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In the western Peloponnese,
in a peaceful, idyllic valley, between Kronos Hill and the confluence of the rivers
Alpheios and Kladeos, there
flourished in ancient times one of the most important pan-Hellenic sanctuaries:
the Sanctuary of Olympia. At this Sanctuary, apart from rituals performed for
healing, games called Olympic were also established from a very early period and,
with the passage of time, attracted the attention of all the Greeks. With the
Olympic Games, the ideal of noble rivalry found its complete expression and for
many centuries forged the unity and peace of the Greek world. Hence the Sanctuary
where they took place was recognized as one of the greatest pan Hellenic centers.
It has not yet been established when people first began worshipping
at Olympia. However, archaeological finds show that the area was at least settled
from the 3rd millennium B.C. It is also known that the first Sanctuary was the
Gainon, which was found at the foot of Kronos hill and was dedicated to Gaia (Earth),
the wife of Ouranos (Heaven). That was also, as it is said, the most ancient oracle
of Olympia (Pausanias V, 14, 10).
Later, Kronos - the youngest son of Gaia and Ouranos - having deposed
his father, was worshipped at Olympia with his wife, Rhea. According to Pausanias
(V, 7 ,6) the people of that time, who were also called the people of the Golden
Age, built a shrine to Kronos at Olympia. Besides, on the summit of Kronos Hill,
which took this name from Kronos, there was an altar to the god, where the so-called
"Basilai" every year made sacrifices in his honour (Pausanias VI, 20,
In the course of the centuries came new gods. According to myth, Kronos
swallowed his male children fearing that they might depose him, as he had deposed
Ouranos. He has devoured two children, Poseidon and Hades, when Zeus was born.
Then Rhea, having given Kronos a stone bound in swaddling clothes to swallow,
handed the new-born child to five Cretan brothers, the Daktyloi of Isa or Kouretes,
to conceal him and bring him up in Crete.
When Zeus came of age, he asked Metis for help to overthrow Kronos.
Metis gave Kronos some medicine to drink and so made him vomit the two children
whom he had devoured. Then Zeus, helped by his two brothers and three sisters,
Hera, Hestia and Demeter, deposed Kronos after a terrible conflict lasting ten
years, which is known as the Titanomachia (Battle between the Gods and the Titans).
Since the Olympian gods prevailed, from then on the Sanctuary of Olympia
became the Sanctuary of Zeus. So in a series of local myths, Zeus was associated
with Olympia and the Games. One of these local myths says that the five Cretan
brothers, the Kouretes, to whom Rhea had entrusted his guardianship, came from
Crete to Olympia, where Zeus was weaned on the milk of Amalthea by the nymphs.
At Olympia, the eldest of the five brothers, Hercules - not Hercules the son of
Amphitrion and Alkmene - arranged foot races among his brothers and honored the
winner with a crown of wild olive, which grew abundantly in the valley. Even Hercules
called these games "Olympic" and appointed that they should take place
every fifth year, since he and his brothers numbered five (Pausanias V,7, 6-9).
Other local myths also say that Zeus fought with Kronos at Olympia usurping the
leadership and that he himself established the games because he overcame Kronos.
It is also said that other gods competed at Olympia and that Apollo beat Ares
at Boxing and outran Hermes (Pausanias V, 7, 10).
According to tradition, Aethlios, the first king of Elis was also
an organiser of the games. Aethlios was succeeded by his son Endymion, who in
turn organised races at Olympia among his sons Paeon, Aetolus and Epeios, in order
to leave his kingdom to the winner.
Pelops too, after he beat King Oinomaos of Pisa in a chariot race
and married the King's daughter Hippodameia, once again arranged at Olympia games
in honor of Zeus, which it was said were the most memorable of all those which
had been celebrated up till then. When Aueias reigned over Elis,
Hercules - son of Amhitrion and Alkmene - came to clean his stables. After the
contest, however, Augeias refused to give Hercules the cattle, which he had promised.
Then Hercules marched against Augeias, and after conquering Elis, he arranged
games at Olympia in honour of Zeus. At these games, it is said that he himself
was distinguished in wrestling and in the pankration. Finally, games at Olympia
were also arranged by Oxylos, the King of Elis. After the reign of Oxylos however,
the games were forgotten until the time of Iphitos, the great King of Elis (Pausanisas
V, 8, 1-5).
This text is cited December 2004 from the West Greece Region General Secretariat URL below, which contains image.
Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)
(he Olumpia). The temple and sacred grove of Zeus Olympius, situated
at a small distance west of Pisa in Peloponnesus. It originally belonged to Pisa,
and the plain, in which it stood, was called in more ancient times the plain of
Pisa; but after the destruction of this city by the Eleians in B.C. 572, the name
of Olympia was extended to the whole district. Besides the temple of Zeus Olympius,
there were several other sacred edifices and public buildings in the sacred grove
and its immediate neighbourhood; but there was no distinct town of Olympia.
