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Olympia has been described by an ancient writer as the fairest spot in
Greece. In so describing it, he must have had in view not only the
natural scenery but also the beautiful buildings and statuary with which
it was so richly adorned as the time-honoured seat of the Olympian
games. The scenery is pleasing without being grand, presenting in this
respect a striking contrast to the stern majesty of Delphi. It may be
described as a peaceful and fertile plain, traversed by the river
Alpheus, whose waters Heracles is said to have diverted from their
course to cleanse the Augean stables. On either side, and also at its
western end, the plain is shut in by hills, while far away to the east
the mountains of Arcadia, where the Alpheus has its rise, can be dimly
seen. In the immediate foreground, standing by itself, as if detached
from the low range behind, there is a small conical hill, about 400 feet
high, covered with pines and brushwood, and bearing a name (Cronius)
which calls to mind the primeval deity who was dethroned by his son
Zeus, the presiding god of Olympia. Close to this hill, on the south,
lies the Altis or sacred enclosure, originally a consecrated grove,
which, in course of time, was overspread with altars and temples and
other public buildings.

Thirty years ago there was scarcely any trace of this ancient glory to
be seen. But within the last generation a great work of excavation and
discovery has been carried on by German archæologists, at an expense of
£40,000, generously defrayed by the German Government, on the
understanding that all objects of interest brought to light should be
allowed to remain in Greece. One can form some idea of the labour
involved in the undertaking from the fact that the average depth of the
_débris_, composed of the clay washed down from the Cronius hill and the
alluvial deposits of the river Cladeus (which joins the Alpheus close to
the Altis on the west), was fully sixteen feet.

Although associated, more than any other spot in Greece, with the
worship of the “father of gods and men,” Olympia seems originally to
have been devoted to the honour of his consort Hera, or possibly of
both. The oldest architectural remains within the enclosure are those of
a temple of Hera, to which Pausanias assigned an earlier date than we
can give to any other sacred ruin in Greece, namely, about 1096 B.C. Its
great antiquity is proved by the resemblance which it bears in some
respects to the architecture of Mycenæ, and also by the fact that the
existing columns (of which thirty-four out of the original forty have
been more or less preserved) were evidently preceded by columns of
wood, one of which, made of oak, was still standing when Pausanias
visited the place in the second century A.D. Wood seems to have been the
material in which the Doric architecture was originally executed; and in
this instance it was only as the wood of each column decayed that it was
replaced with stone, the natural result being that the columns differ
greatly from one another in thickness and style and the nature of their
stone. Some of them must have been substituted for the wooden ones as
early as the seventh century B.C., for their capitals are among the
oldest specimens of Doric architecture that are anywhere to be found.
Pausanias tells us that this temple contained rude images of both Zeus
and Hera; and not far from the spot a head has been discovered, twice as
large as life, which is supposed with great probability to belong to the
latter. It is believed to date from the seventh or sixth century B.C.,
and is made of the same soft stone as the base still remaining, which
could not have lasted so long unless it had been under cover. The eyes
are large, the head is crowned, and the face wears a look of
complacency, without much dignity or refinement. Hera seems to have had
much the same prominence in Olympia as she had in Argolis, where the
family of Pelops was also in the ascendant.

