Greece – From Megalopolis To Olympia

AND now came the march of the Archaeological Cavalry. No more railroad trains, no more carriages. The mountains lay between us and Olympia; the only fitting way to approach that world-renowned arena for the Greek games was by a few days of severe athletic exercise. With all the assistance we could get from mules and horses, we should still have enough muscular exertion to bring us to Olympia with a proper self-respect and a fellow-feeling for the athletes and travellers who made the journey in ancient days. The ladies had already deserted us, not being invited to this test of endurance, and a few “tender feet” took the back track to Corinth and made a roundabout journey by rail. But a large part of the charm of the trip was the crossing of the Arcadian mountains in the spirit and the fashion of the early days. The whole aspect of the expedition was chanced. It became at once more antique, more heroic, more picturesque. Frequently it became more amusing. The little Danish professor who maintained his dignity and composure on wheels and rails had all he could do to command them in the saddle. His efforts to keep on and the amount of exercise he seemed to get out of a hard trot excited inextinguishable Homeric laughter, except from those who were too sympathetic or too doubtful of their own position to sit in the seat of the scornful. I have taken more than one photograph of the Archaeological Cavalry in motion, but I am not unkind enough to reproduce the pictures in this book. A Greek saddle shaped some-thing like a sawbuck is not the most comfortable seat in the world, and the Dalmatian priest, whose card, large enough for a Christmas chromo, was covered with an extended enumeration of honors, titles and functions, ought to have been excused from any additional penance. My sympathies went out to the little animal which had to bear this mass of erudition. If, like Balaam’s ass, the gift of speech had been conferred on this Peloponnesian mule, he might have addressed the priest in any one of six or eight languages with a hope of being understood. The muleteers or agogiats who went along kept up a continual shouting and beating, and my sturdy pony was not relieved of this annoyance until I had thrown away the boy’s club, and with pardonable exaggeration threatened to throw him over a precipice if he struck my beast again.

With twenty-five horses and mules, three pack mules, and eight or more agogiats, all under the command of Colonel Dorpfeld, — to whom a military title in this connection seems more appropriate,—we left Megalopolis and marched on Lykosoura. Though tradition claims it as the site of the oldest town in Greece and the early seat of the Arcadian kings, its ruins seemed modern compared with those of Mycenae and Tiryns, and even with those of Corinth and Athens,

The temple of Despoina was the main object of our pilgrimage. The ruins are not imposing except from their situation. It was a Doric temple, but none of its columns are in place. The fragments of tri glyphs and moulding are of poor workmanship, and, taken with the fact that the inscriptions found are Roman, point to a Roman building, though elements have been derived from an earlier structure. The Greek priest who stood uncovered upon the threshold seemed as if he might have been one of the original worshippers.

On a ridge commanding a panorama of the Arcadian mountains and plains, Demetrius, our chief guide, spread our luncheon while we were inspecting the temple ruins. He built a fire, made a wooden spit, impaled a sacrificial lamb, and roasted it in primitive Homeric style over a bed of coals. This lamb with black bread, and wine for the wine drinkers, made the substance of our paschal meal on a day which Europe — not Greece — was celebrating as Good Friday. We crossed Mount Lycaeus, from which we had a splendid view of the plains of Messenia to the south, with Taygetus (7,900 feet) covered with snow. The intervening hills are stern and treeless, but the valley is checkered with red and green. We faced Laconia. Sparta lay hidden beyond the mountains. This hard, bleak country might well have been the home of Lycurgus. It is not a land flowing with milk and honey; it is still to-day the land of black bread and wine. The camera could only blink helplessly at the magnificent scenery. We were in the very centre of the Peloponnesus, in a sanctuary of peaks and altars, with nestling valleys and the Alpheius singing its way to the sea. Greece is persistently mountainous. The whole Peloponnesus is ” rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun.” The strips and squares of plain, if quilted together, would not cover more than two or three Texan or Dakota farms. If there were gold in these mountains, the Arcadians might be wealthy, but they cannot reap it in their fields. Spartan frugality, I suspect, was a virtue of necessity, and it is so today. How hard for the people to squeeze a living from these ungenerous mountains; how they scrimp and save in their penury. Yet there are no beggars among them.