The plain of Olympia is open towards the sea on the west, but is surrounded
on every other side by hills of no great height, yet in many places abrupt and
precipitous. Their surface presents a series of sandy cliffs of light yellow colour,
covered with the pine, ilex, and other evergreens. On entering the valley from
the west, the most conspicuous object is a bold and nearly insulated eminence
rising on the north from the level plain in the form of an irregular cone. (Mure,
vol. ii. p. 281.) This is Mount Cronius, or the hill of Cronus, which is frequently
noticed by Pindar and other ancient writers. (par eudeielon Kronion, Pind. Ol.
i. 111; pagos Kronou, Ol. xi. 49; hupseloio petra alibatos Kroniou, Ol. vi. 64;
Kronou par aipun ochthon, Lycophr. 42; ho Kroneios, Xen. Hell. vii. 4. 14; to
oros to Kronion, Paus. v. 21. § 2, vi. 19. § 1, vi. 20. § 1; Ptol. iii. 16. §
14.) The range of hills to which it belongs is called by most modern writers the
Olympian, on the authority of a passage of Xenophon. (Hell. vii. 4. § 14). Leake,
however, supposes that the Olympian hill alluded to in this passage was no other
than Cronius itself; but it would appear, that the common opinion is correct,
since Strabo (viii. p. 356) describes Pisa as lying between the two mountains
Olympus and Ossa. The hills, which bound the plain on the south, are higher than
the Cronian ridge, and, like the latter, are covered with evergreens, with the
exception of one bare summit, distant about half a mile from the Alpheius. This
was the ancient Tyraeus (Tupaion), from which women, who frequented the Olympic
games, or crossed the river on forbidden days, were condemned to be hurled headlong.
(Paus. v. 6. § 7.) Another range of hills closes the vale of Olympia to the east,
at the foot of which runs the rivulet of Miraka. On the west the vale was bounded
by the Cladeus (Kladeos), which flowed from north to south along the side of the
sacred grove, and fell into the Alpheius. (Paus. v. 7. § 1; Kladaos, Xen. Hell.
vii. 4. 29) This river rises at Lala in Mount Pholoe. The Alpheius, which flows
along the southern edge of the plain, constantly changes its course, and has buried
beneath the new alluvial plain, or carried into the river, all the remains of
buildings and monuments which stood in the southern part of the Sacred Grove.
In winter the Alpheius is full, rapid. and turbid; in summer it is scanty, and
divided into several torrents flowing between islands or sandbanks over a wide
gravelly bed. The vale of Olympia is now called Andilalo (i. e. opposite to Lala),
and is uninhabited. The soil is naturally rich, but swampy in part, owing to the
inundations of the river. Of the numerous buildings and countless statues, which
once covered this sacred spot, the only remains are those of the temple of Zeus
Olympius. Pausanias has devoted nearly two books, and one fifth of his whole work,
to the description of Olympia; but he does not enumerate the buildings in their
exact topographical order: owing to this circumstance, to the absence of ancient
remains, and to the changes in the surface of the soil by the fluctuations in
the course of the Alpheius, the topography of the plain must be to a great extent
conjectural. The latest and most able attempt to elucidate this subject, is that
of Colonel Leake in his Peloponnesiaca, whose description is here chiefly followed.
Olympia lay partly within and partly outside of the Sacred Grove.
This Sacred Grove bore from the most ancient times the name of Altis (he Altis),
which is the Peloponnesian Aeolic form of alsos. (Paus. v. 10. § 1.) It was adorned
with trees, and in its centre there was a grove of planes. (Paus. v. 27. § 11.)
Pindar likewise describes it as well wooded (Pisas eudendron ep Alpheo alsos,
Ol. viii. 12). The space of the Altis was measured out by Hercules, and was surrounded
by this hero with a wall. (Pind. Ol. xi. 44.) On the west it ran along the Cladeus;
on the south its direction may be traced by a terrace raised above the Alpheius;
on the east it was bounded by the stadium. There were several gates in the wall,
but the principal one, through which all the processions passed, was situated
in the middle of the western side, and was called the Pompic Entrance (he Pompike
eisodos, Paus. v. 15. § 2). From this gate, a road, called the Pompic Way, ran
across the Altis, and entered the stadium by a gateway on the eastern side.
1. The Olympieium, Olympium, or temple of Zeus Olympius. An oracle of the
Olympian god existed on this spot from the most ancient times (Strab. viii. p.
353), and here a temple was doubtless built, even before the Olympic games became
a Pan-Hellenic festival. But after the conquest of Pisa and the surrounding cities
by the Eleians in B.C. 572, the latter determined to devote the spoils of the
conquered cities to the erection of a new and splendid temple of the Olympian
god. (Paus. v. 10. §§ 2, 3.) The. architect was Libon of Elis. The temple was
not, however, finished till nearly a century afterwards, at the period when the
Attic school of art was supreme in Greece, and the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis
had thrown into the shade all previous works of art. Shortly after the dedication
of the Parthenon, the Eleians invited Pheidias and his school of artists to remove
to Elis, and adorn the Olympian temple in a manner worthy of the king of the gods.
