Nemea was a religious sanctuary in the northern Peloponnese of Greece where pan-Hellenic athletic games were held every two years from 573 BCE until 271 BCE, after which, the Games were definitively moved to Argos.

Early Settlement

Situated near the foothills of the Arcadian mountains, 333m above sea level in a long narrow valley, Nemea has cool summers and harsh winters, often with snow. The valley, south west of Corinth and around 10km north of Mycenae, is windy and drains poorly; in fact it was only through artificial drainage that the land was made arable. Indeed the name Nemea derives from the Greek word meaning to graze (υέμείυ). The area has been inhabited since Early Neolithic times (6000 to 5000 BCE) and was settled throughout the Bronze Age with architectural remains, in particular rock-cut tombs, dating from the mid-16th century BCE to the 12th century BCE, the time of the Mycenaean civilization. The site reached its period of greatest importance from the 6th to 3rd centuries BCE when for around a month every two years, athletes and spectators gathered for the pan-Hellenic Games, held under the control of nearby Kleonai and then Argos. The Nemean Games became a sporting event to rank alongside the other three major pan-Hellenic athletic games held at Olympia, Isthmia and Delphi. The Nemean Games were the youngest of the four but the fact that Nemea was held in as equally high regard as Olympia is evidenced in an Athenian law of c. 430 BCE which gave a victor at either event free meals for life.

In Greek mythology Hercules' first labour was to kill the Nemean lion living in the caves of Mount Tritos above the site.

Hercules & Nemea

The mythical origin of the Games is sometimes ascribed to Hercules who, after his first labour in which he had to kill the Nemean lion living in the caves of Mount Tritos above the site, established athletic games in honour of his father Zeus. A second and more likely mythological origin is the story of Opheltes. Lykourgos, the priest-king had a son Opheltes and seeking to protect his son Lykourgos asked the Delphic oracle for advice. The response of the oracle was to prevent the baby from touching the ground until he had learned to walk. Opheltes was put under the care of a slave called Hypsipyle but while engaged fetching water for some passing champions on their way to Thebes (the famous Seven against Thebes) the unattended baby was fatally attacked by a snake while he slept in a bed of wild celery. Taking this as a bad omen, the champions organised a funeral games to propitiate the gods and commemorate the unfortunate Opheltes. Thus the Nemean Games were born.

The Nemean Games

The events of the Nemean Games, held over several days and usually shortly after the summer solstice, were similar to those at the other sacred sites with the most important event being the stadion or foot-race over one length of the stadium track. Other events were foot-races over various stadium lengths: the diaulos (double), the hippios (four lengths), dolichos (as many as twenty four lengths) and the hoplitodromos (as the dialous but run in hoplite armour). In addition, there were competitions in boxing (pyx), wrestling (pale), combined boxing and wrestling (pankration) and the pentathlon - stadion race, wrestling, javelin (akonti), discus (diskos) and long jump (halma). Horse races were also held on the hippodrome track and included the four horse chariot race of 8,400m (tethrippon), the two horse chariot race of 5,600m (synoris) and the horse race of 4,200m (keles). Two further competitions were for heralds (kerykes) and trumpeters (salpinktai). The winner of the former won the right to announce the sporting events and victors and the latter won the privilege of announcing the herald. In the Hellenistic period competitions in singing, flute and lyre playing were added to the programme.

As with the spectators, athletes came from all over Greece and even beyond to compete and were separated into three age groups of boys (12-16 years), youths (16-20) and men (over 21). Athletes and competitions were supervised by specially trained Hellanodikai who acted as both referees and as judges and wore black, possibly in memory of the death of Opheltes. Athletes competed naked and victors were awarded a crown of wild celery.

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Following the definitive movement of the Games to Argos, the site was largely abandoned and used merely for agricultural purposes. It was not until the 4th century CE that an early Christian settlement was established with the construction of a Basilica and baptistery - the foundations of which are still visible today. This settlement was itself abandoned in the mid 6th century CE when the valley's river dried up.

ArchitecturAL Remains

The ancient site has always been known; indeed three of the columns of the Temple of Zeus have never fallen down since they were originally erected. In 1884 CE French archaeologists made surface excavations following the drainage of the valley by French engineers the previous year. More comprehensive excavations were carried out between 1924-6 CE under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, once again in 1964 CE and then more systematically from 1973 CE by the University of California at Berkeley, which continues to the present day to excavate and manage the site and museum.

