Ancient Olympia

ancient olympia tourOlympia a sanctuary of Ancient Greece is known for having been the site of the Olympic Games in classical times, comparable in importance to the Pythian games held in Delphi. The Olympic Games were held every four years, dating back to 776 BC. In 394 A.D. emperor Theodosius II abolished them as they were then considered reminiscent of paganism. The first Olympic Games were in honor of Zeus.

Olympia is also known for the gigantic ivory and gold statue of Zeus that used to stand there, sculpted by Phidias, which was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The first Olympic festival was organized on the site by the authorities of Elis in the 8th century BC-with tradition dating the first games at 776 BC.

Major changes were made to the site around 700 BC. Including leveling land and digging wells. Elis power diminished and at the beginning of the 7th century BC the sanctuary fell into the hands of the Pisatans in 676 BC. The Pisatans organized the games until the late 7th century BC. The earliest evidence of building activity on the site dates from around 600 BC. At this time Sikloudians, allies of the Pistans, built the Temple of Hera. The treasuries and the Pelopion were built during the course of the 6th century BC. The secular structures and Athletic arenas were also under construction during this period including the Bouleyterion. The first stadium was constructed around 560 BC, it consisted of just a simple track. The stadium was remodeled around 500 BC with sloping sides for spectators and shifted slightly to the east. Over the course of the 6th century BC a range of sports was added to the Olympic festival. In 580 BC, Elis, in alliance with Sparta, occupied Pisa and regained the control over the sanctuary. The Classical period between the 5th and 4th century centuries BC, was the golden age of the site at Olympia. A wide range of new religious and secular buildings and structures were constructed. The temple of Zeus was built in the middle of the fifth century BC. Its size, scale and of ornamentation was beyond anything previously constructed on the site. Further sporting facilities, including the final iteration of the stadium, and the hippodrome (for chariot-racing) were constructed. The Prytaneion was built at the north west side of the site in 470 BC.

In the late classical period, further structures were added to the site. The Metroon was constructed near the Treasuries 400 BC. The erection of the Echo Stoa, around 350 BC, separated off the sanctuary from the area of the games and stadium. The South Stoa was built at the southern edge of the Sanctuary at approximately the same time. The late 4th century BC saw the erection of the Philippeion. Around 300 BC the largest building on the site, the Leonidaion was constructed to the house important visitors. Due to the increasing importance of the games, further athletic buildings were constructed including the palaestra (3rd century BC). Gymnasion (2nd century BC) and bath houses 300 BC. Finally in 200 BC, a vaulted archway was erected linking the entrance of the stadium to "the sanctuary". During the Roman period, the games were opened up to all citizens of the Roman Empire. A program of extensive repairs including to the temple of Zeus, and new building took place in 150 AD. The Nympheum (or Exedra) was built. New baths replaced the order Greek examples in 100 AD and an aqueduct constructed in 160 AD. The 3rd century saw the site suffer heavy damage from a series of earthquakes. Invading tribes in 267 AD led to the centre of the site being fortified with robbed material its monuments . Despite the destruction the Olympic festival continued to be held at the site until the last Olympiad in 393 A.D. after which a decree from the Christian emperor, Theodosius II implemented a ban. The workshop of Phidias was turned into a Basilica and the site was inhabited by a Christian community until the late 6th century.


