greece 4: olympia, home of zeus and the olympic games

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The Palaestra where the athletes trained for the contests in wrestling, boxing and jumping, 3rd Century BC

There was scarcely any city which failed to stage games in honour of the gods, but the attention of all Greece was drawn to the four great Pan-Hellenic festivals: the Olympic Games at Olympia and the Pythian Games at Delphi, both held every four years; and the Nemean Games in Argolis and the Isthmian Games at Corinth, each held every two years. These festivals drew athletes from all parts of Greece who competed as individuals, not as teams, on a passionately amateur basis. Wars were put aside for the Games. Greatest of all the Pan-Hellenic games were the Olympics held at Olympia.

Olympia was the most sacred of ancient Greece’s sanctuaries. It was the place in which Zeus, principal among the gods, was worshipped, and where the Olympic Games were held in his honour. The importance of the Games is apparent in the number of city-states that participated in them, honouring the ceasefire traditionally imposed during each Olympic period, and in the fact that the Olympiad—the period of four years from one Games to the next—was recognized as the only reliable system of chronology throughout Greece.

The sanctuary and its surroundings were first inhabited in 3000 BC. Archaeologists have discovered six arched buildings called the Pelopeum, together with a tomb around which a cult centred, dating to this period. The Pelopeum was associated with Pelops, a Mycenaean king, who according to myth was victorious in a chariot race against the king of Pisa. The sanctuary, originally controlled by Pisa, later on passed into the hands of Elis, the city-state responsible for the organization of the Olympic Games in 776 BC.

Before the Dorian invasion (1100-1000 BC), Olympia was a centre for cults connected with the earth. On the hill of Cronium, to the north of the site, the cult of Cronos was developed. When the Dorians invaded, the Elder gods, or Titans were replaced with the Olympian gods Zeus and Hera. After the 5th Century BC, the Games became renowned throughout the Greek world, and the sanctuary of Zeus received priceless religious offerings and magnificent temples were built at the site. In 74 BC it was plundered by Sulla and in 67 AD Nero carried off much of the statuary to Rome, after first competing in the Games and winning six events. In 393 AD Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the temples; a task in which he was assisted with by a series of earthquakes. When the pagan religions were suppressed, the institution of the Olympic Games which had flourished for 12 centuries and made a matchless contribution to the history of sport, fell into disuse. The excavations on the site have been carried out largely by the German Archaeological Institute since 1875.

The Games

The Olympic Games, a religious occasion as well as fair, lasted five days and included boys’ events, horse races, athletic contests and a race for warriors in armour. The athletic contests comprised the pentathlon, foot race, discus and javelin throwing, wrestling, boxing, and pankration (a combination of boxing, wrestling, kicking and strangling to the finish with nothing barred save biting, breaking an opponent’s fingers and pushing one’s thumb into the other’s eye). Except for rare instances, the games were contested in the nude. To the Greeks, nudity seemed the natural way to exercise and it fostered pride in physical fitness and indignity at being flabby. The pentathlon was designed to choose all-round athletes who could do well in a series of five contests rather than specialists in one sport. Running and jumping events and discus and javelin throwing took place in the stadium; horseback and chariot racing in the hippodrome or race course; and boxing and wrestling was held at the open space in front of the altar of Zeus.

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The Stadium at Olympia; the original Olympic Games of antiquity were held here, 5th-4th Century BC

Foot racing and chariot racing were the essence of the Games. The opening spectacle of the Olympics was a four-horse chariot race. The charioteer was one of the few clothed athletes. Because the victor’s crown went to the owner of the chariot and horses and not to the driver, rich men desirous for honours sometimes entered as many as seven chariots in the same race. Up to 40 chariots partook in a race covering a distance of 9 miles or 12 double laps back and forth between two posts in the ground of the hippodrome. The races were run off in a dust storm of collisions and spills. Very few starters managed to finish the race.

