Ancient Olympia information
Held every four years until their abolition by killjoy Emperor Theodosius I in AD 393, the Olympic Games were held here for at least 1000 years. The World Heritage–listed site of Ancient Olympia is still a recognisable complex of temples, priests’ dwellings and public buildings. The site contains excellent explanatory boards, with depictions of what the buildings would have looked like, along with a plan and description in English.
Ancient Olympia is signposted from the modern village. The entrance is beyond the bridge over the Kladeos River. Thanks to Theodosius II and various earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent buildings of Ancient Olympia, but enough exists to sustain an absorbing visit in an idyllic, leafy setting; allow a minimum of half a day. A visit to the archaeological museum beforehand will help with visualising the ancient buildings.
The first ruin encountered is the gymnasium , which dates from the 2nd century BC. South of here is the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. The next building was the theokoleon (priests’ house). Behind it is Pheidias’ workshop , where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sculpted. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds. Beyond the theokoleon is the leonidaion , an elaborate structure that accommodated dignitaries.
The altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus , lies east of the path. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century Doric Temple of Zeus , which enshrined Pheidias’ statue, later removed to Constantinople by Theodosius II (where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475). One column has been restored and re-erected, and helps put into perspective its sheer size.
South of the Temple of Zeus is the bouleuterion (council house), which contains the altar of oaths , where competitors swore to obey the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate.
The stadium lies to the east of the altis and is entered through an archway. The start and finish lines of the 120m sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators. Slaves and women spectators had to be content to watch from the Hill of Cronos.
To the north of the Temple of Zeus was the pelopion , a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops. It was surrounded by a wall containing the remains of its Doric portico. Many artefacts now displayed in the museum were found on the hillock.
Further north is the 6th-century Doric Temple of Hera , the site’s most intact structure. Hera was worshipped along with Rea until the two were superseded by Zeus.
To the east of this temple is the nymphaeum , erected by the wealthy Roman banker Herodes Atticus in AD 156–60. Typical of buildings financed by Roman benefactors, it was grandiose, consisting of a semicircular building with Doric columns flanked at each side by a circular temple. The building contained statues of Herodes Atticus and his family. Despite its elaborate appearance, the nymphaeum had a practical purpose; it was a fountain house supplying Olympia with fresh spring water.
Beyond the nymphaeum and up a flight of stone steps, a row of 12 treasuries stretched to the stadium, each erected by a city state for use as a storehouse and marking the northern boundaries of the altis .
At the bottom of these steps are the scant remains of the 5th-century-BC metroön , a temple dedicated to Rea, the mother of the gods. Apparently the ancients worshipped Rea in this temple with orgies.
The foundations of the philippeion , west of the Temple of Hera, are the remains of a circular construction with Ionic columns built by Philip of Macedon to commemorate the Battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), where he defeated a combined army of Athenians and Thebans. The building contained statues of Philip and his family.
North of the philippeion was the prytaneum , the magistrate’s residence. Here, winning athletes were entertained and feasted.