Architectural remains at the site are dominated by the impressive Temple of Zeus constructed c. 330 BCE. This was built on the site of an earlier temple from the 6th century BC which was destroyed by fire and from which blocks were used to construct the foundations of its replacement. The new temple was built of local limestone covered in fine marble-dust stucco with the inner sima in marble. The entrance to the temple was via a large ramp rather than steps - a common Hellenistic feature - and housed within was a large cult statue of Zeus, which has not survived. The temple was probably the last of the great Doric temples and measured approximately 22 x 42 m. The Doric exterior (peristyle) had 6 x 12 unusually slender columns, 10.33 m high. The Corinthian inner columns (6 x 4) also supported a secondary story of Ionic columns. There was no exterior sculpture or decoration. The wooden and terracotta tiled roof of the temple collapsed in the 2nd century CE and in the 5th century CE the majority of columns collapsed, not by earthquake but by the removal of blocks from the stylobate. Several columns have been re-erected in modern times using largely the original drums which still lie scattered around the site.

Running along the side of the temple was an unusually long (41 m) altar of which only the foundations survive. The altar was used for sacrifice and the pouring of libations during religious ceremonies. Also near the temple, there are a row of nine small rectangular buildings (oikoi) built in the early 5th century BCE and perhaps used as treasuries to house offerings from particular city-states or as meeting and banqueting rooms.

There are a series of buildings probably constructed as part of the same building programme in the 4th century BCE, almost certainly instigated by the Macedonians. These include a Bath house, the large Xenon building, a shrine to Opheltes and a triple stone reservoir.

The Bath house has a large central pool flanked by two tub rooms, each with four stone wash basins still in situ. This building was a forerunner of the later Greek palaistra-gymnasion complexes present at other sites such as Olympia and Delphi. The Xenon was a large rectangular building (85 x 20 m) with fourteen rooms and originally of two stories, of which, only the foundations remain today. The Xenon was most probably used as accommodation for athletes and trainers. The shrine to Opheltes was built on a small man-made mound and covered an area of 850 square metres enclosed by a low stone wall. Within were two altars, a cenotaph to commemorate Opheltes and at least some trees planted to form a sacred grove in one corner. The 4th century BCE shrine was a renovation of the earlier 6th century one and archaeological evidence demonstrates that the altars were used for animal sacrifice, the pouring of libations and the giving of votive offerings such as small statues and pottery. The triple reservoirs measure 3 x 9.8 m and reach a depth of 8 m; their exact function is not known.

Linked by a road to the sacred complex, the stadium of Nemea which is visible today, dates from 330-320 BCE and was built between two natural ridges providing an elevated vantage point for spectators and allowing a capacity as high as 30,000 people. A locker-room (apodyterion), once with an open central court, is connected to the stadium track by an arched tunnel measuring over 36 m in length and nearly 2.5 m in height. The track itself is the usual 600 ancient feet in length (178 m) with small marker posts indicating every 100ft. Still in situ is the stone starting line (balbis) where athletes placed their front foot.

Important archaeological finds at the site include a rare double-tray sacrificial table and a range of bronze sporting equipment including javelin tips, strigils and a discus. Other finds include votive statues, jumping stones and an impressive array of coins and pottery which attest to the wide geographical appeal of the Nemean Games. Since 1996 CE and held every four years, there have been a revival of the ancient Nemean Games with footraces held in the ancient stadium.


Nemea (Greek: Νεμέα, ἡ) is an ancient site in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, in Greece. Formerly part of the territory of Cleonae in Argolis, it is today part of the prefecture of Corinthia. The small village of Archaia Nemea (formerly known as "Koutsoumadhi" Ώ] and then "Iraklion") is immediately southwest of the archaeological site, while the new town of Nemea lies to the west.

Here in Greek mythology Heracles overcame the Nemean Lion of the Lady Hera, and here during Antiquity the Nemean Games were played, in three sequence, ending about 235 BCE, celebrated in the eleven Nemean odes of Pindar.

One Tomb Looted, One Intact

One of the tombs, which had been looted in the 1970s, has been dated to between 1350 and 1200 BC. The second tomb is believed to be a few hundred years older as Greek Reporter mentions . Burials were also discovered in three pits and on the floor of the second chamber. One of the pits measured more than 3.5 meters long, and had been covered with large stone slabs. According to Greek Reporter , archaeologists found the human remains of three individuals there, while a second pit contained two more burials, copper arrows, and five knives, two of which had handles decorated with fine gold leaves.