The Awards

All athletes competing had to be true born, free Greek men. Women were not allowed to watch the Games. Winners at all Pan-Hellenic games received only garlands as awards: wild olive leaves at Olympia, pine needles at the Isthmian Games in Corinth, laurel at the Pythian Games in Delphi and parsley at the Nemean Games in Argolis. Lesser festivals gave more valuable prizes. Victors in the Olympic Games were crowned with a wreath made from the branch of the “beautiful crowned wild olive tree” that stood near the temple of Zeus and believed to have been planted by Heracles. This crown bestowed the greatest honour on the competitor, his family and his native city, and could not be compensated for by either money or high office.

There were also other benefits to winning the Pan-Hellenic games. In their home cities statues were put up to victors. At times the winner was welcomed through a special hole knocked in the city’s walls. He was paraded in triumph through the streets, and poems in his praise were recited in public places. An especially enthusiastic city might give front row seats to all public shows, make him exempt from taxation and give him free meals as well. And in Athens as elsewhere he was given a good sum of cash.

Training was hard work. Competitors had to train for 10 months to qualify to partake in the event. It is not pure coincidence that the Greek word for public games became the English word ‘agony’. But there were periods of relief from the endless practice. The Greeks had recreational sport such as vigorous ball games similar to modern rugby. But these were merely past times and never made it to the Olympics, where there were no team contests, perhaps because the Greek temperament was too individualistic and competitive to foster the spirit of cooperation required.

The Archaeological Site

Olympia was not a town but a grouping of temples and arenas in the fields. Since there were no permanent houses, people put up tents and slept in the open. The sanctuary of Zeus was marked on the north side by the Cronium hill and to the south and west by the two rivers, Cladeus and Alpheius respectively. Inside the sanctuary, a wall dating to the geometric period (1000-750 BC) showed the boundaries of the Altis or grove, the densely vegetated precinct of Zeus.

The site contained a number of buildings. The sacred hearth and the fire that was never extinguished was kept in the Prytaneum (6th Century BC). The Philippeum was a circular building or tholos in the Ionic order, built by Philip II in 338 BC and his son Alexander the Great. It housed statues of Alexander and his forefathers. The Heraeum or the temple of Hera where Zeus was also worshipped until 460 BC was a Doric temple (6th Century BC). It was used as an exhibition hall for statues, among which was the famous Hermes and Dionysus by Praxiteles. The Nymphaeum, dedicated to the nymphs, was constructed by Herodes Atticus and his wife in the 2nd Century AD. Furthermore, there were Treasuries which were small buildings in the form of temples built to house valuable dedications made to the sanctuary (6th and 5th Century BC). In front of the Treasuries were the 12 bases of Zannes, or bronze statues of Zeus; the money for which was contributed compulsorily by those who were discovered to have cheated at the Olympics. Lastly, the Metroon was a Doric temple to Rhea Cybele, mother of the gods (4th Century BC). In the time of Augustus, it was used for the Emperor’s own cult.

The stadium was moved to its present position outside the Altis in the 5th or 4th Century BC when the Games lost their religious significance and had become a purely secular event. Stadium literally meant a length of 600 Greek feet, measuring 192.27 meters in metric terms. The starting slab, divided to give each runner four feet of lateral room, accommodated 20 men. The racers, who wore no shoes, lined up by positioning their feet according to the grooves that were cut into the stone slab. The spectators sat on the ground all around the stadium. The embankment could seat up to 45,000 spectators. There were stone thrones for the official representatives of the city-states, the organizers of the Games, the umpires and the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, the only woman allowed to watch the events. The stadium was linked to the Altis by the Crypt, a vaulted passageway built in the 3rd Century BC.

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Part of the pediment showing the Battle of the Centaurs from the Temple of Zeus, 470-456 BC (Olympia Museum)

Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus, the most important building in the Altis represented the ultimate achievement of the Doric order. It had six rows of 13 columns each and was built between 470 and 456 BC. The temple stood on a platform and was of colossal dimensions: 60 meters in length, 23 meters in width, and approximately 20 meters in height. Its architect was Libon from Elis.

