ANCIENT NEMEA, GREECE – Stephen Miller, the renowned American classical Archaeologist from the University of California at Berkeley and the architect of the revival of the Nemean Games on antiquity, is already preparing for next year’s event from his base on the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
The front covers of the brochures for the seventh, and next, Nemean Games scheduled for June 26-28, 2020, feature the infant Opheltes, whose death was the cause of the creation of the original Games – one of the four Panhellenic Games of Ancient Greece that were first held in the 6th century BCE. According to tradition, Opheltes was set down on a bed of wild celery when a deadly snake bit him. Hence, the crown of victory at Nemea was made of wild celery.
“All the games in antiquity had to do with death. They were really an expression of life in the face of death. If you go all the way back to the Funeral Games of Patroklus in the Iliad, we’re going to run and jump and show that we’re alive even though Patroklus, Opheltes are dead,” Miller told New Europe during an interview at the offices of the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games (http://nemeangames.org/) in the village of Nemea.
The Seventh Nemead will take place on June 26-28, 2020. It was at Nemea that the Ancient Greeks celebrated athletic and religious festivals that were part of the cycle of games at Delphi, Isthmia, and Olympia. The ancient stadium that Miller discovered at Nemea in 1974 is an important monument in the history of classical sport.
Unlike in the Olympics, the Nemean Games gives the average person a chance to participate in an international athletic festival where athletes run barefoot on the same soil where their ancient counterparts ran more than 2,000 years ago.
“We try to do everything one day so all the winners are there for the closing ceremony get their crowns and celery all at the same time, Miller said. “It takes a great deal of organisation and very careful timing. We managed to do it this last time (2016) and succeed, but it was just about the limit of what we could do. We had 1,300 participants,” he added. “People do know about it and a lot of people come back because it’s not just the experience of that, it’s the experience going through the tunnel, of becoming an ancient Greek for ten minutes at least.”
“In 1996, I was very surprised at the success. I had no idea of the involvement and turnout that we had…But as it grows, and more and more people have the experience, they share that experience,” he said. “I learn something every time I have the Games of what’s required…what was required in antiquity. I learned the value of slaves because you need hands. You need people working. And when we did it back in 1996 (The First Modern Nemead) nobody wanted to be a slave. “Den Eimai Doulos” (‘I’m not a slave’). But people come to realise that I’m always a Doulos with my yellow Hitonas (chiton) and people understand that there is a real need for those people. In those years, everybody wanted to be a judge, nobody wanted to be a slave but now that’s changed,” Miller said. “Once the weather gets better, we’ll have to go into the stadium and trim and prune and make it pretty again because the weeds keep growing,” he said. “It has become an educational function of the Society. Yes, we want to put on the Games, but why do we want to put on the games? So that people have a chance to learn about Ancient Greece. It’s a pedagogical tool.”
Miller described the visceral experience that every participant seems to feel when entering the ancient stadium, which he says gives them a closer connection to the ancient athletes that walked down the same graffiti-lined corridor more than two millennia ago.
“It may be the fact that you’re going from the apodyterium – the undressing room – which is fairly warm and you go into the tunnel and it’s cold but it’s possible that it’s the ancient athletes that give you the chills. You hear them whispering,” Miller said. “We did photographs of the walls and every four years at our Games, people sign their names and this is a sort of guest book of new graffiti on the walls,” he said, before adding. “These boards are right over here, before you go in the tunnel. Sometimes people don’t sign as they go in but on the way out they run off and sign.”
Miller later recalled the story of a young lady who was teaching primary school in Corinth and who brought her class to the stadium, where her students found her name from 2004 when she ran in one of the competitions.
About a month later, a guy comes in, maybe sixty years old and he is looking down at some place, I don’t know where exactly, and he suddenly said, ‘Oh no, my ex wife! Can I erase it?” We said, ‘No, no, you can’t’. But the problem now is we run out of space. We held the Games in 2012, but in 2016 we had to put them in storage because we don’t have the wall space anymore to display it,” Miller said.
“We’ve had 120 countries, so far. Every one of these countries has had at least one person running at the Revival Games. We never had 120 at the same time. The best year I think was 80 something. It’s mostly Greek and then after that a lot of Americans who come and then after that Europeans. We’re popular with the UK. At our meeting on January 13, we had a couple came from Brussels who are long-time members. She is related here in the village and her daughter worked with me. When I went in Brussels to promote the 2016 Games…there was a reception and there must have been 150 people there and not all of them Greek. There is an audience,” Miller said.
A lot of people come to Nemea to see the museum and the Temple of Nemean Zeus. “It’s unfortunate that the reconstruction has stopped now. We went from three, to five, to nine columns. And people would come every year to see if there was another column,” Miller said. A lot of visitors also come to Nemea for wine tasting. “That’s a big part. But we want them to come here first,” he said, laughing.