Broken pieces of two piers, and commemorative vases adorned with flowers, were also spotted in the third pit. The burials on the floor were accompanied by plain vases and stone buttons.

Two burials were found in the second pit (Greek Ministry of Culture)

Nemea: history, mythology and wine

Ancient Nemea was an important site in antiquity because of the well-known myth of Heracles and the Nemean lion.However, the site reached its period of greatest importance from the 6th to the 3rd century BC because of the Nemean Games, which were held every 2nd year in the summer. These games, held for the first time in 573 BC, were considered one of the four major games (also called panhellenic), after the Olympic, Pythian (in Delphi) and Isthmian games. An athlete who had triumphed in all four festivals had reached the highest possible prestige.

Temple and Sanctuary of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus stood at the center of the Sanctuary of Zeus, constructed c. 330 BC. The site contained a number of buildings and monuments that were used in the religious and athletic ceremonies of the ancient Games.

Three of the columns of the temple have never fallen down since they were originally erected. In 2002, two ancient columns were re-erected and added to the original three, and four more were added in 2012.
Comprehensive excavations of the site were carried out in 1924 under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and once again in 1964 .From 1973, excavations are done more systematically by the University of California at Berkeley, which continues to the present day to manage the site and museum. The material discovered in the excavations is on display in an on-site museum.

The Nemean Games

The games were mostly comparable to those in Olympia (the ancient ‘Olympic Games’).
In Hellenistic times also competitions in singing, flute and lyre playing were added to the programme. Athletes came from all over Greece and even beyond, as well as the spectators.Most of the competitions were in athletics, with the most important event being the foot-race. Horse races were also held on the hippodrome track.

Traditionally, the Games were instituted as funeral games for the dead Opheltes, the baby-boy of Lykourgos, a mythical king of Nemea. In classical times, as a sign of mourning, the referees wore black clothing and the victors were rewarded with a wreath of celery, which was considered an ill-omened plant.

The Stadium

Linked by a road to the Temple and Sanctuary, the stadium of Nemea, which you can also visit, dates from 330-320 BC. It has a capacity as high as 30,000 people.
Before entering the stadium, the athletes undressed in the apodyterion, the dressing room, which has been relatively well preserved.

The stadium was accessible via a so-called cryptoporticus, a long arched corridor, where the athletes waited until their name was called, long enough to inscribe their names, as well as other comments, such as “niko” (I’m going to win). The track itself is the usual 600 ancient feet in length (178 m). You can still see the stone starting line (balbis) where athletes placed their front foot.

The revival of the Nemean games today

The Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games is a movement born from nearly 40 years of excavation by the University of California at Berkeley and from the enthusiasm and dedication of local residents of Nemea. They feel that they could make an important contribution to today’s world because of their personal ties to Nemea.

The “New Nemean Games” are an attempt to bring back to life the ancient festivals that were based, like the Olympics, on athletic competitions. There will be foot races for competitors from around the world who are at least 8 years of age. Participants will run barefoot, and wear white tunics. Interspersed with the races will be music and dance by local groups. At the end of the day there will be a 7.5 km. race — “The Footsteps of Herakles” — from the ancient Temple of Herakles in Kleonai to the ancient stadium of Nemea.

The “new Nemean games” take place every four years, during the same year as the “modern Olympic games”. The Seventh Nemead will take place in Nemea on June 26-28, 2020. For more details about the organization and significance of the games, you can visit their website.

Nemea wine region

Nemea is not only known for its temple and ancient stadium, but also for excellent winemakers. The mountains and valleys surrounding the small village of Nemea have been producing wine for centuries, mostly from the native Agiorgitiko grape. A wide range of styles are made from this red grape variety, from rich, age-worthy dry wines to lighter, sweeter examples. Around 40 wineries are located within Nemea’s boundaries, and the area has seen a huge amount of investment and growth over the past few decades.

If you are looking for a nice day-excursion, we suggest you rent a car for the day in Nafplion, visit the ancient site of Nemea and follow the signs for the “Nemea wine roads”.

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The archaeological site of ancient nemea

The most prominent feature of the modern archaeological site at Ancient Nemea is, of course, the Temple of Zeus. Just like other temples at major sanctuary sites in Greece (like the Temple of Zeus at Olympia or the Temple of Apollo at Delphi), the Temple of Zeus at Nemea stood within a large sacred area that consisted of many buildings and features: an altar of Zeus, a sacred grove of cypress trees, nine pavilions (oikoi), several kilns, a hotel (xenon), a bath house, houses, and a “hero shrine.” A little further outside of the central sanctuary area was the athletic stadium.

