The Founding of Nikopolis and the Early Church

In the aftermath of the battle of Aktion in the gulf of Ambrakia in 31 BC, Emperor Augustus himself founded Nikopolis, the city of victory, symbolically representing his successful unification of the Roman Empire under one administration and, geographically, a major transportation and communications point linking the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean.

In the first five centuries of Christianity, Church figures from Nikopolis and its surrounding region Epiros, culminating with Bishop and Saint Alkison, have a history of defending Orthodoxy.

The first mention of Nikopolis with respect to Church history is actually a bishop of Rome, Pope Eleutherios who reigned from around 174-189. He was born in Nikopolis, 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 Montanism controversy.

Writing around 300, one Arnobius of Numidia mentioned the existence of Christian communities in Achaia, Makedonia, and Epiros (all regions of Greece).

Writing around 330, the first great recorded Church historian Eusebios of Caesarea mentions that bishops from Epiros attended the first Ecumenical Council of Nikaia in 325, from which the Πιστεύω was handed down to us.

In the Acts of the Council of Serdica in 343, we have for the first time mention of a bishop of Nikopolis, one Isidoros.

A decree in 372 from Western Emperor Valentinian I (364-375) implies that many people in Epiros were seeking to join the clergy.

In 381, the Acts of the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople note the presence of churchmen from Epiros. Among other things, the Acts list the sees of the Church in order of administrative hierarchy, even if honorary. After the five well-known great patriarchs (Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople), the see of Thessaloniki was recognized as holding sixth place, in recognition of the city as a capital of Empire-wide importance, and among the sees of Illyricum (a wider administrative territory, known as the praefectura, including Epiros), Thessaloniki was followed by Korinth and Nikopolis.

The Acts of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesos in 431 list the bishops of Epiros, including metropolitan Bishop Donatos of Nikopolis (c. 425-432, also saint).
Saint Donatos

The majority of the bishops from Epiros and Illyricum and other representatives sustained the Orthodox theological position of the Bishop Celestine I of Rome (422-432) and Bishop Kyrillos of Alexandria against the Patriarch of Constantinople. During this time, Bishop Donatos of Nikopolis maintained a correspondence with Bishop Kyrillos of Alexandria concerning Nestorianism.

In 451, six Epiros bishops attended the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon, including Bishop Attikos of Nikopolis. All these bishops without exception undersigned the Council’s decisions in favor of the Orthodox position of duophysitism, also backed by the bishop of Rome.

In 457-458 the bishops of Epiros 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 Eugenios of Nikopolis to Bishop Leo of Rome.

Bishop Diadochos of Photiki (c. 450-458 )

This was also the time of Bishop Diadochos of Photiki (c. 450-458), also saint and Father of the Church. Not only was he the bishop of what was the major city of an Epiros 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 Nikopolis and the bishop of Alexandria mentioned previously, from the writings of Diodachos we can infer that learned texts, along with amphorae, traveled between the eastern Mediterranean and Epiros in the 400s.

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 Epiros. In fact, a reference in one of Diadochos’ own writings suggests he was also igoumenos of a monastery in Photiki and that Epiros in the 450s at least had both anachoritic and koinobitic monastic communities.

Bishop Diadochos, then, was probably igoumenos of one or more of these monasteries and he is also recognized as a saint and a Church Father because of the Orthodoxy of his writings, their high spiritual yet pragmatic quality, and his defense of duophysitism (Orthodoxy) against heresies coming from the eastern Mediterranean.

As mentioned, this is in harmony with the behavior of other bishops of Epiros and most bishops of Illyricum in general, both during this period and in more the trying times of the ensuing period.

Bishop Alkison of Nikopolis (491-516)

Bishop Alkison
Around 460, the three-aisled basilica B Alkison was built, the first of a series of six in Nikopolis. Basilica B was the largest of the Nikopolis basilicas and probably served as the metropolitan bishop’s main church. An inscription informs us that Bishop Alkison (491-516) sponsored some additions to the southern annex of Basilica B, possibly around 500.

As mentioned, the Council of Chalcedon did not bring a definitive end to the theological disputes in the Church as a whole.