The basic difference between the ancient and the modern Olympics is that the athletes of the ancient world dedicated their efforts not only to their family and homeland but predominantly to the gods. Therefore, the religious feeling was intense and determining. The first recorded Olympics took place at 776 B.C.. One would wonder though, how do we know this date since the ancient historians had never heard of Christ and did not know when he would come at all. It's very simple: History was recorded according to the Olympics, which without any change ever, were organized every 4 years, at the 1st full moon after the summer solstice of the 21st of June. The oracle of Delphi had determined both the terms and the timing of the games to the messenger sent by the kings of Pissa, Ilis and Sparta who organized the first Olympics. The first and most important condition was the sacred truce. Cities and states participating should stop any hostile activity for one month before the games, during the games and one month after them. This gave great relief to all the city states which were very often at war. This summer brake also helped the agricultural production, especially the harvest of wheat in June and the vintage of grapes and vegetables in July and August. In wintertime, usually hostile activities stopped not only because of the bad weather but also because of the harvest of the olives and the seeding of the fields. All participating athletes were Greek citizens. They all had to follow and respect the rules of the games, exhibit exemplary behavior towards other athletes, show respect to the divinities, abstain from drinking, avoid bribing other athletes or jury members and stealing training tools or any other properties from the other participants. Finally the prize was a reef of an olive-tree branch which tree was found in the temple of Hera, wrapped in spider's web when the messenger came back from the oracle of Delphi. It was planted in the holy park , next to the temple of Zeus. In the end of the games, a local child using golden scissors would cut from that tree the branches for the reefs. The idea of competing in times of peace was very exciting. The games were very popular and soon became a Pan-Hellenic event. Greeks would come not only from mainland Greece and the isles, but also from the Black Sea, The Bosporus Bay, The Asia Minor coast - Ionia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, South Italy and Sicily- Magna Grecia, France and Spain. Athletes were escorted by their coaches and families. Initially they went to Ilida, where there have already been excavated 3 stadiums. After their last training there, they would be accommodated at the gymnasium and the palaestra in Olympia. There was no admission to women. Death was the penalty. The only woman who ever dared to enter the stadium was Kallipatera, daughter of Diagoras from Rhodes, champion wrestler. She wanted to see her sons wrestling. She disguised herself as gymnastic teacher and ran in the stadium when her son won, in order to kiss him. Everybody recognized her and was screaming her name, but no one dared to execute the daughter, mother and sister of champions. Her father, Diagoras even thought he was very old and paralyzed was always brought to the Olympics. His sons were carrying him on their shoulders for the run of triumph, and as they passed in frond of the Sparta delegation the Spartans said "Diagoras, what are you expecting - to reach Olympus? Die now!" and so he died of the emotion at that very moment.

The oldest game was running on foot. The first competition was between the god Apollo and Hercules. Hercules won, measured the ancient stadium and because his feet were bigger than ordinary, the stadium here is the longest of all in ancient Greece, measuring 192,27 meters - that is 634,49 feet. The capacity was circa 60,000 spectators and is the only stadium in Greece without steps, because of the heat which sometimes in full summer goes up to 45C, that is about 120 Fahrenheit.

Hercules was the patron on athletes would poor choas of wine-libations, and pray for his assistance before the finals. There have also been discovered many little statues of his, which are kept in the local Museum of Olympic Games. After a few year, new contests were added, like running the stadium twice [diavlos], 24 times the stadium [dolichos], the shot put, the long jump, wrestling, chariot races, running on foot with 45-kg full armour on (oplites dromos), Pancras ( wrestling and boxing together), as well as donkey chariot races and many age categories for children, teenagers and adults. All these added up to about 2 full weeks of Games in Hellenistic and Roman times. There was no golden or any other prize. Athletes we crowned with the olive reef at the entrance of the classical temple of Zeus.

Today, we can see on the entrance floor of the temple of Zeus the marble mosaic where a silver-ivory table was placed for the champion's reefs.
Inside the temple stood the ivory-golden statue of Zeus. It was 12,5 meters-circa 41,25 feet high. The god was sitting in a black ebony-wood throne and in his hand was holding a statue of goddess Nike-Victory, which had human size. On the exterior sides of the throne, mythological scenes and moments of the Trojan War were depicted. The artist Phidias had used for them gold, silver, enamel and semi-precious stones. The body if the god inside was made of wood, on which the skin was done with pieces of ivory, while the chiton was made out of gold. According to the Athenian archives for the Athena statue of Parthenon 1 ton and 60 kgs of gold had been required. So consequently, the statue of Zeus had about the same amount of gold. Unfortunately, both statues were transported at 330 A.D. to Constantinople in order to decorate the hippodrome and there they burned totally during the big fire due to the earthquake at 476 A.D.

Zeus was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, not because of the size, the luxury and the art of Phidias, but predominantly because of his face expression. The eyes of the god were radiating thunders and lightings, his forehead was wrinkled but on his mouth he had a honey sweet smile. On the Inauguration Day pilgrims were asking Phidias if he had gone up to the Olympus or if the god had come to his workshop in order to pose for him. The Greeks dreamed to see the statue once in their lifetime. It was like for the Christians to visit the Holy Land. Because of that, Olympia even off the games was the most popular religious destination for the pilgrims who came from all over in order to see the famous statue.


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