Today visitors can enjoy the temple and its surrounding buildings situated in a picturesque landscape, the on-site archaeological museum, and the ancient stadium. Between the village of Ancient Nemea and the larger town of (new) Nemea lie several award-winning wineries, too!

Nemea - History

UC Berkeley archaeologist revives ancient games, traditions in tiny Greek town

Ancient Nemea, a tiny Peloponnesian village in Greece, has always been old-fashioned. Dial phones didn't arrive until 1984. Cars and trucks weren't common until the late '80s. Widows still wear black for life. And the only traffic jams are caused by herds of sheep.

But it wasn't until a University of California, Berkeley archaeologist named Stephen Miller, came to town in 1973 that the agricultural village's 450 residents began to see just how ancient, and how historic, Ancient Nemea is.

Initially, the professor, who taught classics in Berkeley's College of Letters and Science, was scoffed at as he began digging in a hollow on a hill for a 2,300-year-old athletic stadium. "I'd hear big mutterings in the coffeehouse," said Miller, 54. "They'd say, 'There's no stadium there, just a pit. All Miller is doing is making another pit."

But after 22 years of watching Miller uncover physical proof of their history - including the stadium,

a track, the world's oldest existing athletic locker room and a vaulted, graffiti-inscribed tunnel - and watching dignitaries, scholars and reporters flock to what became

a 45-acre archaeological site and museum, the residents' doubt turned to pride.

For one day last summer, in an unprecedented gesture, the sleepy village opened its doors to the world, inviting visitors not only to view the past, but to experience it firsthand.

On June 1, led by Miller and a group called the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games, Ancient Nemea hosted the 1996 Nemean Games, a revival of ancient foot races once held in the stadium. The Panhellenic Games, as they were called, also took place long

ago in Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia and included other athletic events.

As for Miller, the former stranger, he now is regarded as "one of our own people," said Aristotle Kallis, a Greek doctor and president of the society. "What is the word in English for the metal more valuable that gold? Platinum? Stefanos Miller is platinum to us. He gave us our history, and everyone here loves him."

Early on the morning of the 1996 Nemean Games, tour buses and rental cars poured into Ancient Nemea, where the sun already was burning hot in a bright blue sky. But the 500 runners and thousands of spectators from more than 30 countries were not allowed to disembark at the stadium gate.

To keep the games as authentic as possible, the crowd walked up a hill to the games. Unlike the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the stadium was cloaked not in corporate banners but in its own beauty - a landscape of

oleander bushes, cypress trees, vineyards, white rock and poppies. Winners of the two events - a 100-meter sprint and a 7.5 kilometer race - would not receive medals but a traditional crown of wild celery.

Authentic costumes sewn by local women were worn by those playing the roles of judges, slaves, heralds and trumpeters. Judges wore long black togas, laurel wreaths and sandals and carried switches to flog unruly athletes.

Spectators watched the foot races for free, and many spent the entire day camped on the steep, grassy banks of the stadium. Chairs were available, but many people lounged on rag rugs collected by villagers.

The runners, ages 12 to 88, signed in outside the ancient locker room, its aging columns covered by a large canvas tent. For the sprint, they would run, separated by age and gender, in groups of 12. Slaves inside the tent handed each group white tunics and plastic crates to stow belongings.

In ancient times, the Greeks competed nude, but at the 1996 games, participants only were required to run barefoot in the stadium. Small clay jugs of olive oil were hanging in the tent for runners who wished to rub some on their bodies the way ancient athletes once did.

While women were forbidden from competing in - or watching - the Panhellenic Games, more than 200 women and girls ran in the 1996 games. To celebrate, Lydia Legakis, a 59-year-old Greek woman, pinned to her tunic a shoulder pad on which she had painted a naked breast.

As they entered the 120-foot-long tunnel, the sprinters felt their bare feet meet cool, spongy clay. They passed graffiti scratched into the walls by ancient athletes. To keep modern runners from doing the same, Miller posted nearby a photographic replica of the tunnel blocks on which they could write their thoughts.

The runners' adrenaline surged as they exited the tunnel. A trumpet blast signaled the spectators to stop talking, and each competitor's name was read. The group then advanced to the starting line and positioned themselves behind an ancient starting mechanism, the hysplex, that Miller reconstructed from wood and cord in 1993.