Pheidias probably remained at Olympia for four or five years from about B.C. 437
to 434 or 433. The colossal statue of Zeus in the cella, and the figures in the
pediments of the temple were executed by Pheidias and his associates. The pictorial
embellishments were the work of his relative Panaenus. (Strab. viii. p. 354) Pausanias
has given a minute description of the temple (v. 10); and its site, plan, and
dimensions have been well ascertained by the excavations of the French Commission
of the Morea. The foundations are now exposed to view; and several fine fragments
of the sculptures, representing the labours of Hercules, are now in the museum
of the Louvre. The temple stood in the south-western portion of the Altis, to
the right hand of the Pompic entrance. It was built of the native limestone, which
Pausanias called poros, and which was covered in the more finished parts by a
surface of stucco, which gave it the appearance of marble. It was of the Doric
order, and a peripteral hexastyle building. Accordingly it had six columns in
the front and thirteen on the sides. The columns were fluted, and 7ft. 4in. in
diameter, a size greater than that of any other existing columns of a Grecian
temple. The length of the temple was 230 Greek feet, the breadth 95, the height
to the summit of the pediment 68. The roof was covered with slabs of Pentelic
marble in the form of tiles. At each end of the pediment stood a gilded vase,
and on the apex a gilded statue of Nike or Victory; below which was a golden shield
with the head of Medusa in the middle, dedicated by the Lacedaemonians on account
of their victory over the Athenians at Tanagra in B.C. 457. The two pediments
were filled with figures. The eastern pediment had a statue of Zeus in the centre,
with Oenomaus on his right and Pelops on his left, prepared to contend in the
chariot-race; the figures on either side consisted of their attendants, and in
the angles were the two rivers, Cladeus to the right of Zeus, and Alpheius to
his left. In the western pediment was the contest of the Centaurs and the Lapithae,
Peirithous occupying the central place. On the metopes over the doors at the eastern
and western ends the labours of Hercules were represented. In its interior construction
the temple resembled the Parthenon. The cella consisted of two chambers, of which
the eastern contained the statue, and the western was called the Opisthodomus.
The colossal statue of Zeus, the master-work of Pheidias, was made of ivory and
gold. It stood at the end of the front chamber of the cella, directly facing the
entrance, so that it at once showed itself in all its grandeur to a spectator
entering the temple. The approach to it was between a double row of columns, supporting
the roof. The god was seated on a magnificent throne adorned with sculptures,
a full description of which, as well as of the statue, has been given in another
place. Behind the Opisthodomus of the temple was the Callistephanus or wild olive
tree, which furnished the garlands of the Olympic victors. (Paus. v. 15. § 3.)
2. The Pelopium stood opposite the temple of Zeus, on the other side of
the Pompic way. Its position is defined by Pausanias, who says that it stood to
the right of the entrance into the temple of Zeus and to the north of that building.
It was an enclosure, containing trees and statues, having an opening to the west.
(Paus. v. 13. § 1.)
3. The Heraeum was the most important temple in the Altis after that of
Zeus It was also a Doric peripteral building. Its dimensions are unknown. Pausanias
says (v. 16. § 1) that it was 63 feet in length; but this is clearly a mistake,
since no peripteral building was so small; and the numerous statues in the cella,
described by Pausanias, clearly show that it must have been of considerable dimensions.
The two most remarkable monuments in the Heraeum were the table, on which were
placed the garlands prepared for the victors in the Olympic contests, and the
celebrated chest of Cypselus, covered with figures in relief, of which Pausanias
has given an elaborate description (v. 17-19). We learn from a passage of Dion
Chrysostom (Orat. xi. p. 163), cited by Leake, that this chest stood in the opisthodomus
of the Heraeum; whence we may infer that the cella of the temple consisted of
4. The Great Altar of Zeus is described by Pausanias as equidistant from
the Pelopium and the Heraeum, and as being in front of them both. (Paus. v. 13.
§ 8.) Leake places the Heraeum near the Pompic entrance of the Stadium, and supposes
that it faced eastward; accordingly he conjectures that the altar was opposite
to the backfronts of the Pelopium and the Heraeum. The total height of the altar
was 22 feet. It had two platforms, of which the upper was made of the cinders
of the thighs sacrificed on this and other altars.
5. The Column of Oenomaus stood between the great altar and the temple
of Zeus. It was said to have belonged to the house of Oenomaus, and to have been
the only part of the building which escaped when it was burnt by lightning. (Paus.
v. 20. § 6.)
6. The Metroum, or temple of the Mother of the Gods, was a large Doric
building, situated within the Altis (Paus. v. 20. § 9.) It is placed by Leake
to the left of the Pompic Way nearly opposite the Heraeum.
7. The Prytaneium is placed by Pausanias within the Altis, near the Gymnasium,
which was outside the sacred enclosure (v. 15. § 8.)
8. The Bouleuterion, or Council-House, seems to have been near the Prytaneium.
(Paus. v. 23. § 1, 24. § 1.) 9. The Philippeium, a circular building, erected
by Philip after the battle of Chaeroneia, was to the left in proceeding from the
entrance of the Altis to the Prytaneium. (Pans. v. 17. § 4, v. 20. § 10.)
10. The Theecoleon, a building belonging to the theekoloi or superintendents
of the sacrifices (Paus. v. 15. § 8). Its position is uncertain. 11. The Hippodamium,
named from Hippodameia, who was buried here, was within the Altis near the Pompic
Way. (Paus. vi. 20. § 7.)
12. The temple of the Olympian Eileithyia (Lucina) appears to have stood
on the neck of Mount Cronius. (Paus. vi. 20. § 2.)
13. The Temple of the Olympian Aphrodite was near that of Eileithyia. (Paus.
vi. 20. § 6.)
14. The Thesauri or Treasuries, ten in number, were, like those at Delphi,
built by different cities, for the reception of their dedicatory offerings. They
are described by Pausanias as standing to the north of the Heraeum at the foot
of Mount Cronius, upon a platform made of the stone poros (Paus. vi. 19. § 1).
