Every four years, people from every corner of the Greek world flocked to Olympia, Greece, to attend the ancient Greek Olympic Games. The Panhellenic character of the Games centered around the cult of Zeus, the king of the gods of Olympus, helped Olympia become a radiating center. The sacred grounds of Olympia, also called altis, included a series of remarkable monuments. These combined the austere aesthetics of the Greek Doric architecture with the rich history and mythology of one of the holiest sites in ancient Greece.
In this article, we will take a trip to ancient Olympia, and together we will experience the top 10 monuments of the birthplace of the Olympics.
10. Pelopion: The Beginning Of Olympia
“Now he has a share in splendid blood-sacrifices, resting beside the ford of the Alpheus, where he has his attendant tomb beside the altar that is thronged with many visitors.” Pindar (First Olympian Ode)
The Pelopion was the most ancient monument in Olympia dating back to 2500 BCE. At first, it was just a tumulus but after a few centuries, it became the center of the cult of King Pelops of Pisa. It is not sure when the old tomb received the name of the legendary hero. Nevertheless, it is certain that this was the center around which Olympia evolved into a Panhellenic Sanctuary in the Archaic period.
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With time, the Pelopion received more and more attention. By the end of the 5th century BCE, the tumulus had an enclosure with a monumental Doric entrance.
9. Treasuries at Olympia
The treasuries were small temple-like buildings constructed by various Greek city-states to store valuable votive offerings.
These were essentially ancient museums used to store but also display art for the sake of their home country. Much like modern national museums, the treasuries were an efficient way of exerting soft power and propagating the wealth of a city over a Panhellenic audience.
One can notice that most of the treasuries belonged to Greek and more specifically Doric cities and colonies: Sicyon, Syracuse, Byzantion, Sybaris, Cyrene, Selinus, Metapontium, Megara and Gela.
The Philippeion was basically a shrine to the cult of Alexander the Great and his family. The building was first constructed by Alexander’s father Philip II after his victory against an alliance of Greek cities in Chaeronea (338 BCE).
After Philip’s assassination, Alexander ordered gold and ivory statues of himself, his parents Philip II and Olympias, as well as his grandparents Amyntas and Euridice. All of the statues were works of the famous sculptor Leochares.
The monument eventually became a true shrine to the cult of Alexander and his family after the Macedonian king was deified during the Hellenistic period.
7. Nike Of Paeonios
As a Panhellenic sanctuary and the seat of a well-known oracle, Olympia was the perfect place to exercise political propaganda.
At the time, Greece was divided into multiple city-states constantly fighting with each other. Since all Greek cities were invited to the ancient Olympics, this was a great place to advertise a city’s wealth and power with a collective offering to Zeus. Often these offerings could take the form of expensive and elegant sculptures, the most impressive of which was the Nike of Paeonius.
The sculptor Paeonios made Nike between 425-420 BCE. The three meters tall statue stood on a column base reaching nine meters. According to its inscription, it was dedicated by the city of Messene and Naupaktos after capturing Sphakteria from the Spartans in 425 BCE. Yet, the inscription did not name the Spartans at all. Why? Pausanias relates, that the Messenians and Naupaktians were scared of the Spartans and preferred not to provoke them.
6. Temple of Zeus
The temple of Zeus in Olympia was one of the most famous in the whole of Greece. It was built in the 5th century B.C.E. and played a pivotal role in the history of the Doric order.
The temple was built of local limestone but its sculptural decoration was of marble from the Greek island of Paros. It also included 102 waterspouts in the form of a lion’s head while on either side of the rood stood a statue of a winged Nike made by the sculptor Paeonios.
The western pediment featured a battle between centaurs and the Greek hero Theseus. The eastern depicted the legendary chariot race between Oenomaus and Pelops. According to the myth, Pelops asked Hippodamia’s hand from her father Oenomaus, the king of Pisa (a city near Olympia). The two men then competed in a chariot race with Hippodamia as the prize. In the course of the race, Pelops killed Oenomaus and married Hippodamia. It was in honor of his fallen enemy that Pelops held the first ancient Greek Olympic Games.
The metopes of the temple depicted the 12 labors of Hercules. It is interesting that at the time the temple was built, the myth of Hercules was still not uniform. In fact, there was no consensus as to how many labors the hero had performed. As a result, many scholars suggest that the metopes of Zeus’ temple played a part in solidifying the version of the 12 labors we know today.
5. The Statue of Zeus
The most important part of the temple was not the temple itself but its contents and more specifically, the statue of Zeus. The statue was the work of Phidias, the most famous sculptor of antiquity who had also made Parthenon’s statue of Athena.
The statue of Zeus was colossal. It reached an estimated height of 12,5 meters and was made of ivory for the naked parts and gold for the rest. The gigantic and luxurious image of the god seated on his throne holding a Nike, on the one hand, and a scepter, on the other, must have been truly exceptional. It is no wonder that Phidias’ Olympian Zeus was listed amongst the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Since the statue was lost sometime in the 4th or 5th century CE, we can only imagine the spectacle of the sunlight being reflected on the gold of the statue.
