Even though I am not a sports person, even I was enchanted by the grandeur of Olympia. There are some ruins that just look like, well, broken stuff… and there are some that strike amazement into my very soul and the ruins and stories at Olympia did just that for me. It was a little bit of the grandeur of some of the things, and certainly the state of the archaeological finds helped. I’ve been looking forward to writing this particular post because I was so awestruck at the site, but I daresay I won’t do it justice. If I fangirl a little, bear with me.
The site of Olympia is about 45 minutes north of the port of Katàkolo, in western Greece. Katàkolo is a wonderful little port city in and of itself – we enjoyed exploring the city and doing a little shopping. And having some gelato, of course! It was, after all, over 100° Fahrenheit that day. If you find yourself in Katàkolo and don’t want to venture away from the city, it was one of my favorite towns on the trip and you’ll certainly find things to do there.
Olympia itself is a self-contained site – the archaeological museum as well as the site itself are in the same location and it’s a quick walk from one to the other. We started our day in the Olympia Archaeological Museum.
The museum is incredible – it’s filled with the findings from the site of Sanctuary of the Temple of Zeus onsite at Olympia. As you enter the museum, you come first to a room filled with small figures and cauldrons. These are recovered offerings made to Zeus. In Greek mythology, Zeus was king of the gods and he was also the patron god of the Olympic games. Offerings came in all shapes and sizes and from all corners of the Hellenistic world.
The quality of the offerings varied depending on what one could afford. Those who did not have much may offer bronze statuettes of horses – these are the most common offerings in the sanctuary. Those with a bit more to give would offer grand bronze cauldrons with intricate decorations and figures along their rims. The time and materials to create such cauldrons made them more valuable items, and some of the most prosperous families would offer these to Zeus in the Sanctuary.
While there was a period of peace surrounding the Olympic Games, spoilers of war found their way to the Sanctuary as well. In order to assure safe passage to Olympia, there was a mandated cessation of warmongering lest the city-state in question be denied entry to the games (and yes, Sparta quite frequently broke that pact). Those who had been occupied in battle prior to this period would often offer the swords, shields, helmets, and armor of their adversaries to honor the gods.
Beyond the offerings room, we see other treasures recovered from the site itself. The most prominent piece in the museum is Nike of Paionios. In Greek mythos, Nike was the goddess of victory and as such, a fitting figure to be erected at the site of the ancient games. She was dedicated by the Messenians and the Naupaktians to honor the retaking of Sphacteria in 425 BCE.
Nike of Paionios was reassembled from scattered fragments of Parian marble. While she once stood on a pedestal 20′ high before the Temple of Zeus, the temple and its surroundings were damaged by earthquakes and fires. When she fell from such a height and such a weight, she shattered. There are many pieces still missing, including her face.
Regardless of her incomplete state, Nike is an impressive statue. The way Paionios captured movement around her – from her stance to the way wind seems to flow through her draperies. Surely the figure would have been awe-inspiring in its day.
Another notable statue on site is the Hermes of Praxiteles. In the statue, Hermes is featured holding baby Dionysus. As the myth goes, Hera was so enraged by Zeus’s infidelity (for which he’s a bit notorious) that she plotted against him in a plot which eventually led to Zeus killing Dionysus’s mother Semele with her rage lightning. He then rescued the let unborn Dionysus sewed him on to his leg… where he was born a few days later.
After that rather unconventional birth, Zeus delivered Dionysus to Hermes so that he could protect the infant god from the jealous Hera. Really, Hera’s always made out to be the villain in stories of Zeus’s infidelity, but honestly, he’s the one sleeping around, and also, he killed his lover rather than admitting to Dionysus’s parentage so if anybody is the villain here, it’s Zeus.
Praxiteles’s statue, which acknowledges Hermes’s roll as protector of the infant Dionysus, is possibly the only known remaining work of Praxiteles. It was, ironically, recovered from the Temple of Hera at Olympus. Because I’m sure she appreciated having that whole situation flaunted in her holy space.
