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Olympia (Scott Kennard)

Archaeological Development

  • much evidence of building and dedications comes from literary sources, particualrly Pausanias – writing late in the history of Olympia (mid-2nd Century AD, under Roman domination)
  • many buildings were demolished in 267 AD to build defensive walls around the temple of Zeus
  • much was also destroyed by earthquakes in 6nd Century
  • floods and landslides have conveniently covered everything that remained with sand, gravel and mud, to a depth of 7m meaning some buildings are preserved incredibly well
  • many statues were removed by Medieval scrap merchants, searching for bronze and marble
  • the first formal discoveries were made in 1829 and systematic excavation began in 1875
  • during early excavations digging focussed on temple of Zeus, in hindsight wrongly presuming it to be the earliest/most important part of the sanctuary – in fact it was not built until mid-5th century BC.
  • most objects found at Olympia are now in the Archaeological museum there. Considerably surviving are bronze work from eighth to sixth centuries and the marblearchitectural sculpture from the temple of Zeus.


  • Early evidence of cult of Pelops and Hippodameia c.1500-1000 BC
  • Evidence of cults of Kronos, Gaia etc. c.1500-1000 BC
  • Dorian invasion + capture of Olympia from Pisa lead to introduction of worship of Zeus
  • Oldest ruin from sanctuary itself (‘the Altis’) is the temple of Hera
  • Adjacent temple of Zeus much grander and larger
  • Between the two was the Pelopian, supposed grave of Pelops, a legendary hero of Olympia and supposed inspiration for games.
  • Remnants of ‘ancient tree worship’ from 8th Century, of sacred wild olive tree, according to myth planted by Idaian Herakles
  • Increase in popularity of Zeus statue dedications in 5th century BC marked a strong shift towards Zeus worship in sanctuary.

Ritual Activity


  • 8th Century: primitive bronze and terracotta statuettes of men and animals, and chariots and drivers
  • post-776 (re-organization or Games/re-invention as Pan-hellenic): massive increase in terracottas and bronzes. Inflow of Corinthian pottery. Also bronze cauldrons and tripods, and high-quality weapons.
  • military dedications very popular, more so than at Delphi (see MS). Inscribed armour very popular. Small bronze statues + painted terracottas also survive.
  • between 600 and 479 BC, all twelve of Olympias treasuries were founded, all by Dorian powers, and squeezed into a single terrace. The were modest in design – nine were built from marble, no evidence of pedimental sculpture etc. No political stand-offs like those of Delphi.
  • in 6th century BC, the development of Delphic, Isthmian and Nemean games lead to a massive increase generally, and in the specialization of statues commemorating Athletic victories.
  • beginning in 6th century BC, distinct ‘spatial groupings’ appear in the dedications (see MS) – forming conglomerates not only of competition categories but of polis and family.
  • by the late 6th century BC, the sanctuary was tri-partite (see MS), divided between: (1) local votive offerings around the temple of Hera; (2) military dedications, often from big international powers, in the stadium; and (3) athletic victory dedications around the bouletarion to the south.
  • dedication of Zeus statues, with a variety of attributions, became an incredibly popular celebration of military victory in 5th century BC.
  • building on temple of Zeus and new stadium in late 5th century began a radical reshaping of the dedicatory space – see MS.
  • dedication of arms/tropaia declined in late 5th century, in favour of statue groups to commemorate military and political success, especially in front of temple of Zeus.
  • the placement of Athletic status likewise shifted following the building of the temple, moving north from the bouletarion to the east end of the temple. Athletic and military statues began to intertwine, clustering around statues celebrating big military victories. (see MS on power/reasons for popularity of Athletic statues)
  • statue dedication peaked in the 4th century.
  • dedication declined in late 4th century, and was increasingly only from local victors

Olympic Games

  • in myth, either founded by Heracles or in honour of victory of Pelops in chariot race against King Oenomaus of Pisa (see Pindar)
  • held in the Altis once every four years in August of September
  • preceded by a procession from Elis (as powerful host city?) to Olympia
  • original contest was stadion/one-stade race, a 210 yard (=190m?) sprint. Early victors were predominantly Spartan. Ither contests were added between late 8th and early 5th centuries – the two-stade race, a longer distance race, boxing, wrestling, pankration, pentathlon, horse races and chariot races.
  • entered were by individuals, not states. the only official prizes were crowns of wild olive, but victors were often lavishly rewarded by their home polis nevertheless.
  • tension between traditional gentry and increasing numbers of professional Athletes, especially in 4th Century.
  • main ‘religious event’ was sacrifice of a ‘hecatomb’(theoretically 100 cattle) on altar of Zeus (see Paus)
  • list of victors goes down to 217 BC
  • abolished by emperor Theodosius in 393 AD under pressure from rise of Christianity.