It was only gradually that Zeus obtained general recognition as the
chief deity in the court of Olympus, becoming the centre of the
Pan-Hellenic religion reflected in Homer, which was as powerful a bond
of union among the ancient Greeks as Christianity has
proved to be in modern times in preserving the Greek nationality under
the Turkish Empire. The supremacy which was given to Zeus in theory in
other parts of the country was visibly realised at Olympia, where the
chief sanctuary was a temple dedicated to his worship, more than 200
feet long and about 90 feet wide, surrounded by 134 columns, each of
them about 34 feet high, dating probably from the fifth century B.C. It
was a magnificent edifice, as we may still judge from the appearance of
the columns and the decorations of the pediments and the
frieze--although built of native conglomerate. On the east pediment of
the gable there were twenty-one colossal and imposing figures,
representing those interested in the chariot-race from Pisa to the
isthmus of Corinth, by which Pelops gained the kingdom and the hand of
the king’s daughter; while on the west there was a representation, in a
similar style, of the legendary battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs.
On the metopes of the frieze the Twelve Labours of Heracles were
depicted, and along the sides of the roof gargoyles projected in the
form of lions’ mouths. Many of these figures have been recovered, mostly
in fragments, and are exhibited in the local museum. In the same place
there is an exquisite statue of Hermes by Praxiteles, which was found
under a covering of clay in front of the very pedestal in the temple of
Hera where Pausanias mentions that he had seen it standing, and also a
Niké of Pæonius, representing the goddess of Victory flying through the
air to execute the behest of Zeus.

But the crowning glory of Olympia, the masterpiece of Pheidias and of
Greek art, is gone beyond recall. It was a colossal image of Jupiter,
made of gold and ivory and ebony, about 40 feet high, and standing on a
pedestal of bluish-black stone in the innermost part of the temple.
Cicero expressed his admiration of it by saying that Pheidias had
designed it not after a living model but after that ideal beauty which
he saw with the inward eye alone. Dīo Chrysostom bore still more
impressive testimony to its entrancing beauty when he said: “Methinks
that if one who is heavy-laden in mind, who has drained the cup of
misfortune and sorrow in life, and whom sweet sleep visits no more, were
to stand before this image, he would forget all the griefs and troubles
that are incident to the life of man.” It is uncertain whether the image
perished in the fire which destroyed the temple in the beginning of the
fifth century A.D., or was carried to Constantinople and consumed in a
conflagration which took place there in 475 A.D.

Near the centre of the Altis has been found the foundation of the great
altar of Zeus (which was made of ashes and rose to a height of 22 feet),
and not far off an ancient altar of Hera, where an immense quantity of
small bronzes and terra-cotta figures has been found. In the same
neighbourhood has been traced the _Pelopium_, a precinct sacred to the
memory of Pelops, where he was worshipped as a hero with a ritual of a
sad and gloomy nature, directed to a pit as an emblem of the grave, and
more akin to the primitive worship of the Chthonian or infernal gods
than to that of the deities who were enthroned on lofty Olympus.

The fame of Olympia may be said to have rested even more on its games
than on its religious associations, though the secular and sacred were
so bound up with one another, in ancient Greece, that it is scarcely
possible to form a true conception of the one without the other. The
Olympian games held the foremost place among those competitive
exhibitions, which were so illustrative of the spirit of emulation
characteristic of the Greeks, as well as of their ideal of a harmonious
development of body and soul. There were three other foundations of the
same kind: the Pythian, in honour of Apollo, likewise held every four
years; the Nemean (under the care of Argos), every second year, in
honour of Zeus; and the Isthmian (under Corinth), also held every second
year, in honour of Poseidon. The prizes were respectively a wreath of
bay, of pine, and of parsley, a palm-branch being also placed in the
hand of the victor. The prize at Olympia was a wreath of olive, cut with
a golden sickle by a boy, both of whose parents had to be alive--as
among the Gauls the priest had to cut the sacred mistletoe with the same
precious metal. At the three other places just mentioned the games dated
practically from the first quarter of the sixth century B.C. But the
register of victors in the Olympian games went back to 776 B.C., which
is the first definite and reliable date (called the First Olympiad) in
Greek chronology.

The origin of all these gatherings may probably be traced to the
funeral games mentioned in Homer and Hesiod, which were celebrated by a
chief in honour of a departed friend or relative. According to one
account the Olympian games were instituted by Heracles in honour of
Pelops, grandfather of Agamemnon and brother of the ill-fated Niobe, who
had come to Pisa from the Lydian kingdom of his father Tantalus--that
presumptuous guest at the table of the gods whose name is immortalised
for us in the English word which describes the nature of his penal
sufferings. The traditional connection of Olympia with Asia Minor is
borne out by the resemblance of the bronzes above mentioned to early
Phrygian art, as well as by other circumstances; and there is no reason
to doubt that Olympia was at one time in the hands of the Achæans.

