Theodosios II and the Temple of Nemean Zeus

Theodosios II
and the Temple
of Nemean Zeus

By Stephen G. Miller

In January, 1969, the Professor of Archaeology at the the American School of Classical Studies at Athens gave out assignments to the students for the “Friday trips”. These were the excursions that Professor Vanderpool led every Friday during the winter to some archaeological site in Attica, and each student was to make a report on one of those sites. He assigned me a report on the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, and informed me that a basic element in my bibliography would be a recent monograph entitled Η ΑΝΑΣΤΗΛΩΣΙΣ ΤΗΣ ΣΤΟΑΣ ΤΗΣ ΒΡΑΥΡΩΝΟΣ by a young scholar named Charalambos Bouras.[1]
   It frightened me. I had never read modern Greek, much less a technical presentation of an important ancient monument. But it worked out, and I learned a tremendous amount of methodology and vocabulary. I also encountered for the first time the names of Orlandos, Karouzou, Papadimitriou, Petrakos, Lazaridis, and Triantis. And especially the name of Travlos who was to become my guru and confidant in the Stoa of Attalos.
   Today I hold in my hands that somewhat yellowed, somewhat battered, and very coffee-stained monograph, and I thank Charalambos Bouras for what he taught me. The following is offered as a token of my gratitude for a life-long lesson in what it means to care about Greek antiquities.
   Since 1797 the Temple of Nemean Zeus has been known to the world by the three columns that had remained standing since their construction around 330 B.C. (Fig. 1).[2]

The Temple of Nemean Zeus from the Southwest in 1766.

That image has changed recently with the reconstruction of six columns at the northeast corner of the temple (Fig. 2).[3]

The Temple of Nemean Zeus from the Southwest in December 2012.

   The reconstruction project has revealed many details of the history of the temple, and it may seem ironic that the purpose of this paper is to understand its destruction. But the accumulation of knowledge over the past decades allows a very interesting picture of that destruction, its causes, and its date.
   Let it be said at the beginning that the older notion of earthquake as the agent of the temple’s destruction has been disproven and we can see clearly the hand of man at work here although neglect and lack of maintenance also played a role, albeit much less than man.[4]
   Here we need to look quickly at the history of the site of Nemea. We must also note the annual flooding of the valley which prohibited agricultural cultivation and seems to have given its name from the verb νέμω – I graze (my goats, sheep, etc.). It could be used in the summer for athletic festivals, but otherwise it was a pasture.
   We can say with some security that the Games left Nemea in 271 B.C. and never returned.[5] Thus, when Pausanias visited Nemea in the mid-2nd century after Christ (2.15.2), he saw a site that had been abandoned for more than four centuries. The roof of the temple, he tells us, had collapsed and the cult statue was missing.
   The situation changed dramatically when an artificial river was cut that drained the valley and made it arable. This probably happened in the last two decades of the 4th century after Christ.[6] A small farming community was established with scattered dwellings and extensive irrigation trenches.[7] They buried their dead in cemeteries at the southeastern and northwestern corners of the old Temple of Nemean Zeus.[8] This clearly implies that the pagan temple had been converted into a Christian place of worship, presumably with some sort of roofing over at least a part of it.
   This use of the temple lasted for a generation or two at the most; thereafter the Basilica came into existence at the expense of the temple as can be seen in the construction of the Basilica itself. This was effected by the excavation of trenches which were then filled with broken blocks and a pozzolan-like cement which forms an extremely hard and durable binder for the broken stone.[9] Nearly all of the broken stone can be identified as coming from an earlier building and nearly all of that is from the Temple of Nemean Zeus (e.g. the large fragment of a Corinthian interior column in the lower left foreground of Fig. 3).

The Early Christian Basilica at Nemea from the South with the Temple of Nemean Zeus in the background in December 2013.

 On top of these foundations at the level of the Basilica’s floor were set whole blocks from the cella wall of the Temple (Fig. 4).
 Cella wall blocks from the Temple of Nemean Zeus reused as the first course above floor level in the Early Christian Basilica.
The result was a church of typical plan with a nave and flanking aisles, an apse, and a narthex at the opposite western end (Figs. 5-6).

Aerial view of the Early Christian Basilica at Nemea from the West, 2010.
Restored plan of the Early Christian Basilica at Nemea.

