TWD Video Downloads TWD Home Page TWD News Page TWD Journal Archive TWD Image Archive TWD Photo Gallery TWD Musings Index

Olympia 1989

Map of BikeTrek

5/14/89 - After a night of fitful sleeping on the noisy train I arrived before dawn in Olympia and walked through the sleeping town trying to get my bearings for finding the ancient city. Pausanias had mentioned that the city lay at the junction of the Kladeus River and the Alpheus River so I figured that if I could find the rivers, I might find the ancient ruins. Again I had the great luck at arriving at an archaeology site that was closed for the sabbath so that if I could only find it, I would be free to wander it with my guidebook without being annoyed by the hoi polloi. I pushed my bike along the gravel that had been an earlier bed of the Alpheus until the sky lightened enough to permit me to see the outline of Cronos Hill which had also been used as a reference by Pausanias for finding the site. As the sun rose I spotted some of the higher columns of the ruins and hid my bike in the bushes so that I could climb the low wall that surrounds the precinct (peribolos) and approach the ruins.

The traditional date for the first Olympic Games is 776 BC, calculated by the ancient Greeks themselves by using a list of winners, but there was almost certainly activity at the site of Olympia before that. The Greeks had only been literate since the eighth century BC, so the names of earlier winners may well have been forgotten. In historical times, control over the games was disputed between the town of Elis and the now lost town of Pisa. This may explain the fact that there are two different foundation legends. According to one version the games commemorated a footrace held by the Idaean Herakles and his brothers for a branch cut from a grove wild olive trees at the site. However, most people believed that the games were begun by the mythological hero Pelops after whom the Peloponnese (“Pelop's island”) was named. Like most Greek heroes, he came from a dysfunctional family— his father, Tantalus, once cooked him up and served him to the gods to see if they could tell the difference between human and animal flesh (they could). His lover was the god Poseidon who was associated with horses as well as the sea. Through him, Pelops had a team of the finest horses and had acquired great skill as a driver. When he grew up, he began to court Hippodameia, the daughter of Oenomaos of Pisa. The king had an incestuous passion for his daughter, according to some, and let it be known that, while anyone was free to carry her off, he would pursue and slay the hapless suitor if he could. Thirteen of them had already perished when Pelops arrived on the scene. He bribed Oenomaos' charioteer to sabotage the vehicle so that his master was thrown and killed. Pelops married Hippodameia and ruled the land quite happily for a time (although that didn't last). After his death, a shrine was built for him within the precinct

Map of Olympia

By luck my peribolos climb had landed me near the temple dedicated to the cult of Hera on the southern slopes of Cronos Hill from where I could work my way counter clockwise around the precinct. Construction of the Heraion began in the middle of the 7th century BC marking the increasing importance of Olympia as a Pan-Hellenic sanctuary. The Heraion is one of the oldest examples of monumental temple architecture in Greece. Originally the small temple, 10 x 39.5 meters, lacked both naos and opithodomos; and it wasn’t until nearly 150 years later, around 600 BC, that an opithodomos and peristyle were added; features which increased the dimensions of the temple to 18.5 x 50 meters. The substructure of the naos was constructed from local limestone, while the upper walls were constructed from unbaked brick. Terracotta tiles roofed the building. The entablature and the original columns were made of wood. The wooden columns were eventually replaced over centuries with stone ones according to the style of the period they were replaced in. These replacements occurred from the Archaic to the Roman period; when Pausanias visited Olympia around the middle of the 2nd century AD, he noted that a column of oak still stood in the opithodomos. The cella was of the type known as a hecatompedon, meaning it was 100 Greek feet in length, and had porches at the front and rear, each with a pair of columns in antis. There are two rows of four columns running the length of the cella but the builders apparently did not trust the load-bearing capacity of these, so they alternated the columns with short partition walls creating a series of alcoves along each side.The Heraion housed several important statues and offerings. Among them, a megalithic statue of Hera seated on her throne (of which only the head has survived), the bronze disk of Iphitus, the carved chest of Cypselos, and the Hermes of Praxiteles. The temple stood for almost 1000 years, until the late 3rd century AD.

