The modern city of Nemea is located at the northeast side of Peloponnese and today has about 7.153 residents. Nemea was a Nymph and the daughter of Asopos River. Close to Nemea there is the village Ancient Nemea where you will find the beautiful archaeological site with the sanctuary of Zeus and the stadium. Here was the place where the Nemean Games took place.
According to Greek mythology, the Nemean Lion lived in the area of Nemea and caused fear to the residents. The first labor of Hercules was to find and kill this animal. He fought the lion with his bare hands and smothered it. He skinned the animal using the lion’s teeth and wore the skin ever since during his battles.
The Mycenaean city
The history of this area starts thousands of years ago. Specifically about 3,5km northwest of the modern city of Nemea on the banks of Asopos River there was during the Mycenaean years the city called “Arethirea” or according to Homeric Poems “Eratini”. Excavations near Aidonia village (about 10km away from the modern Nemea) have revealed the Mycenaean vaulted graves of Arethirea. A big collection of priceless items known as “The treasure of Aidonia” were taken illegally from these tombs before the beginning of the formal excavations and after a legal battle were returned to Greece. Today you can admire this treasure in the Archaeological Museum of Nemea.
The Ancient city
At the location of “Arethirea”, during the Antiquity was established the ancient city known as Flious. The ancient city initially was inhabited by Ionians but after the Doric Invasion many residents immigrated to Samos and Micra Asia. The remaining residents abided the Dorians and gradually the city became an ally of Sparta and had hostile relations with the neighboring Argos. According to Pausanias who visited the city during the 2nd century AD, at the citadel of the city there was a sanctuary and many temples. During the excavations of the ancient city (1924-1970) parts of the ancient theater and of “Vouleftirion” have been revealed.
The Religious centre
Outside Nemea there is the building complex of the holy monastery of Virgin Mary known as “Panagia tou Vrachou”. The monastery was built on the slope of a rock of the hill Polifegous and is related with the older and known monastery of Polifegous. Wall paintings and byzantine sculptures are preserved inside the monastery.
Another religious monument is the chapel of Agios Giorgios (St.George) which was constructed around 14th century AD. During the Ottoman occupancy the chapel was a station of the thieves “kleftes”, who were armed groups of Greeks and lived mainly at the mountains of Peloponnese in order to get rid of the Turks. The area of Nemea is known for the resistance against the Ottoman occupancy and the contribution in the battles of the Greek War of Independence in 1821. Because of this byzantine chapel the area of Nemea was also named Agios Giorgios until the beginning of 20th century when the name finally changed to Nemea.
Ancient Nemea: the place where the Nemean Games took place during Antiquity
About 5,4km east of Nemea there is Ancient Nemea, which is known since the Antiquity and today is a small village with 592 residents. Ancient Nemea organized the Pan-Hellenic Nemean Games which took place every two years. Because of the ancient sport games two important monuments were built here during Antiquity, the sanctuary of Zeus and the stadium. Today these two monuments are excavated and open to visitors.
The internationally known wines
Nemea, Ancient Nemea and the surrounding lands are known for their wines and especially for the famous red wine variety “Agiorgitiko”. The wines which are produced by this variety are also PDO products of Nemea. Even during the Mycenaean years the area was known for the famous “Fliasio wine” which was used during the symposiums. Every first weekend of September a festive occasion takes place which is known as “Big days of Nemea”. It is in fact a feast dedicated to wine which lasts 3 days and includes wine tasting, festivals and winery visits. Beside wine, at the wider area of Nemea don’t forget to taste the famous Corinthian raisin and the exceptional olive oil.
Travelling through vines, olive trees, pine trees and cypresses you will end up to Ancient Nemea village. Close to the small village you will find two of the most important monuments of Ancient Nemea.
The sanctuary of Zeus
During the Antiquity, Ancient Nemea wasn’t an organized settlement however it was a very important area because of the known Nemean Games, which took place here every two years. These sport games were directly related with the existing sanctuary of Nemean Zeus which was overcrowded during the games. Keep in mind that Nemean Zeus was worshiped as a god who protected the shepherds and the stock raising and not as the known Olympian Zeus who was prone to love affairs and infidelities. This distinctive attribute of Nemean Zeus can be explained by the fact that the surrounding lands weren’t cultivable and raising livestock was the main economic activity of the wider area around that period.
The sanctuary was inhabited by the priests and was visited by many pilgrims and athletes during the sport games. It consisted of several buildings and monuments which were used for the religious and the sport events of the ancient games as well as for the accommodation of the athletes and the people who were involved in the games. Cypress trees surrounded probably because the Nemean Games originated as funeral games dedicated to Ofeltis who died because of a snake bite.
At the centre of the sanctuary there was the temple of Zeus which was built around 330BC. Prior to this temple there was an older one which was built around the 6th century BC and was destroyed by fire. The new temple is prostyle and peripteral with 6x12 Doric columns. The temple consists of an oblong cella, a pronaos and the adyton. Adyton was inaccessible to the noninitiates and included an underground crypt of unknown purpose. In front of the adyton there was an internal colonnade with 14 Corinthian columns. It was one of the first ancient constructions which combined the three main architectural styles of the classical era, the Ionic, the Doric and the Corinthian architectural style. Local limestone was the main building material of this temple. East of the temple of Zeus there was the oblong altar where athletes and pilgrims sacrificed animals in the honor of Zeus in order to make their wishes true.