History/Historical Significance

  • evidence of extensive pre-historic settlement
  • votives in ash layer indicate cult activity from at least C10th
  • wells on Eastern side date to C8th (to serve visitors?)
  • Olympic truce/recognition of Elis as “sacred and unassailable” lead to rapid growth and prosperity of the area
  • from 6th Century the sanctuary and festival were ‘managed’(controlled?) by Elis. In a body of of inscriptions, the leges sacrae, the Eleans make clear their responsibility for both the sanctuary and games. Elean power was resolutely celebrated by the building of temple of Zeus in late 5th century BC, surpassed by little before it in grandeur and scale. MS argues the temple dually proclaims Elis’ exclusive control of Olympia, while celebrating Olympias international links – the essential foundation of that power. This coincided with the building of a new stadium – about 50% larger than the old.
  • lists of visitors to Olympic games begins in 776 BC
  • rise of athletics = rise of equestrian aristocracy/demise of monarchy?
  • first athletics track dates to C6th
  • first bouletarian built c.520 BC
  • Predominantly doric architecture – early Spartan influence?
  • from the 8th century, Olympia, and the Oympian games, had enormous international/‘pan-hellenic’(!?) political importance
  • commemoration of victory again Persia – Athenian helmet ‘taken form medes’, helmet dedication ‘from Miltiades’, massive bronze Zeus + roll of honour dedicated after Plataea
  • following the Persian Wars, Olympia was increasingly the preserve of the Peloponnese and Magna Graecia e.g. anti-Athenian/pro-Spartan Olympian Games of 428 BC
  • yet the sanctuary was also the site of the announcement of important pan-Greek treaties – e.g. 30 year peace between Athens and Sparta agreed in 446-5 BC.
  • during the 420s, the sanctuary was to a great extetn a symbol of Elean realignment to Sparta’s rival. notwithstanding its control over Olympia, Elis was a relatively weak poleis internationally. Elean attempts to prevent Spartan participation in the 420s lead to the forced capitulation to King Agis in 399/8 BC.
  • late classical period was dominated by clashes between Elis and local rivals – e.g. in 364BC the Arcadians took Olympia - Pisa managed the 104th Olympian games.
  • first Hellenic, then Roman domination was re-enforced through dedication and building at Olympia.
  • the ‘Philippeion’ was built in 330s to celebrate Phillip II victory at Chaironeia/finished by Alexander (re-enforcing his own legitimacy?).
  • in 146 BC Mummius dedicated 21 gilded shields after victory over Greeks at the Isthmus
  • c.100 BC the first Roman-style Baths were built
  • in 85 BC Sulla emptied the treasuries (as at Epidaurus and Delphi) to fund the war against Mithridates. The games were re-located to Rome – where the 175th Olympian games were held in 80 BC.
  • Olympia was 'reborn' thanks to imperial patronage - e.g. Agrippa repaired the temple of Zeus; Tiberius and Germanicus ‘won’(?) chariot-races; Nero (uniquely!?) performed in musical contests, and he enlarged the Altis, adding a new peribolos and monumental gates.
  • the sanctuary was fortified c.268 BC, in fear of a Herulian invasion, at the cost of many classical monuments.
  • in 393-4 AD, a decree of the emperor Theodosius I prohibited worship in ‘pagan sanctuaries’. In 426 AD an edict of Theodosius II began the ruin of the monuments of the Altis, complete by two earthquakes in 522 and 551 BC.
  • a small Christian settlement continued into 5th and 6th centuries, and between 400 and 450 BC the ‘Workshop of Phidias’ was converted into a Christian basilica 

Who used the site, and where did they come from? 

  • Early 8th Century activity was limited to Elis + neighbouring territories
  • From 7th century there were visitors from all of the Greek mainland and the wider Mediterranean – yet firmly under the control of Elis – an ‘extra-urban’ sanctuary’?
  • Decline to local sanctuary under Roman Republic, esp. after Sulla’s re-location of Olympian games to Rome in 80 BC.
  • Massive re-growth in Roman imperial period, popularity as international ‘tourist destination’ in 2nd century AD.
  • Sanctuary activity was ended by declaration of Theodosius I in 393-4 AD


  1. Scott, M (2010) Delphi and Olympia, the spatial politics of pan-Hellenism in the Archaic and Classical periods.
  2. Morgan, C (1990) Athletes and oracles : the transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the eighth century BC


Approximately 12 KM inland from Western shore of Peloponnese in the wooded valley of the river Alpheus.

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