By far the most impressive part of the Olympia Archaeological museum is the installation in the central hall. Here, visitors can see the incredible pediments from the Temple of Zeus. They have been reassembled as much as possible and strike an imposing scene. I found myself feeling very small looking at them – I had never realized the true grandeur of Greek temples until that moment as I faced statues larger than myself that were simply decorations. Historically, civilizations have put their greatest art into religious structures – whether that be temples or cathedrals – but the Greeks may have outshone all the others in pure artistry fo archeological design and decor.
The pediments are made up of two different scenes. On the west pediment once stood statues commemorating a centuarmachy… that is, a battle between centaurs and humans. At the center stands Apollo, Greek god of the sun.
On the east pediment, Zeus stands in the center as on either side of him Pelops and King Oenomaus. This pediment nods to a great chariot race between Oenomaus and Pelops. As the mythology goes Oenomaus had a beautiful daughter called Hippodamia. Many suitors came asking for her hand, but the king was none too eager to marry away his daughter because of a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son-in-law. Therefore, he told the suitors that if they could best him in a chariot race, they could marry her.
Of course, King Oenomaus knew he wouldn’t lose, because his chariot horses were a gift from Ares. Naturally, all the suitors failed and Oenomaus killed them all after the race.
When Pelops fell in love with Hippodamia, he had no intention of being killed. As such, he bribed the charioteer to replace the bronze lynchpins on the king’s chariot with wax ones. The chariot crashed, Oenomaus was killed (fulfilling the prophecy) and Pelops married Hippodamia.
Then he killed the charioteer so he wouldn’t have to pay the bribe. Because of course he did.
As we venture out into the ruins of Olympia, the compound stretches long and wide with only the outlines of the grand buildings that once stood there. The fall of Olympia came in two waves – man-made and natural disaster. With the rise of Christianity in Greece, a pagan celebration was no only unneeded, it was unwanted and blasphemous. Emperor Theodosius II outlawed he games and burned the building in 426 CE. For a little while, the remains of the site was overtaken by a Christian community who built a basilica, but that and the rest of the site that remained standing was destroyed by earthquakes in 551 CE.
Olympia was not uncovered again until 1829, when French archaeologists discovered it. Excavations began by German archaeologists in 1875. Most of what we see at Olympia is as it was found – columns toppled, pedestals without their statues, temples left in rubble.
Still, it is easy to imagine the once great site that hosted a millennium of Olympic Games.
The ancient Olympics were more than just a sporting event – the games held every four years offered the opportunity for merchants and artisans from all over the Hellenistic world to gather. Figs would be stored in market stalls. Wealthy families would stay in the Roman hotels or the hotel of Leonidas. Athletes would practice in the gymnasium and wrestlers would fight in the palaistra. Athletes and spectators alike would relax in the bath complexes.
Even though you can’t see the buildings in all their grandeur due to centuries of ruin and destruction, the layout of Olympia tells us that it was one of the closest things we have in the ancient world to an exclusive getaway location. The accommodations were grand, entertainment abounded, and there are temples at the site for many different sects of ancient Greek religion. Olympia was a place where people from across the Hellenistic world would come together, set aside their differences, and commune.
As we make our way to the center of the compound, it is impossible to miss the remains of the Temple of Zeus. This temple was the largest in the ancient world and arguably the most important. Artisans from all over competed for the honor of creating sculptures, gargoyles, and other embellishments for the grand building. Most important of these was a large statue that once sat inside. At 41′ tall, Phidias’s Statue of Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was commissioned by the Eleans, and they made sure to hire the same sculptor who had fashioned the statue of Athena for the Parthenon.
While the statue is well represented in ancient text and is universally lauded, it no longer exists today. Its destruction could have been caused by natural means, but more likely that not, it was removed from the site well before its final destruction and was destroyed in another location. Either way, it was a great artistic and historical loss.
Even without its centerpiece and fallen to ruins, the Temple of Zeus took my breath away. The very pieces of the great columns lying in shattered lines about the building are easily as tall as I am. When it was fully constructed, the building stood 68′ high, 98′ wide, and 230′ long. This may not seem impressive in modern standards, but imagine raising those columns without the help of modern technology.