At the time of excavation, the bases for two porch columns three meters west of the narthex were preserved,[10] but they had disappeared by the time our work began in 1973.[11] The reuse of the interior Corinthian columns of the temple to divide the nave from the aisles meant that. visually at least, there was a reminiscence of the old temple inside the new church. On the north side a Baptistry was added later, although the difference in time between the constructions was probably not very great.
   When was that time? Three coins found in the construction fill of the Baptistry drain seem to indicate a date within the reign of Theodosius II, and probably relatively early in his reign although more precision is not possible (Fig. 7)[12]

Coins from the construction of the Baptistry of the Early Christian Basilica at Nemea.

Other coins from the period of use of the Bapistry also indicate such a date. One example was discovered over the floor of the Baptistry beneath fallen roof tile destruction debris.[13] A twin to that coin was found in dumped fill from the 1924 excavation of the Bapistry, out of stratigraphic context but nonetheless reinforcing a Theodosian date for the construction and use of the Bapistry.[14] Such a date is also supported by a coin discovered in hard fill where floor tiles of the Baptistry were missing.[15] It is not contradicted by another found in the crack between two floor tiles of the Baptistry.[16]
   Excavated evidence for the construction date of the Basilica proper, although it was clearly anterior to that of the Baptistry, does not exist.
   There is, however, legal evidence in the Theodosian Code which can shed light on the Nemea situation. First, a basic question must be asked: What caused the relatively new community to abandon and destroy its place of worship in the old temple, and to construct a new basilica out of its debris? There seem to be two possible answers: the force of edict from the central government, or the desire for a new structure that reflected the needs and desires of the people in the Nemean Christian community. These are not mutually exclusive and might well have co-existed and complemented one another. We cannot know what was in the hearts and minds of the locals, but we can surmise the official policy of the central government from various decrees entered in the Theodosian Code.
   In this context I can do no better than to quote David Hunt who has summarized the relevant evidence in the code.[17]
Theodosius’ (I) anti-pagan legislation of the early 390s (16.10.10-12), despite the apparent comprehensiveness of its prohibitions, is in fact directed at the behavior of public figures, and not at the population at large; and later laws (399) continue to assert the protection of temple buildings and local festive gatherings (16.10.15, 17-18). We have to wait until November 435, and one of the latest texts in the Code (16.10.25), for a clear-cut pronouncement from Constantinople which orders magistrates to destroy all remaining pagan shrines and replace them with the ‘sign of the venerable Christian religion’. This law contains a revealing phrase, ‘if any shrines still remain intact’ (‘si qua etaim nunc restant integra’].
In other words, if the Temple of Nemean Zeus was still standing intact in A.D. 435, its destruction would have been forced then.
The evidence of the coins presented above, however, and the chronological priority of the Basilica to the Baptistry, suggest that the construction of the Basilica, and the destruction of the Temple, may have begun earlier than 435. The decree of that year, as noted above by Hunt, implies that temple destruction had been going on for some time although not mandated by the central authorities.[18] Indeed, Theodosius’ decree may have been designed to give legitimacy to an existing situation. It recognizes, but does not cause, what Hunt calls the advancement of “the destruction of paganism . . . at the hands of missionary bishops, fanatical monks and pious individuals.” We should not imagine Theodosius with a sledge-hammer in hand, or encouraging those who are wielding the sledge-hammers, but as coming along behind to tidy up the debris.
We should also note that already in A.D. 407 the destruction of altars and statues – at least those which were being used for pagan worship - had been approved (16.10.19). The same decree redirected tax income which had benefited pagan temples to soldiers, and directed that pagan temples be used for public, secular activities.
Thus the religious, Christian use (as opposed to public, secular use) of the pagan temple was implicitly denied, and that this could have been the legal prod for the “recycling” of the old Temple of Nemean Zeus. Hence we can posit, if not prove, that the destruction of the Temple of Zeus and the construction of the Early Christian Basilica of Nemea is to be dated to ca. A.D. 410, with the Baptistry added within a decade or two.

ADDENDUM – A Campanile?

Southeast of the apse of the Basilica, about 3.30 m. distant at the closest, is an enigmatic circular structure, or rather the foundations for a circular structure (Figs. 6, 8).

Circular foundation Southeast of the Early Christian Basilica (apse of Basilica at left), December 2013.