15. Zanes, statues of Zeus, erected from the produce of fines levied upon
athletae, who had violated the regulations of the games. They stood upon a stone
platform at the foot of Mount Cronius, to the left of a person going from the
Metroum to the Stadium. (Paus. v. 21. § 2.) 16. The Studio of Pheidias,
which was outside the Altis, and near the Pompic entrance. (Paus. v. 15. § 1.)
17. The Leonidaeum, built by Leonidas, a native, was near the Studio of
Pheidias. Here the Roman magistrates were lodged in the time of Pausanias (v.
15. §§ 1, 2).
18. The Gymnasium, also outside the Altis, and near the northern entrance
into it. (Paus. vi. 21. § 2.) Near the Gymnasium was (19) the Palaestra.
20 and 21. The Stadium and the Hippodrome were two of the most important
sites at Olympia, as together they formed the place of exhibition for all the
Olympic contests. Their position cannot be determined with certainty; but as they
appear to have formed a continued area from the circular end of the Stadium to
the further extremity of the Hippodrome, the position assigned to them by Leake
is the most probable. He places the circular end of the Stadium at the foot of
the heights to the NE. of the summit of Mount Cronius, and the further end of
the Hippodrome on the bank of the Alpheius.
The Stadium is described by Pausanias as a mound of earth, upon which
there was a seat for the Hellanodicae, and over against it an altar of marble,
on which sat the priestess of Demeter Chamyne to behold the games. There were
two entrances into the Stadium, the Pompic and the Secret. The latter, through
which the Hellanodicae and the agonistae entered, was near the Zanes; the former
probably entered the area in front of the rectilinear extremity of the Stadium.
(Paus. vi. 20. § 8, seq.) In proceeding towards the Hippodrome from that part
of the Stadium where the Hellanodicae sat was the Hippaphesis or starting place
of the horses (he aphesis ton hippon). In form it resembled the prow of a ship,
the embolus or beak being turned towards the racecourse. Its widest part adjoined
the stoa of Agnaptus. At the end of the embolus was a brazen dolphin standing
upon a pillar. Either side of the Hippaphesis was more than 400 feet in length,
and contained apartments, which those who were going to contend in the horse-races
obtained by lot. Before the horses a cord was extended as a barrier. An altar
was erected in the middle of the prow, on which was an eagle with outstretched
wings. The superintendent of the race elevated this eagle by means of machinery,
so as to be seen by all the spectators, and at the same time the dolphin fell
to the ground. Thereupon the first barriers on either side, near the stoa of Agnaptus,
were removed, and then the other barriers were withdrawn in like manner in succession,
until all the horses were in line at the embolus.
One side of the Hippodrome was longer than the other, and was formed
by a mound of earth. There was a passage through this side leading out of the
Hippodrome; and near the passage was a kind of circular altar, called Taraxippus
(Taraxippos), or the terrifier of horses, because the horses were frequently seized
with terror in passing it, so that, chariots were broken. There was a similar
object for frightening horses both at the Corinthian Isthmus and at Nemea, in
consequence of which the difficulty of the race was increased. Beyond the Taraxippus
were the terminal pillars, called nussai, round which the chariots turned. On
one of them stood a brazen statue of Hippodameia about to bind the taenia on Pelops
after his victory. The other side of the Hippodrome was a natural height of no
great elevation. On its extremity stood the temple of Demeter Chamyne. (Paus.
vi. 20. § 15-v. 21. § 1.) The course of the Hippodrome appears to have been two
diauli, or four stadia. (Dromou de eisi tou hippiou mekos men diauloi duo, Paus.
vi. 16. § 4.) Mure, indeed (vol. ii. p. 327), understands mekos in this passage
to refer to the length of the area; but Leake (Peloponnesiaca, p. 94) maintains,
with more probability, that it signifies the length of the circuit.
22. The Theatre is mentioned by Xenophon (Hell. vii. 4. § 31), but it does
not occur in the description of Pausanias. A theatre existed also at the Isthmus
and Delphi, and would have been equally useful at Olympia for musical contests.
Xenophon could hardly have been mistaken as to the existence of a theatre at Olympia,
as he resided more than 20 years at Scillus, which was only three miles from the
former spot. It would therefore appear that between the time of Xenophon and Pausanias
the theatre had disappeared, probably in consequence of the musical contests having
Besides the buildings already mentioned, there was a very large number
of statues in every part of the Sacred Grove, many of which were made by the greatest
masters of Grecian art, and of which Pausanias has given a minute description.
According to the vague computation of Pliny (xxxiv. 7. s. 17) there were more
than 3000 statues at Olympia. Most of these works were of brass, which accounts
for their disappearance, as they were converted into objects of common utility
upon the extinction of Paganism. The temples and other monuments at Olympia were,
like many others in different parts of Greece, used as materials for modern buildings,
more especially as quarries of stone are rare in the district of Elis. The chiefs
of the powerful Albanian colony at Lala had in particular long employed the ruins
of Olympia for this purpose.
This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD)
The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites
A sanctuary in the W Peloponnese, 18 km inland from the Ionian
Sea, at the point where the Alpheios and Kladeos rivers meet (42 m), just S of
the foot of the hill of Kronos (122.7 m). Throughout practically all of antiquity
Olympia was under the control of Elis (q.v.). The settlement in the area of the
shrine was continuously inhabited from the Early to the Late Helladic period (2800-1100
B.C.), as evidenced by the apsidal, rectangular, and elliptical structures of
the Early and Middle Helladic periods which have been uncovered, as well as by
numerous sherds, stone implements, and figurines of the EH, MH and LH periods.