We spent the night at a little village called Amvelonia, a mountain vineyard with walled terraces and houses built of limestone quarried from the hills. I went into a little house of one story where a widowed mother was living with her three children. The woman made a fire, spread a rug for me on the hearth, and brought milk and a kind of hearth cake, heavy but sweet, such as I had not before tasted. The little girl brought some flowers. The older daughter, about fifteen years of age, had beautiful dark eyes, regular features, and a sweet illuminating smile which brightened the whole room. Her brother was a manly boy a year or two older. At my request he brought his school book, and by the light of the fire read some passages from Xenophon in the old Greek with a sense of kinship, as if it really were his grandmother tongue. My regret as we left in the early morning was that the sun jealously refused to shine for my kodak on the sweet girl’s face.

Every traveller who has visited Bassae expresses surprise at suddenly finding this noble temple away up on the mountain. Though we knew it was there and had come to see it, our interest was not less keen when we found it. It is not, like the Parthenon, visible from every point of the compass. The mountain has furnished its own propylaea, — a wild and rocky approach, the only columns those of sturdy sentinel oaks. As the temple at Sunium is pre-eminently the shrine of the sea, so that at Basses is the shrine of the mountains; and as at Sunium you feel that the islands and the sea belong to the holy precinct, so at Basses the grand environment of rock and peak seem a part of the sanctuary. We had entered one of nature’s solitudes, and this old Doric temple, built of a hard bluish gray limestone quarried from the mountain on which it stands, seemed to be a part of the scenery. The temple is supposed to have been built on the site of a still more ancient shrine to Apollo, and is dedicated to the same god. In modern times we build churches where we think people will resort to them; in primitive days of nature worship the Greeks built their altars where they thought the gods loved to come. There is no sign of an older building, and the earliest worship was probably at a scenic shrine. A peculiarity of the temple is that, contrary to all precedents, it lies north and south, the entrance being at the north. It would have been harder work, though not impossible, to orient it to the east, as was generally done. It has other peculiarities, the most striking being the cross walls in the cella, each of which is terminated by a half-round Ionic column. Dr. Lolling’s supposition, as given in Baedeker, that the floor was hollowed out to collect rain water, is accounted for and refuted by the fact that the foundation has sunk in the middle.

We were quartered for the night in the little village of Saka, beautifully situated on the side of a hill looking down to the Alpheius. A party of thirty-three men and twenty-eight animals coming down upon it taxed the accommodations of the little village without hotel or inn. The five Americans and one German who slept in one room were pleased to find that there were no other inhabitants. The only powder we carried on the trip for self-defence—insect powder was unnecessary.

On Sunday morning, April 2d, when the Easter bells of the European world were ringing their gladness, we began at seven o’clock our last day’s march to Olympia. As the Greek Easter is twelve days behind the European, our celebration was only postponed. The way led through shady pine groves and along fresh valleys, in marked contrast to the rough, treeless mountains we had crossed. Apple-trees were in full blossom, birds were singing in the branches, and spring flowers opening under our feet. About noon we took lunch at a little village called Mazi. Men, women and children turned out in full force to see the cavalcade. As nearly all recent travellers go to Olympia by rail from Patras or Athens, a circus of mounted archaeologists was a rare event to the villagers. If we had been disposed to pass ourselves off as a belated remnant of the last great Olympian procession, the Mazi Greeks might have lost faith in traditions of physical perfection, and presented our Danish professor with some cobbler’s wax and a copy of Xenophon’s treatise on horsemanship. As we descended the slope into the valley of the Alpheius, the view was exquisite. To the west the Ionian Sea lay before us, and there was Zante veiled in a soft mist, calm, convalescent, pensive, as if regaining its strength after racking convulsions. The rolling, wooded hills and verdant valleys reminded me of northern New England.

