Ancient Nemea is the old stamping ground of Heracles and a precinct and sanctuary sacred and dedicated to the God of Nemean Zeus. Nemea is located on the north-eastern part of the Peloponnese in the prefecture of Corinthia, southern mainland Greece.
Situated amongst gentle rolling hills overflowing with Greece’s premier vineyards lays Ancient Nemea, famous in Greek mythology as the place where Heracles slew the ferocious Nemean Lion, as the first of his twelve labours or tasks given to him as punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness.
There’s no sign of Heracles these days, but the local red wine is known as the ‘blood of Heracles’ and among the sacred cypress trees at Nemea’s sanctuary of Zeus, the timeless 4th century BC Temple of Nemean Zeus currently endures as the proud witness to the legendary feats of antiquities greatest hero.
Nemea was not actually a permanently inhabited town, but one of four famous ancient Greek Panhellenic sanctuaries (Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia were the others) where festivals (Games) took place in rotation in the late summer every two years. During the classical period all four Games were of an equal importance and the ancient Athenians awarded free meals for life to her citizens who won a crown at any of four games.
They Nemean Games were established in 573 BC and organised every two years after the model of the Olympic Games with the emphasis on Athletic contests.
According to the oldest myth, the establishment of the Nemean games is attributed to the death of the prince Opheltes, the infant son of Nemean Priest King Lykourgos and Eurydike.
When Opheltes was born, the King consulted the Pythian oracle of Delphi on how to ensure the well-being of his new son. The Pythian oracle responded that the baby must not touch the ground until he was capable of walking. The nursemaid, entrusted by the king to look after his son, was walking through a meadow with the Royal baby when she was approached by the “Seven champions marching against Thebes” asking her for something to quench their thirst.
The nursemaid placed the infant down momentarily on a bed of wild celery to fetch them water from a nearby stream. Tragically, a snake that lay concealed in the celery, killed the baby prince. The “Seven Against Thebes” took this death as a bad omen (which it turned out to be) for their own mission and renamed the baby Archemoros “Beginner of Doom” and in an attempt to appease the gods they held the funeral games, hence founding the Nemean Games.
In honour of the infant prince Opheltes, the Games Judges wore black robes of mourners and victors received a crown of wild celery. This was normal practice for the duration of the Nemean Games through the centuries.
By the end of the 5th century the sanctuary of Zeus had been destroyed and the Games were transferred to Argos, a nearby powerful city of ancient Greece. The games returned to Nemea around 330 BC when the city has been raised from ruins by a burst of building activity that included a new Temple and Stadium of which are to be seen today. Unfortunately the new prosperity was short-lived when the games were once again transferred to Argos with the sad fact they were never returned back to Nemea.
Over the following centuries the sanctuary was virtually abandoned and columns of the Temple were knocked down and used for other building projects.
Fortunately for us, the temple has been restored in parts and so has the stadium, thanks to the dedicated efforts of many including the University of California at Berkeley operating under the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and with the permission and supervision of the Archaeological Service of the Ministry of Culture of the Hellenic Republic. The Director of those excavations was Professor Stephen G. Miller.
The Nemean games resumed in 1996 thanks to the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, a movement intended to resurrect the competitive and egalitarian spirit of ancient Greek athletics. They have been held every 4 years since and are open to anyone who wishes to participate.
I have been to Ancient Nemea a number of times and I have always found it a highly rewarding site to visit. It has a splendid museum and the Temple of Nemean Zeus and the Stadium are outstanding examples of their time.
Further images from Nemea, Peloponnese, Greece and the Mediterranean can be viewed and purchased from my image library website – Steven Sklifas Photography
All Images, Text and Content on This Blog are Copyright Steven Sklifas
Image Above: Dating from 330 BC the Temple of Zeus is a Doric peripteral temple which consisted of 32 slender limestone outer Doric columns (6 by 12 columns). The Temples construction is unusual as it included three Greek architectural forms, the Doric peristyle colonnade, an interior Corinthian colonnade surrounding the cella and an Ionic colonnade on the second story of the cella. This temple is among the earliest of ancient buildings to combine the use of all three architectures orders and like all ancient Greek Temples, it faces east towards the rising sun. This temple is built on the site of an earlier temple that was constructed in the 6th century and then destroyed in the 5th century. In the background is the distinctive flat-topped Mount Phoukas, ancient Apesas.