The Dorian invasion of the Peloponnesus about 1100 B.C., eighty years
after the fall of Troy, marked a new era in the history of Olympia. The
Heracleids (whose shipbuilding for the voyage across the narrow straits
of the Gulf is still commemorated in the name of the port _Naupactus_,
on the northern side of the Gulf) are said to have rewarded the Ætolian
exile Oxylus, who acted as their guide (answering to the oracular
description of “a man with three eyes,” whom they were to find--being
one-eyed and riding on a horse with two eyes), by confirming him in the
possession of Elis, which in older times was known as Epeia, and is so
referred to by Homer. For a long time the Eleans and the Pisatans seem
to have superintended the games
jointly, with the support of the Dorian settlement at Sparta, whose
great lawgiver, Lycurgus, was said to have put the institution on a new
footing in concert with Iphitus, the king of Pisatis, the names of both
being inscribed on a famous quoit of which Aristotle speaks. Pausanias
tells us that the towns of Elis and Pisatis appointed sixteen
women--eight from each state--to weave the festal robe (_peplos_) for
the image of the Olympian Hera. The Pisatans, however, were afterwards
displaced, and in 570 B.C. their city was destroyed, and Elis obtained
the whole right of administration.

The first historic game was a foot-race, and it was only by degrees that
other contests were at various times added. The _pentathlon_, during
which the Pythian air was played on the flutes in honour of Apollo,
consisted of running, jumping, throwing the disc or quoit, throwing the
javelin, and wrestling. Finally came chariot-racing (in a hippodrome
adjoining the Altis), which, though necessarily confined to men of
wealth, added much to the spectacular attractions of the games.

The competitors had to strip naked for the athletic contests, this being
a characteristic feature of the Greek games, obligatory on all without
distinction of rank. There were games for boys as well as for men, and
the celebrations, which at first were confined to a single day, extended
ultimately to five days. The women had a festival of their own, with
games for girls; but at the ordinary games married women were not
allowed to be present. At the same time there was very little
coarseness or cruelty about them, compared with a Roman gladiatorial
exhibition or a Spanish bull-fight--except in the _pancratium_, a
combination of wrestling and boxing, in which the combatants were
allowed to get the better of one another by any means in their power,
provided they did not make use of any weapon, which was forbidden in all
the contests. The conflict was sometimes attended with a fatal result.
Pausanias mentions a case of this kind in which a dead man was
proclaimed victor, and crowned with the olive wreath.

The stadium or race-course can be distinctly traced north-east of the
Altis. The two parallel grooves in the stone pavement at the
starting-point, the one a few inches in front of the other, were
evidently intended to give the runner a secure footing. The course was
600 feet long, which became a recognised measure of distance, as the
English furlong was derived from the length of a furrow. But the double
race was soon introduced, which accounts for there being similar grooves
at the other end, where the seats for the judges were, as the start
would then have to be made from that end. In the same place you can also
trace the sockets, about four feet apart, in which were fixed the wooden
posts that marked off the space for each of the runners, who could be
accommodated to the number of twenty.

There is a vaulted entrance to the stadium about a hundred feet high
(one of the oldest examples of such work in cut stone, 350-300 B.C.),
through which none could pass but the judges and heralds, and the
competitors, who must have gone through ten months’ training, and were
lodged during the games at the public expense. Close to this entrance
are still to be seen a large number of pedestals, on which stood at one
time certain brazen images, well fitted to warn competitors against any
infringement of the rules. They were called Zanēs in honour of Zeus, and
they had all been placed there at the expense of persons who had been
convicted of some violation of the rules. Giving or receiving bribes was
the most common offence at Olympia, as it was indeed with the Greeks
generally, even in the more serious game of politics. But there were
others of a different nature. For example, Pausanias tells of a man of
Alexandria who had come too late for the boxing match, and, finding that
another had been adjudged the prize without a contest and was already
wearing the olive wreath, put on the gloves as though for a fight and
rushed at the victor, for which he was sentenced to pay a fine. In
contrast to the penal erection of a statue to Zeus, the winner of a
prize was allowed to put up a statue in commemoration of his victory,
and the third time he thus distinguished himself he was at liberty to
erect an image of himself. In this way Olympia became in course of time
a great school of art as well as a gymnastic arena. In Homer there is no
mention of statues of the gods, not even of wood, and the development of
art in this line during the seventh and sixth centuries was very