The temple was used less than 70 years and was directly related with the Nemean Games. After the relocation of the Nemean Games to Argos, the decline of the area started and the place was gradually deserted. Pausanias, the known Greek traveler and geographer visited the place in the 2nd AD and mentioned that the roof of the temple was destructed and the devotional statue of Zeus was missing. In the subsequent years the temple was gradually plundered and only three Doric columns remained in their position until today.
Some initial excavations started already since 1766 but weren’t quite important. The systematic researches started in 1974 under the command of the professor Stephen G. Miller and they were funded by the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1980 the restoration project of the temple has started and until 2011 six more columns were added to the existing three and today the visitor has a more comprehensive view of the original monument.
About 400 meters southeast of the temple of Zeus you will find the other important monument of the area, the Stadium, which was constructed at the best place of the valley offering a magnificent view. It was built at the end of the 4th BC around the same time when the new temple of Zeus was constructed. The purpose of the stadium was of course to serve the needs of the Nemean Games. It could accommodate up to 40.000 spectators and the athletic track of the stadium is 178meters long. It was used for the Nemean Games until 270BC when the games were finally transferred to Argos. There was a transition period when the games took place alternately in Nemea and Argos until they finally took place only in Argos. There was a locker room and an arch entrance from where the athletes entered the stadium. Around the stadium there were conduits made of stone which were used for the water collection. The excavation of the stadium took place during 1974-1981 and since then parts of the stadium have been restored.
Nemean Games were the sport games that took place in Nemea during the Antiquity and were one of the four Pan-Hellenic Games of Ancient Greece. The Nemean Games were established in 573BC and took place every two years at the second full moon after the Summer Solstice. During the games there was a sacred truce between the Greek states and the Greeks from all the known ancient cities came to participate in these games.
The games started in 573BC in order to honor Ofeltis, who was the son of king Lykourgos and died horribly by a snake bite. According to the myth when Ofeltis was born, Lykourgos visited the Delphi oracle and Pythia warned Lykourgos that the newborn, in order to live, shouldn’t touch the earth before it was capable of walking. A slave who wet-nursed Ofeltis accidentally left him on the ground while she was getting water from a fountain. The snake bit him and Ofeltis died fulfilling the prophecy. The “Seven against Thebes” were the seven generals from Argos who marched against Thebes and during this time they were passing through Nemea and witnessed the horrible accident. They thought that this was a bad omen for their imminent battles and established the Nemean Games as funeral games in the honor of Ofeltis. Near the sanctuary of Zeus there was the heroon of Ofeltis where a bronze figurine of Ofeltis (of 300BC) was found.
The Nemean Games initially took place in Ancient Nemea which was part of the nearby Ancient Kleones. Kleones proctor shipped the ancient games however even since this period Argos was the dominant city. During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Nemea was violently destroyed (around 419-414BC) and remained deserted for 75 years. The Nemean Games continued in Argos and at some point close to 330BC the games returned in Nemea after the new temple of Zeus and the stadium had been constructed. The sanctuary of Zeus in Nemea became one of the most important in Greece and the Nemean Games, even though initially honored Ofeltis, became part of the worship of Zeus. The Nemean Games were hosted in Nemea until 271BC when they were finally transferred in Argos resulting in the decline of Ancient Nemea.
The funeral element of the Nemean Games remained even when Zeus became the protector of the ancient sport games. According to historic sources “Ellanodikes” who were the supreme judges of the ancient sport games were dressed in black honoring the funeral games. Also the sacred grove of cypress trees which surrounded the sanctuary of Zeus relates to the funeral games. The price of the winners was a wreath of wild celery leaves which relates to the myth that Ofeltis was left above a layer of wild celery when the snake attacked him.
One thing you should keep in mind about the sport games in Ancient Greece should be that the athletes participated in the games in a specific day and location accepting all the special features of each area. There wasn’t a clock to measure the performance of each athlete. Ancient athletes competed in order to beat their opponents and win the first prize. The second and last position weren’t different during the ancient sport games.
In June of 1996 the Nemean Games were revived and since then every four years more than 3000 people of all ages from different countries gather in Nemea in order to emerge in the spirit of the ancient games. There are no prices or score displaying and cultural events take place during the sport events and enhance the festive atmosphere. The sport events include races in the ancient stadium of Ancient Nemea and a long distance race of 7,5km called “On the steps of Hercules”. The race starts from the temple of Hercules, crossing vineyards, olive trees and the modern city of Kleones, and ends in the valley of Ancient Nemea. Of course there is the closing ceremony which takes place at the end of the games and includes a prayer to the Nemean Earth and the extinguishing of the flame.
The Mycenaean tombs in Aidonia village
Mycenaean tombs have been excavated during 1978-1986 near Aidonia village, about 10km west of Nemea. The tombs belonged to the Mycenaean city “Arethirea” also known as “Eratini” from the Homeric Poems. It is a very important archaeological site with 20 vaulted graves and only five of them were unplundered.
In April of 1993 a collection of about 312 Mycenaean seals and jewels were supposed to be sold in an auction in New York. Greek archaeologists found out that these items had been taken illegally from the Mycenaean tombs of Aidonia village. A legal battle begun and the court decided that the items were indeed taken illegally before the formal excavations of the tombs and should be returned back in Greece. These findings date back in 1500-1400BC and became known as the “Treasure of Aidonia” after this scandal. Today you can admire this treasure in the halls of the Archaeological Museum of Nemea among other important findings of the area.