Ancient Nemea – The History, Archaeology, and Mythology

valley of Nemea

I think I’m feeling that deep-winter urge to travel again.

I’m thinking of warmer climes, of faraway lands, and the sanctuary that ancient places provide in contrast to the chaos of a big city.

Today, I’d like to take a brief look at a site that may be known to some of you, but which often falls off of the tourist radar – Ancient Nemea.

If you’ve heard of Nemea, it’s probably in relation to the first labour of Herakles in which the hero defeated the Nemean Lion.

Herakles and the Nemean Lion

Herakles and the Nemean Lion

Nemea was, of course, also the site of one of the four ‘Crown Games’ of the ancient world, the other three being the Isthmian Games (at Isthmia, near Corinth), the Pythian Games (at Delphi), and the greatest of the four games, the Olympic Games (at Olympia).

But the Nemean Games were not started in honour of Herakles’ great labour.

In legend, the Nemean Games are related to the ‘Seven Against Thebes’, the group of warriors who went with Polynices to take back Thebes from his brother, Eteocles. On their way to Thebes, the Seven stopped in Nemea where King Lykourgos ruled with his queen, Eurydike.

The king and queen had a newborn son named Opheltes, whom they were told by the Oracle at Delphi that they could not let touch the ground until he could walk.

However, one day, the baby’s nurse, Hypsipyle, was walking with the baby when the Seven stopped in Nemea. The Seven asked where the nearest well was, and so Hypsipyle put the baby Opheltes on a bed of wild celery while she took the generals to the well.

The baby was set upon the ground in contradiction of the Oracle of Delphi’s warning, and so a snake came along and killed the baby Opheltes.

Opheltes being killed by the snake

Opheltes being killed by the snake

The Seven saw this as a bad omen and sought to honour the soul of the slain child, and propitiate the Gods by holding funeral games on site.

Thus were the Nemean Games born.

Ancient Nemea is located in one of the most beautiful regions of the Peloponnese, a region pulsing with myth and legend. Tall mountains rise up above fertile plains filled with olive and orange groves, and miles and miles of grape vines.

The site itself is located to the north of Argos and Mycenae, and is much smaller than Delphi or Olympia, but no less interesting or beautiful.

View of the Temple of Zeus from the surrounding vineyards

View of the Temple of Zeus from the surrounding vineyards

The first historical games at Nemea were held in 573 B.C., and they took place every two years. There was no settlement at Nemea, and the games were most often under the auspices of Argos, moving to that ancient city to the south for long stretches of time, except during the period of Macedonian hegemony.

The sanctuary at Nemea was important in the ancient world, but somehow experienced more neglect than others when the Games were moved to Argos:

In Nemea there is a temple of Zeus Nemeios worth visiting, although the roof has collapsed and there is no longer any statue. Around the temple is a sacred cypress grove. Here was Opheltes, put on the grass by his wet-nurse, killed by the snake, according to the story. The inhabitants of Argos sacrifice to Zeus also in Nemea and choose a priest of Zeus Nemeios. They organize a running contest for men in armour at the festival of the Winter Nemea. So there is the grave of Opheltes, with a stone enclosure around it and inside the enclosure altars. There is also a tumulus as a monument for Lykourgos, the father of Opheltes. (Pausanias II 15, 2-3)

Pausanias, in his second century A.D. tour of Greece, describes the run-down ruins of the site during the Roman period.

Ancient Nemea from the air

Ancient Nemea from the air

I’ve only been to ancient Nemea once, but I still remember it quite well. The drive there was supremely pleasant, the cypress and plane-tree-lined roads winding among miles of vineyards that seemed somehow reminiscent of Tuscany’s Chiantigiana.

But this is Greece, and the difference is the sense of antiquity and legend that permeates the very air, the light, the landscape.

We pulled into the small parking lot, one of only a handful of cars, and entered through the small site-museum where we were met by a bust of none other than Julia Domna, the Roman empress of Septimius Severus, about whom I’ve written quite a bit.

Some people may say that the museum and the archaeological site are a bit of a let-down compared with Olympia, but I would say that this place is of utmost importance. A lot of archaeological work has been done here to improve our knowledge of Nemea’s importance and the importance of athletics in the ancient world.

There have been excavations on and off here since 1884, but the bulk of the work has been carried out by the University of California at Berkeley since 1974, and that important work is ongoing.