The Prytaneion stands to the north-west of Hera's temple. In this building, official guests and the winners of the Olympic games were served feasts. It was built during the end of the 6th century BC, though it was rebuilt since then. The Altar of Hestia where the eternal flame for the original Olympic games once burned was housed in this building. Traditionally, the Olympian priests would mix clay, water, and ashes from the altar and smear them them on the Great Altar of Zeus once a year. Priests, who tended Hestia's fire, lived and ate in the Prytaneion. While the priests entertained many dignitaries, the prime function of the priests was overseeing the religious aspect of Olympia, for which every Greek had a zealous attitude. No sacrifice, no ceremony, no swearing in of judges or contestants, no treaty council could be held unless at least one of the Prytaneis was present.

Olympia and Alpheus River from Cronos Hll Olympia Heraion Interior of the Heraion Cella Doric Capital of Heraion
Hermes by Praxiteles Heraion from Prytaneion with Exedra of Herodes Atticus Prytaneion Prytaneion

As I walk toward the Palaistra from the Prytaneion I looked to the right, close to the banks of the Kladeus River,where I could see the bases of columns for the Gymnasion where athletes were privileged to exercise and take final training for the games. I wandered in and out of the ruins and sat where the athletes disrobed, oiled, and washed themselves; before walking to the central court for practice. The Gymnasion was a large rectangular building with central court, enclosed by a doric colonnade. It was the training area for practice in the foot races, javelin throwing, and discus throwing. A monumental vestibule ("propylon") was added to the SE corner of it at the end of the 2nd cent. B.C.

The Palaistra was used as an exercise area for wrestlers, boxers and jumpers. It was a peristyle court (meaning it was surrounded by an internal colonnade forming shaded porticoes on all four sides). It was roughly square (66.35 x 66.75 metres) with a pair of entrances on the south side, one in each of the corners. These had small porches supported by pairs of Corinthian columns and led, by way of antechambers, to a long, shallow hall lined with benches and faced with Ionic columns— presumably the apodyterion (changing room). On the opposite side of the courtyard was the ephebion, a room where the competitors could relax and mingle. A doorway in the centre of the north wing led to the Gymnasion. Other rooms were provided where the athletes would be rubbed with oil and scaped down with a bronze strigil— usually done by a friend— and for storage.

To the south of the Palaistra I found the scant ruins of the Theokleon. This was the seat of the theokoloi, the priests of Olympia, but also the residence of the sanctuary staff, which included soothsayers, interpreters, bearers of sacrificial animals, musicians and a woodmonger who provided the wood used in sacrifices. The original structure dates to the mid-fifth century BC, but was later remodeled and enlarged more than once. It consisted of eight rooms round a central court and covered an area of eighteen metres square. Four of the rooms had access to the court, each through a stoa of two columns in antis. The four rooms occupying the corners of the building opened into these. In the Hellenistic period three more rooms were added on the east side, and a new wing (38.58 x 40.36 metres) consisting of a large peristyle court and many rooms was constructed in Roman times.

Next I came to the ruins of Pheidias' Workshop, where Pheidias crafted the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The rectangular workshop was built of shell-limestone and had the same dimensions as the cella of the Temple of Zeus, which allowed the artist better to judge the appearance of the statue in its setting. It was revetted with gold, ivory, and glass plaques over a wooden core and likely was transported in pieces and then assembled inside the Temple of Zeus, where the god is depicted as seated on a gold throne decorated with mythological scenes. The face and undraped parts of the body were of ivory, while the gold robe was adorned with glass flowers and semi-precious stones.

