Located on the Elis region of the Peloponnese peninsula, Olympia in ancient times was a sanctuary famous for starting the tradition of the Olympic Games. The first games were held in 776 BCE, and they were continued to be held every four years until 4th century CE. The modern Olympic Games were modeled after these games.
In addition to the Olympic Games, Olympia was known for two magnificent temples: Temple of Zeus and Temple of Hera. The statue of Zeus, which was housed in the Temple of Zeus, is considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The Sanctuary at Olympia is also known as the Sanctuary of Altis. There are a lot of similarities between the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi and the Sanctuary of Altis. Like Delphi, Olympia was a religious sanctuary and housed temples, votive buildings, statues, treasuries and administrative buildings. Both the sanctuaries held games at every four years. Unlike Delphi, which is on a mountain slope, Olympia is on a level space.
The excavation of Olympia started in 1829 by the French and continued by the Germans in 1875. The excavation was then taken up by the Greek Government in the 20th century and is still continuing.
The archaeological site of Olympia currently has ruins of ancient structures, some of which are restored. The Olympia Archaeological Museum is located near the site and has on display many precious artifacts recovered from the site.
Olympia is north of the Alpheios River and south of Mount Kronos. The Kladeos River, a tributary of Alpheios, runs through this area.
In ancient Greece, the Olympic Games was one of the four in Panhellenic Games held at an interval of four years at Olympia. The other three were: Pythian Games, Nemean Games and Isthmian Games. The Olympic Games was the most important one and used to measure time in years. An Olympiad is a period of four years in which the Olympic Games was held in year one, Nemean Games and Isthmian Games were held in year two and four and Pythian Games was held in year three.
The Olympic Games started as a festival honoring Zeus in which a series of competitions, including foot race, javelin throw, wrestling and chariot race, were held between the representatives of Greek city-states. As the Olympic Games gained popularity, it lost its religious character and became an athletic and social event. Because Greek city-states frequently fought among themselves, an Olympic truce was declared to temporarily stop all warfare during the games.
The winners were crowned with olive leaf wreaths and winning the competition was very prestigious for a city-state. Only men with proven Greek ancestry were allowed to compete in the games. Women were neither allowed to compete nor watch the events. Politics became part of the games as city-states asserted their dominance over their rivals when they won the competitions.
The ancient stadium at Olympia is located on the east side of the sanctuary and had the capacity to hold about 45,000 spectators.
The stadium had an arched entrance called Krypte on the western side of the stadium facing the sanctuary. Only the athletes and the officials were allowed to use this entrance. This entrance was built around late 3rd century BCE.
The images below show the arched way at the Olympia archaeological site.
Entrance to the stadium
The race track had stone markers at the starting and ending lines. The length of the track between the starting and ending markers is 192.27 meters and the width is 28.50 meters. A stone ridge ran along the perimeter of the track.
Ancient race track
The stadium had permanent stone seats only for the judges and officials. It may have had wooden benches for the spectators.
Temple of Zeus
As the name suggests, this massive temple was built to honor Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. The construction of this temple began in 472 BCE and completed in 457 BCE, and was the main attraction of Olympia for about 800 years.
The ruins of the Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus is a Doric style building with east-west orientation with the following dimensions: height 68 feet, width 95 and length 230 feet. The temple had three areas, a porch in the in the front, similar arrangement in the back and a cella in the middle. The temple stood on a platform with three unequal steps.
It had 6 columns each on the front and back and 13 columns on each side. Located above the columns were Doric friezes with 12 metophes. On the front and back of the temple, there were pediments located on top of the frieze. The lion-headed water sprouts ran along the temple. The figures on the pediments were identified by Pausanias, the Greek historian who visited the Temple of Zeus in the 2nd century BCE.
According to Pausanias, the east pediment on the Temple of Zeus depicted the chariot race that was about to begin between Oenomaos and Pelops. Oenomaos was the king of Pisa and Pelops was a suitor of Hippodameia, the daughter of Oenomaos.
At the center of the pediment is Zeus observing the chariot race, and was flanked by two heroes. The figures at the two ends represent the two rivers of Olympia, Alpheios and Kladeos.
The images below show the statues that were restored from the fragments excavated near the Temple of Zeus, and are now on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum.
Remnants of east pediment statues
The theme of the west pediment is the fight between the Lapiths and Centaurs. The restored structures portray the abduction of the Lapith women by the Centaurs.
At the center of this pediment is Apollo who is flanked by two heroes, Theseus and Peirithoos.
Remnants of west pediment statues
Statue of Zeus
A huge chryselephantine (made of ivory and gold) statue of Zeus stood inside the Temple of Zeus. The statue of Zeus is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Although no fragments of this statue were ever discovered, many ancient coins of that period show different aspects of it. The Greek historian Pausanias, who visited Olympia in 2nd century CE, also described the statue.
The statue had Zeus seated on a throne carved with elaborate decorations that included the statues of other Greek gods Apollo, Artemis, and Nike. It was 42 feet high and 21 feet wide.
The statue was sculpted by the famous Athenian sculptor Phidias whose workshop was discovered near the temple. He started the its construction in 432 BCE and took 12 years to complete it.
The statue was taken to Constantinople (currently Istanbul, Turkey) for safe keeping in 392 CE, but ironically destroyed in a fire 60 years later.
Workshop of Pheidias
Pheidias was the famous sculptor who created the statue of Zeus.
