Olympia – Greece Travel

Olympia, like Delphi, is a place of memories chiefly. The visible remains are numerous, but so flat that some little technical knowledge is needed to restore them in mind. There is no village at the modern Olympia at all—nothing but five or six little inns and a railway station—so that Delphi really has the advantage of Olympia in this regard. As a site connected with ancient Greek history and Greek religion, the two places are as similar in nature as they are in general ruin. The field in which the ancient structures stand lies just across the tiny tributary river Cladeus, spanned by a foot-bridge.

Even from the opposite bank, the ruins present a most interesting picture, with its attractiveness greatly enhanced by the neighboring pines, which scatter themselves through the precinct itself and cover densely the little conical hill of Kronos close by, while the grasses of the plain grow luxuriantly among the fallen stones of the former temples and apartments of the athletes. The ruins are so numerous and so prostrate that the non-technical visitor is seriously embarrassed to describe them, as is the case with every site of the kind.

All the rains, practically, have been identified and explained, and naturally they all have to do with the housing or with the contests of the visiting athletes of ancient times, or with the worship of tutelary divinities. Almost the first extensive ruin that we found on passing the encircling precinct wall was the Prytaneum—a sort of ancient training table at which victorious contestants were maintained gratis—while beyond lay other equally extensive remnants of exercising places, such as the Palaestra for the wrestlers. But all these were dominated, evidently, by the two great temples, an ancient one of comparatively small size sacred to Hera, and a mammoth edifice dedicated to Zeus, which still gives evidence of its enormous extent, while the fallen column-drums reveal some idea of the other proportions. It was in its day the chief glory of the enclosure, and the statue of the god was even reckoned among the seven wonders of the world. Unfortunately this statue, like that of Athena at Athens, has been irretrievably lost. But there is enough of the great shrine standing in the midst of the ruins to inspire one with an idea of its greatness; and, in the museum above, the heroic figures from its two pediments have been restored and set up in such wise as to reproduce the external adornment of the temple with remarkable success.

Gathered around this central building, the remainder of the ancient structures having to do with the peculiar uses of the spot present a bewildering array of broken stones and marbles. An obtrusive remnant of a Byzantine church is the one discordant feature. Aside from this the precinct recalls only the distant time when the regular games called all Greece to Olympia, while the “peace of God” prevailed throughout the kingdom. Just at the foot of Kronos a long terrace and flight of steps mark the position of a row of old treasuries, as at Delphi, while along the eastern side of the precinct are to be seen the remains of a portico once famous for its echoes, where sat the judges who distributed the prizes. There is also a most graceful arch remaining to mark the entrance to the ancient stadium, of which nothing else now remains.

Of the later structures on the site, the “house of Nero” is the most interesting and extensive. The Olympic games were still celebrated, even after the Roman domination, and Nero himself entered the lists in his own reign. He caused a palace to be erected for him on that occasion—and of course he won a victory, for any other outcome would have been most impolite, not to say dangerous. Nero was more fortunately lodged than were the other ancient contestants, it appears, for there were no hostelries in old Olympia in which the visiting multitudes could be housed, and the athletes and spectators who came from all over the land were accustomed to bring their own tents and pitch them roundabout, many of them on the farther side of the Alpheios.