Temple of Zeus - before some of the columns were re-erected

Temple of Zeus – before some of the columns were re-erected

There are two parts to the Nemea archaeological park – the Sanctuary of Zeus, and the Stadium.

We started in the sanctuary where one is drawn to the ruins of the temple of Zeus which was built c.330 B.C.

There is a wonderful, if small ruin that contains the remains of a sunken crypt accessed through the cella, or inner chamber. It is believed the crypt was either used as the site of an oracle, or as a treasury for the sanctuary.

On the east side of the temple is a feature that is unique to Nemea, and Isthmia (an altar to Poseidon), and that is a very long altar to Zeus where athletes and trainers swore their oaths and made sacrifices prior to the competitions. This altar dates to the fifth century B.C.

Model of the site, in the museum, showing the long altar in front of the temple of Zeus

Model of the site, in the museum, showing the long altar in front of the temple of Zeus

The temple is surrounded by a square precinct that contained monuments, smaller altars, and a sacred grove of cypress trees.

It was a peaceful experience roaming this area of the sanctuary, the trees adding to the atmosphere. However, watch where you step! One of our party found a snake skin jutting from beneath one of the fallen column drums, and when he lifted it up, it had to be about five feet long.

Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes!

"Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?"

“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”

Fortunately, the originator of that shed skin was nowhere to be seen.

With the cicadas whirring all around us, we looked over the scant remains of the other structures located on the site, including a bath house, a row of nine oikoi, club houses built by the various city states to shelter their attendant citizens at Nemea, and the large xenon, a hotel for dignitaries that is located on the south side of the sanctuary.

The sacred cypress grove in the sanctuary

The sacred cypress grove in the sanctuary

The interesting thing about Nemea is that there was never a real settlement there during the Classical or Hellenistic periods. There were probably just a handful of people who lived there to tend the fields and care for the buildings the rest of the time.

During the Nemead, however, tens of thousands of Greeks gathered there for the games so that the valley of Nemea became a giant tent city, probably not unlike that which pops up at the Glastonbury festival.

Glastonbury Festival's tent city

Glastonbury Festival’s tent city

After visiting the main archaeological site, and then the roaming through the small site museum, we went back to our car to drive 400 meters down the road to the southeast where the stadium of Nemea is located.

During the Nemead, after the athletes had taken their oaths and made their offerings to Zeus in the sanctuary, they would have processed from the temple of Zeus to the stadium which was created by hollowing out a part of the nearby hill.

The stadium is definitely worth a visit and, as can be the case with many lesser known sites, it was virtually deserted when we arrived.

Nemea’s stadium is smaller than Olympia’s, but it’s still substantial, as it should have been for one of the four Crown Games.

It could seat up to 40,000 spectators in its day on the roughly hewn stone seats of the embankments.

The stadium of Nemea (Wikimedia Commons)

The stadium of Nemea (Wikimedia Commons)

This place has some interesting features.

One of the most unique features is the ancient locker room which the processional way leads to from the sanctuary. It is here that the athletes would have stripped down, oiled themselves, and warmed up prior to competing.

The locker room of Nemea where athletes prepared for competition

The locker room of Nemea where athletes prepared for competition

Whereas at Olympia there were separate areas for doing these things, at Nemea, this locker room had multiple purposes.

Once the athletes were ready, they proceeded to enter the stadium through a vaulted tunnel that is still intact to this day, and graced with graffiti from some of the ancient athletes.

The tunnel leading from the locker room into the stadium

The tunnel leading from the locker room into the stadium

Visitors can walk through this tunnel and emerge into the bright sunlight of the stadium at roughly the half-way point.

It’s a wonderful feeling to step onto the stadium ground, and I was definitely reminiscent of my own track-and-field days, that familiar flutter of nerves and adrenaline rearing its long-dormant head.

It’s somewhat sobering to remember that the Nemean Games were begun, not as an entertaining athletic contest, but as a funerary event for a slain child.

When it’s not crowded, there is a perhaps a sense of gloom that lies over the place, despite the brilliant sunshine and colour of the landscape.

I walked around the edges of the stadium and looked at the other features of ancient ingenuity such as the stone channel that fed water around the edges of the stadium for athletes and spectators to drink, the water pumped in by way of pipes in the hill side.

Then there is the stone starting line across the track where you can see the bases for the starting mechanism and its thirteen gates.

The starting line in the stadium

The starting line in the stadium

As ever with these sites, it is good to pause and let your imagination fill in the gaps of what you are seeing.