And now the Puritan reader may put in a protest:

Under the plea of visiting the shrines of Greece you have taken us all to the theatre, and now, under a similar plea, you are taking us to an ancient Greek circus, to horse races, boxing matches and the rough and tumble pancratie fight.” The reply is, if you are seeking the shrines of Greece you must seek them where they were—the altar in the centre of the theatre and the altar of Zeus in the centre of the Altis or sacred precinct at Olympia. The Olympian games were an outgrowth of Greek life, Greek nationality and Greek religion. It was a matter of tradition that the gods themselves had taken part in these contests and thus set the fashion. To develop the body was a fundamental principle of Hellenic educators. Daily exercise in the palaestra was as natural and necessary as eating and drinking. Socrates was an example of a muscular philosopher inured to fatigue, trained to temperance and frugality. Body without brains and brains without body lacked ,the balanced manhood of the Greek ideal.

The sense of nationality was gratified in these games, from which all barbarians were excluded; and once in four years, through the very rivalry of this contest, Greece was at unity with itself; for a truce of a month was proclaimed among all the States, while athletes and spectators, artists, mechanics, authors, philosophers and statesmen from every part of Greece were going and returning. There was an ethical side to it in the laws against fraud and the exclusion of criminals. The religious feature was not a thin veneer of ceremony, but the central pivot on which the whole celebration turned. The simple physical proportions of the sacred precinct, of the great temple of Zeus, the temple of Hera and the Mother of the gods, with the great multitude of altars, show to the traveller today how large and important a place religion had in the exercises. The unprofessional, joyous, patriotic character of the games, the unmercenary reward, — a branch from the sacred olive-tree, — the absence of vulgarity and coarseness in the palmy days of the contests, the added refinement of music, poetry, literature and art, all gave these games an artistic elevation which made them seem but a great national expression of the Greek striving after perfection.

As we rode down from Mazi, approaching Olympia from the southeast, the hill of Cronion and the Alpheius winding below came in sight. I tried to imagine myself in the seventy-seventh Olympiad (472 B. c.), riding with Themistocles as a barbarian spectator to the Olympian games. For centuries before that date the flower of the Greek nation had crossed these mountains, over the same trails, and seen Cronion and the two rivers and peaceful Zante in the calm sea. It is one of the insensible charms of travel in Greece that you may frequently surrender yourself to illusions which for a while there is nothing to disturb. The imagination dilates in a con-genial atmosphere, and what you see is some soft refraction of reality, or the diffused glow of a sunset of poetry and tradition not yet faded into night. Then the illusion is dispelled, but you are surprised again to find how much reality is left. A jolt of your horse brings you back suddenly to the nineteenth century. Your dream is gone. You expect to see the hills and the islands dissolve too ; but they stay there, and you feel and know that you are indissolubly united to ages that are past by this very reality, by the constancy and truth of a beautiful picture. Sky, mountain, rivers, sea, island and plain were theirs, and they are yours.

We reached the Alpheius. It is still a live river. We were ferried across with our mounts in two or three relays in a large flat boat, and with the enthusiasm of youthful cavaliers galloped up to the xenodocheion.

Olympia is situated on the north bank of the Alpheius, and to the west of the small but mischievous Cladeus, which is mainly responsible through a change of its course for burying the sacred and outlying precincts under acres of sand. Excluding the stadion, the whole ground covered by the various buildings with the intervening space was but little over ten acres. The Altis, or sacred precinct in which was the central altar, was about six hundred feet square. To the east was Cronion, a hill which furnished grateful shade and overlooked the whole ground. For a thousand years the Greek games, beginning in undated traditions, were held in this place until they died out in the fourth century after Christ. Then Nature and man both combined to cover the place where they were held from the sight of future ages. Earthquakes shattered the temples. Barbarians, once excluded from Olympia, save as spectators, swooped down to take a belated revenge, and walls were built to resist them. Christians with no respect for pagan traditions built a village in the sacred precinct and used fragments of the old temples. Successive inundations of the Cladeus covered the whole place with a layer of sand from ten to twenty feet deep.