In the 1950s, German archaeologists excavated the site, where a large number of terracotta moulds were found. Depending upon their shape and size, they were used to render the folds of the statue's robe in glass, as can be seen in the exhibit in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin), or for making ornamental components. There also pieces of ivory and semi-precious stone, tools for working gold and ivory, glass leaves from a palmette, and, most significantly, a small black oinochoe or wine cup, on the bottom of which is inscribed "I am [the property of] Pheidias."

Gymnasion Gymnasion Palaistra from Gymnasion Palaistra
Pheidas Wrkshop Pheidias' Workshop Terracotta Moulds Pheidas Zeus

Leaving the workshop of Pheidias I passed the Leonidion situated at the south-west corner of the sanctuary, outside the sacred precinct of the Altis. The Leonidion was a large and luxurious hostel for distinguished visitors to the Olympic Games. It was built in approximately 330 BC and was remodeled twice in Roman times. A dedicatory inscription partially preserved on the epistyle of the outer Ionic stoa records that the building was erected by Leonidas, son of Leotas from Naxos, who was both architect and benefactor. His statue stood at the north east corner of the building where its inscribed pedestal was found. This large, almost square building consisted of a central court surrounded by a forty-four columned Doric peristyle, off which rooms opened on all four sides. The west side was wider (fifteen metres) than the others (ten metres) and housed the largest rooms. Outside the building ran a continuous colonnade of one hundred and thirty-eight Ionic columns. In Roman times, when the building became a residence for high officials, an elaborate pool was laid out in the middle of the court.

Continuing counter clockwise, the next recognizable structure that I came upon was the Bouleuterion or Council House, which consisted of a pair of apsidal buildings linked by a long portico (stoa) with a square building in between. The north wing (30.65 metres long and 13.78 metres wide) was built in the sixth century BC and the south wing a century later. Each wing had a central row of seven columns and a cross-wall cutting off its apse; each apse was divided into two by a central wall. The official Elean archives containing the names of all the Olympic victors may have been kept here. A hall, fourteen metres square, possibly open to the sky, was added between the two wings. Inside were the altar and statue of Zeus Horkeios; the god held thunderbolts and was portrayed with a menacing face. Here, according to Pausanias, competitors, their relatives and their trainers swore that they would be guilty of no foul play in the games, and judges swore that they would be fair and would not accept bribes. During this procedure athletes and judges stood on wild boars' genitals. An inscription at the statue's feet contained curses and penalties for the perjurers. In the fourth century BC, an Ionic portico of twenty-seven columns was built along the whole length of the east facade, connecting the three buildings. In front of the Ionic portico is a trapezoid colonnaded court of Roman date, consisting of three Doric stoas (north, east and south).

Leonideum Bouleuterion Bouleuterion South Stoa

The massive temple of Zeus, the most important building in the sacred precinct, stands in its very centre, and is the largest temple in the Peloponnese, considered by many to be the perfect example of Doric architecture. It was built by the Eleans from the spoils of the Triphylian war and dedicated to Zeus. Construction began in 470 and was completed before 456 BC, when an inscribed block was let into the east gable to support a gold shield dedicated by the Spartans in commemoration of their victory at Tanagra. The architect was Libon of Elis; the sculptor of the pediments is unknown.

The temple, a peripteral hexastyle with thirteen columns at the sides, has an east-west orientation. The columns, 10.43 metres high and 2.25 metres in diameter at the base, were of local shell-limestone, covered with white stucco. Only the pedimental sculptures, roof tiles and lion's head water spouts were of marble. The temple comprised a pronaos, cella and opisthodomos; both the pronaos and opisthodomos were distyle in antis. On the floor of the pronaos are the remains of a Hellenistic mosaic with representations of tritons. In front of the pronaos is a small rectangular space paved with hexagonal marble slabs where the victors were crowned. The cella was divided into three naves by two double rows of seven columns. At the far end stood the chryselephantine statue of Zeus created by Pheidias in 430 BC. The statue, believed to have been over twelve metres high, is described by Pausanias and depicted on ancient coins. It portrayed Zeus enthroned, holding a sceptre in his left hand and a winged Victory in his right. The undraped parts of the statue were of ivory, while the robe and throne, the latter decorated with relief mythological scenes, were of gold. After the abolition of the Olympic Games, the statue was carried off to Constantinople where it perished in a fire in AD 475.

