NEMEA – the Sanctuary of Zeus
Pausanius tells us ‘The temple of Zeus is worth seeing except that the roof has collapsed. There is a grove of cypresses around the temple, where they say Opheltes was killed by the snake when his nurse put him down in the grass, in spite of having been warned not to put him on the ground before he could walk. The Argives have the right to sacrifice to Zeus at Nemea, and to choose the priest of Nemean Zeus; they even put on a race for men in armour at the Nemean winter festival.’ 7 Only three columns of the large, 4th century BC Doric temple of Zeus were standing in the 1980s and the large drums of white limestone were scattered across the site. Originally the outer colonnade consisted of six frontal columns and 13 on either side. In 1820 William Page, during his journeys in Greece while making his drawings of the temple, wrote ‘At Nemea, a few miles north-west of Mycenae, three solitary columns from the temple of Jupiter were all that remained of the ancient sanctuary. It was here that the Nemean Games, one of the four great Panhellenic Festivals of ancient Greece, were held.’8
The mythology of the area, besides that of the baby Opheltes (son of Lykourgos and Eurydice, in whose honour the first Games were held), also includes of course the first labour of Herakles, the killing of the lion. The first Games are said to have been held in 573 BC but by the end of the 5th century BC the Sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea had been destroyed and lay in ruins for several decades while the Games were probably celebrated at Argos. During the 330s BC they returned to Nemea for a while and the present temple was built as well as the stadium and the baths. The period of prosperity did not last however and the Games were only brought back to Nemea by Mummius, the sacker of Corinth, in 145 BC.
On the south west side of the site, standing on its own in amongst the broken pieces of masonry, there is one small column of cipollino, broken off at the top and with a collar at the bottom end. It measures .80 m. /2.7 Rf at the highest point and has a diameter of .20 m. /.67 Rf at the collar end (Plate 3.12).
7 Pausanius, p.164-7. The note (88) explains that this was because ‘an oracle had said the child must not touch the ground until he learned to walk’.
8 Tsigakou, Fani-Maria, Rediscovery of Greece, Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era, Ekdotike Athenon S.A., Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1981, page 158, pl 60.
Maps and Plates
Plate 3.12 One small cipollino column in the Temple of Zeus, Nemea.