Xerxes or one of his princes is said to have expressed his astonishment
that the Greeks should contend so earnestly for the sake of an olive
wreath. But in reality the wreath was only an emblem of the honour
conferred upon the victor. In the days of Solon, before the games had
reached the height of their popularity, a grant of 500 drachms was made
to an Athenian when he was successful at Olympia, and 100 drachms if he
carried off a prize at the Isthmian games. The reward offered by the
Spartans to any of their sons who thus distinguished themselves was the
privilege of fighting near their king. Success in the competitions was
attended with many other advantages. The victor in the foot-race gave
his name to the Olympiad which was then beginning; the name, parentage,
and country of every successful competitor was publicly proclaimed
before the whole assembly, which comprised deputies from the most
important cities of Greece, frequently very distinguished men, who had
been sent not only to do honour to Zeus but also to maintain the dignity
of the community which they represented. For example, Alcibiades headed
the deputation which Athens sent, after an interval of twelve years,
during the Peloponnesian war. On that occasion there was a remarkable
display of Athenian wealth and magnificence in connection with the
public processions and sacrifices. Alcibiades himself entered as a
competitor with seven chariots--each drawn by four horses--one of which
gained a first prize and another a second. He gave a splendid banquet to
signalise his triumph; and such was the impression made on the assembled
visitors by what they had seen of Athenian greatness that Alcibiades
claimed, some years afterwards, to have done much on this occasion to
restore the prestige of the city. A man in the position of Alcibiades
could afford to give a banquet to celebrate his victory. But, in
general, the feasts and processions were provided for the winners by
their friends and admirers, and, on returning home, they received a
great ovation and frequently had substantial benefits conferred upon
them. We have an illustration of the interest taken in the contests even
by distant colonies in the fact that when (408 B.C.) a native of
Agrigentum in Sicily came off victorious, he was met, when he returned
home, by three hundred of his richest countrymen, each driving a chariot
drawn by two milk-white steeds. Sometimes a poem was written to
commemorate victory, and the odes of Pindar, written for this purpose,
have proved more imperishable than brass.[1]

From a physical point of view there can be no doubt that the games at
Olympia and elsewhere had a salutary influence on the nation, and helped
to develop that aptitude for military life which enabled them to repel
the Persian invaders and to distinguish themselves so often in the field
of war. But higher interests were also promoted. Although no prizes were
offered for intellectual distinction, the opportunity was often afforded
for the publication of literary works. Herodotus is said to have read
aloud his history at Olympia, and to have thereby stirred the ambition
of Thucydides. Dramatic performances were also sometimes given. It was
the great ambition of Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse, who had risen
from a comparatively humble position to be the greatest potentate in the
Grecian world, to distinguish himself as a dramatic poet. With this view
he once sent to Olympia, along with a splendid embassy, a fully equipped
company of the best actors of the day, to represent some plays which he
had written. They met with a very bad reception, which was no doubt
partly owing to the personal unpopularity of their author; and it is
said that when Dionysius heard that his verses had been laughed at, and
that his representatives had been treated with contumely, he was so
chagrined that he almost went out of his mind. A still worse effect was
produced on him, however, some time afterwards by his success at the
Lenæan festival in Athens, for the rejoicing and conviviality to which
he abandoned himself when he heard that he had gained the first prize
were largely the cause of his death.