After a starter shouted, "Apite!" (Go!), the runners took off, the crowd wildly cheering even those who finished last. No loudspeakers were used during the races, and the sound of bare feet slapping the clay track - also cool and soft from recent rains - could be clearly heard.

"I'm probably as impressed and excited about this as I am about the modern Olympics in Atlanta. To step on the same soil as athletes did in antiquity really has an impact on the emotions," said Payton Jordan, 79, a

former U.S. Olympic track and field coach, after winning his race. Jordan was one of the few trained runners at the Nemean Games.

The winner of each of the nearly 50 sprints held that day, as well as the winner of the afternoon long distance race, received a palm branch and had a white ribbon with "Nemea 1996" tied around his or her head. All the victors were crowned with wild celery at the closing ceremonies that evening.

Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, who arrived in Ancient Nemea at midnight, eight hours before the games began, finished his race for men ages 57 to 60. But he had witnessed several people fall or pull muscles in prior races that day. "I was trying to be careful," he said. "I have to go to China tomorrow, and I didn't want to hurt myself."

Many other members of the UC Berkeley community, including alumni, former faculty members and members of the Cal Marching Band - participated in the games.

Jan Sluizer, 47, one of dozens of journalists who covered the event, also signed up to run. "There doesn't seem to be much competitive envy today," said the UPI radio reporter, "just a sense of camaraderie."

At the end of the day, the town hosted a party outside St. Andrews Greek Orthodox church. Local residents fed the runners homemade delicacies and led Greek dances in the moonlight.

Then, as quickly as Ancient Nemea had filled that morning, it returned to its tranquil self. But no one who had witnessed the Nemean Games would soon forget the day.

Ancient Nemea, its contribution to ancient athletics long neglected, now had a sure spot in history. The revived games had been such a success that serious talk already had begun about holding the games on a regular basis.

On a more personal level, what Miller had hoped for most did come true. Participants of all ages and nationalities, by running in the footsteps of ancient

Greek athletes, had made a link with their past and felt the Olympic spirit in its pure and original form.

"In letters and phone calls, people are telling me they've done something they'll never forget," he said. "They've lived history."


The heart of the wine-growing zone of Nemea, called during classical antiquity "Fliasia country".

The Flias, settler City-State of Flious, mentioned in sources as wealthy thanks to the vines that had given him under the father of Dionysus. Indeed, the currencies of Flious had symbols of Dionysus, God of the vine and of wine.

At the vineyards were cultivated the vine Fliasia, from whose grapes produced the well- known Fliashium wine. The well - known Fliashium wine was known in an ' international ' audience, which flocked in the Nemean games, one of the most important games of Greek Antiquity.

The city Flious survived in Roman times, and during the early Christian centuries. But in the 13th century because of raids (Goths, Slavs), the populations were withdrawn from the lowlands and gathered around and over the Polyfeggos mountain, which dominates the Valley, creating two settlements: the upper and the lower St. George.

From ledgers of Franks, Ottoman and Venetian rule, it follows that St. George and surrounding villages had as main crops are cereals and vines. The wine was the most important product because it was marketable. In those years it was natural to change name and become the well-known Fliashium wine to Agiorgitiko wine and the vine Fliasia to be renamed Agiorgitiko grape.

In 1834, when the first legally constituted local government units of the Greek State, under two municipalities were created: the municipality of Phlious and the municipality of Nemea, which had headquarters in St. George.

In 1840, when it became the first municipality mergers, the municipality of Phlious was attached to the municipality of Nemea and St. George was renamed in 1923 in Nemea.

The grapes and the wine continued to be called Agiorgitiko, from the old name of the village. The wine of Agiorgitiko, "black, strong, the best wine of Moria", we refer to many foreign tourist travel books of the 18th and 19th centuries, but also in many Greek (historically, geographically, folklore) of the 19th century. Today, while still called grape Agiorgitiko, wine from the mid-19th century, began to bear the name of the municipality, named Nemeatiko. Since the Fliasion field of antiquity-the plateau of modern Nemea-surrounded by towering mountains and lack of asphalt roads until 1960, make difficult communications, but also the fact that the Agiorgitiko grape variety is not cultivated – until the last 15 years – in no other region of Greece or in another foreign country, fairly considered as Agiorgitiko autochthonous variety, with deep roots in time.