Every time I think about the archaeological feats of the ancient world, I find myself breathless with amazement. Humanity is capable of truly great things. The unfortunate thing is that we are much more inclined to destruction than creation.
Every inch of this temple and its sanctuary was once adorned with art. Some of it, like the pediments, we can see in the Olympia Archaeological Museum. Others, like the Statue of Zeus, have been forever lost to time. Nonetheless, the grandeur of the site and historical accounts of its excessive finery alongside the vast treasury of offerings found within the sanctuary show the Temple of Zeus at Olympia to be one of the most important places in the ancient world. Even in modernity, as it lies in pieces, it is a sight to behold.
There are many other smaller temples at Olympia, though none hold a candle to the grandeur of the temple of Zeus. The temples of Hera and Rhea are on site, as well as impressive colonnades.
One of the more recognizable structures at Olympia other than the Temple of Zeus is the Philippeon. It’s a tholos which one contained ivory and gold statues of the family of Philip II of Macedon. Most notable of these statues was that of Alexander the Great. Like most the other statues once located in Olympia, these no longer stand in the Philippeon.
The Philippeon is the only structure at Olympia that commemorates humans instead of gods. In some ways, this erect of this monument implies the perceived godhood of the humans in question.
Pedestals rise on either side of the pathway that leads from the temples to the competition grounds. Many of these are honorary statues commissioned from artists to honor victories of athletes or great battles. Others are a little less noble.
The ancient Olympics had very strict rules against cheating and bribery. If one was caught cheating – or ones family was caught trying to bribe for a victory – the athlete was disqualified. As if that was not bad enough, the athlete was required to pay for the creation of a bronze statue of Zeus. These statues would be lined along the entry to the Games, set on pedestals which ere inscribed with the names of the cheater and their family along with their indiscretion. It was a great source of shame and yet, people kept trying to get away with it.
While the city and the temples are impressive, the competition grounds are very simple. The athletes would enter beneath an arch much like in modern football games. They would then line up at the stadion track. All around, spectators would be seated on the grass to observe the event. The only people with seats were the judges. The stadion would be performed completely in the nude, and was limited to men only (women had their own Olympics).
There were multiple running events at the Olympics, but the stadion was the most important and the winner most celebrated. Visitors today can try their luck racing down the track – it’s one of the few places the archaeological site that visitors can directly interact with.
There was once a chariot racing track as well, but the remains of that location are yet to be uncovered.
In the early years of the Games, their only importance was to honor the gods. Winners would be presented with a crown made of olive branches and the knowledge that they brought glory to Zeus. There was no monetary prize, no golden medal, no treasure – just honor. When the Romans invaded and involved themselves, the Games were rather neglected aside from an unfortunate rad on the treasury to finance a war. They were not revitalized until the age of Augustus.
The most famous Roman entrant was the Emperor Nero. He delayed the games to assure victory in all chariot races in a single year. Despite being thrown from his carriage in the Olympics, he was still declared the winner. He also added singing and music competitions…which, unsurprisingly, he also won. Not because he deserved it, but because he was Emperor Nero. If you’re not familiar with him, I highly recommend looking into his reign.
There are so many stories and memories woven into the stones that lay at Olympia. Even in the extreme heat, I sat on the hill overlooking the stadion track and thought that I could sit there for hours just marveling over the site. There are some places in the world where the whispers of history reach up through the ages and wrap around you and Olympia is one of those places.
If I were to recommend only one ancient site in Greece, I would recommend Olympia. Not only is it far more easily accessible than sites like the Parthenon, but it’s grandeur and the pieces that remain tell stories of the past. The site feels alive, in its own way. It was an amazing experience.
Next week, I’ll take you on a bit of a tour through the island of Corfu!
Have you ever wanted to go to the Olympics? Would you want to go as a competitor or a spectator? I think I’d like to experience it as a spectator. What about you? Let me know in the comments!