To pass through the bronze doors was to enter the realm of the divine. Outside, the world was scorching sunshine, loud with cicadas and the voices of myriad Greeks – Dorians, Ionians, men from Sicily and Libya, the Aegean islands and the Asiatic coast, the Black Sea, Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Argos; athletes and trainers; hawkers and tradesmen; praise poets and mountebanks, philosophers, kings – all drawn here to Olympia by the magnetism of the panhellenic games. But cross the threshold, enter the hushed temple, where the half-light filtered through a roof of wafer-thin marble and the glow of oil lamps danced and flickered on the soaring columns and the polished floor, and, gazing in awe and wonder, eyes locked with the implacable, unblinking eyes of Zeus, it seemed to any worshipper that he had come into the presence of the god himself.
Such at least was the experience of the Stoic Epictetus. ‘The Zeus at Olympia’, he wrote in his Discourses, ‘does not frown haughtily at you. Rather, he fixes you with his eyes as is proper for one who says, “What I have decreed cannot be revoked and it will come to pass.”’ Epictetus went on, ‘You journey to Olympia to gaze on Zeus’ statue, and every one of you would think it a great misfortune to die never having seen it.’
More than 12m tall, its wooden framework overlaid with a skin of ivory (for the flesh) and gold (for the god’s robes), the statue was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The great master, Phidias, who created it in the 430s BC, said he had been inspired by lines from Homer’s Iliad:
Zeus, the son of Kronos, spoke, and he inclined his head with its dark brows,
And the mighty king’s hair, anointed with ambrosial oil,
Fell forward from his immortal head; and great Olympus trembled.
It was evidently breathtaking. More than 600 years later, the 2nd-century AD traveller Pausanias described at length how, atop a platform worked with images of gods, Zeus sat on a throne of ebony and ivory inlaid with gold and jewels, elaborately carved and painted. An eagle perched on the sceptre that he held in his left hand, while on the palm of his outstretched right hand danced the goddess Victory, her hair ribboned, her head crowned with olive leaves.
He wrote, too, of upper galleries where visitors might view the work more closely, and of a shallow pool of olive oil sunk in the paving stones, which helped not only to reflect the light but to protect the wooden frame which otherwise might suffer harm from marshy vapours. But, despite his painstaking inventory of its riches, there was nothing, he declared, not even knowledge of its full statistics, that could match the impact of actually seeing it – and Zeus himself agreed. When Phidias’ work was done, the artist prayed that Zeus would send a sign of his approval. Immediately a thunderbolt crashed through the temple roof and smashed into the marble paving, where Pausanias’ tour guide (who assured him that his tale was true) showed him a bronze urn carefully positioned (he explained) on the precise spot of the god’s enthusiastic intervention.
The guide had every reason to be proud. The statue was exceptional not only for its artistry but for the value of the raw materials that had gone into making it. So much ivory was used to fashion the god’s flesh that one visitor remarked that Nature could not have created elephants for any other reason. It was only proper that such a statue, the greatest statue of the greatest god, Zeus, be created and housed here at Olympia. While Olympia was in some respects a backwater, a rural sanctuary in the wilds of the north-west Peloponnese, it was also the site of one of the most important gatherings in the Greek world, a four-yearly festival, whose five days straddling the August full moon were marked with feasts and sacrifices – and games in which to win was to be recognised as almost superhuman.
These games were sacred to Zeus, but while some believed their origins lay in a wrestling match (held or subsequently celebrated at Olympia), in which the god defeated his father Kronos and so took the throne of heaven, there were other explanations, too. Pindar, the great praise-singer, told how Heracles established the Olympic Games after overthrowing the local king, Augeas, who refused to pay the hero for cleansing his stables, while both Pindar and Pausanias were familiar with a tradition that the mythical King Pelops (who gave his name to the Peloponnese) founded them after winning the hand of the local princess thanks to his victory in a chariot race. That this had been achieved through cheating was incidental; Pelops bribed his opponent’s technician to substitute his metal lynchpins with wax replicas, which melted as the race progressed, causing the chariot to disintegrate and the princess’s father to be killed.