A Pair Of Unlooted Mycenaean Tombs Discovered In Southern Greece

According to an official statement made by the Greek Ministry of Culture on 11th August, two undisturbed Mycenaean chamber tombs (dating from circa 1400 – 1200 BC) were found near the ancient site of Nemea in the Peloponnese. The location pertains to the Aidonia burial site, and as such, the rare discovery entailed five burials along with the remains of fourteen individuals that were later transferred to the chambers. The remains of the occupants were also accompanied by clay pots, figurines, storage vessels, weapons, and a myriad of other smaller objects.

In terms of history, Aidonia, situated next to the vineyards of Nemea, was a strategic Bronze Age settlement – and as such, these tombs allude to the Mycenaean sphere of influence in the coastal regions of Peloponnese. According to the press release, the key settlement rather mirrored the flourishing period of the Mycenaeans from 17th till 12th century BC. In that regard, the detailed assessment of these tombs might shed more light into the historical development of the ancient town and its ties, as a focal point of the region, to the neighboring villages.

Dromos and the sealed entrance.

As for the unfortunate episodes of looting, archaeologists estimate that such illegal activities occurred at the Aidonia burial site in 1976-77. Archaeological excavations were carried out in 1978-80 and then in 1986 – and these series of endeavors allowed historians and researchers to study the legacy of the Mycenaean influence, funerary practices, and architectural prowess in the Peloponnese. To that end, around 20 chamber tombs were found over the years – with some flaunting their distinct sections and access roads (dromos).

In fact, the archaeologists previously also came across a few unlooted tombs that housed intricate jewelry items. Quite intriguingly, one of these finds allowed the researchers to identify and repatriate a set of jewelry that was to be sold in an auction house in New York in 1993. In any case, a systematic research program was started in 2016 for the excavation of the remaining tomb networks at the site, and it is the fruit of collaboration between experts from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Corinth, Universities of Graz, Nemea Centre of Archaeology, and University of California.

Image Credits: Ephorate of Antiquities of Corinth

Hesiod's Theogony claims that Hera trained and groomed the lion to terrorize Nemea and the adjacent lands.

It is said that the Nemean Lion could not be killed by mortal weapons because of its golden fur that made it impervious to attacks. The creature's claws were sharper than conventional swords and could cut through any armor.

It was said to have had great cunning, further emphasized by its capacity to shape-shift into the women in distress that it kidnapped from other cities, tricking would-be slayers to lower their guard in its lair before devouring them and later offer their bones to Hades.

Battle with Heracles

The lion was ultimately slain by Heracles (Hercules) as his first labour. Having tried to attack the lion in vain with arrows, Heracles soon realized the lion's pelt was impenetrable instead, he chased the lion with a club and cornered it in a double-mouthed cave. Subsequently, he sealed off one of the mouths, and entering the cave through the other, strangled the lion to death with his bare hands. The hero is said to have lost one of his fingers in the struggle.

After slaying the lion, he tried to skin the lion for its pelt with a knife and a sharpened stone, but failed. Finally, pitying the hero, the goddess Athena told him to use the lion's own claws instead.

The Nemean lion's fur became Heracles' insignia it protected him from the elements and the weapons of his foes.

An Olympic Odyssey: Where the Games Began

A road trip in Greece back in time nearly 3,000 years to the precursors of the modern Olympic Games. Plato sweated here.

The Temple of Zeus at Nemea, one of the four sites of the ancient Greek games. Credit. Susan Wright for The New York Times

Some dream of going to the Olympics. I’d long dreamed of going to Olympia. I wanted to take a solo road trip like no other, searching for the four sites of the ancient Greek athletic games — Isthmia, Nemea, Delphi and Olympia — precursors to the Olympics spectacle opening in Rio on Aug. 5.

Collectively known as the Panhellenic Games, they were open to athletes across the Greek empire, but Olympia’s festival was always the most prestigious. The first to be established (in 776 B.C.) and the last to go (abolished in A.D. 393 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, a Christian who deemed them pagan rituals), the games at Olympia took place every four years — this was one way the Greeks measured time — with the other three held in the interval.

I could picture herculean athletes hurling the discus, boxing, wrestling or chariot-racing to take home the top prize, a simple crown — olive branches at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, wild celery at Nemea and pine at Isthmia. Such figures are depicted on ancient vases and vessels, in statuary and, nowadays, in recreated scenes on History Channel specials.