The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius ordered it to be closed in 426 CE because of pagan practices. The temple was burnt and what was left was later destroyed in an earthquake in the 6th century.
Temple of Hera
Built around 590 BCE, this Doric style temple is one of the oldest temples in Greece and is located on the north-west corner of Altis. It is dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus and the queen of Greek gods.
The Temple of Hera was built more than a century before the construction of the Temple of Zeus during the period when the God was considered a woman.
The temple had three distinct areas:
- Pronaos (Front porch)
- Cella (Inner chamber)
- Opisthodomos (Back porch)
It had 6 columns each on the front and back and 16 column on each side. The columns were wooden to begin with, but were gradually replaced by stone columns.
According to Pausanias who visited this site in the 2nd century CE, the cella had the statue of Hera on the throne and the statue of Zeus standing next to her.
The image shows the head of a woman excavated near the Temple of Hera. Experts believe that the head belongs to the statue of Hera erected inside the temple.
The opisthodomos of the temple had a Chest of Kypselos, which was made of wood, ivory and god and decorated with mythological scenes.
The temple was remodeled many times. The Romans used it as museum to stores treasures of the sanctuary. The marble statue of Hermes carrying the infant Dionysus sculpted by Praxiteles was one of them.
Statue of Zeus Holding Ganymedes
Philippeion was built by Philip II, the king of Macedonia and the father of Alexander the Great, to commemorate his victory over Thebans and Athenians in the Battle of Chaeronea in 335 BCE. Since Philip II died two years after the construction of this monument started, his son Alexander the Great most likely completed it.
This majestic monument was circular-shaped with a diameter of 15.3 meters and had two concentric rings of columns. The outer ring had 18 Ionic style columns, and the inner ring had Corinthian style half-columns. The roof was made of marble with a bronze poppy head. Inside the monument, it housed the statues of Philip II and his family that included his wife, parents, and son Alexander the Great.
As the Olympic Games became more popular, the sanctuary of Olympia became very prominent resulting in people from various city states sending votive offerings to Olympia. The site was adorned with statues in different places. Just like Delphi, Olympia also had treasuries built by various city-states to deposit their votive offerings.
Nike of Paionios
A beautifully sculpted marble statue of Nike stood on a pillar near the Temple of Zeus. According to the inscription on the base of this statue, it was dedicated by the Messenians and Naupactians to commemorate their victory against the Lacedaemonians (Spartans ?) in the Peloponnesian war. The statue was sculpted using Parian marble by Paionois of Mendi around 421 BCE. It was sculpted to give an impression that Nike the goddess of victory was triumphantly descending from Mount Olympos.
The statue of Nike on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum
Hermes of Praxitele
The statue of Hermes carrying infant Dionysos was sculpted by famous sculptor Praxiteles. This master piece is dated 330 BCE, and was a votive offering placed on opisthodomos of the Temple of Hera.
The statue of Hermes on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum
Treasury of the Megarians
Romans added many new buildings to the sanctuary, including Nymphaion, and continue the tradition of Olympic Games. During the Roman period, the games were open to all citizens of the Roman Empire.
Located near the Temple of Hera, Nymphaion (also known as the Exedra of Herodes Atticus) was a magnificent two-story semi-circular building that housed a fountain. It was built in 150 CE by Herodes Atticus, a Greek aristocrat who became a Roman senator, to honor of his wife Regilla. Placed inside the niches on the walls of this building are the statues that included the statues of Roman Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Antoninus Pius, and Herodes Atticus and his family members. At each end of the building there were two circular Naiskos (small temples).
Ruins of Nymphaion
This building served as the water reservoir for the sanctuary during the Roman period. An aqueduct brought the water from a spring a few miles away and stored in a semi-circular basin located in front of the building. The water was then distributed to the rest of the sanctuary through pipes.
The image shows the marble statue of a bull that was a votive offering at the Nymphaion, and is now on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum.
Roman Era Statues
During the Roman era, statues of emperors and other important people of the empire were erected in Metroon, which was a temple of mother goddess. The statues were eventually moved to the Temple of Hera for safe keeping. During the excavation, many of these statues were discovered inside the ruins of the Temple of Hera. These statues were restored and out on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum. Here are some of them:
Statue of Agrippina Minor
The statue of Agrippina Minor, who was Emperor Nero’s mother, was discovered on a wall in the Temple of Hera.
Statue of Poppaea Sabina
Poppaea Sabina (30 -65 CE) was the second wife of Emperor Nero. This statue was also discovered on a wall in the Temple of Hera.
Statue of Emperor Hadrian
The statue of Roman Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138 CE) was discovered in the Temple of Hera and is now on display at the Olympia Archaeological Museum.
As a supporter and admirer of Greece, Emperor Hadrian toured Greece in 124 CE and committed vast resources for numerous engineering projects, including aqueducts, and rebuilding temples and monuments throughout Greece.
Notice the tunic worn by Hadrian in the statue. His finely carved tunic symbolizes fusion of Greek and Roman cultures and represents his world-view.
At the center of the tunic is Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, standing on top of a she-wolf with two sucklings, and flanked by two figures with wings believed to represent Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Above the wolf and to the right of Athena is an Owl and to the left is a snake standing upright. Goddess Athena represents Greece and the she-wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, symbolizes Rome as it is based on the legend of the founding of Rome.
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