolis, founded by Augustus to commemorate his naval victory over Mark Antony on September 2, 31 BC, and situated at the mouth of the Gulf of Ambracia, on the opposite side of the promontory of Actium about 6 kilometers north of the modern city of Preveza, have uncovered the building of the Sebasteion in the agora, the square that constituted the urban center of the town.

As part of the five-year program, the study of the Agora area, which extends to the west of the Roman Odeon, is planned, as well as the archaeological investigation of several buildings whose remains are directly related to the Agora and delineate it.

The 2023 excavation work focused on a square-plan building to the west of the Odeon. Excavation both on the periphery of the building and part of its interior yielded numerous findings and led to significant conclusions about the configuration of the Agora and the character of the building.

More specifically, the investigation of the exterior area first revealed part of a cobbled pavement that, in connection with the ruins of buildings to the west, whose investigation is scheduled for this year, should be attributed to the open-air square of the Agora.

Remains of the building discovered in the agora of Nicopolis, the city founded by Emperor Augustus to commemorate his naval victory at Actium over Mark Antony.
Remains of the building discovered in the agora of Nicopolis, the city founded by Emperor Augustus to commemorate his naval victory at Actium over Mark Antony. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

Additionally, at least two previously unknown annexes were identified to the west and east of the main building. Finally, it was observed that this building is situated along the edge of a natural embankment. This observation is particularly important, as it suggests a structure of the Agora space on two distinct levels, a configuration that refers to known examples from the imperial era of markets with an “upper market” and a “lower market”.

The exploration of the building itself was equally rich in findings. Initially, a monumental propylon of five steps to the west was revealed, constituting the only access to the building. Despite its fragmentary state, both its monumental character and the quality of its construction are fully understood.

The architectural decoration of the building’s exterior facades must also have been particularly impressive, as inferred from the quantity and variety of architectural elements and sculptures found during the works. The exterior facades were adorned with rich orthogonal marbles, with areas covered with multicolored marble slabs.

Equally impressive and fundamental to the restoration of the historical evolution of the monument were the results of the excavation inside. Excavations in the northeast corner of the building initially revealed part of a mosaic pavement, whose total extent must approximate 350 square meters.

The excavated section presents geometric decorative motifs with black and white tesserae and is preserved in excellent condition. The discovery, over the mosaic pavement, of an artificial fill of considerable height, sealed by a second floor, this time made of reused architectural elements and fragments of marble slabs, was unexpected.

The building hidden by undergrowth before excavations, to the left of the odeon.
The building hidden by undergrowth before excavations, to the left of the odeon. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

The superimposed floors confirm the existence of two main construction phases, a first, related to the mosaic, and a second, during which the elevated second floor was built. Specific findings, as well as numismatic data, indicate that the two phases belong to the imperial era, between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD.

Finally, among the various findings of this first excavation period, there are nine fragments of inscriptions, two of which provide information related to the function and character of the building.

The first fragment comes from a marble wall inscription, probably from the 2nd century, whose preserved text mentions an unidentified emperor. The second inscribed marble plaque, found embedded in the second phase floor inside the building, preserves its entire text. It is a votive inscription in honor of the emperors (θεοῖς σεβαστοῖς), dedicated on the initiative of a local official (χωράρχης), after the personal funding (εκ των ιδίων) of some unspecified act of beneficence.

In conclusion, the set of information obtained from observations on the building’s architecture, specific movable findings, as well as epigraphic and numismatic evidence, allows us to restore the building as one of the central public buildings of the Agora, which had a long life and function during the imperial era. Its exact function cannot yet be precisely determined, but it is likely that we are dealing with a space dedicated to imperial worship, the Sebasteion (the “temple of the emperors”) of the city.

The 2023 excavation work clearly demonstrated the prospects of the research program and its potential contribution to the study of the configuration and evolution of the urban space of Nicopolis. The continuation of the program and the systematic investigation of the wider Agora area and its monuments will, on the one hand, complement our image of the center of social life in Nicopolis during the imperial era and, on the other, generally enrich our knowledge about the role and evolution of the markets of Greek cities in the same historical period.

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