Similar buildings and small finds as well as an extensive cemetery with chamber
tombs have been found in the area to the N (NW of the hill of Kronos), where stands
the new Museum. The first signs of the cult of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia
appeared as early as the LH period, as well as the first athletic contests. Of
the tumuli of the two heroes remains were found only of the circular peribolos
of Pelops, near the Pelopion of historical times. Recent objections to this identification
have not been persuasive. The site of the Hippodameion remains unknown; it may
have been in the S part of the Altis (Paus. 6.20.7; 5.15.7).
The cults of Kronos, Gaia, Eileithuia, Themis, et al., evidently
date back to the same periods or even earlier. Their shrines center around the
S foot of the hill of Kronos, whence come the majority of the prehistoric finds.
With the predominance of the Aitolo-Dorian tribes of NW Greece in Elis after the
Dorian invasion and the extension of their control over Olympia, which until then
had been controlled by Pisa, the worship of Zeus was introduced to the Sanctuary.
From that time to the beginning of the 8th c. the Sanctuary gradually developed,
but its activities were limited to the area of Elis and perhaps the neighboring
territories. From this period come numerous offerings: bronze and terracotta statuettes
of men and animals, chiefly bulls and horses, as well as chariots and drivers,
all of primitive workmanship. After 776 B.C. when the Games were reorganized and
established as Panhellenic (this marks the beginning of the historical period),
Olympia developed rapidly, and the number of terracotta and bronze offerings multiplies.
The greatest number of these are statuettes of horses and horsemen, symbols of
the equestrian aristocracy which had evidently replaced the monarchy. There are
also bronze cauldrons and tripods, and weapons of excellent workmanship. During
this period the sacred grove of Olympia, the Altis, which was planted with plane
trees, wild olives, poplars, oaks, and pines (Paus. 5.7.7, 13.1-3, 27.11; Strab.
8.353) and enclosed by a low peribolos or fence, acquired a very few, simple structures:
altars of the Gods, and the heroa of Pelops and Hippodameia. The single column
that was left of Oinomaos megaron after Zeus, according to tradition, destroyed
it with a lightning bolt, must also have been visible there; it was preserved
into the time of Pausanias (5.20f). There was also the remnant of an ancient form
of tree worship in a sacred wild olive tree which still flourished, and which
Idaian Herakles, according to the myth, had brought from the lands of the Hyperboreians
and planted there.
To the Geometric period belong the foundations of a rhomboid altar
(?) built of unworked stones which was found within the site of the ancient Prytaneion
and which may have been the precursor of the altar of Hestia. To the end of the
Geometric period belongs one of the apsidal buildings, no. 4, which until recently
was considered to be prehistoric. The site of the stadium of this period is not
known; it may have been on the same site as was the archaic one. In the Archaic
period (7th and 6th c.) the activities of the Sanctuary involved not only the
world of mainland Greece, but the colonies around the Mediterranean. The increased
importance of Olympia brought about its decoration with the first monumental structures.
At the foot of the hill of Kronos was built the Temple of Hera. According to the
usual modern view this was begun ca. 650 B.C. as a small Doric building with only
a pronaos (10 x 39.5 m) and not until ca. 600 B.C. was it enlarged by the addition
of an opisthodomos and peristyle colonnade (18.76 x 50 m; 6 x 16 columns). Recent
researches have shown, however, that the whole building was completed at one time,
The Heraion, narrow and of heavy proportions, is the oldest example
of a monumental temple in Greece. The lower part and the huge orthostat blocks
of the cella are preserved and are of a local shell limestone, while the upper
parts of the walls were of mud brick and the superstructure of wood with terracotta
tiles on the roof. At the peak of each gable was a round terracotta acroterion.
One of these has been restored (diam. 2.42 m) but of the other only a few fragments
remain. The original wooden columns were gradually replaced, at long intervals,
by stone ones. The last wooden one, made of oak, was preserved to the time of
Pausanias, in the opisthodomos of the temple (Paus. 5.16.1). Each of the replacement
columns was in the style of its own period, so that the columns as a whole provide
an example of the development of the Doric column, particularly in respect to
the capitals, from the archaic to the Roman period. At the back of the cella is
preserved the bench on which rested the stone statues of Hera and Zeus (Paus.
5.17.1). Only the head of Hera has been found.
Along a natural terrace on the S slope of the hill of Kronos, a little
above the Heraion, the treasuries were built in the 6th c. These are naiskoi of
megaron form, dedicated by the Greek cities, particularly by colonies. The oldest
of these, the Sikyonian treasury in its first phase, was about contemporary with
the Heraion, while the newer ones belong to the first half of the 5th c. (the
Treasuries of Sikyon and Gela in their second phase). Arranged one beside the
other, they border the N edge of the Altis. Pausanias (6.19.1f) gives their names.
The remains of 15 are preserved, but two of them only as traces--the two under
the Exedra of Atticus. Five only are certainly identified: the Treasuries of Sikyon,
Selinos, Metapontis, Megara, and Gela. Numerous architectural fragments of the
first and last have been preserved. Of the pedimental sculptures of the Treasuries
only a few pieces remain, with the exception of the Treasury of the Megarians
of which the pedimental sculptures, although badly mutilated, are preserved. They
are carved in high relief. The treasuries, which may at first have had a sacred
purpose, were later used to safeguard valuable offerings (Paus. 6.19.lf). The
stepped supporting wall in front of the treasuries was built later, in 330 B.C.