Discovered in 1964, it has never been published although it occurs in the background of several published photographs.[19] It is about 2.20 m. in diameter, and has a preserved height of 1.10 m. It appears to have a (deliberate?) offset in the uppermost 0.20 m. which would reduce the diameter to about 2.05 m. at the top, but the “offset” may be due to the irregular nature of its construction.
   The excavator noted on the day of discovery that the upper surface was covered with a layer of concrete (sic).[20] Half a century later, there remain only crumbly fragments of cement scattered over the top, but clearly this had been intended as the bedding for whatever formed the upper part of the monument. That surface is level with the top of the foundations of the apse of the Basilica as was noted by the excavator who also understood that the circular foundations were constructed in the same manner as the Basilica foundations: a circular pit was excavated and then filled with broken blocks from an earlier building or buildings bonded by the same hard pozzolan-like cement.[21] Nonetheless, he concluded that the foundations were for a post-Byzantine oil-press or something similar and noted that they were “too solid to destroy.”[22] We can be grateful for that.
   The excavator seems to have based his post-Byzantine date on a single sherd of sgraffito pottery found on the surface of what he identified as the ground level for the circular foundations (that is, at the top of the extant remains). But the area east of the apse of the Basilica and surrounding the circular foundation was filled with 13 simple tile-lined graves of the middle Byzantine period found in association with several coins of Manuel I (AD 1143-1180; C 2336, 2478-2480, 2579, 2580). The graves had been cut through the “ground level” of the circular foundation and the sgraffito sherd, we can suspect, belongs to those graves and not to the circular foundations. But most significantly one grave was set hard against the circular foundation on its north side, and another was about 0.60 m. distant from the south side.[23] The circular foundation must therefore be earlier than the Byzantine graves and must represent an adjunct to the Early Christian Basilica.
   What did the foundation support? The only answer that I can offer is that there was a bell tower built on them. However, it is commonly believed that bells and bell towers came much later than our Basilica. We read, for example, that “belfries appear in Byzantine architecture in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.”[24] Another view is that that bells were introduced to Byzantium from the West in the 9th century, when the Venetian doge Ursus Partecipazio sent to the emperor Michael 3rd metallic bells which were housed in a tower especially built before the exo-narthex of Haghia Sophia for this purpose.[25]
   Of course, before there can be a bell tower, there must be a bell.
   Small bells are known from Archaic Greece and later, and in some cases were clearly used to announce time such as the watches of guards[26] or the opening of the fish market.[27] But all the known examples are small and not to be associated with large bells used to ring out calls to worship, although the bronze lebetes of mourning Spartan women and of the “gong of Dodona” suggest something between a large bell and a drum.[28]
   Early Jewish tradition, likewise, refers to small golden bells at the hem of the tunic worn by the high priest.[29] These were later explained as a means of announcing the arrival of the priest in the tabernacle.[30] But I know of no references to a stationary large bell used to announce times or summons to assembly.
   From the Roman period there are references to what might be a bell, but could equally well be something more like a gong since the use of the generic word aes does not allow a more precise image.[31] And it is true that, so far as I can discover, no remains of the Early Christian period have been found that could be identified with a bell.
   Nonetheless, there are clear literary references to church bells used as a call to worship in the 6th century after Christ.[32] These are all off-handed references that indicate a familiarity and a lack of novelty. Indeed, Gregory of Tours, in relating events in the life of Sidonius Apollinaris, makes just such a casual mention of church bells in the third quarter of the 5th century.[33]
   Here we may note the tradition that associated the invention of (church) bells with St. Paulinus of Nola (ca. A.D. 354-June 22, 431) in Campania. Paulinus moved to Nola in 395 and embarked on a grand construction program that included an aqueduct and several basilicas, with the one at Nola itself of particularly large size and rich decoration. He became Bishop of Nola around A.D. 409 - in other words, he is active just in time to begin bell towers of which Nemea could present an early example.
   On the other hand, the validity of this tradition has been doubted, especially since in his extensive writing Paulinus makes no mention of bells or towers, which is especially surprising in the context of his detailed descriptions of the Basilicas at Fundi and at Nola.[34] Modern critics have noted that the word nola refers to a small bell, and campana (campanile) derives from Campania.[35] Hence the “false” tradition of Paulinus and the invention of bell towers. But here the argument is clearly circular. It is just as possible that Nola and Campania provided the words for bells and bell towers because that is where the objects originated.
   Proof for the suggestion of an early 5th century bell tower at Nemea is not available, but that circular foundation was intended to support something. And here is a striking coincidence. On June 22 each year the city of Nola celebrates a festival in honor of St. Paulinus which is called the “Gilgio” (Lily) which derives from the story that Paulinus went to North Africa to rescue local children who had been kidnapped. On his successful return with the children, grateful mothers threw lilies at his boat.
   The modern festival’s highpoint is a parade with a model of St. Paulinus’ boat, and eight spires, each carried by a traditional guild (butchers, bakers, tailors, etc.). The spires – which are decorated with various papier-mâché motifs over a wooden frame - have a height of about 25 meters and end in a point (which is frequently surmounted by a cross or an image of the saint). At the bottom of the spire, and above a larger base used to carry it, the form is an irregular pentagon, the size of which is reported variously to be between a meter and three meters on a side.[36] That such a spire is the right size for the Nemea base, and that the base is the right date for St. Paulinus, must surely be only coincidental?

