Around 30 kilometres south of Corinth on the road to Nauplion and Argos, in a fertile valley famed for its springs and vineyards near the mountains of Arcadia, we reach the archaeological site of Nemea, a name which was derived from an ancient Greek word meaning pasture or grazing. Pausanias, 2nd century A.D. traveller and geographer, quoted it as having been named after Nemea, the Naiad Nymph – a water nymph who was a daughter of the river-god Asopos.
If you care (or dare!) to retrace the steps of Heracles, this was where he killed the Nemean lion as his first legendary Labour. Apart from that, the site is connected to numerous other legends and steeped in history from at least the Mycenaean period. We can view finds from here and other nearby sites in the small archaeological museum on our tour of the site itself.
Not to be confused with the modern-day Nemea, which lies a few miles to the west, Ancient Nemea was not a town. Like the much larger site at Ancient Olympia, this was a religious sanctuary and the venue where athletic games took place. The Nemean Games were held every two years for over three hundred years from 573 B.C. (or earlier) until they were moved to Argos. A voluntary organisation revived the Games in 1996 with barefoot athletes taking part in races to commemorate those of their ancient predecessors. This happens once every four years around midsummer, so you could be lucky enough to witness this spectacle if you visit in summer during the next Leap Year.
Another favourable tradition that has prevailed here since Mycenaean times is the production of Nemean wines. The most famous of these is the full-bodied red wine made from the local agioritiko grapes, so called from the name of the monastery Agios Giorgos, which used to own the surrounding land. Our tour may include a chance to sample this fare at a local winery or wine shop, or from one of the many roadside stalls.
As mentioned, killing the Nemean lion was the first of the twelve Labours of Heracles that were assigned to him by his cousin, King Eurystheus of Tiryns and Mycenae. From the writings of historians, such as Herodotus, and from the images that have survived in paintings and sculptures, we know that lions were common in Ancient Greece and many parts of Europe until around 100 B.C. by which time they had been driven out by human predators. So there is every reason to suppose that the myth of the Nemean lion had some basis of fact. But this was no ordinary lion. This mythical one was supposedly a vicious creature whose parents were the Typhon (the monstrous son of Gaia and Tartarus, with his snake covered head) and Echnida (half woman, half snake). It lived in a cave on Mount Tritos above Nemea and terrorised the neighbourhood by taking female hostages to its lair to enticing warriors to their death when they made attempts to rescue them. Apparently, the beast could take the form of a damsel in distress which would then turn into a lion and kill the would-be rescuers, eating their flesh and delivering the bones to Hades.
Then along came Heracles to put a stop to its fiendish practice. Armed with a bow and arrows, he discovered the hard way that the lion’s golden fur was impenetrable by any mortal’s weapons and its claws were sharper than any sword. So it seems that it was by trial and error that Heracles reputedly either managed to trap the lion inside the cave and use his brute strength to strangle it, or by firing an arrow inside its open mouth, which was its only vulnerable point. He succeeded in skinning it using the only tool sharp enough – one of the lion’s claws. Then, wearing the skin as a cloak, returned to scare the wits out of Eurystheus.
The Nemean Games are said by some to have been started to commemorate Heracles bravery, but the other theory is that they began as a tribute to Opheltes, who had met an untimely end here. He was the son of King Lycurgus and Queen Eurydice. Lycurgus had been told by the Oracle at Delphi that to safeguard the child, Opheltes should never be allowed to touch the ground until he had learnt to walk. So Lycurgus hired the nursemaid Hysipyle to carry the baby everywhere. The legend says that whilst out walking with the child in her arms, she happened to meet the famous Seven Argives (6 generals with Polynices, son of Oedipus, leading their seven armies to take the seven gates of Thebes to win the city from Eteocles, brother of Polynices). Opheltes was left lying on a bed of wild celery where he was killed by a snake while Hysipyle led the generals to the spring they were seeking. Thus, the winners of the Nemean Games were awarded a crown of victory made from wild celery.
The Nemea area has been inhabited since Early Neolithic times (6000–5000B.C.) with each subsequent era building on top of whatever had existed before.