Near the temple of Zeus, archaeologists have unearthed the workshop where Phidias created the statue. One of the most fascinating finds was a cup with the name Phidias written on it from the 5th century.
4. Zanes And Krypte Stoa
If you were an athlete or a judge at the ancient Olympics, there was only one way to enter the stadium; through the Krypte. This was a small tunnel constructed in the 3rd century BCE that led inside the stadium.
Right before entering the Krypte, all athletes would have to pass in front of a series of, at least, 16 bronze statues of Zeus, called the Zanes. The Zanes were made by some of the greatest sculptors of the time and looked very similar to each other. So far so good, but why place these statues right before the main entrance to the stadium?
The Zanes were financed by the fines inflicted upon athletes who had cheated in the ancient Olympics. By placing them right before the entrance to the stadium, the local authorities were sending a strong message against cheating. Athletes were thus reminded that breaking the rules would result in them paying for one of these expensive statues. What is more, their name would remain there for people to see for centuries to come.
3. The Stadium Of The Ancient Greek Olympic Games
The stadium of Olympia was 192 meters long with a capacity of 45,000 spectators. That was where the Ancient Greek Olympic Games, the greatest athletic event in antiquity, took place. The stadium was also the place where the Heraia, an athletic event in honor of Hera, was held.
Worth noting is that the audience of the Olympics was exclusively male. The only woman allowed to attend the Games was the priestess of Demeter Chamyne.
The stadium was first built towards the middle of the 6th century BCE. When the Games were popularized in the 5th century, the stadium moved a few meters and was redesigned to accommodate a larger number of spectators.
The stadium did not have the appearance that we expect from a stadium today. The audience would be standing or sitting on two slopes that enclosed the stadium from the north and the south. The athletes would compete on a track of hard-packed clay.
The most important events taking place in the stadium included running, disc throwing, the long jump, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), the pentathlon, and the hoplitodromia (running while holding the heavy shield of a hoplite). All equestrian sports took place in the hippodrome.
2. Temple Of Hera
Olympia was a sanctuary in Greece devoted to the cult of Zeus, the father, and the king of the 12 Olympian Gods. However, his sanctuary would be incomplete without the temple of his wife, Hera.
Hera’s temple was built in 590 BCE meaning that it was one of the earliest Doric temples in history. In the beginning, it was dedicated to the cult of both Hera and Zeus. This changed when Zeus’ temple was built, and Hera remained the sole resident of the temple.
The most fascinating part of the building was its columns. Originally, these were made out of oak wood. Naturally, with the passage of time, the wood began rotting. This did not happen with all the columns at once. The locals patiently replaced the ancient wooden columns with stone ones, as soon as they were deemed dangerous. By the time Pausanias visited the temple in the 2nd century AD, there was still one column made of oak left.
The interesting part is that the stone replacements were made under the influence of their respective contemporary styles. Consequently, inside Hera’s temple, one could witness the evolution of the Doric order from the Archaic to the Roman period!
Hera’s temple was also used as a museum to safeguard valuable offerings, like the famous statue of Hermes holding infant Dionysus by Praxiteles.
Today, the temple of Hera plays an important role in the modern Olympics. It is at Hera’s altar that the Olympic fire is lit every four years before embarking on its journey.
1. Nymphaeum: The Monumental Spring Of Olympia, Greece
The Nymphaeum was one of the most beautiful monuments in Olympia. It was built by Herodes Atticus in 160 CE and solved one of Olympia’s great problems; access to water.
Before its construction, access to water during the days of the ancient Greek Olympic Games was limited and only possible through wells. The Nymphaeum changed that. The new building channeled water from a spring outside the altis, thus ensuring access to quality running water.
In Lucian’s dialogue On The Death of Peregrinus, the protagonist nags about the Nymphaeum. In his rather comic speech, Peregrinus links Herodes’ gift with the decadence of Hellenism under Roman rule:
“[Peregrinus] makes himself offensive in Elis; he instigates Greece to revolt against Rome; he finds a man of enlarged views and established character, a public benefactor in general, and in particular the originator of the water-supply to Olympia, which saved that great assembly from perishing of thirst–and he has nothing but hard words for him;
“Greece is demoralized,” he cries; “the spectators of the games should have done without water, ay, and died if need be,”–and so many of them would have done, from the violence of the epidemics then raging in consequence of the drought. And all the time Proteus [Peregrinus’ other name] was drinking of that very water!”
In essence, the Nymphaeum was a monumental spring featuring two tiers of statues. The lower tier showcased statues of Emperor Antoninus’ family. The upper tier was reserved for statues of the dedicator’s family.
In the center of the monument, stood a marble bull with an inscription informing visitors that the Nymphaeum was dedicated to Zeus by Regilla, the priestess of Demeter.
Things now get interesting, as Regilla, except for the priestess of Demeter, was also Herodes’ wife. This certainly was not a coincidence. Could it be that Regilla got her highly respected position thanks to Herodes’ great donation to Olympia? If we take into account that the priestess of Demeter was the only woman allowed to attend the ancient Greek Olympic Games, this is not unlikely.