But what do the sites for these games look like now, what condition are they in, and how would I get to them? As a lifelong exercise fanatic, this would be my personal pilgrimage to the birthplace of athletic competition.

I sketched out my route in Rome over a beer in a bar on the Gianicolo, the hill next to the Vatican with a sweeping view of the city across the Tiber River. As a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, I’d met a young archaeologist for drinks. Leigh told me how to get where I wanted to go, which was, in a sense, back in time nearly 3,000 years.


I went on to Athens in mid-June and spent two days seeing the sights before hitting the road. I got a great deal at Hertz on a “supermini” Ibiza with one major drawback — a stick shift. I hadn’t driven a stick in 40 years, but no cars with automatic transmissions were available. My rental also didn’t come with GPS, but I convinced myself that everything would be fine. I’d go old school, relying on maps, my inner compass and, if needed, locals for directions. At least the air-conditioning worked. It was a blazing 90-plus degrees.

Practicing with the stick shift in the Hertz lot wasn’t pretty, but once I had the basics down, the car was soon flying west on the broad national highway. Within an hour I began spotting signs for Isthmia — so named for being on the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects Greece’s mainland with Peloponnese, the peninsula to the south.

I’d chosen to visit Isthmia first for one reason: It was closest to Athens. (After this, I planned to travel in a loop over the next five days, ending up back in Athens.) Yet, finding no signs for the ruins, I stopped at a roadside gas station. The clerk, an older woman in a bib apron, spoke little English, so I showed her the spot on a map. Pointing out the window, she exclaimed, “Street? Yes!” Pause. “Bridge? Yes!” We then locked eyes and she made the sound “Poof,” like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat: “Now, Isthmia!”

It was essentially just down the block, and I found it in minutes. What I didn’t find were crowds, lines, vendors — the trappings of tourism. There was no one else there except a ticket clerk and two burly security guards inside the site’s small, informative historical museum. I bought a ticket and stepped outside to survey the grounds.

While historians cannot say with certainty how large the site of the Isthmian Games had been at its height, when it featured an imposing shrine to the god Poseidon (plundered and destroyed by the fifth century A.D.), it would have extended far beyond the few hundred meters first cleared there by archaeologists in the 1950s.

As I wandered along dirt paths, peeking into a partly uncovered running track (a remnant of the stadium) and the tiled floor for a bathing complex added in the early Roman Empire, the first word that came to my mind was “forlorn.” The site was mainly a dry, rocky field, only a fraction of which had been excavated. But “forlorn” would be unfair, for this field was rich with history. I knew that a young Plato had competed as a wrestler at the Isthmian Games in the late fifth century B.C. Think about that, I told myself: Plato’s sweat had mixed with this dirt, here on these very grounds. I took a handful and sprinkled it through my fingers.

I stayed in Isthmia for a good hour, then got back on the road. I had to get to Nemea by 1 p.m. I had made an appointment with the distinguished archaeologist responsible for the Nemean excavations for more than 35 years, Stephen G. Miller, now a retired professor of classical archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He had one hour to spare.

The trip from Isthmia to Nemea went smoothly, if you don’t count a missed exit and some frantic backtracking. After about 45 minutes on the highway, I followed rural roads curving through vineyards redolent of sweet wine. I made it in time, barely, and found Dr. Miller waiting at the entrance to one of the two digs. As at Isthmia, I was the only visitor. Dr. Miller, a bearded, sturdily built fellow in his early 70s, shook my hand, then briskly strode ahead while beginning a history of the excavations. Stopping suddenly, he announced, “We are now in the locker room.”

I looked about: Nine sand-colored Doric columns in varying heights stood majestically on ground that was as even and as smooth as a gym floor (originally, it had a roof as well). “Then this is the most beautiful locker room I’ve ever seen,” I whispered, for I felt as if I were in a truly sacred place. And, in fact, sites like these were far more than athletic fields — they held deep religious significance for the Greeks, who dedicated the games and individual victories to their deities.

Here in the locker room (apodyterion from the ancient Greek), athletes stripped and rubbed their bodies with olive oil and dust, which functioned as both a natural sunscreen and, not incidentally, an enhancer of muscular male beauty. As at all the athletic festivals, they’d compete in the buff. (This was also true at public gymnasiums throughout the empire, where men assembled in the nude to exercise the word gymnasium comes from the Greek word for naked.)

After competing, athletes returned to the locker room to scrape the oil and sweat from their bodies with an instrument made for this purpose, a strigil. This funky goop, called gloios and thought to contain the essence of arete — valor, excellence — was often funneled into small vials and sold at gyms for medicinal purposes.

