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Nemea › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 27 July 2012
Temple of Zeus, Nemea, Greece ()

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.


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.



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 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.
Ancient Stadium, Nemea, Greece

Ancient Stadium, Nemea, Greece

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.
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.


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.
Temple of Zeus, Nemea

Temple of Zeus, Nemea

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.


Sophocles › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 29 September 2013
Sophocles ()

Sophocles of Kolōnos (c. 496 - c. 406 BCE) was one of the most famous and celebrated writers of tragedy plays in ancient Greece and his surviving works, written throughout the 5th century BCE, include such classics as Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Women of Trachis. As with other Greek plays, Sophocles' work is not only a record of Greek theatre but also provides an invaluable insight into many of the political and social aspects of ancient Greece, from family relations to details of Greek religion. In addition, Sophocles' innovations in theatre presentation would provide the foundations for all future western dramatic performance, and his plays continue to be performed today in theatres around the world.
The Greek world had three great tragedians: Aeschylus (c. 525 - c. 456 BCE), Euripides (c. 484 - 407 BCE), and Sophocles.Their works were usually first performed in groups of threes (not necessarily trilogies) in such religious festivals as the competitions of Dionysos Eleuthereus, notably the City Dionysia in Athens. The plays were often performed again in lesser theatres around Greece, and the best were even distributed in written form for public reading, kept as official state documents for posterity, and studied as part of the standard Greek education.


Sophocles had an exceptionally long career. His first competition entry was in 468 BCE and his last (whilst still alive) was in 406 BCE when he was 90. Clearly a great admirer of his fellow playwrights, Sophocles even dressed the actors and chorus of his final play in mourning to mark the death of Euripides in 407 BCE. Sophocles won at least 20 festival competitions, including 18 at the City Dionysia. He also came second many times and never had the ignominy of being voted third and last in competitions. Sophocles was, therefore, at least in terms of victories, the most successful of the three great tragedians.


As a child, Sophocles had been the chief dancer in the festivities to celebrate victory over the Persians in 479 BCE. Early in his career Sophocles even acted in his own plays, but due to a weak voice he settled into the role of writer only. The playwright, based on his practical experience of acting no doubt, seems to have had a favourite principal actor, one Tlepolemus. As to Sophocles' character we have hints from Aristophanes, the great writer of Greek Comedy, who describes his contemporary as 'easy-going' and 'relaxed'.
Outside of theatre life, Sophocles was also an active member of the Athenian polis. He was a state treasurer ( hellenotamiai ) between 443 and 442 BCE and a general (alongside Pericles ) involved with putting down the revolt on Samos in c. 441 BCE.In 413 BCE he sat on the ten-man council (the probouloi ) which was convened to deal with the crisis of Athens' failed Sicilian expedition against Syracuse. In later life the playwright was involved in a legal battle with his son who claimed his father was senile and so sought his inheritance and control of the family property. We know that Sophocles was a pious individual and actually a priest in the hero cult of Halon. Following his death, the tragedian was himself honoured with a cult when he was renamed Dexion.


Tremendously popular in his own time, Sophocles was also an innovative playwright, as he added a third actor to the tragedy play format and was the first to employ painted scenery (to suggest a rural scene, for example), sometimes even changing scenery during the play. The use of three actors (playing multiple roles and wearing masks) was a major breakthrough as now much more sophisticated plots became possible. Sophocles, therefore, stands between the earlier Aeschylus and the later Euripides. Sophocles was more interested in realistic action than his predecessors but kept the chorus segment (a group of up to 15 actors who sang rather than spoke their lines) as a more participatory cast member than his successors. For Sophocles the chorus became both a protagonist and a commentator on the events of the play, creating a closer relationship with the audience.
Greek Tragedy Mask