American archaeologists led by Dr Stephen G. Miller of Berkeley University, excavating the site since 1973, have uncovered the ancient stadium as well as the possible site of the shrine of Opheltes in a structure dating back to the sixth century B.C. the time that the site began to move into its prime. In fact, the Nemean Games were documented from 573 B.C. when they became a panhellenic event. As well as sprinting events, they included other competitions akin to those of the Olympian Games: horse and chariot racing, wrestling (Pankration), discus and javelin throwing, plus contests for heralds and trumpeters. Music and drama were added during the Hellenistic period. Spectators and athletes came from far and wide, from the land that is now Greece and beyond. Participants were all males and competed naked, separated into three age groups: boys over 12 years old, youths over 16 and men over 21. The recently discovered stadium (stadion) has a well-preserved tunnel entrance with traces of ancient graffiti on its walls. A stone water trough spanned the length of the stadium, which must have provided refreshment to all who attended under the hot summer sun. At some point, the Games were moved to Argos, but they returned to Nemea in 330 B.C. at the same time as the Temple of Zeus was erected until they were taken to Argos in 271 B.C.
The Temple of Zeus, built in 330 B.C. on the site of a temple from 300 years earlier, was 43 metres long and 23 metres wide. It had 32 limestone columns, of which three have survived throughout the centuries and several more have recently been restored, using the original pieces found on the site. Here the athletes would pay homage to Zeus before the Games, doubtless standing in front of the large statue of the god which once existed.
To the south of the Temple of Zeus was the Xenon, a hostel which accommodated the athletes. This building and the Temple were destroyed during the fifth century A.D. by early Byzantine Christians, who made use of the columns and other remains to construct their Christian Basilica. Restoration work is still ongoing on the site, not only to salvage the building from the ravages of time, but too repair the deterioration caused by previous excavations.
Another noteworthy event which occurred nearby was the Battle of the Nemea River in 394 B.C. This was to be the last victory of Sparta against the Athenians and their collective forces from the northern states and north-east Peloponnese (Boetians, Euboeans, Corinthians, Argives). However, due to the unusual battle formation strategy employed by Spartans in attacking the Athenians’ flank, the flanks of their allies in the battle from the south and west Peloponnese (Achaians, Eleians, Mantineans, Tageates) were left exposed and they suffered heavy losses.
The Site Today
On reaching the site of Ancient Nemea, we can walk in the stadium, where so many competed so long ago, and go through the entrance tunnel. Once every four years, there is the chance of enjoying the light-hearted re-enactment of the Games. Close to the stadium, we will see the remains of the ancient baths that were once full of water for those who stayed at the Xenon.
We may encounter members of the American-led team of archaeologists, who are still continuing their excavations and restoration works. At least we can admire their work so far as we pass by the columns of the Temple of Zeus. The ruins of the Byzantine basilica are also on view.
Also worth our attention is the small archaeological Museum of Nemea, where we can view displays of artefacts from Neolithic to Byzantine times. These include bronze sporting equipment and other finds from the Nemean Games. We can also find information and see finds from the sites of Kleonai, Philious and Aidonia, which was the site of 18 Mycenaean tombs from the fifteenth century B.C.
And whilst travelling through the Nemean vineyards, let’s not forget to taste its fabled red appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) wines.
‘From Cleonae to Argos are two roads; one is direct and only for active men, the other goes along the pass called Tretus (Pierced), is narrow like the other, being surrounded by mountains, but is nevertheless more suitable for carriages. In these mountains is still shown the cave of the famous lion, and the place Nemea is distant some fifteen stades. In Nemea is a noteworthy temple of Nemean Zeus, but I found that the roof had fallen in and that there was no longer remaining any image. Around the temple is a grove of cypress trees, and here it is, they say, that Opheltes was placed by his nurse in the grass and killed by the serpent.
The Argives offer burnt sacrifices to Zeus in Nemea also, and elect a priest of Nemean Zeus; moreover they offer a prize for a race in armour at the winter celebration of the Nemean games. In this place is the grave of Opheltes; around it is a fence of stones, and within the enclosure are altars. There is also a mound of earth which is the tomb of Lycurgus, the father of Opheltes. The spring they call Adrastea for some reason or other, perhaps because Adrastus found it. The land was named, they say, after Nemea, who was another daughter of Asopus. Above Nemea is Mount Apesas, where they say that Perseus first sacrificed to Zeus of Apesas.’
[Pausanias 2.15.2 – .3]