The Pelopion (Paus. 5.13.1) was renewed in the 6th c. Its peribolos
at that time had five sides and a propylon, which was replaced in the 5th c. by
a more monumental one. Recent theory dating the Pelopion to the 4th c. does not
seem well founded. To the late 6th c. belongs the older Prytaneion with the seats
of the Prytanei at the N corner of the Altis. The sacred hearth with its everlasting
fire was in a special area of the same building (Paus. 5.19.9). In the following
centuries the Prytaneion was enlarged and continually altered.
No trace of the Great Altar of Zeus SE of the Temple of Hera is preserved
(Paus. 5.13.8). Since it was a mound slowly built up from the ashes of sacrifices
and from the altar of the Prytaneion (Paus. 5.13; 15.9), it melted away in the
rains after worship at the sanctuary ceased. The area in front of the Altar and
particularly the slope of the terrace where the treasuries stood was perhaps the
Theater mentioned by Xenophon (Hell. 7.4. 31), so called from its view of the
sacrifices at the Altar and of other rites.
The archaic stadium, which was plain and had banks not of the usual
form, stretched along the slope in front of the treasuries. Its W end, where the
starting line was, opened out towards the Great Altar of Zeus. The stadium of
the 5th c. was on the same spot or a little to the E, but this one had a track
at a lower level and the banks, now more nearly normal, along the long sides;
it formed part of the sacred area, since the games had a clearly religious character.
But in the mid-4th c. a new stadium was built, which is still visible 82 m to
the E and 7 m N of its predecessor. It was outside the sanctuary, since the games
had begun to be more secular in character. The track of the new stadium was 215.54
m long and ca. 28.5 m wide, while the stone starting-points were 192.28 m apart
as opposed to the 186 m of the Classical stadium. The banks enclosed the track
on four sides and could hold 45,000 spectators. There were only a few stone seats
for important persons; others sat directly on the ground. The exedra for the Hellanodikai
(judges) was of stone, and was opposite the altar of Demeter Chamyne (Paus. 6.20.9).
In the Roman period the exedra was given a more resplendent form and the stadium
was remodeled twice. In the Hellenistic period the NW corner of the stadium communicated
with the sanctuary through a narrow, roofed corridor, the Krypte (Paus. 5.20.8),
which had Corinthian columns at its W end. To the NE of the archaic stadium was
a bronze-smelting establishment, and a large number of wells to provide water
for the thousands of spectators during the period of the games. Thousands of earlier
dedications were thrown into them in the Classical period when the stadium was
moved to the E and covered this spot.
The hippodrome, which had a length of four stadia (ca. 780 m) has
not been excavated and has probably, at least in part, been washed away by the
Alpheios river. It was S of the stadium and parallel to it. When it took its final
form in the Classical period, Kleoitas worked out a new arrangement of the starting
gates (Paus. 6.20. lOf). The S end of the sanctuary was closed off in the mid-6th
c. by the S building of the Bouleuterion (14 x 30.5 m). This was a rectangular
building with an apse at one of its short ends, a continuation of the type of
prehistoric and Geometric building found in the Altis. In the 5th c. a second
apsidal room was added parallel to the first, and between them a rectangular room
where stood the Altar of Zeus Horkios. Here the athletes made their prescribed
vows (orkoi) before the Games. These three buildings were enlarged in the 4th
c. by an Ionic portico across the E face. The chronology and purpose of the two
structures W of the Bouleuterion are uncertain.
In the 5th c. the sanctuary reached its peak of greatness and wealth.
The Truce, which had been in operation from the archaic period on, and the recognition
of Elis as "sacred and unassailable" (Polyb. 4.73) secured the unhampered
development and prosperity of the area and of the sanctuary. At this time the
most important building, the gigantic Temple of Zeus, was erected in the middle
of the Altis. It was begun ca. 470 B.C., immediately after the reorganization
of the state, at the same time as Elis synoecism, and it was finished in 456.
The temple, Doric peripteral (27.68 x 64.12 m; 6 x 13 columns), was the work of
the Elian architect Libo. It is the largest temple in the Peloponnese and was
considered the finest expression and the standard of Doric temple architecture.
It was constructed of local shell limestone, covered with white stucco. Only the
roof and sima and lion-head water spouts were made of Parian marble, although
later the frequent local earthquakes made replacements of Pentelic marble necessary.
Each of the continual repairs was in the style of its own period. The marble pedimental
groups on the E end represented the chariot race of Oinomaos and Pelops with Zeus
in the center, and on the W end the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the
marriage of Peirithoos and Deidameia, with Apollo in the center. The twelve metopes,
six each above the entrances of the pronaos and opisthodomos, represent the twelve
labors of Herakles. These sculptures, now more or less restored, are the most
representative examples of the severe style of Greek art from the period after
the Persian wars. The central acroterion at each pediment was a gilded Nike, the
work of Paionios, and the corner acroteria were gilded cauldrons. The chryselephantine
statue of Zeus seated on a throne, the work of Phidias, was placed at the back
of the cella in 430 B.C. Of this masterpiece, described in detail by Pausanias
(5.10. if) nothing remains but some representations, chiefly on coins of Elis.