In the temple’s cella stood Phidias’ masterpiece, the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The god, 12.5 meters high, was seated. He was decorated with jewellery consisting of precious stones and held victory in one hand and in the other the sceptre with the eagle, his symbol. The pedestal of the statue was decorated with reliefs. The grey limestone floor (from Ephesus in Turkey) contained a depression filled with oil which was used for the maintenance of the statue and which also because of the reflections in it, enhanced the visual impression made by the effigy. On the pediments of the temple were sculptures depicting the chariot race between Pelops and King of Pisa (east side) and the Battle of the Centaurs (west side), while the friezes illustrated the 12 Labours of Heracles. The Temple of Zeus was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th Century AD.

The workshop of Phidias, in which the gigantic statue of Zeus was built, stood to the west of the temple. Materials and tools for the carving of stone and making of gold artefacts have been found here, along with a small earthenware wine cup with the inscription “I belong to Phidias”. In the 5th Century AD, an early Christian Basilica was erected on the same site, and its ruins can be seen today.

Stoas formed the boundaries of the Altis. Three groups of Roman hostels and baths have been excavated at the site. The Theocoleum was the official residence of the priests of Olympia. The Leonidium, built in 330 BC with funds donated by Leonidas of Naxos, was the largest structure in the sanctuary and the hostel for official visitors to Olympia. In the time of Hadrian, the central courtyard was redesigned as a garden with winding channels of water, a central island and bridges. The layout was a replica of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli.

The various parts of the sanctuary were dedicated to specific activities. Horse racing and chariot racing took place in the Hippodrome which was to the south of the Stadium. It no longer survives today. The Bouleuterion (council chamber), built in the 6th Century BC, contained the altar of Zeus Horceus at which athletes took an oath to honour the rules of the Games. The Palaestra, a square building dating to the 3rd Century BC consisted of an open courtyard with rooms around it. The athletes practised for the heavy events here, namely, wrestling, boxing and jumping. The Gymnasium, a 2nd Century BC building made up of an open area surrounded by stoas, was on the other hand used for training in the light events such as running and the pentathlon.

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Hermes and Dionysus by Praxiteles, 340-330 BC (Olympia Museum)

Olympia Museum

Close to the archaeological site is Olympia Museum. Room V is the most important room, containing sculptures from the Temple of Zeus, works of the highest artistic value in the severe style of the early-5th Century BC. On display are the 12 metopes from the short sides of the temple, which through unique symmetry and power depict the Labours of Heracles. The pediments, almost completely made of marble, have been reconstructed according to the surviving sections. On the east pediment is the myth of the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, King of Pisa, with Zeus as the central figure. On the west is the Battle of Centaurs taking place around the figure of Apollo. In the Hermes Room is the marble statue of Hermes and Dionysus (340-330 BC) found in the temple of Hera, a work of incomparable artistry which is attributed to the famous sculptor Praxiteles. The figure of Nike by Paeonios is a masterpiece of the 5th Century BC. Dedicated to Zeus, it commemorated one of the victories in 421 BC during the Peloponnesian war.

As I walked through the pillars in the Palaestra, ran in the ancient Stadium, gasped at the exhibits in the museum, the Greek idea of arete, pursuit of excellence at all levels of life, and the glory of sport as an expression of the divine power manifested in human life, shined through in full inspiring clarity. The gods were the source of power, and the Greeks honoured every kind of power and yearned to display it in their own lives. This applied equally to war, arts, athletic games and thought. If a Greek did well in any of these, he was believed to be making proper use of his heavenly provided gifts and to that extent was getting closer to the gods. This is what Aristotle meant when he said, “We must be immortal as far as we can.”

Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, thus, instead used Photos © Editions D. Haitalis for my Greece posts.

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