Nemea is a land of legends and traditions. It was the home land of the Nemean Lion, slayed by the legendary Hercules. The Nemean lion was a vicious monster that lived in a cave on mount Triton. Hercules trapped the beast and then killed it with his club.
The archaeological site is located on the foothill of the mountains of Arcadia, 333 meters above sea level. The strategic location of Nemea and its climate were the reason that the Panhellenic Games of Nemean were held in the region. During the winter, the region was turned into a swamp, during the summer though it was the ideal place to practice sports. The most significant monuments of Nemea are the temple of Zeus and the Stadium. Since Nemea did not have residents, the management of the games belonged initially to Cleonae and then to Argos.
The seven Argeian generals decided to stop at Nemea during their expedition against the town of Thebes (War of the Seven on Thebes). According to the myth, the seven generals asked a nursemaid where the nearest water spring was. The nursemaid was holding in her arms the son of the town’s king, Opheltes. She put the baby on a bed of wild celery to bring water to the generals and a snake strangled him to death. The generals instituted the games in order to pacify the Gods. The Argeians held a funeral celebration to honor the infant and arranged sport games. The winner received a wreath of wild celery. Such was the beginning of the Nemean Games.
The temple of Zeus dominates the valley of Nemea. Its main characteristic is its location, in the center of the sanctuary, exactly like in ancient Olympia and the Delphi. The temple was built in the 4th century B.C. by poros stones over an older archaic temple. It consists of a long cella with an adyton and a pronaos.
The foundation of the temple is 44.5 meter long and approximately 22 meters wide. The columns are 10 meters high and they still stand at the Nemean valley. The columns of pteros (colonnade) were of Doric order, six on each side, east and west, and twelve to the front and the rear side. The foundation of a long and narrow altar is preserved to the east of the temple. During the early Byzantine Period, most of the 36 columns of the temple were dismantled. Nine columns were re-erected thanks to recent efforts to rebuild the temple.
The long and narrow altar of Zeus is located east of the temple and it resembles the altar of Poseidon at Isthmia. To the north of the temple, a small construction has been brought to light at one of the sides of Epipola square. The south side of the square was bordered by a series of buildings, the Houses. They were first built in the first half of the 5th century B.C. They used to be the “pavilions” of the delegations sent by the city-states and they offered food and housing to those participating in the Games. Along the south side of the temple of Zeus, are the remains of two large edifices. The eastern was a Guesthouse for the athletes.
The stadium was built in the late 4th century within the framework of the Sanctuary’s reconstruction, and it hosted, every two years, Games in honor of Opheltes. In approximately 270 B.C. the Games were transferred to Argos, despite the efforts made by Aratus of Sicyon for their return to Nemea. After a period of time, during which the Games were held in turn at Nemea and Argos, they were transferred definitely to Argos. At present the Tholos of the Stadium stoa has been re-erected.
The Stadium lies 180 meters away and it has been built at the best location of the plane with an amazing view to the valley. It has a capacity of 40.000. It was created by the formation of a natural gorge. The American School of Classic Studies (University of California) conducted excavations in 1974-81 under the supervision of Professor St. Miller. The length of the track was 178 meters and it was surrounded by a stone conduit with stone basins collecting fresh water. On the south side of the stadium there is a stone starting line. After preparing in the Apodyterion (locker room), a rectangular edifice with an internal colonnade to the west, the athletes and the judges entered the Stadium through the arched stoa. The spectators were sitting in rough ledges carved into the soft bedrock of the hillside. Every two or three rows there were stone seats stretched between the stoa and the starting line.