The gigantic figure (12.37 m) held in his right hand a chryselephantine Nike and
in his left a scepter. The throne and base were decorated with mythical scenes,
and with gods, demigods, and heroes made of gold, ebony, and precious stones.
For the making of this piece a workshop (ergasterion) was put up W of the temple
(Paus. 5.15.1) which survived, with various changes, until the late Roman period.
It measured 14.57 x 32.18 m, and in and around it were found numerous tools, glass
ornaments, clay molds and other artists' materials which definitely belong to
the period of the chryselephantine Zeus.
Two other buildings were erected at about the same time N of the
workshop. One of them, rectangular with a peristyle court, is probably identified
with the Theokoleon, the meeting place of the Theokoloi, the priests of Olympia
(Paus. 5.15.8). This was altered and enlarged to the E and S in the Hellenistic
period. The other building, W of the Theokoleon, consists of a circle inside a
square and is called the Heroon in a later Hellenistic inscription found on the
spot. A recent theory that this was originally a bath and was later dedicated
to its anonymous Hero is not based on any sound evidence. To the W again, towards
the Kladeos river, were the baths (Loutra, 5.75 x 21.56 m) and a swimming pool
(kolymbeterion, 16 x 24 m). The baths were enlarged in 300 B.C. and again in 100
B.C., when a hypocaust was put in underneath; the building was abandoned in the
Roman period when baths were built in many parts of the sanctuary.
The later Classical period was for Elis one of internal problems
and clashes with her neighbors, especially when the Arkadians took Olympia in
364 B.C. and with the Pisans directed the games of that Olympiad (104th 0l.).
They withdrew in 362 B.C. and Elis again took over supervision of the sanctuary.
These disturbances, however, did not prevent new building activity, which gave
the sanctuary its final form and architectural organization. For the first time
the delicate Ionic order and its relative, the Corinthian, were brought into the
sanctuary, which had been dominated by the Doric. In the newer buildings white
marble was used to the almost complete exclusion of the shell limestone previously
employed. These were signs of a general change in the character of the sanctuary.
When the stadium was shifted E to its present position, the isolation of the Altis
was completed with the erection of the Stoa of the Echo (or the Seven Echo stoa)
12.50 x 98 m along its E side. The name came from the fact that an echo in it
was proliferated seven times. It was also called The Painted Stoa (Poikile) from
the wall paintings in it (Paus. 5.21.17; Plin. NH 36.100). It was built shortly
after 350 B.C. and had two colonnades: the inner one was Doric and the outer may
have been Corinthian; there were also rooms along the back.
At this period the main sanctuary (ca. 200 x 175 m) was separated
from the supporting complex and the secular buildings by a monumental peribolos
with five gates, three on the W side and two at the S. At the beginning of the
4th c. the Metroon, the Temple of Kybele, mother of the gods, was built in front
of the terrace on which the treasuries stood. Of this temple, which was Doric
peripteral (10.62 x 20.67 m; 6 x 11 columns), only the stylobate and portions
of the stone epistyle are preserved, and of the pedimental sculptures only a marble
statue of Dionysos reclining. From the time of Augustus on the metroon was used
for the worship of the Roman emperors; sculptured portraits of many of them stood
in the temple. Along the treasury terrace, between the metroon and the stadium,
are preserved the bases of 16 bronze statues of Zeus, the Zanes. These were set
up between 378 B.C. and A.D. 125 with the money paid as a fine by athletes who
had committed fouls in winning the Games (Paus. 5.21.2f). The S boundary of the
sanctuary in its larger sense was defined by the south stoa (80.56 m long), which
had two colonnades, the outer Doric and the inner Corinthian, with a wall at the
back. The stoa was in the form of a T with a colonnaded extension in its center
towards the Alpheios river; it was built at the same time as the Stoa of the Echo,
and its euthynteria and steps were similarly of marble. The recently suggested
identification of this stoa with the proedria (Paus. 5.15.4) is not based on any
At the beginning of the 4th or end of the 5th c. B.C. the SE building
was erected, which according to one opinion is the Sanctuary of Hestia (Xen. Hell.
7.4.31). The W part is preserved, a row of four rooms with Doric colonnades on
their four sides (14.66 x 36.42 m). The building was altered and expanded to the
E in the Hellenistic period. At the SE corner of the Hellenistic addition, an
early 5th c. altar of Artemis was recently found. The SE building was destroyed
in the 1st c. A.D. for the foundations of a peristyle villa, probably built for
The elegant circular peripteral building S of the Prytaneion, the
Philippeion (diam. 15.24 m) was begun by Philip II after the battle of Chaironeia
(338 B.C.) but finished by his son, Alexander the Great. It stood on a marble
stepped krepidoma, mostly preserved, and was surrounded by an Ionic colonnade.
Corinthian half-columns were placed at intervals around the interior of the circular
cella, at the back of which, opposite the entrance, were five portrait statues
standing on a semicircular base, representing Alexander the Great between his
parents and his grandfathers. These statues were the work of Leochares and were
of gold and ivory (Paus. 5.20.9). This type of circular building, used earlier
for divine worship, was now for the first time utilized for worship of the hero
cult of the Macedonian dynasty.