The temple's opulent sculptural decoration is a fine example of the Severe Style. The east pediment depicted the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, presided by Zeus, master of the sanctuary, whose figure dominated the composition. The west pediment depicted the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, arranged round the central figure of Apollo. The twelve metopes, six at each end over the entrance to the pronaos and the opisthodomos, depicted the Labours of Hercules, mythical son of Zeus. In the Roman period, the undecorated metopes of the facades were hung with twenty-one gilded bronze shields dedicated by the consul Mummius to commemorate his victory over the Greeks in the Isthmus.. At the apex of the east pediment was a gilt victory by the sculptor Paionios, while the corner-acroteria were in the form of gilded cauldrons.

The temple was burned by order of Theodosius II in AD 426. Badly damaged by the fire, it was finally thrown down by the earthquakes of AD 551 and 552. Excavations at the temple were begun by the French in 1829, and were completed by the German School. Parts of the sculptural decoration have been restored and are now on display in the Olympia Archaeological Museum, while the metopes removed by the French expedition of 1829 are in the Louvre.

Temple of Zus Entrance Temple of Zeus Coumn Drums piled lke cookies Temple of Zeus  Reconstruction
West Pediment Reconstruction East Pediment Reconstruction Metope of Herakles supporting the Heavens Apollo Detail from West Pediment

The Pelopion in the heart of the sacred precinct was the very important cult site of the hero Pelops in the classical period. In the sixth century BC the Pelopion consisted of a small eminence, two metres high. In the fifth century BC this was surrounded by an irregular five-sided enclosure with a simple entrance in the south-west corner. In the late fifth century BC, the entrance was embellished by a stone Doric portico. Inside the enclosure were trees, mostly poplars, and statues. According to Pausanias, once a year the magistrates sacrificed a black ram to honor Pelops and whoever ate from the sacrificed animal was not allowed to enter the temple of Zeus.

On the north side of the propylon Dorpfeld had uncovered in 1929 at a depth of about 2 m, a curving row of upright river stones, which he interpreted as the precinct of a very ancient and very large tumulus which he dated to the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium BC, in other words the Mycenaean period. This huge tumulus, the "Pelopion I", was taken by Dorpfeld to be the cenotaph of the hero Pelops. The extensive excavations carried out from 1987 to 1994 in the general area of the Pelopion largely change the previous picture of the tumulus. It was discovered that the original surface of the circular tumulus consisted of unworked stone slabs, and the pottery gathered showed that the tumulus, with a diameter of 27 m at its base, dates to the Early Helladic II period, about 2500 BC.

Completing my circumnavigation of the sacred precinct, I next reached the Philippeion. Just before his death in 336 BC, Philip II of Macedon began work on this circular monument to commemorate his victory over the Greeks at Chaeronea in 338 BC. It was completed on the order of his son, Alexander the Great, and included statues of all of the Macedonian kings (including no less than five of Alexander himself). From the Philippeion I turned right to pass along the south side of the Heraion on my way toward the Metroon. The Metroon, dedicated to the mother of the gods, Rhea, later re-named Cybele, stood east of the Heraion, below the terrace of the treasuries. The site was used for the worship of Mother Earth, to whom the sanctuary of Gaia was dedicated, and of Eileithyia, a similar deity connected to maternity, as early as the Prehistoric period.