Image Above: View of the restored columns on the east north comer of the Temple of Zeus which dates from 330 BC and like all ancient Greek Temples, it faces east towards the rising sun.
Image Above: South-west corner view of the Temple of Zeus.
Image Above: View of the ruins of the Cella or Naos of the Temple of Nemean Zeus built-in 330 BC. The cella was windowless and enclosed by a double story interior colonnade made up of Corinthian (lower) and Ionic (upper) styles. It most likely contained a Bronze cult statue of Nemean Zeus attributed to the sculptor Lysippos of Sikyon however it was missing when Pausanias (Greek traveller and geographer) visited the temple in the 2nd century AD. At the rear of the cella (western end) is the crypt.
Image Above: Part view of the underground crypt located within the adyton at the rear (western End) of the cella of the Temple of Zeus.
Image Above: View of the underground crypt located within the adyton at the rear (western End) of the cella of the Temple of Zeus. The crypt is considered an unusual feature and obviously had some religious significance and may have been used by a local oracle. The adyton was the innermost and holiest room in the temple and was not to be entered in by anyone except high priests.
Image Above: View of the remains of the east room of the Baths at the Sanctuary of Zeus. The baths were constructed in the last third of the 4th century and is protected by a modern roof which is the same size as the ordinal. This room was probably used as a place by athletics to undress and oil their bodies before exercising, then after exercise, bath and then dress again.
Image Above: Early Christian era tomb with a skeleton of an elderly female at the Sanctuary of Zeus. The tomb dates from the 6th century AD and is a typical burial of the period with the body placed with the head at the west, looking east. In a simple stone slab lined grave. The slabs at the rear are still in place; those on top of the modern roof were originally placed over the body. The Skeleton is of a female, 60-70 years of age, who had borne at least two children and who suffered from osteoporosis and arteriosclerosis.
Image Above: The Apodyterion, the ancient change or locker room in which athletes would prepare themselves by stripping naked, oiling and dusting themselves in readiness for completion at the ancient stadium which was accessible via the vaulted tunnel. The building was rectangular in shape with a central court open to the sky and would have been built at the same time as the stadium around 330-320 BC.
Image Above: View of the arched limestone vaulted competitors entrance tunnel to the ancient stadium at Nemea. Built around 320 BC, the tunnel is 36 meters long and its walls contain ancient graffiti with names of some of the athletes, as well as small insights into the competing athletes.
Image Above: View from the ancient stadium running track of the vaulted competitors entrance tunnel.
Image Above: General overview of the ancient stadium from the south. Located 400 meters southeast of the Temple of Zeus amidst scenic landscape, the stadium was built around 320 BC and was created by digging out a natural depression at the closed southern end. The track surface is made of packed yellow clay and originally extended for 600 ancient feet long, a measurement standard in Greek stadia. The stadium had the capacity to accommodate 30,000 spectators who would have had to sit on the slopes as very few stone seats were available.
Image Above: View from the north of the ancient track and stadium.
Image Above: View of the original starting line (balbis) marked with stones at the southern end of the ancient stadium, There is a stepped base at each end of the balbis for the support of a statue. The foot races began from the stone line with two grooves for the toes of the athletes, who were separated into 12 lanes by posts held in vertical sockets.
Image Above: View of the fresh water stone channel along the side of the stadium running track. The channel lines the sides of the track and brought fresh water for drinking and for wetting the track surface.
Image Above: Fresh water drinking edifice at the southern end of the ancient stadium, Nemea, Peloponnese Greece.
Image Above: View of the scenic landscape that surrounds the Sanctuary of Zeus and ancient stadium at Nemea. The gentle rolling hills of Nemea are overflowing with Greece’s premier vineyards. In the background is the distinctive flat-topped Mount Phoukas, ancient Apesas.
Image Above: View of some of the scenic landscape that surrounds the Sanctuary of Zeus and ancient stadium at Nemea. In the image centre is the 330 BC Temple of Zeus.