In the W part of the sanctuary, S of the Workshop of Phidias, stood
the hostelry called the Leonidaion, built in 330 B.C., named for its donor and
architect, Leonidas of Naxos. It is 74.82 by 81.08 m and on all four sides its
rooms open inward on a peristyle court with Doric columns. On the outside the
building was surrounded by an Ionic colonnade. Originally intended for distinguished
visitors and illustrious spectators, the building was later used as a residence
for Roman officials (Paus. 5.15.lf).
In the Hellenistic period (3d-1st c. B.C.) there was no new building
in the middle of the main sanctuary. There was only restoration and repair, with
very few enlargements, at fairly frequent intervals, because severe earthquakes
were common. Vigorous building activity however, went on outside the area of the
Altis, to provide comfortable accommodation for athletes and spectators.
To the W of the Altis, near the Kladeos, the Palaestra, was built
in the 4th c., a training ground for practice in wrestling, boxing, and jumping.
It was a nearly square (66.35 x 66.75 m) building with a peristyle court, around
which were covered areas for dressing, applying oil, sand, etc. The columns of
the peristyle were Doric, but those of the entrances to the rooms were Ionic.
To the N of the Palaestra and connected with it was the gymnasium, an enclosed,
rectangular building (120 x 220 m) with a wide court in the center and colonnades
on the four sides. The columns were Doric on the long sides and Ionic on the short.
Here the athletes trained for contests demanding space, such as javelin throwing,
discus throwing, and running. This was built in the early 2d c. B.C., while the
monumental entrance between the gymnasium and the Palaestra, in the form of an
amphiprostyle Corinthian propylon, belongs rather to the late 2d c. B.C.
The sanctuary was crowded with thousands of altars and statues of
gods, demigods, and heroes, of Olympic victors and kings and generals, the work
of the most notable sculptors of antiquity (Paus. 5.14.4f; 21.lf; 6.1.lf). Very
few statues remain, but a large number of bases have been found. Similar statues
were put up in Roman times, but these were mostly of Roman notables and emperors,
and were erected not by their own choice but by cities and private persons who
wished to secure their good will. By that time the best of the older works had
been moved into the Heraion, which took on the appearance of a museum (Paus. 5.17.lf).
In 146 B.C., the consul Mummius dedicated 21 gilded shields after
his victory over the Greeks at the Isthmus. He fixed them on the metopes of the
Temple of Zeus. On the other hand, in 85 B.C. Sulla robbed the treasuries of the
sanctuary (as well as those of Epidaurus and Delphi) to meet the demands made
by the war against Mithridates. Sulla decided to shift the Olympic games to Rome
and organized the 175th Olympiad (80 B.C.) there, but Olympia recovered from this
period of decline in the time of Augustus, after 31 B.C. Roman emperors and magistrates
showed their interest in the sanctuary and the Games in different ways which harmonized
with their political programs in Greece. Under Nero the Altis was enlarged and
surrounded by a new peribolos, 3 m wider on the W side than the old one, and 20
m on the S. The simple gates of the sanctuary were replaced by monumental propylaea.
At about the same time baths were erected W of the Greek baths and N of the Prytaneion.
Later other baths were built NE of Nero's villa, and W of the Bouleuterion. Another
hotel (xenodocheion) rose W of Phidias' Workshop, and during this period the older
buildings were maintained or altered. Finally, in A.D. 160 Herodes Atticus built
a magnificent fountain, the Nymphaion or Exedra (width 33 m, ht. ca. 13 m). It
took the form of a semicircle with a circular naiskos at each of the two ends.
The walls were of brick faced with polychrome marble. Above the semicircular wall
and in the apsidal recesses that made up the central facade were 20 statues of
Antoninus Pius and his family as well as the family of Herodes Atticus. The space
between the two naiskoi was occupied by two basins, one in front of the semicircular
wall and the other on a lower platform. The water, brought from an abundant spring
4 km W of Olympia, ran first into the upper, semicircular basin, next into the
lower rectangular one, and then, via a network of conduits, throughout the whole
The first serious destruction to the monuments of the sanctuary came
with the threat of the Herulian invasion. In the end the invasion did not reach
as far as Olympia, but a strong wall was built to protect the richer treasuries
and particularly the chryselephantine statue of Zeus. This wall, which used to
be thought Byzantine, surrounded the Temple of Zeus and the S part of the sanctuary
up to the south stoa. It was built with material from other buildings, both within
and without the sanctuary, which were demolished for the purpose, except for the
Temple of Hera.
Even in this crippled state and although it continued to decline,
the sanctuary lasted for another century. There were some restorations in this
period, particularly in the time of Diocletian (A.D. 285-305). The end came in
A.D. 393-394 with the decree of Theodosius I, which prohibited worship in pagan
sanctuaries. In A.D. 426 an edict of Theodosius II caused the ruin of the monuments
of the Altis, and it was completed by two violent earthquakes in 522 and 551.
In the 5th and 6th c. there was a small settlement of Christians at Olympia, and
the Workshop of Phidias, the only building left whole, was changed into a Christian
basilica. The floods of the Alpheios and Kladeos and the earth washing down from
the sandy hill of Kronos covered almost the whole of the sanctuary to a depth
of 7 m. The Kladeos also changed its course and, washing through the sanctuary,
swept away many of the buildings in the W part. The first discoveries of the monuments
of Olympia were made in 1829; systematic excavation began in 1875 and has continued
to the present day.
N. Yalouris, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites,
Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Sep 2002 from
Perseus Project URL below, which contains 92 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.