Zeus Nemea

ouzo on the rocks

apartment, excursions and art historical guide

Peloponnese, Greece

The temple of Zeus in Nemea


The remains of the temple at the excavation date back to 330 BC. This temple was the successor of a temple originally built in the 6th century BC, but was destroyed a century later. Scolars have deduced this fact from the traces of the destruction. It is clear that the temple was intentionally destroyed by force of man and not for example by an earthquake. There are many spearheads of that time found, as well as burnt parts of the temple. The builders of the next new temple have first removed the rocks and stones of the ancient temple to make a good site. Scientists were able to determine that the predecessor belonged to the 6th century BC and must have stood on the site of the naos of the later temple.

Because there are no remains of the older one found, it is assumed that the old temple had no colonnades. It may have been just a simple, long and narrow building with a façade in antis.


In the construction of this temple from the 4th century BC three construction orders were used, the same as in the temple of Apollo at Bassae: the exterior was Doric, but in the naos was a colonnade of Corinthian columns, which was capped in an Ionic manner. This collonade did not reach up to the roof, but at three-quarter Corinthian capital was placed with an architrave, and above that they went on in the Ionian style. There was a pronaos (porch) with two columns in antis which was very common at that time. Unusually, however, is the fact that there is no back porch present. In the rear part of the naos - at the place where actually should be the back porch - there we find an adyton in this temple. This space in the temple was only accessible to priests. The 'holy of holies', as it were.

Another characteristic of the period is shortened design. Normally, in the classical period would be six columns at the front and thirteen on the sides (times two plus one). However, the temple of Zeus at Nemea has twelve columns on the sides.

The crypt in the adyton is unusual, so are the tall, slender columns; They indicate the transition from the classical to the Hellenistic period. Here the columns with a length of 6.34 times the diameter of the base, while the Temple of Apollo at Corinth (200 years earlier) columns with a length of 4.15 times that diameter. The temple of Zeus in Nemea can be seen as the last great Doric temple, but not built according to classical rules because it also shows the transition to Hellenism.

The temple is mostly made of limestone from the neighborhood; the quarry was located in a low ridge between Nemea and Kleonai (along the highway from Corinth to Tripoli). There are still drums of columns in the quarry that are not used.


Over time, the stones have become gard and gray due to the exposure to the elements but when they were they were carved at the quarry they were rather soft and the had a sand colour. The surface of the bricks was provided with a layer of plaster of marble powder, which was used both for decorative purposes as for the protection.

We now know that black marble was used for the threshold of the door to the naos and the Corinthian capitals of the columns in the naos were also provided with a layer of plaster, but the metopes and triglyphs were painted above. Traces of red are found on the metopes and blue on the triglyphs.

The foundation of the temple and the krepidoma (the set of stairs, stylobate and stereobate) you can watch the best of the north-west. At the entrance to the temple, you will see that these seven layers concern to bridge the height of the area.

The blocks of the stylobate were laid against each other and over each other. For the connections they used iron dowels and staples or anchors (which are comparable to our staples, but 30 to 40 cm tall and made of molten lead which was poured into a carved mold. The stylobate shows the already aforementioned horizontal curvature. At the temple in Nemea is the middle some 6 cm higher than the corners. And the colonnades outside the naos also tend slightly downwards to carry away the rainwater.

How the connection between the drums of the columns are made is clearly visible in the drums that are scattered on the ground. The connection between the drums consisted of square wooden blocks in which round wooden pins were beaten. The column drums were put on top of each other with a high scaffolding of pulleys. The two columns of the pronaos have always stood upright and still carry a part of the architrave and a block of the frieze. Some blocks of the frieze still lie on the ground so we can see up close. These columns are 9.5 m high and consist of twelve drums. The pillars of the rest of the temple are 10.3 m high and consist of thirteen drums.

Scolars have seen that the drums remain better preserved in the form of an upright column, then as loose drums scattered around the grounds. Since 1980, they are carefully collected, analyzed, measured and put together in groups. When they had all the blocks identified, rebuilding could begin. Most blocks are originally cleaned and repaired where necessary. Also, there are new blocks added in order to make a number of columns complete again. This is done with drums from the quarry located right next to the old one.


The crypt at the end of the naos has a rectangular shape, the walls are made of stones that have previously had a different function. A stairway with six stairs on the east side of the crypt leads about 2 meters down. The bottom three rungs are preserved. The crypt of the floor was covered with a cement-like layer of 2 cm.

The function of the crypt remains a mystery to this day. It is clear that there were religious acts conducted here. And where - in other temples - there is a sunken adyton, this is usually associated with an oracle function (eg Delphi). An oracle sanctuary is also in Nemea possible, especially as oracles were a common appearance on Panhellenic Games. But there still no evidence is found.


The cult image was already gone when Pausanias visited Nemea. The excavations untill now did not result in finding traces of the cult image, but the image was probably at the end of the naos, in front of the rear colonnade. In the sanctuary for Zeus at Argos Pausanias saw a bronze statue of Zeus, which he called a product of the sculptor Lysippus of Sikyon, who worked mainly in the second half of the 4th century BC. It is assumable that the statue of Nemea is removed and transferred to Argos, when The Games moved from Nemea to Argos.

plan of the temple of Zeus in Nemea, 330 BC

the temple of Zeus in Nemea anno 2014

photo © willem van leeuwen

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