Temple of Nemesis Found Under A Greek Theater. And Here is Why
The Greek goddess Nemesis dealt out retribution against people who were arrogant before the gods, had received undeserved good fortune, or who had committed certain evil deeds. That’s why the discovery of a first century temple of Nemesis in Mytilene under a contemporary theater may seem a bit of a strange combination at first. But there’s a reason why the two archaeological features may have been deliberately put together.
Locating the Temple of Nemesis
The temple of Nemesis was unearthed under the ruins of an ancient theater in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos. According to Greek Reporter , it was located under large limestone blocks on the theater’s south entry passage. It has been suggested that the choice to place the temple of Nemesis in this part of the theater was deliberate.
The lead excavator at the site, Pavlos Triantafyllides, explained that the temple of Nemesis is likely associated with the gladiator battles that used to take place in the theater’s orchestra area during Roman times. He said ,
As their contests had to conclude with the serving of justice and the awarding of victory to the best gladiator, the existence of a temple dedicated to Nemesis was obligatory.
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Ruins of the temple of Nemesis under the theater. ( ekathimerini)
Archaeologists identified the ruins of the temple when they discovered a stone offerings altar. A series of dedicatory inscriptions written by priests and other prominent citizens of the era dated the temple to the first century AD.
Who was Nemesis?
Nemesis’ job in the ancient Greek pantheon was to enact retribution on the humans that were foolishly proud, overconfident, or arrogant and had annoyed the gods. The root of her name is either the Greek word ”némein,” which means “to give what is due,” or nemêsis and nemô - "dispenser of dues."
Romans called her by the same name or sometimes Invidia “Jealousy” or Rivalitas “Jealous Rivalry” – touching on other aspects of her role. She often appears in art as a winged goddess bearing a sword, balance, lash, rein, or apple branch.
‘Nemesis’ (1837) by Alfred Rethel. ( Public Domain )
She was a punishing deity who sought balance in life. While she was fine with a certain amount of happiness being dealt out to a person, she didn’t agree with anyone getting too much. When happiness was deemed too excessive by Nemesis, especially if it was “excessive” happiness in love, she was quick to swoop in, bearing loss and suffering.
Mytilene’s Ancient Theater
The ancient theater was completed in two construction phases – first in the Hellenistic period, in the third century BC, and later in the Roman era, contemporary with the time the temple was made. It was a large venue that could have held as many as 10,000 spectators.
Remnants of the tribune of the theater in Mytilene. (Rutger2/ CC BY 2.0 )
Although there’s not much to see there these days, ekathimerini reports that the theater was a significant and inspirational site in ancient times and Plutarch apparently said the “theatre was so important in antiquity that Pompey copied its plans to build a theatre like it in Rome in 55 BC which became a model for subsequent buildings.”
The site lost much of it’s structure when blocks were removed in the Middle Ages to build Mytilene castle. Soil erosion further damaged the theater’s ruins. However, interest in the theater has re-emerged in recent years and excavations continue at the site.
Ruins of the Mytilene theater. ( The Historical Tour of Mytilene )
Top Image: Gheorghe Tattarescu’s ‘ Nemesis.’ / Theater of Mytilene, Lesbos. Source: Public Domain / diazoma
Please see my book Nemesis, The Roman State and the Games.