The Olympics may be the best known of ancient Greece’s athletic competitions, but the sanctuary at Olympia was only one of four sites where games were held. Greeks also flocked to games at Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. These so-called panhellenic festivals were governed by a sacred truce that protected people traveling to any of the four sites—where men from throughout the Greek-speaking world competed in boxing, wrestling and track-and-field events. A crown of vegetal matter was awarded to the victors—olive at Olympia, laurel at Delphi, pine at Isthmia and wild celery at Nemea. The best athletes were those who won at least once at each of these games; circuit-victors, they were called.
In 573 B.C. Nemea became the last of the four sites to receive panhellenic status. Nemea sits in a small valley in the Arcadian mountains of the northeastern Peloponnesus. The valley is naturally swampy, viable only for grazing; indeed, the name “Nemea” derives from the verb nemein, meaning “to graze.” In the summer, however, the valley dried out sufficiently for the Nemean Games to be held.