Greek Tragedy Mask

Sophocles was also a great user of theatrical metaphor, for example, blindness in the Oedipus plays and bestiality in Women of Trachis, and his work in general sought to provoke and disturb the audience from their ready acceptance of what is 'normal' and what is not, forcing them through the play's characters to make difficult or even impossible choices. Other techniques he used to convey meaning and emphasis were dramatic entrances and exits of actors and the repeated use of significant props such as the urn in Electra and the sword in Ajax. Finally, in the language itself that Sophocles used we see more innovation.Rich language, highly formalised but with flexibility added by running over sentences and including segments of more 'natural' speech, and the unusual use of pauses result in Sophocles achieving a greater rhythm, fluidity, and dramatic tension than his contemporaries.
The plays of Sophocles, like those of his contemporaries, drew on classic tales of Greek mythology. This was the convention of tragedy ( tragōida ), and the familiarity of the story and setting to the audience allowed the writer to focus on specific elements and interpret them in a novel way. Sophocles is very often not so concerned with what happened (the audience already knew this) but with how these events happened. Another typical feature is that amongst the principal characters, there is usually a hero figure with exceptional abilities whose over-confidence and pride ensure a tragic ending.
One of his most famous works is Antigone in which the lead character pays the ultimate price for burying her brother Polynices against the wishes of King Kreon of Thebes. It is a classic situation of tragedy - the political right of having the traitor Polynices denied burial rites is contrasted against the moral right of a sister seeking to lay to rest her brother. A theme that runs through Sophocles' work is right battling against right and that the characters are mistaken in their interpretation of events. Only when tragedy results, when in fact, it is all too late, do the characters recognise truth.
Theatre of Segesta

Theatre of Segesta


We know that Sophocles wrote around 120 plays in all but these have survived only in a fragmentary form. A reasonable chunk of the satyr play The Searchers survives but in many cases only a few lines have withstood the ravages of time.Sophocles' seven surviving full plays are:
  • Antigone (c. 442 BCE) about a woman torn between public and private duty.
  • Oedipus The King (429 - 420 BCE) about the famous king who loved his mother a little too much.
  • Philoctetes (409 BCE) on how Odysseus persuades the hero to join the Trojan War.
  • Oedipus at Colonus (401 BCE) the final part of the trilogy about Oedipus.
  • Ajax (date unknown) on the hero of the Trojan War and his wounded pride.
  • Electra (date unknown) about two siblings who take revenge for their father's murder.
  • Women of Trachis (date unknown) about the wife of Hercules and her failed attempt to regain her husband's affections.
Below is a selection of extracts from Sophocles' work:
Setting the tragic scene:
Am I deluded, or do I hear a lamentation just arising in the house? What am I saying? Someone is uttering no muted cry, but one of sorrow, and there is new trouble in the house. Notice how sadly, and with what a cloud upon here eyes, the old woman is approaching us to tell us something.
(863-870, Women of Trachis )
How passion is hard to master, and if left uncontrolled, can lead to tragedy:
Whoever stands up to Eros like a boxer is a fool; for he rules me.
(440-441, Women of Trachis )
That whatever happens, one can often only blame oneself:
It is you, whose fate is grievous, who have chosen this; this fortune has not come to you from one more powerful;for when it was possible to show good sense, you chose to approve the worse, rather than the better fate.
(1095-1100, Philoctetes )
A cautionary tale and the moral of the story:
Good sense is by far the chief part of happiness; and we must not be impious towards the gods. The great words of boasters are always punished with great blows, and as they grow old teach them wisdom.
(1348-1353, the final lines of Antigone )
That ultimately, one must accept one's fate:
Come, cease your lament and do not arouse it more! For in all ways these things stand fast.
(1777-1779, the final lines of Oedipus at Colonnus )


Sophocles then, has not only provided us with several masterpieces of literature, but through his innovations he also helped establish the standard formula for Greek Tragedy, which along with Greek Comedy, would define the foundations of all western theatre for millennia. The work of Sophocles has also escaped the boundaries of theatre and provoked discussion and reaction in other fields, notably psychology and the work of Sigmund Freud, which is perhaps testimony to the depth and difficulties of interpretation in the plays of this great Greek master.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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