Olympia: a cultural history

Review by Paul Christesen

Olympia is not an especially large archaeological site (the entire excavated area measures less than 1km on a side), but it is nonetheless a particularly complex one. Activity at the site began in the 4th millennium BC and continued, with some interruptions, all the way through the 9th century AD. Sometime around 1100 BC, the site became a religious sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Olympios (Zeus who rules from Mount Olympos) and, by 700 BC at the latest, athletic contests – the ancient Olympics – were held in conjunction with a religious festival celebrated every fourth year in honour of Zeus. Visitors, mostly Greeks, came from all over the Mediterranean, making Olympia a prime spot for display. Copies of treaties and alliances were set up for public viewing; communities erected monuments to commemorate military victories; and visitors dedicated literally hundreds of statues of Olympic victors, local religious officials, and prominent generals and statesmen. An array of buildings – including temples, stadiums, and bathhouses – was erected to accommodate all of the activity at the site.

Judith Barringer’s new book tells the story of Olympia, with a particular focus on the heyday of the sanctuary of Zeus, from about 600 BC to roughly AD 300. Barringer’s task is not an easy one, because of the complexity of the site: excavations, primarily by German archaeologists, have been ongoing since 1875; and there is a massive amount of scholarship on, and endless debate about, nearly everything having to do with Olympia. The text is divided into eight parts: a brief introduction, a prologue, and six chapters, which address the history of the site on a mostly chronological basis.

Barringer is necessarily selective and concentrates on important pieces of architecture and sculpture. She consistently exhibits deep knowledge of the site and good judgment in the interpretation of the extant remains. Helpful summaries are provided at the beginning and end of each chapter, and the text is richly illustrated. The book seems to be aimed at a relatively broad audience that has some general knowledge of ancient Greece, and Barringer is attentive to providing the information and explanation such an audience would require to understand Olympia.

A few flaws are worth mentioning. Given the intended audience, some of the terminology used is rather specialised; in some places, important features of the site not likely to be familiar to the intended audience appear in the text but are only described later; and a summary of the myths tied to Olympia – knowledge of which is essential for interpreting some of the art from the site – is regrettably missing. These are, however, minor complaints. Despite the site’s significance, the sheer quantity of material from and about Olympia means that producing an overview is a daunting prospect, and there has been a longstanding need for a detailed, up-to-date, English-language overview of the history of Olympia. Barringer’s book admirably fills that need, and will immediately become an essential point of reference.

Olympia: a cultural history, Judith M Barringer, Princeton University Press, £28 ISBN 978-0691210476.