Acting on an early suggestion of Winckelmann, the French conducted brief excavations in 1829, discovered the site of the temple of Zeus, and took a few sculptures to the Louvre. It was left for the German government, under the lead of Ernst Curtius and the Crown Prince Frederick, to win the olive crown. A million of marks, or two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, were spent by that government, — not to enrich its own museums, but to uncover for the whole world this buried but unforgotten shrine of Hellenic nationality and pride. The excavations continuing from 1875 to 1881 were conducted under a directory in Berlin, of which Curtius and Adler were members. It was at Olympia that Dr. Dorpfeld, coming in the third year of the excavations, won his spurs as an architect. The work cost more than anywhere else on account of the great mass of sand to be removed. The wicked Cladeus was made to do penance by carrying off on its bosom a large amount of the sand and silt it had brought down. Its energy in the work of restitution only showed how much sand a small river could carry and made it possible to believe how much it had done that needed undoing. Fortunately the digging at Olympia was done scientifically, and Mr. Syngros, a wealthy and patriotic Athenian, built a handsome museum in which to shelter the sculptures and the sixteen thousand bronzes.

For three days we stayed at Olympia, and every day Dr. Dorpfeld conducted his eager band to the Altis and lectured six or seven hours, leaving us still time to examine the sculptures in the museum. I had paid a visit to Olympia by rail six months before, and could understand why a prominent German philologist whom I met thought half a day there enough. Even with so excellent a guide-book as Baedeker, the stones are more or less dumb. It was a different experience after the pilgrim preparation of our mountain march to find our warm hopes amply fulfilled in the brilliant exposition of these ruins by the man whose youthful enthusiasm found here its first opportunity. Though a multitude of details of technique and structure were brought before us, they were all so assembled and organized that, as if by a reanimating trump of the genius that first constructed them, walls rose on foundations, columns on stylobates, capitals on columns, architraves on capitals, triglyphs, beams, tiles and ornaments took their places, and temples, altars, treasure-houses, council-chambers, were rebuilt before us in grand Apocalypse. There was the great temple of Zeus with its colossal statue of Phidias; the Heraeon, the oldest Doric temple in Greece; the temple to the Mother of the Gods; the central altar of Zeus, the Philippeion; the treasuries established by different cities; the Bouleuterion, where the athletes took the regulation oath; the Pakestra; the gymnasium and exercise-grounds; the stadion ; the Echo colonnade ; and the Leonidon, of whose uses we are ignorant. We could form some idea, too, from their bases of the vast number of altars and statues which reminded spectators and contestants of both men and gods. The Byzantine church had unique interest as an ancient Christian shrine. In the museum, too, we could see pediment sculptures of the Zeus temple; the bold Victory of Paeonius, recalling the Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre; and, peerless in its exquisite grace, beauty and finish, the Hermes of Praxiteles. We can imagine, on seeing this statue, what influence the Olympic games must have had upon sculpture in the development of models of physical perfection.

The scientific results of this excavation have already been fully published, and many essays have been written upon them. To these the student may turn either for a detailed description of the games or of the buildings. Impossible to reproduce in any book are not only many details of technique, texture and workmanship, but an atmosphere whose freshened breezes seemed to waft the aroma of earlier days. The Cronion, the Alpheius, the Cladeus, the spreading plain, the encircling hills, are still the framework of the heroic picture. And after you have bathed in the Cladeus, climbed Cronion, gathered anemones in the plain, crossed the threshold of the sacred precinct and brooded over its altars, the genius of history seems to come back again and renew its spell.

Of Dr. Dorpfeld’s lectures the most fascinating to me was that on the Heraeon, showing the development of the Doric architecture from the wooden structure. The evidence here, which it would require a long chapter to detail, seems conclusive.

Our last night at Olympia was given up to an international jollification in honor of our leader.

Speeches were made in German, French, English, Italian, Latin and Greek, and the American contribution was an Alabama negro melody set to German words and sting by a quartette, three of whom were college professors. Shades of Pindar !

Our return trip to Athens was made by rail, and our ten days’ journey was finished in the allotted time.