Both foundation myths were celebrated in sculptures adorning Olympia’s Temple of Zeus, the home of the towering statue. Twelve metopes (self-contained rectangular blocks) showed Heracles – encouraged by Athena, and clearly ageing as the tasks progressed – toiling to complete the Labours thanks to which he would win immortality, while on the eastern pediment were shown the preparations for Pelops’ fateful chariot race, the two protagonists separated by the towering figure of Zeus himself. It was not the only place that Pelops’ role was recognised. A little to the north of Zeus’ temple, a walled-off area, the Pelopion, contained a low mound encircled by white poplar trees. This was the hero’s cenotaph, where on the night of the August full moon priests sacrificed a black ram to the hero’s ghost and burned its flesh to soothe his anger.
That there should be (at least) three contradictory myths explaining the Olympic Games reveals a startling truth: not even Greeks knew how they had originated. Accept this, and we must also recognise that many other claims our sources make about the site, its structures, and the festival itself could equally be built on baseless speculation, which, compounded by centuries’ worth of subsequent assumption and misunderstanding, may mean that much of what we think we know about Olympia is wrong.
This is one reason why Judith Barringer’s new book, Olympia: a cultural history, is so important. Drawing on recent archaeology as well as her first-hand knowledge of local topography, Barringer not only reassesses many commonly held suppositions but addresses both known unknowns and unknown unknowns – and in doing so she sheds significant new light on the sanctuary and its activities. She shows that the Altis, the sacred area which no adult woman (bar Demeter’s priestess) could enter during the festival, was considerably larger than previously thought, embracing the low Hill of Kronos within its circuit. She demonstrates how the south-facing stoa (arcade) was orientated to face a huge marketplace serving the needs of thousands of participants, spectators, and camp followers. She locates the site of the vast shanty town that sprang up every four years, when visitors would camp according to their cities and ethnicities. But even more intriguingly she reveals how, thanks to man or Nature, the site was in a state of constant flux, as buildings rose, fell, or were relocated, and the festival itself morphed from a local gathering to a gala for elite competitors drawn from across the Roman Empire. In short, she unveils the changing faces of Olympia.
Some of these changes were reflected in mythology. For example, Barringer believes that the rechannelling of the local River Cladeus in 700 BC (to enlarge the site as the festival became more international) lies behind the myth of Heracles and the Augean stables. Faced with the daunting and unpleasant task of removing mountains of dung, the hero diverts the same river, a feat shown on a metope on Zeus’ temple.
Other changes explain the positioning of certain statue groups, including one set up by Achaeans of the Northern Peloponnese around 480 BC. Its use of space was revolutionary. On a surviving curving base stood nine now-lost free-standing larger-than-life bronze figures, Greek heroes of the Trojan War, while facing them, yet set apart, there was a tenth: King Nestor. It was from this king’s helmet (the Iliad proclaims) that each of these warriors drew lots to win the right to meet Troy’s hero, Hector, in single combat. It was common to make thank-offerings for victory in battle at Olympia, and this group – perhaps linking the mythological Greek victory over Troy with recent triumphs over Persia – may belong to just this category. So its theme was victory – victory in the lottery to combat Hector; victory in the Trojan War; victory against the invading Persians in 480-479 BC – and victory was at the heart of the Olympic Games. But what made it extraordinary was the fact that viewers were intended to walk through the composition in the space between the group of warriors and solitary Nestor, to become (as Barringer suggests) ‘a part of the composition’.
The statue group’s location at the southern side of a multipurpose open-air venue had been well chosen. Surrounded on three sides by temporary wooden seating, it was here that the foot-races ended, that wrestling and boxing matches were held, and that victorious athletes received crowns of olive leaves at the awards ceremony, which made the link between Trojan heroes and Olympic victors plain for all to see. Within just ten years, however, that link was broken. In around 470 BC, the decision was made to use this multipurpose venue as the site of the Temple of Zeus. As the local architect Libon and his team set to work, the racetrack was relocated east and the awards ceremony moved elsewhere, but the statue group stayed where it was, out of context now and overshadowed by the dominating temple.
Such upheavals were not unusual at Olympia. Among its most striking structures was an ash altar built from the burnt remains of animal sacrifices, which were mixed with water from the local River Alpheios and hardened in the sun. As years went by and more material was added, the altar grew in height. It also moved. Evidence suggests that around 600 BC, when what we now know as the Temple of Hera was built, the ash altar was relocated. For nine centuries (it moved again in the 3rd century AD), it formed a portal between earth and heaven, for as the fat of victims burned – up to a hundred oxen led here in a great procession and slaughtered simultaneously – priests scrutinised the dancing flames, using their shifting patterns to foretell the future and reveal the will of Zeus.
