Driving up from the south-west Peloponnese, the site of Ancient Olympia is incredibly difficult to find. There are modern signs for the site on the approach roads, but they are misleading. No sooner have you turned off in their direction than you are out in the middle of the countryside with no other road sign in site, hoping against hope that round the next bend, Ancient Olympia will hove into site.
After an hour of fruitless driving, we decided to head of the modern town of Olympia and within a few short minutes had found the ancient site.
Ancient Olympia is a huge site and mercifully shaded by pine trees (planted in the early twentieth century, according to Peter Levi, on the orders of Queen Sophia) and olive trees. The first buildings that you encounter on the site are the Gymnasium and the Palaestra, an area used by athletes for training in running, javelin and discus throwing, and wrestling, surrounded on three sides by a portico.
Traditionally the first games took place here in 776 BC, at the conjunction of the Alpheios and Kladios rivers, under the Hill of Kronos, but there is evidence that the site was inhabited from c.10,000 BC.
With very few exceptions, which we’ll come to shortly, most of the site is in ruins with just the stone outlines of walls visible and many columns, tops of pillars and stones spread across the site. The destruction was caused by a fire and two earthquakes in the 6th century and to a lesser extent by the attacks on pagan sites sanctioned by Theodosius I. Until the nineteenth century excavations, Olympia was covered in several meters of silt and it was believed that this was due to the nearby rivers flooding. However, it is now thought that the silting over of the site is due to a succession of tsunamis.
Here is the Prytaneion where the athletes stayed and were entertained at official expense:
One of the parts of the site that is still standing is the Philippeion, begun by Philip II of Macedon after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC and completed by his son, Alexander the Great. This circular building contained statues, no longer present, of Philip and his family.
Beyond the Philippeion is the oldest building on Olympia, the Temple of Hera (wife of Zeus). Built originally in the seventh century and then rebuilt in the sixth, it is also one of the most complete on the complex. It was here also that the Praxiteles statue of Hermes (I’ll deal with that in a separate post) was found.
In front of the Temple of Hera is an insignificant looking area which was the altar of Hera, and it was here that the Olympic flame was originally lit.
To the right of the altar and the temple is a building called the Nymphaion, a water feature with fountains and basins. It was a gift to Olympia from Herodes Antipas, a second century AD Roman Hellenophile.
Next to the Nymphaion stand the treasuries of some of the city states (mainly Greek city states in Italy) that took part in the Olympic Games and which house votive offerings (eg bronze statues).
A series of plinths line the processional way to the Stadium: these originally held inscriptions describing fines imposed on athletes for cheating and were meant as a reminder to the athletes on their way to the stadium of the penalties of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The entrance to the Stadium is beneath a magnificent stone arch, which may originally have been a tunnel.
Amazingly, the 200 meter long stadium was only discovered in the 1940s, but it’s really what Olympia is all about.
At first the main race at the Olympic Games was a race from one end of the Stadium to the other. It was then extended to two lengths and eventually included other elaborations, such as running in armour.
Races were run barefoot (and naked) and the start line has two parallel lines, one for the toes of the right foot and one for the toes of the left foot:
The Stadium could hold 15-20,000 people or rather men, as no women (apart from the Priestess of the Temple of Hera) were allowed on site. Ordinary people, slaves and women had to watch the Games from the Hill of Kronos.
Moving on from the Stadium we walked down to the Octagon and the House of Nero. It is really difficult to get a feel for the octagon shape from the remains. Nero had a house built here when he came to the Games in 67 AD to take part in a chariot race in the Hippodrome. Strangely, he managed to have himself declared the winner, despite being thrown out of his chariot and not finishing the race.
One of the most impressive and biggest buildings on the whole site, built between 470-456 BC, is the Temple of Zeus to whom the Games were dedicated. The Temple is surrounded by the debris of massive, fallen columns. One of the columns was restored in 2004 by the German Archaeological Society on the occasion of the Athens Olympics.
The Temple originally held one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus by Phidias. It must have been an enormous and impressive piece of work, amplified by the fact that a pool of water probably stood in front of it. After the Theodosian campaign against paganism, it was taken off to Byzantium where it was destroyed by fire some time in the fifth century.
The famous altar of Zeus consisted of a huge ash pile from the remains of animal sacrifices which eventually was 20 feet high. At each games 100 oxen were sacrificed to Zeus on the morning of the 3rd day of the Games. After the Games the ashes were damped down, plastered over and the top flattened.
Between the Temple of Zeus and the Temple of Hera is the Pelopeia , a curiously shaped area with a grass mound in the middle, dedicated to the hero, Pelops.
In the south-west area of the site is the Leonidaion, a sort of hotel for visitors to the Games.
At the south-west extremity of the site, beyond the Leonidaion lie a Roman house and a Greek bath house.
One of the more complete buildings on the site is what is described as the workshop of the sculptor, Phidias. There is a small vessel on display in the museum with the engraving “I belong to Phidias” on the bottom. The base of the workshop building is stone, but on top of that a Christian basilica has been built-in red brick. It is a curious mix of pagan and Christian in one building, although I wonder why they chose this particular building to convert to a church as opposed to one of the temples.
The Games were eventually stopped by Theodosius I in 393 AD and the eternal flame which had burnt for over 1000 years was extinguished.
It is sad to see the site of what was an incredible series of events in Antiquity reduced to such ruins. We were indeed very grateful to Queen Sophia for the shade of the pine trees as the heat was very fierce on the day we visited. The area surrounding Olympia is very well landscaped with oleanders and other plants and, as cars and tour buses have to park at a short distance from the site entrance, it is lovely and peaceful. There were waves of tours as we walked around, but it is such a huge site that it never felt crowded.