Dr. Miller led me farther back to a “secret entrance” from the locker room to the stadium — a tunnel over 100 feet long with a remarkable vaulted ceiling. Naked men huddled here waiting for their names to be called, and evidence remained that the games were not the only thing on their minds in this steamy atmosphere. Dr. Miller pointed to surviving ancient graffiti with a name carved into the wall: “Akrotatos is beautiful,” he translated from the Greek.

“So, this is one young man complimenting another — a guy named Akrotatos?,” I asked.

“Of course. Women were barred from competing or even watching the games.” As I reminded myself, too, sexual relations between men in ancient Greece were not the taboo they would become with the rise of Christianity.

Exiting the dim tunnel into the bright open-air stadium, I thought how thrilling this must have been for the athletes filing out. I could almost hear the fanfare played and the echo of cheering crowds from two millenniums ago. The stadium, twice as long as a football field, had been excavated to nearly pristine condition by Dr. Miller and his teams of colleagues and students, Greek and American.

The running track’s original granite starting blocks remained firmly planted holes drilled into them once held poles threaded with cord across the whole track to prevent false starts a dozen runners at a time shot off from here. Shallow ditches running alongside the track provided water from an aqueduct to wet the track down between events — foot races and field events like the javelin — as well as drinking water for the athletes.

Wrestling, boxing and the bloody ancient equivalent to mixed martial arts, pankration, were also held there. Spectators (dressed in variations on a toga and sandals) sat on the gently sloping hillsides — several thousand men could be accommodated. And at the end of the track, evidence remained of a platform for a panel of 10 judges, who, in the event of what we would now call a photo-finish, arbitrated who would go home the winner. Unlike today’s Olympics, with its bronze and silver medals, second and third places were not recognized in the games of antiquity.

From here, Dr. Miller suggested we go to the second Nemean site, a quarter-mile down the road, so we each hopped into our cars. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang, then had a feeling of being shoved hard. I saw in the rearview mirror that the back window was shattered, as if shot out. But no, in my haste I’d shifted into reverse, not first gear, crashing straight into an olive tree.

Dr. Miller pulled up beside me. “I’ve done that twice over the years,” he called out. “That damn tree — welcome to the club!” He chuckled and peeled off. The hatchback was banged in but the car worked, so I drove down the hill, shaken yet determined not to miss anything.

Dr. Miller gave me a tour of the reconstructed Temple of Zeus — a fourth-century B.C. shrine where religious rites were performed, animals sacrificed — then he had to depart. And there I was, basically on my own in the middle of nowhere.

One of my sisters, a travel agent, had urged me to buy all possible car and travel insurance beforehand. After I placed a call to Hertz, they offered to have a replacement waiting in Nafplio, a seaside town where I had arranged to spend the night (I’d have to pay only a $100 deductible). There was no need for air-conditioning on the hourlong drive to Nafplio since the entire back window was open to the cloudless skies.

As promised, a new car awaited at my charming, family-run hotel, the Victoria. The next morning, the desk clerk drew me a map of the route from Nafplio to Olympia, the third site on my journey. I would essentially traverse mountainous central Peloponnese, east to west. He said the drive would take maybe two hours. He also said he’d never done it before.

Eight hours later, I pulled into Olympia. I’d made one detour on purpose (to see the remains of the ancient civilization at Mycenae, dating back nearly 4,000 years) and several more that would more accurately be called mistakes. (Road signs in Greek didn’t help.) But I didn’t care I had no cares. The drive through the Mainalo Mountains in the heart of Arcadia was magnificent, albeit unnerving.

I sweated through my T-shirt as the narrow road wound around blind curves for miles and tunneled through a tree-covered mountainside. Stopping for lunch at Platanos Cafe in the tiny village of Langadia, nestled high up on a cliff, was a highlight of the day.

When I finally reached Olympia, I found the main street blocked, with traffic at a standstill. Had there been an accident? I parked on a side street and walked toward the small town center, which had the feel of a pleasant but generic outdoor shopping mall. A crowd had converged around a jewelry store with broken windows, shattered glass on the sidewalk, police everywhere. A man told me that “bandits” had robbed it at gunpoint, grabbing jewelry from the storefront windows, just 15 minutes earlier. “People will do anything for money now in this country,” he scoffed.

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Watch the video: Nemea - Glow (January 2022).