But where was Zeus originally worshipped at Olympia? This is one of many intriguing questions raised by Barringer. We have already seen that Hera had a temple long before Zeus did. So was Zeus originally worshipped in the open air? Or was the temple that we now call Hera’s once, in fact, her husband’s? Pausanias saw two statues in Hera’s temple, which even he describes as ancient: one of the goddess, the other of a bearded Zeus. Did Hera only ‘move in’ to her own temple (so to speak) once the great Temple of Zeus was completed in 456 BC? And was Pausanias’ ancient, bearded statue the original, if temporary, cult object in that temple, removed when Phidias’ great gold and ivory creation was installed? It would not have been the only statue to be accorded a new home at Olympia. As Barringer exhorts us to remember at all times, statues were not always first set up where modern archaeologists have found them – or even where Pausanias reports he saw them.
As the ash altar grew, so did the number and breathtaking variety of these statues: young men and heroes; horses, chariots, and charioteers; oxen lining the road towards the altar. Victors in the games were permitted to erect them, part pious offerings, part physical embodiments of bragging rights; cities and regional confederacies (such as the Achaeans) erected them to mark success in battle; rich patrons and ambitious politicians increasingly commissioned bronze and marble statuary as evidence of their largesse or statements of intent. Philip of Macedon commissioned an exquisite tholos (circular shrine) to house portrait statues of himself, his wife and children, formed (like the statue of Olympian Zeus) from gold and ivory. Its purpose? To commemorate his victory in 338 BC at Chaeronea over independent Greece. A reminder of Greece’s subjugation in the place where Greeks for centuries had celebrated their freedom and identity, it was just the first of many signs of how the world was changing. Perhaps the most eye-catching was the huge nymphaeum (fountain house), served by an aqueduct a kilometre long, which the plutocrat Herodes Atticus installed during the 2nd century AD. Adorned with statues of two families – his own and Hadrian’s, the emperor du jour – and shaped like a Roman theatre, it proclaimed the Greek Herodes’ loyalty to powerful foreign masters.
Amid such shifts of fortune, there was one constant presence: the towering statue of Zeus that sat implacable, immutable within his marble temple. And then it, too, was moved – shipped off in AD 390 to Constantinople, a souvenir for a patrician’s palace. But already the world was changing. Only the next year, the Roman Emperor Theodosius outlawed pagan practices, and five years later Alaric and his Goths swept down through Greece in an orgy of looting and destruction. By the time they reached Olympia, however, the sanctuary’s days were already numbered. With Christianity triumphant, the Games could not survive much longer. Nor, indeed, could Zeus’ statue. In AD 462, it was destroyed by fire. At Olympia, temples crumbled, earthquakes toppled columns, and silt from the two rivers oozed over what remained until even the location of this once vibrant place became forgotten as the last face of Olympia was smothered in a mudpack.
But one face remained unblemished and refulgent. During its short life at Constantinople, the statue of Zeus was admired by many artists. Among them were Christian iconographers. Just like their pagan forefathers, they felt a sense of awe to see it, as if they had come into the presence of God himself. Surely this, then, was the face they had been searching for as they tried to paint their icons of all-ruling Christ. Surely there could be no other. So, in ateliers beside the Bosporus, the face that Phidias, inspired by Homer’s Iliad, had crafted for Olympian Zeus was grafted to become the face of Christ.
Meanwhile Olympia itself lay dormant – until 1766, when the English antiquarian Richard Chandler identified the site. At first it was the romance of the setting that proved most attractive. As the early 19th-century traveller William Leake observed, ‘at Olympia, as in many other celebrated places in Greece, the scenery and topography are at present much more interesting than the ancient remains.’ In 1875, excavations began in earnest, and they continue to this day. Had Leake been furnished with Judith Barringer’s excellent book, he would undoubtedly have thought very differently.
Judith Barringer, Olympia: a cultural history, Princeton University Press (price $35/£28; ISBN 978-0691210476).
David Stuttard, Power Games: ritual and rivalry at the Ancient Greek Olympics, British Museum Press (price £9.99; ISBN 978-0714122724).
You can hear more from David Stuttard about Olympia on an upcoming episode of The Past’s podcast, which will be available at https://the-past.com/podcasts.