Festa dei Gigli a Nola.

Ancient Nemea
April 1, 2014.


Barla, Ch. 1959. Μορφή και εξέλιξις των βυζαντινών κωδωνοστασίων (Athens 1959, Μονογραφία της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία 45).
Birge, D.E. L.H. Kraynak, and S.G. Miller 1992. Nemea I, The Sacred Square, the Xenon, and the Bath. Berkeley.
Blegen, C.W. 1925. “The American Excavation at Nemea, Season of 1924,” Art and Archaeology 19:175-184 [179-181].
Blegen , C.W. 1927. “Excavations at Nemea 1926,” AJA 31:421-444.
Chandler, R., W. Pars, and N. Revett. 1787. Antiquities of Ionia II. London.
Clemmensen, M., and R. Vallois. 1925. “Le Temple de Zeus a Némée,” BCH 49:1-20.
Cook, A.B. 1902. “The gong at Dodona,” JHS 22:5-28.
Geagan, D.J. 1964. Nemea Excavation Notebook #21.
Hunt, D. 1993. “Christianising the Roman Empire,” in The Theodosian Code, edited by J. Harries and I. Wood, 143-160. Oxford.
Knapp, R.C. and J.D.Mac Isaac 2005. Nemea III: The Coins. Berkeley.
Krautheimer. R., and S. Ćurčić 1986. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 4th edition. Middlesex.
Landon, M. 2004. “The Basilica and the Early Christian Community,” Nemea, a Guide to     the Site and the Museum, 2nd edition edited by S. G. Miller: 94-110. Athens.
Miller, S.G. 1976. “Excavations at Nemea, 1975,” Hesperia 45:174-202.
Miller, S.G. 1977. “Excavations at Nemea, 1976,” Hesperia 46:1-26.
Miller, S.G. 1981. “Excavations at Nemea, 1980,” Hesperia 50:45-67.
Miller, S.G. 1986. "Poseidon at Nemea," ΦΙΛΙΑ ΕΠΗ ΕΙΣ Γ.Ε. ΜΥΛΩΝΑΝ: 261-271. Athens.
Miller, S.G. 2001. Nemea II, the Early Hellenistic Stadium. Berkeley.
Miller, S.G. 2010. Indiana Miller and the Temple of Nemean Zeus. Athens.
Miller, S.G. 20??. “Excavations at Nemea, 1997-2001,” Hesperia forthcoming.
Miranda, F. de 1786. Ο ΜΙΡΑΝΤΑ ΣΤΗΝ ΕΛΛΑΔΑ. Athens 2009.
Pease, A.S. 1904. “Notes on Some Uses of Bells among the Greeks and Romans,” HSCP 15: 29-59.
Saradi, H.G. 2006. The Byzantine City in the Sixth Century. Athens.
Sirks, A.J.B. 2007. The Theodosian Code. Norderstedt.
Villing, A. 2002. “For Whom Did the Bell Toll in Ancient Greece? Archaic and   Classical Greek Bells at Sparta and Beyond,” BSA 97:223-295.
Walsh, P.G. 1966. Letters of St. Paulinus of Nola I. New York.
Yegül, F. 1992. Baths and Bathing in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass., and        London.