“We have visitors here all year around. Tens of thousands of visitors come every year. I’m very proud of that. In 1973, my first year of work here, there was one visitor all year long. I remember there was no fence around the site. The site was very small and there was a road right behind the temple. I had a crew of half a dozen local men who were cleaning weeds and suddenly this big black, old Cadillac – you know, with the tailfin – pulls up. It was a rented car from the Hilton Hotel and out of the back seat jumps a man, whose name was Jim Moore. I met him on the spot. He was an alumnus of University of California. He had some business in Greece. He heard about Nemea and so he came to see it. But he was the only visitor we had all year long, all summer long. But now there is a museum, a site, a temple with a tunnel. It’s growing. I’m very proud of that,” Miller said.
He noted that tourism in Greece is on the rise, but that the country needs to better use the one unique resource that it has – Ancient Greece.
“This is the only place in the world where Ancient Greece is Greece, which is such a part of our culture and our history that there is a constant pull for people. They want to come. Because, Okay, I’m not Greek, but when I first came here, I came because I wanted to learn more about my heritage, about myself, and I think that is a selling point for Greece that can be developed a lot more than it has been,” Miller said.
King Phillip of Macedon and the Ancient Nemean Games
One of the most important historical notes that Miller pointed out were his archeological findings of a strong connection between King Phillip of Macedon – Alexander the Great’s father – and the Ancient Nemean Games.
“I worked a little bit in Macedonia back in the late 60s and 70s, at Amphipolis, so I had a strong sense of connection, unlike most of the archeological world who are Athenocentric. But, there were a few of us who went off there and then I came here, so I was very sensitive to the Macedonian presence and I was aware that the ancient Macedonians were Greek. It had been said for a long time that they weren’t, and that is simply because of Demosthenes, the great Athenian orator and statesman,” said Miller. “Demosthenes would pound the table and says “Phillip is a barbarian. But he says the same thing for his fellow Athenians. If he doesn’t like what you say he calls you a barbarian, no matter what your bloodline is and scholars really have not really understood that but it goes on and on. I worked on this,” Miller added.
During their subsequent digs at the site of Ancient Nemea, more and more evidence proving the connection between Philip’s Macedonian kingdom in northern Greece to the Nemean Games.
“As we dug, artifacts kept appearing that showed that there was a Macedonian connection here…particularly after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. What the excavations also showed something that I had not expected, that this site was destroyed during the Peloponnesian War around 415 BCE. There is a case in the (local) museum with broken tiles and things from the early temple when the site had been abandoned. We found over 5,000 coins in the excavations, none from the first half of the fourth century. Where were the people? We have found thousands and thousands of cups, drinking cups, particularly, and pottery of all kinds. I can hold in my hand all the pottery that comes from the first half of the fourth century. The Games were not here. Nobody was here. They probably went to Argos (35 kilometres south of Nemea), because Argos had been responsible for founding the Games,” Miller said. “Then, later, came the Macedonians and Philip, with his Greek allies. People don’t pay attention to this but the Macedonians fighting in Chaeronea had Greek allies who fought with them against other Greeks who were fighting against them.”
The Macedonians won the battle and Philip set up a forerunner of the League of Nations that later became known as the League of Corinth in modern parlance, according to Miler.
“He set this (League of Nations) up and did it so it would meet every year at the site of the athletic games – Olympia, Isthmia, Delphi, Nemea; Olympia, Isthmia and so on and so fourth… So this is where they had their Geniki Syneleusi (General Assembly) at the Panhellenic centres,” explained Miller.
Miller speculated that Philip created the League of Corinth to use the Panhellenic sites as symbols of having all the of the Greeks get together in one place for an event that did not just involve athletics. “He (Philip) also wanted to have the League under his thumb,” Miller said.
At the time of Philip’s rule, Olympia, Ιsthmia, and Delphi were politically neutral. “The Nemean Games when he (Philip) came around, were initially in downtown Argos. That’s not a very neutral site. It’s like having the United Nations in New York City,” Miller said, laughing. “So I think he wanted them to come back here. But there is another reason. The Macedonian kings trace their ancestry to Argos and to Heracles. That’s why they had the head of the Nemean Lion on their coins…to show a Nemea connection through their own family heritage. That’s another reason he might have wanted to bring them back to their original site,” Miller said, while adding that Philip was the first leader, at the time, to have had the wherewithal and motivation to return the Games to their place of origin.
“The temple was built, the tunnel was done and so on. Politically, economically… I don’t think anybody had had the motivation to do it, but he did. That’s why we find things that show that Macedonia is integral to the structure our Games,” Miller said. “In our museum is a list of all the local representatives of the Ancient Nemean Games scattered throughout the Greek world and there is a section for Macedonia. We also have this tunnel. I was taught that Greeks did not know how to build tunnels or vaults, those sorts of things, but here it is,” Miller said, who also noted that when Greek Archeologist Manolis Andronikos found Phillip’s alleged tomb, it had coins and pottery that match the same dates and materials that were found in Nemea.
“This is another element that shows that there was a Macedonian influence. I’m very proud that I made a contribution to the understanding of the ancient world by including the Macedonians with the Spartans, Cretans, Athenians, and Argites,” Miller quipped.