Built in the early fourth century BC, the Metroon was a small peripteral hexastyle Doric temple with eleven columns at the sides. The columns, 4.63 metres high and 0.85 metres in diameter at the bottom, were made of shell-limestone and covered in white plaster. The temple was divided into three chambers: pronaos, cella and opisthodomos. Both the pronaos and opisthodomos were distyle in antis. The existence of a colonnade inside the cella is uncertain. The architrave and frieze, with its triglyphs and metopes, were of stone, while the timber roof was covered with terracotta tiles. The temple's altar, dedicated to Rhea, was probably situated to its west or on the upper terrace among the treasuries. In the early Imperial period the cult of Rhea/Cybele gave way to that of Augustus and, subsequently, of Roman emperors in general. During the same period a monumental possible cult statue of an emperor represented as Zeus holding a thunderbolt and sceptre was placed inside the sekos; the statue is now displayed in the Olympia Archaeological Museum. Six more imperial statues, three male and three female, discovered in excavation, probably represent Claudius, Titus, Vespasian, Agrippina and Domitia.

Climbing over a broken wall behind the Metroon, I walked along the remains of the ten Treasuries reported by Pausanias. The treasuries are located at the foot of the Cronos Hill in an area used for worship since prehistoric times. They stand on a purpose-built terrace which extends from the Spring to the stadium, and date from the seventh to the mid-fifth centuries BC. A poros staircase connecting the terrace with the Altis below was constructed in the fourth century BC. Later a substantial buttressed retaining wall which defines the north limit of the sacred enclosure, was raised behind the treasuries at the foot of the Cronos Hill. The treasuries were small temple-shaped buildings erected by various Greek cities for storing their precious offerings to Zeus. Pausanias describes some of these precious votive objects and mentions ten treasuries, namely those of Sikyon, Syracuse, Epidamnos, Byzantium, Sybaris, Cyrene, Selinus, Metapontum, Megara and Gela. However, the foundations of twelve treasuries were uncovered during excavation and only five of theses are identified with certainty (treasuries of Sikyon, Selinus, Metapontus, Megara and Gela). Most of the treasuries were dedicated by Greek cities in Italy, indicating the close ties between the sanctuary and the West.

These simple buildings consist of a single chamber and a distyle portico in antis facing south towards the sanctuary. The treasury of Gela to the far east is the only one with a hexastyle portico. The first treasury to the west, which measures 12.46 x 7.30 metres, was dedicated by Myron of Sikyon in the 33rd Olympiad at 648 BC to commemorate his victory in the chariot race. Pausanias tell us that he saw two chambers, one Dorian and one Ionic, which were made out of bronze, and their weight was 500 talents, according to the inscription in the smaller chamber. Inside the chambers they were offerings, such as the sword of Pelops with its hilt of gold, the ivory horn of Amaltheia, a box-wood image of Apollo whose head was plated with gold, a bronze shield decorated with paintings, etc.

The last four treasuries were dedicated by the people of Selinus, Metapontum, Megara and Gela. The remains of two small buildings identified as the sanctuaries of Eileithyia and of Aphrodite Ourania lie to the west of the treasuries. The eighth building from the west was probably an altar to Gaia. Excavation of the treasuries yielded a great number of terracotta architectural members with striking painted decoration, and fragments of terracotta groups - including a Satyr and Meanad, and the head of a sphinx, these latter probably from acroteria. Several of these terracottas are displayed in the Olympia Archaeological Museum, and so is the pediment of the treasury of Megara, which has a depiction of the Gigantomachy.

Immediately outside the Krypte, the entrance to the stadium and along the treasury terrace is a row of sixteen pedestals, which supported the Zanes. These were bronze statues of Zeus, none of which has survived, created from the fines imposed on athletes for cheating at the Olympic Games. Their prominent position was intended to dissuade other athletes from cheating. According to Pausanias, the first of the Zanes were erected after the ninety-eighth Olympiad in 388 BC, when Eupolos from Thessaly was fined for bribing three of his opponents in the boxing event. The remaining six statues were erected after the 112th Olympiad in 332 BC by the Athenian Kallipos, an athelete of the pankration who also bribed his opponents. Pausanias mentions in detail other similar stories, ending with that of Sarapion from Alexandria, an athlete of the pankration, who fled on the eve of the contest in the 201st Olympiad, in AD 25. He is the only Olympic athlete to have been punished for cowardice.