[1] See Miller 2010, 51.
[2] Chandler, Pars, and Revett 1797, pl. 15. The drawing was actually made during a visit in 1766 but only published three decades later. Meanwhile, in June, 1786, the three standing columns had been recorded in his diary by Miranda 1786, 43-45, but erroneously identified as a temple of Herakles.
[3] This reconstruction took place in two phases: 1984, and 1999-2014. The project of actual reconstruction began after a detailed discussion among representatives of the Archaeological Service and the American School on January 24, 1984, including the honoree of this volume. See Miller 2010, 98.
[4] Miller 1986; Miller 2010, 85-90.
[5] Miller 2001, 1, 8n13, 93-101.
[6] John Mac Isaac, in his analysis of the numismatic evidence posits the birth of the “new Nemea” early in the second quarter of the 5th century, but notes that the number of coins grew substantially already with “the issues of Theodosius I and his house (A.D. 379-395)”; see Knapp and Mac Isaac 2005, 185. See also Landon 2004, 108.
[7] Landon 2004, 104-106 and figs. 72-74. See also Miller 1976, 202, for a substantial 6th century house or villa 500 meters south of the Sanctuary of Zeus
[8] Landon 2004, 107-108; Miller 1977, 3, and Miller 1981, 48-50.
 For the transformation of pagan temples into Christian churches, see Saradi 2006, 358-359.
[9] The same construction technique was used for a 5th century industrial structure at the west end of the Bath; Miller 20??, xxx
[10] Blegen 1927, 432 fig. 9, and 435; cf. Birge 1992 et al. 101 fig. 111.
[11] They seem to have been missing already a decade earlier for they do not appear on a plan of the Basilica-Xenon drawn at that time by C.K. Williams; see Birge 1992 et al. 102 fig. 113.
[12] One of the coins is from the reign of Theodosius II (A.D. 402-450; C 2410); one is from Arcadius, Honorius, or Theodosius II (A.D. 395-408; C 2421); and the third is from Valentinian II (A.D. 375-392; C 2406).
   For these and the other coins cited below, see J. Mac Isaac in Knapp and Mac Isaac 2005, 191-237.
[13] This is a coin of Theodosius II or Valentian III (A.D. 425-455; C 2516).
[14] This is another coin of Theodosius II or Valentian III (A.D. 425-455; C 2513).
[15] This is a coin of Marcian (A.D. 450-457; C 2043).
[16] This is a coin of Valentinian II ((A.D. 375-392; C 2432). Two other coins are a little later, but their association with the construction of the Baptistry cannot be shown. One of Leo I (A.D. 457-474; C 2544) was found at the bottom of a trench of the 1920’s next to the north wall of the Baptistry while cleaning the wall and floor in that area. The other of Marcian (A.D. 450-457; C 2527) was discovered in a robbing trench of the north wall of the Xenon which could have happened before or during or after the construction of the Basilica. These coins should be regarded as from the period of use of the Basilica.
[17] Hunt 1993, 157.
It should also be noted that the 16th and last book of the Theodosian Code which focuses upon ecclesiastical matters has been understood as a later, hastily constructed, addition to the more tradition body of materials in the first 15 books. See Sirks 2007, 52, 59, 80-82, et alibi. Hence 16.10.25 might be thought of as a last minute creation intended to beat the publication deadline of the Code as a whole.
[18] There is, however, an earlier law of 399 (16.10.16) which decrees that temples in country districts [as opposed to cities?] are to be destroyed “without tumult.” The instances of ruinous temples being used as churches seem not to be involved with this decree.
[19] E.g. Birge 1992 et al. 101 fig. 112, lower right corner. Note also the aerial photograph (fig. 110) and the drawing (fig. 113).
[20] Geagan 1964, 23 (for May 28, 1964). I believe he intended to say “cement”.
[21] The same technique as the Industrial Structure west of the Bath, above n. 9.
[22] Geagan 1964, 152-153.
[23] Grave C/29-2 (Geagan 1964, 36) and Grave B/29-9 (Geagan 1964, 58), respectively.
[24] Krautheimer and Ćurčić 1986, 513n.18a.
[25] Barla 1959, 4.
[26] Thucydides 4.135; Plutarch, Aratos 7.
[27] Strabo 14.2.21.
[28] Villing 2002, 293. Also Cook 1902 and Pease 1904.
[29] Exodus 28.33-34; cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 3.59-60 and Jewish War 56.231.
[30] Cosmas, The Christian Topography 203 & 204.
[31] Martial, Epigram14.163: entitled “tintinabulum”. “Redde pilam: sonat aes thermarum . . .” This is perhaps something like the suspended bronze disk with a accompanying clapper from Pompei; see Yegül 1992, 38 fig. 40.
[32] Gregory of Tours, Historiae Francorum III.15, VI.11, VI.25 and Libri de virtutibus sancti Martini episcopi I.33. Particularly interesting is the use of a cord to ring a bell (funem illum de quo signum commovetur) in De Vita Martini I.28.
   Note also the campana in the Justinianic Digest 41.1.12, of A.D. 530-533.
[33] Gregory of Tours, Historiae Francorum II.23.
[34] Paulinus of Nola, Letters 32.10-23.
[35] See, for example, Walsh 1966, 208n65: “The theory that Paulinus invented church-bells comes not from any evidence in his writings but from the use of the words nola and campanile for bells.”
[36] The fullest description I have found is HERE.
See also and many others.
 There are American versions of this festival although dedicated to other saints. See.


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