🔼The name Nicopolis in the Bible
The name Nicopolis occurs only once in the Bible. In his letter to his young friend Titus, which he had delivered by either Artemas or Tychicus, the apostle Paul urges him to meet him in Nicopolis, where he was going to spend the winter (literally: to ride out the storm, Titus 3:12). There were quite a few cities named Nicopolis in antiquity, but scholars generally agree that it's by far most plausible that Paul meant the one in Roman Macedonia (the remnants of which are about five kilometers north of modern Preveza, on the Ionian coast of what's now Greece).
Nicopolis of Macedonia was founded by emperor Augustus, to commemorate his 31 BC victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium (where is now Aktion National Airport, just across the water from Preveza), which consequently resulted in the unification of the empire, pretty much for the first time since its inception. According to Josephus, none other than Herod the Great was the great benefactor that made the actual building possible (JW.1.425), which means that Paul probably also went to see what all that Jewish money might have accomplished. In the century since its founding, Nicopolis had become highly successful and dominated the region, both in commercial sense and as a center of government.
Emperor Augustus had also reinitiated the four-yearly festival of Actia at Nicopolis, which commemorated Apollo with a lot of games, music and other festivities. This was no minor affair, as the stadium of Nicopolis could seat 10,000 spectators. Apart from a stadium, Nicopolis also boasted two harbors, a music hall and a sophisticated hydraulic installation.
Why Paul chose Nicopolis isn't told, nor why he needed Titus there, but he was there around the year 66 AD, which coincided with a game year. Better yet, one of the competitors partaking in the games that time was none other than the great emperor Nero himself!
🔼Nero in Nicopolis
Emperor Nero had many soft spots, including one for games and tournaments. Wherever he went he won them. He sometimes drove a chariot better than anyone, and other times he dazzled the audiences by his immaculate singing and lyre play. At some occasions he proved to be so outstanding that judges awarded him prizes for games he didn't even go to. And to top this all off: Nero suffered terribly from stage-fright, and yet, his sense of the importance of showmanship drove him to new heights of ridiculousness.
Nero's obsession with role-playing dragged him ever further away from reality, until he spent the last years of his life clutched in the unforgiving vice of delusion. Equally unforgiving were his competitors in the neglected political arena, and when they finally laid siege on Nero's position, the emperor first drove his entourage out of Rome, quoting Virgil as they went, then changed his mind and returned to the palace and went straight to bed. When Nero woke up, he did so in a completely abandoned palace, which he set out to traverse, looking for either friend or foe or anyone in between. Horrified, vulnerable and bereft of the audience he so desperately craved, he ran out the palace, then ran back, until he finally ended up in somebody's villa, where he, after some more hula hoops, finally managed to have someone fatally stab him, right after sighing, "What an artist dies in me".
All this happened two years after his visit of Nicopolis.
When Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11), the Caesar was Nero, and although it's nowhere mentioned that Paul actually met Nero in the early 60's, the matter was resolved to such an extent that Paul was released from prison around 63 AD. We can be pretty sure that Paul wasn't scared of Nero, but perhaps he felt rightful compassion for this horrible deluded man. If they had met, perhaps Paul would have appealed to Nero's passion for sports and role play, saying: "Role play is my game too: to the Jews, I'm a Jew, to those without the law I'm without the law, and to the weak I am weak; I have become all things to all men, so that maybe that way I can save some. I'm also an avid sportsman: in a race all run, but only one can win the prize. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They run to receive a perishable wreath, but there is such a thing as an imperishable wreath" (1 Corinthians 9:19-27).
We'll possibly never know, or whether Paul's presence in Rome had any influence on Nero, or even whether perhaps Nero's bizarre behavior had something to do with him misappropriating Paul's testimonies. Tradition holds that Paul was martyred in Rome during Nero's reign, about a year after the games in Nicopolis. But why then and not during his first incarceration? Had Nero hoped for a better result of his antics and decided to kill the man he perceived as his personal guru?
Remember that in 64 AD Rome had gone up in flames, and the repair of the city almost bankrupted the empire. In the years following the great fire, the voraciousness of Rome to get gold and to increase efficiency dominated Rome's every move. Also note that after the death of Nero the empire spiraled into civil war during which four emperors succeeded each other in rapid tempo and in the same year. The peace was restored when Vespasian became emperor, who was at that time in Galilee fighting the revolt that had broken out in the same year that Nero was prancing about the stage at Nicopolis. Vespasian's son and future emperor Titus would finally lead the army towards Jerusalem, which fell and was leveled in 70 AD.
More study is needed to graft these curious coincidences upon the play of the first century, but who knows what surprise verdict the judges might come up with this time.
🔼Etymology of the name Nicopolis
The name Nicopolis consists of two parts. The first part comes from the noun νικη (nike), meaning victory:
The second part of our name is the noun πολις (polis), meaning city:
The name Nicopolis means City Of Victory, and although it originally applies to Augustus' military victory over Mark Anthony, and secondarily perhaps to the Actian games, it fits in the story of the New Testament as a town in which the victory of Christ is manifested in the death of one's self. Or in the words of Jesus: "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will a man be profited if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:25-26).