As I stood in the middle of the stadium floor, I imagined the embankments filled with people, a murmur running the length of the spectators, and then a hush and the judges, the Hellanodikai, in their black robes of mourning for the baby Opheltes, came out and sat themselves in their box toward the middle of the stadium.

I imagined that familiar hush as the runners lined up at the starting line, and then a few rapid heartbeats before the mechanism’s rope drops and the runners are off.

Ancient Runners

Ancient Runners

At Nemea, the victors were crowned not with olive (Olympia), bay (Delphi), or pine (Isthmia), but rather with a crown of the wild celery, that plant on which the child of Lykourgos and Eurydike had been placed before he was taken from them.

A crown of wild celery - the victory wreath of winners at the Nemean Games

A crown of wild celery – the victory wreath of winners at the Nemean Games

When we finished looking at the site, and running a lap of our own, the sun was already beginning to dip behind the mountain peaks of Arkadia.

As we left the stadium behind, I felt like the place retained something of the cheers of crowds in ages past, but also the distant roar of a monstrous lion from the cave of its lair, said to be somewhere in the surrounding hills.

As I said, this land is pulsing with myth and legend, brought to life by its history and the hard work of the archaeologists who have sought to preserve and reconstruct the site, adding to our knowledge of it.

The temple of Zeus at Nemea after some of the columns were re-erected in 2013

The temple of Zeus at Nemea after some of the columns were re-erected in 2013

But if you think that the Nemean Games are long dead, you might be mistaken.

Since around the year 2000, the games have experienced a revival, and they are being held again, this year, in June of 2016.

If you have ever wondered what it was like to compete in some of the rituals and competitions of ancient athletics, you can sign-up to do so at the revived Nemean Games. Watch this short video to find out more from the man who started it!

CLICK HERE to find out more about taking part in the modern games.

This looks like loads of fun, and a wonderful opportunity to participate in a unique living history event that brings students, academics, and anyone else interested in ancient history and athletics, together.

I’ve wanted to participate myself, but the timing has never coincided with my trips to Greece. I hope that someday, I can, thankful for the fact that the modern revival games do not involve running naked. They are also open to both men and woman, boys and girls.

There is one more thing I would suggest you do before leaving ancient Nemea in your traveller’s wake.

As you drive away, be sure to stop at one of the many roadside wine sellers and pick up a few bottles of the wonderful Nemean wine.

Countryside around Nemea

Countryside around Nemea

This is wine country after all, and what better way to finish off a day of archaeology and site seeing than with a glass (or more!) of Agiorgitiko red.

You can drink to the success of your journey, to the memory of Opheltes, and the centuries of Nemean victors who participated in these ancient traditions.

Thank you for reading.

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War without the Shooting – Sport and Strife in Ancient Athletic Competition

Wrestling

Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

       (George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit”, Tribune, 14 December 1945)

I was reminded of the above Orwell quote in a book I’ve been reading lately, entitled The Ancient Olympics, by Nigel Spivey. No, we are not going to be talking about modern warfare or guns, those are not my thing. However, Spivey’s use of the quote is apt for his book, and for the purposes of our short discussion here.

What was the purpose of athletic competition in the ancient world, and what is the purpose of it today? How has it evolved, or has it?

I’m just finishing up the research phase for my novel set during the ancient Olympics. I can’t wait to start typing away at it, but there are a few things I need to decide on, one of them being how I will portray the ancient games.

I’m a romantic, and an idealist, and at first my inclination is to portray the ancient Olympics in an idealized and romantic light. It would make for a great story, but would that be accurate?

Ancient Olympia

Ancient Olympia

Today, when we think of the Olympic Games, we think of amateur sport, sportsmanship and fair play. We believe that just to be able to compete in the Olympics is an honour, a victory already achieved. In some ways, that’s true. The athletes who go to the Olympics today have trained and competed for years. They’ve racked up a list of hard-won victories in their part of the world in order to make it to the Olympiad.

I love the Olympics. In fact, it’s the only time that I really watch sports on TV. I love the Olympic ideals we hold so dear.

But are those the same ideals that were held dear in the ancient world? Perhaps some. But not all. Are the Olympics today the same games that they were in the ancient world? No. Not really.

So, in writing my story set during the ancient Olympics, I’ve got to achieve a major shift in mindset and go somewhere my modern sensibilities will not necessarily enjoy.