Literature was not the only interest which was promoted side by side
with gymnastic accomplishments. Such a gathering of Greeks from all
parts of the world could not fail to have an educative influence from
many points of view. Intellectually it afforded the most cultured men an
opportunity for discussing subjects of common interest and for an
exchange of views, while politically it tended to counteract the
tendency to isolation on the part of the several states, and to foster
unity of sentiment among the members of the great Hellenic race from
Trebizond to Marseilles, and from Amphipolis to Cyrene. Occasionally
great orations were heard at critical periods in the history of the
nation, as when Lysias and Isocrates strove to rouse their countrymen to
a sense of the dangers impending over them from the tyranny of Persia on
the east and that of Syracuse on the west. Even commerce shared in the
benefit, for it was a meeting-place of merchants from far and near. As
already indicated, the games had also a religious aspect. Many
sacrifices were offered during the celebrations, and solemn oaths were
taken. Near the entrance to the stadium there was an image of the god of
Oaths holding a thunderbolt in each hand, before which competitors had
to swear that they would conform to the rules laid down for them. For a
fortnight before and after the celebrations (which took place at the
first full moon after the summer solstice) a truce was proclaimed
throughout the whole of Greece, to enable competitors from all parts to
attend. So strictly was this enforced that the Spartans were excluded
from the games on the same occasion on which Alcibiades was present,
because they had despatched a thousand soldiers to the town of Lepreum
after the truce had been proclaimed, to help the inhabitants to maintain
their independence against the claims of the Eleans. In consequence of
this exclusion Lychas, a wealthy Lacedæmonian, had to enter for the
chariot-race in the name of the Bœotian federation. But he was so
elated by the success of his chariot that he stepped into the lists and
put a chaplet on the head of his driver, to show that the chariot was
his, whereupon the attendants, regardless of his rank, made use of their
staffs and drove him back to his proper place. On another occasion a
Spartan king, Agis, was refused permission to sacrifice to or consult
the oracle because he wished to pray for success in the war against

At the 104th Olympiad the peaceful solemnity of
Olympia was rudely broken by a sanguinary struggle in the sacred
enclosure between the Eleans on the one hand and the Arcadians and their
allies from Argos, who had taken possession of the Altis and planted a
garrison on the adjoining hill. The Eleans fought bravely but were
overpowered, and had the mortification of seeing the games carried out
under the direction of the Pisatans, the original presidents of the
festival. The outrage was aggravated by the fact that the Arcadians were
not content with enriching themselves with the wealth of the Eleans, but
went so far as to rob the temples and the treasuries of their precious
contents. The ruins of some of these “treasuries,” as they were called,
built against the side of the hill, are still to be seen. They bore the
names of different Greek cities, chiefly colonies, and contained the
various utensils and votive offerings that would be needed by their
representatives in connection with the celebration of the games.

Even before this time (364 B.C.) the social standing of competitors in
the games had begun to deteriorate, and a class of professionals had
arisen who made it their sole object to develop their muscles so as to
succeed in athletic contests. But even after the glory of Greece began
to wane the Olympian games still held their ground. When Philip of
Macedonia became supreme he sought to conciliate Hellenic sentiment and
to prove himself a genuine Greek by dedicating a building in the Altis,
to which his name was given. And when his son, Alexander the Great,
issued a rescript, for political reasons of his own, ordaining that all
Greek cities should recall their exiled sons, it was at Olympia that the
proclamation was made by the herald who had gained the prize for the
loudest voice, in the hearing of 20,000 exiles who had gathered there
knowing what they had to expect, and of hundreds of the leading men of
Greece, among them the great Athenian orator, who had striven in vain to
preserve the liberties of his country.

Nearly four centuries later we find Nero contending successfully in the
games, and building a palace on the border of the Altis, the remains of
which have been recently discovered. The institution was finally
abolished by the Emperor Theodosius in 394 A.D., the last recorded
victor being an Armenian knight, who carried off the prize in the
previous year.

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