Victory Monument of Augustus



Province Description

Roman intervention in Greek political affairs resulted in conflicts that led to the destruction of Corinth in 146 B.C. and the sacking of Athens in 86 B.C. It was not until 27 B.C., however, that Augustus formally organized the Roman province of Achaea. Achaea consisted of the cities and territories of the southern Greek mainland between the Peloponnese and Thessaly, as well as Epirus in the northwest and the Ionian and some of the Aegean islands. The provincial capital was Corinth. Under Nero in the mid-1st century A.D. Epirus became a separate province, and in the mid-2nd century Thessaly was detached and added to the province of Macedonia. Under Roman domination many cities such as Athens, Sparta, Patras, and Corinth grew in size and prominence, the latter two partly owing to their importance as ports. After an initial decline in the number of rural sites in the early Empire, by the late Roman period the countryside was densely settled with farms and villas, due to changing landholding patterns and Roman improvements in agricultural and irrigation technology. The main exports from Achaea were wine, particularly from the northern Peloponnese, as well as olive oil and honey, linen and woollen textiles and marbles.


Nicopolis Nicopolis


Victory Monument of Augustus


Garden Description

The tropaeum of Nicopolis, a monument celebrating the naval victory of Octavian over the joint forces of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium, is situated on the so-called Sacred Hill of Apollo north of the ancient city. On this hill, according to ancient sources, Octavian camped during the crucial days before the battle on August 29, 31 BCE (Dio Cassius 51.1.3; Suetonius 18.2, 96.2; Plutarch, Antonius 65.3; Philip of Salonica, Anthologia Palatina 6.236).

At the foot of the hill is the suburb of Nicopolis which hosted the Actian Games, the site of a now ruinous stadium and gymnasium. Strabo describes the district as a sacred grove, saying the games took place every four years on the hill and in the gymnasium and a stadium below it (7.7.6). It is not clear from his description whether the sacred grove was a pre-existing natural one, or whether the plantings were part of the building program of Octavian. The extensive construction work for the stadium and gymnasium would have greatly affected the pre-existing landscape, so it seems more likely that grove was contemporary with the construction of the stadium and the gymnasium.

On the hill, the tropaeum complex (Fig. 1) plays the role of both a victory monument and an open-air sanctuary dedicated to Mars, Neptune, and Apollo. It is built on two south-facing terraces. The first is defined by a massive retaining wall of opus caementum, dressed with opus quasi-reticulatum. Above it is the façade of the platform, a second retaining wall, its ends returning at right-angles into the hillside. The façade preserves cuttings to hold the bronze rams (rostra) of the defeated fleet of Cleopatra, while on its upper part were a number of large rectangular limestone blocks bearing a long dedicatory inscription in Latin to Mars and Neptune. On top of this wall was a second, much broader terrace, along three sides of which stood a pi-shaped portico, open to the south. The north wing of this portico marks the northern limit of the terrace, while its side wings run south up to the rear of the second retaining wall. The wings, which supported covered colonnades, created an inner courtyard 38x38 m. The area inside the courtyard framed by the porticos contained a monumental altar, probably dedicated to Apollo, and three pedestals, probably for over-life sized statues, as well as plantings. Dio (51.1.3) mentions that the monument also constituted an abode or throne (ἕδος) of the god Apollo, an abode or throne of the god Apollo. The altar was decorated with elaborate marble reliefs that referred directly or metaphorically to the battle and the events that followed. The main scene of the friezes decorating the altar depicts the triumph of Octavian at Actium.

During the excavation of the upper terrace within the peristyle courtyard sherds of at least eighteen complete or fragmentary ceramic planting pots of ovoid or piriform shape were found (Fig. 2). They indicate the presence of a grove that is not mentioned in any ancient sources. The average height of the pots is 14 cm and all of them have a wide hole (2.5 to 5 cm) in the bottom made before firing through which branches of a bush or shrub could be drawn through for air layering. The clay of the pots is fine and powdery, ranging in color from pale brown to pale yellow, and the surfaces of the pots were covered in a yellowish brown to gray slip. The survival of the pots is a result of their placement inside the natural soil of the hill.

The pots were placed along the outer stylobates of the porticos at a distance of between 20 to 60 cm from the stylobate. Two planting pots at the rear of the podium probably mark the extent of the courtyard to the south. Perhaps other plants were placed near the pedestals and the altar of the monument, but for the moment this cannot be proven. The exact distance between the pots is impossible to calculate, but from a few in situ examples, it appears that the plants were placed very close to each other in front of the columns. This arrangement would exclude the planting of large trees, which would cause damage to the porticos and cut off the view from the interior. No traces of the roots or the seeds of the plants that might have been in the pots have been found, but the plants used to decorate the sacred area of the monument may have been laurels for their association with Apollo and with victory, victorious generals, and their triumphs. In Octavian’s Actian triumph, depicted in the tropaeum of Nicopolis on the altar’s marble frieze, he stands on the currus triumphalis holding a laurel branch in his extended right hand and wearing a laurel wreath on his head. All the magistrates who accompany him in the triumph also wear laurel wreaths. The Roman Senate voted in 27 BCE that a laurel tree should be placed on each side of the door of the House of Augustus on the Palatine, and a civic crown of oak leaves should be placed above the door (Res Gestae 34). As an emblem of Octavian/Augustus, as well as Apollo, the laurel would have been a natural choice for his Sacred Hill where Octavian erected the monument as an act of pietas to his patron god and his divine supporters, Mars and Neptune.


plan of the monument of Augustus

Fig. 1: State plan of the monument. Courtesy of K. L. Zachos.


clay planting pots

Fig. 2: Clay planting pots. Photo courtesy of K. L. Zachos.


last quarter of the 1st century BCE and later


  • W. M. Murray and Ph. M. Petsas, “Octavian’s campsite memorial for the Actian War,” Trans. Am. Phil Soc. 79, 1989: 4. (worldcat).
  • K. L. Zachos, Το Μνημείο του Οκταβιανού Αυγούστου στη Νικόπολη: Το Τρόπαιο της Ναυμαχίας του Ακτίου. Athens 2001. (worldcat).
  • A. Philadelpheus, Praktika 1913: 85-91 and pls. 3-4. (worldcat)
  • A. Philadelpheus, Praktika 1921: 11-12, 44. (worldcat)
  • K. L. Zachos, Archaeologikon Deltion, Chronika for 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000.
  • K. L. Zachos, “Excavations at the Actian tropaeum at Nicopolis. A preliminary report,” in J. Isager, ed., Foundation and destruction. Nicopolis and northwestern Greece. Monograph 3, Danish Institute. Athens, 2001: 29-41. (worldcat)
  • K. L. Zachos, “The tropaeum of the sea-battle of Actium at Nicopolis: interim report,” JRA 16, 2003: 65-92. (worldcat)
  • M. Carroll, "The sacred places of the immortal ones: ancient Greek and Roman sacred groves," in J. Woudstra and C. Roth (eds.), A History of Groves. London: Routledge, 2018: 28. (worldcat).

Pleiades ID





Publication date

21 Apr 2021