Artist re-creation of ancient wrestling

Artist re-creation of ancient wrestling

In the ancient world, men (yes, only men) went to the Olympics to win (women were only permitted to compete insofar as owning the horses in the equestrian events). It was not honourable to just participate. Oftentimes, losers would have to return to their polis by back streets, humiliated that they did not wear the olive crown of victory. Only the winners were hailed as demi-gods. The losers, though participants in the great games, were nothing.

It’s pretty harsh, but that was the nature of the Olympics and other games (including the Isthmian, Pythian, and Nemean games). They were violently competitive, brutal in nature, and though the Olympics were a time of official peace (the ‘Sacred Truce’), they were anything but peaceful.

When I think of the ancient Olympics, I don’t think about gymnastics or synchronized swimming, kayaks, or graceful dives from on high. I think of boxing and the discus, hoplite warrior sprints and the roar of a crowd at the marquee chariot races. When I think of the ancient Olympics, I think of the pankration, that most brutal of events where bones were broken, and faces were smashed with fists covered in lead or leather.

Boxing

Boxing

So, were ancient sports just about a sadistic pleasure in violence, about merely bettering your competitors, about hatred being given a release? Was sport really war on a small scale?

There isn’t really a straight and easy answer to the question, I’m afraid. I suppose the answer is yes, and no. Certainly, when you look at the array of events, the games were in one form, a training ground for war, “war without the shooting”.

The Hoplite Race - Training for War?

The Hoplite Race – Training for War?

As today, there were probably ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men who competed. There were those whose sole purpose was to utterly humiliate and destroy their opponents, to inflict pain and suffering, but there were also men who, in competing in the sacred Olympiad, sought to honour not only their polis and their family, but also to honour the gods themselves.

That said, they all wanted to win. I suspect that athletes today, no matter how much the media proclaims their virtue for simply being there, today’s athletes, once there, can see that victory within their grasp, and so, crave it more than we realize.

A Modern Pankration Bout

A Modern Pankration Bout

There is a duality here that leads us to the nature of Strife in the ancient world, which Spivey touches on in his book.

The ancient poet Hesiod (circa 700 B.C.) spoke of Strife in his Work and Days.

So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two. As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature. For one fosters evil war and battle, being cruel: her no man loves; but perforce, through the will of the deathless gods, men pay harsh Strife her honour due. But the other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and the son of Cronos who sits above and dwells in the aether, set her in the roots of the earth: and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil; for a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbour, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order; and neighbour vies with is neighbour as he hurries after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. And potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel. (Hesiod, Works and Days)

Here we see that ‘Strife’, who is named Eris, actually has two faces, or natures.

There is Strife as Eris agathos, the useful, productive aspect of Strife, that which lends itself to creative industry in all things, in people of all stations and trades.

Then there is the Strife known as kakochartos, or ‘exalting in bad things’. This aspect of Strife thrives on war and dissent, a lust for bloodshed and battle.

Both aspects of Strife were present in the ancient Olympics and other competitions, both were present in war.

Javelin Thrower

Javelin Thrower

In his Theogeny, Hesiod names three offspring of Strife. They are: Death, Destruction, and Toil (Ponos).

It is ‘Toil’ that the ancients ascribed goodness to, for in working to the extremes of ones capabilities, and beyond, one became stronger, and so achieved greatness. This sort of Strife, Eris agathos, was pleasing to the gods, it was something to aspire to.

But the two aspects of Strife are not, in my opinion, mutually exclusive.

Spivey mentions the Iliad, and the part of that wondrous foundational text of western literature where Achilles embodies both aspects of Strife. Homer does not differentiate.

Therefore, perish strife both from among gods and men, and anger, wherein even a righteous man will harden his heart- which rises up in the soul of a man like smoke, and the taste thereof is sweeter than drops of honey. Even so has Agamemnon angered me. And yet- so be it, for it is over; I will force my soul into subjection as I needs must; I will go; I will pursue Hector who has slain him whom I loved so dearly, and will then abide my doom when it may please Jove and the other gods to send it. (Home, Iliad 18)

Achilles is by far the greatest hero of the Trojan War, the most skilled. He is godlike. He is what all men aspired to be. He is skilled at war, but can be unbelievably violent in the extreme, such as when he drags Hector’s body behind his chariot. He can, however, be moved to goodness such as when he sets aside his vendetta with Agamemnon to help his brothers again, and when he grants King Priam the return of his son’s body for the rites.

