Journey through Ancient Greece

Ancient Nemea

Ancient Nemea was not a city but, like Olympia, both a sanctuary to Zeus and a panhellenic games venue. As it has only recently been excavated (by Stephen Miller of Berkeley University, California) unlike Olympia the crowds haven't yet discovered it, and, it doesn't appear in Greek guides. There are no spectacular sculptures here as at Olympia and Delphi but this is one of my favourite sites with an excellent museum which really tries to help us understand the exhibits and the ruins.

The setting is beautiful with many trees, lawns and rose beds, and marble picnic tables. Nemea is in a fertile valley and is becoming famous nowadays as a wine producing area.
Traditionally this is where Herakles overpowered the Nemean lion and started the games as thanksgiving. Another legend has it that the games were started by the 'Seven against Thebes '. They were on their way from Argos to Thebes and passed through Nemea in search of water. Here they met Hypsipyle the nurse of the king' s son Opheltes. The Delphic oracle had prophesied that the child would die if he touched the ground before he could walk so his nurse put him on a bed of celery while she got water. He was bitten by a snake and died. The Seven, distressed at his death, held funeral games in his honour, with a celery wreath as the prize.
The ancient games were founded in 573 BC and were held every two (solar) years, rotating with the games at Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia. Tens of thousands of spectators, competitors, pedlars came from all over the Greek world, hence 'panhellenic', as well as animals for sacrifice. A truce from all war was in force for the duration of the games. Once the games were over the visitors would leave and only the caretakers remained.
In about 400 BC Argos gained control of Nemea and the games were held sometimes in Nemea but more frequently in Argos. Stephen Miller revived the games here in 1996 to celebrate the reopening of the stadium, complete with celery wreaths.  In 2016 a Damaris team  attended the Games, with four participants in the 100 metre race, and a winner. We had planned to be there for the 2020 games but COVID 19 has sadly meant the postponement of the Games.

The Museum
In the foyer are some interesting old pictures showing the sanctuary from 1766 through to the 19th century, including a sketch by Edward Lear. These illustrations show that although the capital on one of the columns looks very precarious it has not moved in hundreds of years, despite earthquakes in the area.
In the main room the first thing to catch your attention is a huge window with a stunning view of the Sanctuary of Zeus and in front of the window a model of the site as it was in 300 BC. This makes it much easier to visualise. (the cypress trees you can see rather in the way were planted fairly recently to replicate the sacred grove of antiquity). To the right is a model of the stadium
Don't miss:
The tiny bronze figurine of Opheltes and the terracotta statuette of a baby boy holding a mask to his face, thought to be also Opheltes. llustrations and explanations of the ancient games- wrestling, boxing, jumping, running, discus and horse racing and the starting block from the stadium. Examples ofjumping weights (with an inscription), an iron discus (weighing 8.5 kg).
The short video explaining the starting mechanismfor the races is well worth watching. Most of the information on ancient Nemea comes from the artefacts disposed of in wells, some of which are in on view,including the 6th century BC bronze hydria with a Kore head on the handle. In the courtyard are many pieces of column shafts, drums and capitals, sima (gutters) and so on from the oikoi and temple and a Doric capital from the bath house.

Bronze of Opheltes


The Sanctuary
From the museum we go through the rose garden along a flagstone path passing remains of domestic houses on either side; there are signs of a well, hearths and of cooking. The path then turns left where there is a medieval grave, typical of many found at Nemea. Just north of the path are the remains of the early Christian Basilica (6th century AD) and the 4th century BC Xenon (hotel) which lies beneath it. Coming back down the steps of the Basilica we cross over to the bath house built in the last third of the 4th century BC, it is one of the earliest bathing systems known in the Greek world and the most complete we can see today. The chamber is divided into three parts each with four stone tubs placed end to end along the rear wall. V shaped notches allowed water to flow from one tub to another.

The Temple of Zeus was constructed circa 330 BC on the site of an earlier 6th century temple. It was built mostly in limestone quarried locally,and covered with white stucco to decorate and protect it. The temple contains all three architectural 'orders'; an exterior Doric peristyle and an interior Corinthian colonnade round the naos, on top of which was a second story of Ionic columns. The Doric columns were particularly slender, more like Ionic ones (much taller and slimmer than the ones we see in the temple of Apollo at Corinth.) At the rear of the naos is a sunken crypt which had six steps down into it of which three remain. The purpose of this is not certain, it was possibly the site of a local oracle. The cult statue was already missing when Pausanius visited Nemea in the 2nd century AD. The altar of Zeus was an unusually long and narrow rectangle of limestone blocks. This was constructed in the 5th century BC and was mentioned by Pindar. Next to the temple was the Sacred Grove of cypress trees. New cypress trees have been planted in the ancient planting pits.
Restoration work has restarted on the temple and four columns have been re-erected. The other columns have all been catalogued and laid in order ready for the day when funds permit more restoration.

The Bath House

The Stadium

This is a real treat! Set amidst pine, holly oak and olive trees are benches thoughtfully provided at selected 'viewing points', so you can sit in comfort (and shade) to contemplate and let your imagination take you back to ancient times. The viewing points are numbered to take you round in a logical sequence except that they were arranged (and the excellent guide book written) before the tunnel was completely excavated. I really do recommend Stephen Miller's 'self guide' book, it is concise, graphic and very readable, (and a modest price).

In a very good state of preservation here are the locker room where athletes prepared for their events, the tunnel through which they entered the stadium and the stadium itself. The locker room was rectangular with Doric columns on three sides supporting a tiled roof and an open courtyard in the centre. This was where the athletes oiled their bodies

The entrance to the tunnel is in the left hand corner of the locker room. It is one of the earliest true vaults in the Mediterranean (late 4th century BC). Look out for the ancient graffiti, where athletes waiting for their turn scratched their name (and sometimes added kallos, beautiful.) The stadium runs from south to north with the southern end built into the natural amphitheatre between the ridges of Evangelistra Hill. The track was 600 feet long (this was the unit of measurement called stadion.) Round the sides was a stone channel which brought fresh water for drinking and for wetting the track surface. We can see several 'settling basins'which may have been to collect dirt and/or for drinking from. Most of the 100 foot marker posts remain at the sides of the track. The races were run down the length and back, not round the edge as now, with the runners turning round a post at the end; one of these has been restored for the modern games. The judges, a panel of ten men from Argos who wore black in memory of the baby Opheltes, sat on a wooden platform on the side opposite the tunnel entrance The spectators sat on the banks on ledges roughly cut out of the soil; coins found at the site show that, as at a modern football match, the supporters from each city state sat together. The only stone seats are opposite viewing point 10. The only prizes were a palm branch and a fillet tied round the head for the winners and a crown of wild celery for all the athletes. The winner had a free meal every day for life from his home town.


 Locker Room

The Tunnel from the Stadium

The Start of the Games 2016

Team Damaris with Helen wearing her victor's crown of celery


Mainly Peloponnese Itinerary

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