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‘Here we lie’: The Landscape of Actium and Memories of War in The Greek Anthology

Bettina Reitz-Joosse

How does war change the land? Where is its memory preserved – in monuments and trophies, or in absences and silences? This paper deals with the aftermath of the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC. Focusing on two Greek epigrams, it analyses the interplay between warfare, loss, and renewal in literary depictions of the Ambracian Gulf and its environs.

After 31 BC, the Ambracian Gulf was radically reconfigured as a landscape of victory. Below the site of his camp Octavian founded a victory city, ‘Nicopolis’, which was populated by relocating the inhabitants of a number of surrounding cities and villages (Purcell, Alcock 132-7). The enlargement of the temple of Apollo Actius on a headland overlooking the Actian bay (Trianti et al.), the dedication of ten of Antony’s ships at his campsite (Lorenzo 194-5, 375-9) and a monumental naval trophy monument on a hill overlooking Nicopolis (Zachos) further enshrined and musealised Octavian’s victory in the Actian land- and seascape.

This paper investigates ambivalent responses to these interventions in the Actian landscape by two ‘Greek’ voices: an anonymous epigrammatist and Philip of Thessalonica. Within the compressed form of epigram, both authors reflect on the radical changes wrought in the landscape during and after the Actian war. They react to its physical transformation by juxtaposing gains with losses, striving to make visible what is now absent in the Actian landscape.

The anonymous author of AP 9.553 juxtaposes the destruction and abandonment of ancient towns in the region (Leukas, Ambracia, Thyrreum, Anactorion, and Argos) with Caesar’s foundation of Nicopolis (cf. Miller 57-60). Through multiple verbal links between the two halves of the epigram he constructs these events as parallel, stressing the high cost exacted from the region for the foundation of Nicopolis.

Philip of Thessalonica’s AP 6.236 deals with Octavian’s campside trophy monument, the front of which was adorned with the rams of Antony’s ships. Although decades separate the publication of both epigrams (Cameron), loss remains a feature of the landscape of Actium for Philip. His reading of the naval monument turns it into a memorial not only of victory but also of victory’s cost. The beaks speak, ostensibly in the convention of the dedicatory epigram (‘We, beaks with bronze teeth, the voyage-loving weapons of ships, here lie as testimonies of the Actian War’, 1-2). However, the first person plural κείμεθα (‘we lie’) also alludes to a different epigrammatic tradition: epitaphs for fallen soldiers, such as Simonides’ famous AP 7.249 (‘Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here …’). This allusion highlights the fact that the dead of Actium do not lie at the place of battle, having been lost at sea, and that, according to Roman custom (cf. Hope, Cooley), the fallen are nowhere commemorated. For Philip, the dedication of ship beaks exists in lieu of a Greek-style monument to the fallen, which quite another κείμεθα-epigram might have adorned.

In the second half of the epigram, Antony’s rams turn from stand-in for the fallen Roman soldiers into a symbol of new life: bees are now nesting in them and producing ‘the fruits of peace’ (6). I argue that the rich symbolism of the bees gives a further dimension to Philip’s ecphrasis of the monument. On the one hand, the thriving bee colony in the rams suggests the city of Nicopolis, flourishing on the former battlefield. On the other hand, the bees’ ‘rebirth’ from the rams that speak with the voice of the dead hints at a version of Vergil’s bugonia (Georg. 4.295-314), serving to remind the reader of the devastation that preceded the present return of prosperity. Caesar may have created a landscape of victory, but in both epigrams, the Actian gulf also remains a landscape of loss.

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Poetry and Place

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