Achilles fighting Hector

Achilles fighting Hector

Greatness is not an easy thing to carry upon one’s shoulders, and we see in ancient literature that the heroes who achieve greatness also have a greater measure of grief. Herakles, Jason, Achilles and so many others all have tragedy in their lives, but Eris agathos was with them too, and this set them apart from the base war-mongers of the age, those who throve on kakochartos.

Olympians would have been weaned on tales of these heroes, and many would have aimed for such heights. One of the most famous of Olympians was Milo of Croton who won numerous wrestling victories at all of the Pan-Hellenic competitions for many years.

This same Olympic hero was also a great warrior who led troops of his native Croton in battle against their enemies of Sybaris.

One hundred thousand men of Croton were stationed with three hundred thousand Sybarite troops ranged against them. Milo the athlete led them and through his tremendous physical strength first turned the troops lined up against him. (Diodorus Siculus XII, 9)

It is said that Milo led the charge against the Sybarites wearing his Olympic crowns, a lion skin, and wielding a club similar to the hero Herakles. It seems that war and athletics were both at their finest in Milo, and I suspect that it was so in many an ancient Olympic champion.

Herakles wearing a victor's wreath - This is how Milo supposedly dressed for the battle with Croton's enemies

Herakles wearing a victor’s wreath – This is how Milo supposedly dressed for the battle with Croton’s enemies

Sport seemed to change with the Romans. The ancient Olympics survived until they were shut down by Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 394 when he banned all pagan festivals.

The Romans, however, were no strangers to blood-sports.

If deliberate killing was frowned upon at the ancient Olympics, it was accepted, and even encouraged, in the amphitheatres and hippodromes of the Roman world.

Olympic Chariot Race - The Most Popular Event of the Games

Olympic Chariot Race – The Most Popular Event of the Games

Chariot races were the main event in such places as the Circus Maximus and, just as at Olympia, both man and beast could suffer terrible fates on the sands.

Similarly, on the amphitheatre floors, gladiators often fought to the death. Whereas in ancient Greek competitions, the participants were hailed as heroes, their bodies trained and taken care of, gladiators in the Roman world were slaves who were bred to deal death and die. The rites that had once been a fight to the death at funeral games to honour the fallen had turned to entertainment.

Roman Gladiators

Roman Gladiators

Audiences had always relished the spilling of blood in competition, but during the Roman age the thirst for blood in sports seemed to have reached new heights. In A.D. 80, at the inaugural games of the Flavian Amphitheatre (The Colosseum), Emperor Titus put on one hundred days of games which included criminal executions, re-enactments of historic battles, and of course gladiatorial combat. This was slaughter on a massive scale and the crowds loved it. It is said that over 4000 animals were killed in a single day during those inaugural games!

Were the gods pleased with that? Are we so different today? I like to thinks so, but…

Various activities in the amphitheatre

Various activities in the amphitheatre

At a hockey game today, when two players start pommeling each other, most of the crowd jumps to its feet to watch. They cheer and jeer the two pugilists. What about UFC and the resurrection of a form of the pankration, a sport that was eventually banned from athletic competition in the 4th century A.D?

Have we made progress, or are we the same as our ancient counterparts? Are we simply denying our inherent thirst for blood? From what we see in the media, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Again, no easy answers.

I like to think we’ve made progress, in some ways, but I do wonder sometimes if the world had turned more to kakochartos, rather than Eris agathos.

Then again, perhaps in youth today can be found the answer, some hope?

I was at a track and field meet a couple weeks ago, and it was a joy to watch the young school-age boys and girls compete without prejudice or put-downs. Those kids who were on the track did not try to psyche their competitors out. They were focussed only on their lanes, their task, their race. Some sped toward the finish line like cheetahs chasing down deer, others were far behind the rest and still crossed that finish line.

Eris agathos, it seems like a song now to me, a song of beautiful strife.

Nike - The Goddess of Victory

Nike – The Goddess of Victory

I think the young are more pure, and that it is in them that the seeds of Eris agathos are sown. It is nurtured in few.

It’s no wonder that the modern call for the Olympic Games calls on “the youth of the world”.

So, tell me what you think?

Is modern sport so very different from sport in the ancient world?

Is sport and athletic competition today simply war without the shooting? Or is it something more than that?

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

For myself, I have yet to decide what direction to go in this next novel. Will the competition on the palaestra and in the stadium be fierce and fill a simple need for violence, or will it transcend that and please the gods?

I suppose I’ll see when I get there.

Thank you for reading!

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