The bronze statues were crafted by great artists of their time. An inscription on the first pedestal to the east mentions the name of the famous sculptor Kleon from Sikyon, to whom the statue next to this is also attributed. Traces of this second statue on its pedestal indicate a life size effigy of Zeus standing on his right foot, his left foot resting on the toes. Although created at different periods, the twelve Zanes probably looked very much alike. According to Pausanias, the pedestals were inscribed with short texts mentioning the name of the culprit and inciting other athletes to fair play. The fact that very few penalties were recorded indicates that the rules were generally respected. It is not surprising that penalties appeared in the fourth century BC, a time of change in moral values, when the games lost their sacred character and became more of a social event. However, the occurrence of an athlete's name on such a pedestal was shameful both for him and for his city.

Pelopion Pelopion Reconstruction Philipeion Philippeion
Metroon Metroon Treasury of Sikyon Reconstruction of Treasuries with Zanes

The Stadion of Olympia, situated east of the sacred Altis enclosure, was where the ancient Olympic Games and the Heraia, the women's games in honour of Hera, were held. Before the sixth century BCE the running events were held on a flat area along the treasuries' terrace, east of the great altar of Zeus. A first stadium (Stadium I) was formed in the Archaic period (mid sixth century BC) by leveling the area south of the Cronos Hill inside the Altis. The west short side of the stadium faced the altar of Zeus, to whom the games were dedicated. In the late sixth century BC a new stadium (Stadium II) was created east of its predecessor, with a racetrack extending beyond the treasuries' terrace; an artificial bank, three metres high, was formed along the south side, while the hill side formed a natural seating area along the north. The stadium received its final form (Stadium III) in the fifth century when the great temple of Zeus was built. By then the Games had become very popular, attracting a great number of both visitors and athletes, so a new stadium was deemed necessary. The new stadium was moved eighty-two metres to the east and seven metres to the north, and was surrounded by artificial banks for the spectators. After the construction of the Echo Stoa in the mid-fourth century BC the stadium was isolated from the Altis, which shows that the Games had lost their purely religious character and had become more of an athletic and social event.

The racetrack is 212.54 metres long and 30-34 metres wide. Two stone markers 192.27 metres apart - that is one Olympic stade or six hundred Olympic feet (1 foot=32.04 metres), indicate the starting and finishing lines. On the south bank is a podium for judges, and opposite this, on the north bank, the altar of Demeter Chamyne, whose priestess was the only woman allowed to watch the games. The stadium could accommodate approximately forty-five thousand people, but the banks never had permanent seats. There were a few stone seats for the officials, and wooden benches may have been added in Roman times when the stadium was repaired (Stadium IV-V). A stone drain round the track opened at intervals into small basins where rain water collected. A vaulted entrance for the athletes, thirty-two metres long, the so-called Krypte, was built in the late third century BC and a monumental portico was added to its west extremity in the Roman period. A large number of votive offerings, mostly of bronze, were found inside the wells along the embankments. Originally there to supply the spectators with drinking water, these wells, which date to the Archaic period, were subsequently used as votive pits.

The horse and chariot races took place in the Hippodrome, which was located just south of and parallel to the stadion. According to one source, the race course was about 780 metres long and 320 metres wide. There was a wall running the length of it, with turning points at either end. The ancient travel writer, Pausanias, describes an elaborate starting mechanism and embankments on either side but none of this is visible today. It was long believed that all trace of it had been obliterated in medieval times by the flooding of the Alpheus River but in 2008, German archaeologists using geomagnetic techniques claimed to have traced a good deal of it.

Stadium Entrance (Krypte) Olympia Stadium Olympia Stadium Echo Stoa Reconstruction

It had been a perfect day to be the solitary guest of the sacred precinct but I had kilometers to ride and a train to catch in Pyrgos for an overnight ride across the Isthmus of Corinth to my next stop in Eleusis to explore the Mysteries.

Top of Page