In 482, east Roman Emperor Zeno (474-491) promulgated the Henotikon, a declaration of union, written up by Patriarch Akakios of Constantinople (471-489) in a bid to bring compromise through reconciliation to the monophysites of Egypt and Syria and the duophysites of Asia Minor, Thracia and Illyricum, including Epiros. Pope Felix III (483-492) of Rome vehemently opposed the declaration because it did not explicitly endorse the principles of Chalcedon and in his view it represented an attempt to supersede the primacy of Rome in theological affairs, so in 484, he convened a synod, excommunicated Patriarch Akakios who, in turn, excommunicated him.
Nevertheless, the Henotikon reconciled the monophysites of Egypt and Syria to Constantinople and secured a certain measure of ecclesiastical peace in the east for thirty years. The price, however, was a dispute with the papacy, opening a schism between Constantinople, on the one hand, and Rome and those eastern provinces rejecting it, on the other, lasting until 519. During this period the bishops of Thessaloniki generally sided with the patriarchs of Constantinople, thereby breaking with the bishops of Rome and ceasing to act as their vicarii in Illyricum; meanwhile the popes did what they could to maintain communion with and the obedience of certain groups of provincial bishops in the praefectura through bilateral relationships, defending the rights of the metropolitans and their synods against interference from Thessaloniki and Constantinople: there had already been some tradition of such direct bilateral relationships going back to around 450, with the bishops of Nikopolis, the third see of Illyricum, sometimes playing a leading role.
Emperor Anastasios (491-518 ) maintained a compromise position during the first half of his reign. But in 509, under pressure from monophysite groups in Constantinople and Antioch following the end of the war with Persia (502-506), Bishop Flavianus II of Antioch explicitly condemned the Council of Chalcedon and the Tomus Leonis, paving the way for Emperor Anastasios to give fuller support to the monophysites in the east, leading to a period of depositions of pro-Chalcedonian bishops in Constantinople itself as well as throughout Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. Meanwhile, some 40 bishops of Illyricum supported the pro-Chalcedonians, maintaining constant correspondence during the ensuing years with Bishops Symmachus (498-514) and Hormisdas (514-523) in Rome, led by Bishop Alkison of Nikopolis, often defying the bishop of Thessaloniki.

By 513, the conflict spread to Thracia where the comes foederatorum Vitalianus, also a supporter of the pro-Chalcedonian cause, revolted, followed by a large number of Bulgars and other Huns. In 514, Vitalianus and his troops took control of the northern provinces of the diocese and besieged Constantinople demanding, among other things, the recall of Chalcedonian bishops expelled from their sees and the convening of a council at Herakleia in Thraki to effect an ecclesiastical union with the participation of all the bishops, including the Bishop of Rome Hormisdas. Under pressure, Emperor Anastasios agreed and Vitalianus lifted the siege. In preparation for the council, in 515 Bishop Hormisdas made a pact with the 40 bishops in Illyricum by which they withdrew from communion with Bishop Dorotheos of Thessaloniki. In the meantime, Bishop Alkison of Nikopolis traveled to Constantinople where he signed a libellus of reconciliation brought by Roman legates and he served as intermediary between the Roman see and the monks organizing the Chalcedonian supporters in Palestine. However, the Emperor delayed implementation of the agreement to hold the synod. In reaction, Vitalianus again besieged Constantinople by land and sea, but the Imperial forces defeated those of Vitalianus who was forced to retreat. In retaliation, Anastasios removed him as magister militum per Thracias. At that point, in the spring 516, the Emperor finally convened a council at Herakleia in Thraki, gathering more than 200 high-level clergymen, but the actual council never took place: instead Emperor Anastasios, with the active cooperation of Bishop Dorotheos of Thessaloniki, acted against the group of forty Illyricum bishops opposing them, forcibly bringing the bishops of Nikopolis, Lychnidos, Serdica, Naissus, and Pautalia back to Constantinople. There Bishop Gaianus of Naissus died in prison. Emperor Anastasios released two other bishops from Dacia Mediterranea, for fear of losing the Illyricum army’s support. But Imperial agents also arrested Bishop Laurentius of Lychnidos and Bishop Alkison of Nikopolis who died in prison in September 516.

Only very recently, since 1990, has the Church recognized Bishop Alkison of Nikopolis as a saint for martyrdom, thanks to the investigative efforts of the current Bishop Meletios of Preveza/Nikopolis.

The efforts and sacrifice of Saint Alkison of Nikopolis and other bishops of Illyricum proved not to be in vain when Emperor Justin (518-527) and his nephew Justinian (527-565), also themselves Illyrians from the province of Dardania, Dacia diocese, came to power backed by those in favor of the orthodox duophysite, pro-Chalcedonian policy, paving the way for reconciliation with Rome under Bishop Hormisdas.


8 Responses to “Between East and West, Orthodoxy in the Early Nikopolis Church”

  1. Helene Archer Says:

    I am looking for a source of information about the earliest bishops of Naissus, including Dalmatius. Also, Bishop Gaudentius and Pope Inocentius I who wrote letters about Naissus and its heretics to the bishops of Naissus.

    Would be grateful for any suggestions.

  2. Dear Helene,

    I have not been on the research side of it for a while, but this may help:

    Pietri, C., 1984, “La Geographie de l’Illyricum Ecclesiastique et Ses Relations avec l’Eglise de Rome”, in Popovic, V. (ed.), Villes et Peuplement dans l’Illyricum Protobyzantine Actes du colloque organise par l’Ecole francaise de Rome (Rome, 12-14 Mai 1982), Ecole Francoise de Rome, 21-62.

    Sorry that I do not have more up-to-date source, but this work may contain references to original texts, perhaps even the letters that you refer too.

    Good Luck!

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