previous next


OLY´MPIA ( Ὀλυμπία, Eth. Ὀλύμπιος), the temple and sacred grove of Zeus Olympius, situated at a small distance west of Pisa in Peloponnesus. It originally belonged to Pisa, and the plain, in which it stood, was called in more ancient times the plain of Pisa; but after the destruction of this city by the Eleians in B.C. 572, the name of Olympia was extended to the whole district. Besides the temple of Zeus Olympius, there were several other sacred edifices and public buildings in the sacred grove and its immediate neighbourhood; but there was no distinct town of Olympia.

The plain of Olympia is open towards the sea on the west, but is surrounded on every other side by hills of no great height, yet in many places abrupt and precipitous. Their surface presents a series of sandy cliffs of light yellow colour, covered with the pine, ilex, and other evergreens. On entering the valley from the west, the most conspicuous object is a bold and nearly insulated eminence rising on the north from the level plain in the form of an irregular cone. (Mure, vol. ii. p. 281.) This is Mount CRONIUS, or the hill of Cronus, which is frequently noticed by Pindar and other ancient writers. (παρ᾽ εὐδειέλον Κρόνιον, Pind. O. 1.111; πάγος Κρόνου, Ol. 11.49; ὑψηλοίο πέτρα ἀλίβατος Κρονίου, Ol. 6.64; Κρόνου παρ᾽ αἰπὺν ῎οχθον, Lycophr. 42; Κρόνειος, Xen. Hell. 7.4. 14; τὸ ὄρος τὸ Κρόνιον, Paus. 5.21.2, 6.19.1, 6.20.1; Ptol. 3.16.14.) The range of hills to which it belongs is called by most modern writers the Olympian, on the authority of a passage of Xenophon. (Hell. 7.4.14). Leake, however, supposes that the Olympian hill alluded to in this passage was no other than Cronius itself; but it would appear, that the common opinion is correct, since Strabo (viii. p.356) describes Pisa as lying between the two mountains Olympus and Ossa. The hills, which bound the plain on the south, are higher than the Cronian ridge, and, like the latter, are covered with evergreens, with the exception of one bare summit, distant about half a mile from the Alpheius. This was the ancient TYPAEUS (Τυπαῖον), from which women, who frequented the Olympic games, or crossed the river on forbidden days, were condemned to be hurled headlong. (Paus. 5.6.7.) Another range of hills closes the vale of Olympia to the east, at the foot of which runs the rivulet of Miráka. On the west the vale was bounded by the CLADEUS (Κλάδεος), which flowed from north to south along the side of the sacred grove, and fell into the Alpheius. (Paus. 5.7.1; Κλάδαος, Xen. Hell. 7.4. 29) This river rises at Lala in Mount Pholoë. The Alpheius, which flows along the southern edge of the plain, constantly changes its course, and has buried beneath the new alluvial plain, or carried into the river, all the remains of buildings and monuments which stood in the southern part of the Sacred Grove. In winter the Alpheius is full, rapid. and turbid; in summer it is scanty, and divided into several torrents flowing between islands or sandbanks over a wide gravelly bed. The vale of Olympia is now called Andílalo (i. e. opposite to Lala), and is uninhabited. The soil is naturally rich, but swampy in part, owing to the inundations of the river. Of the numerous buildings and countless statues, which once covered this sacred spot, the only remains are those of the temple of Zeus Olympius. Pausanias has devoted nearly two books, and one fifth of his whole work, to the description of Olympia; but he does not enumerate the buildings in their exact topographical order: owing to this circumstance, to the absence of ancient remains, and to the changes in the surface of the soil by the fluctuations in the course of the Alpheius, the topography of the plain must be to a great extent conjectural. The latest and most able attempt to elucidate this subject, is that of Colonel Leake in his Peloponnesiaca, whose description is here chiefly followed.

Olympia lay partly within and partly outside of the Sacred Grove. This Sacred Grove bore from the most ancient times the name of ALTIS ( Ἄλτις), which is the Peloponnesian Aeolic form of ῎αλσος. (Paus. 5.10.1.) It was adorned with trees, and in its centre there was a grove of planes. (Paus. 5.27.11.) Pindar likewise describes it as well wooded (Πίσας εὔδενδρον ἐπ᾽ Ἀλφέω ἄλσος, Ol. 8.12). The space of the Altis was measured out by Hercules, and was surrounded by this hero with a wall. (Pind. O. 11.44.) On the west it ran along the Cladeus; on the south its direction may be traced by a terrace raised above the Alpheius; on the east it was bounded by the stadium. There were several gates in the wall, but the principal one, through which all the processions passed, was situated in the middle of the western side, and was called the Pompic Entrance ( Πομπικὴ εἴσοδος, Paus. 5.15.2). From this gate, a road, called the Pompic Way, ran across the Altis, and entered the stadium by a gateway on the eastern side.

    1. The Olympieium, Olympium, or temple of Zeus Olympius. An oracle of the Olympian god existed on this spot from the most ancient times (Strab. viii. p.353), and here a temple was doubtless built, even before the Olympic games became a Pan-Hellenic festival. But after the conquest of Pisa and the surrounding cities by the Eleians in B.C. 572, the latter determined to devote the spoils of the conquered cities to the erection of a new and splendid temple of the Olympian god. (Paus. 5.10. §§ 2, 3.) The. architect was Libon of Elis. The temple was not, however, finished till nearly a century afterwards, at the period when the Attic school of art was supreme in Greece, and the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis had thrown into the shade all previous works of art. Shortly after the dedication of the Parthenon, the Eleians invited Pheidias and his school of artists to remove to Elis, and adorn the Olympian temple in a manner worthy of the king of the gods. Pheidias probably remained at Olympia for four or five years from about B.C. 437 to 434 or 433. The colossal statue of Zeus in the cella, and the figures in the pediments of the temple were executed by Pheidias and his associates. The pictorial embellishments were the work of his relative Panaenus. (Strab. viii. p.354), [Comp. Dict. of Biogr. Vol. III. p. 248.] Pausanias has given a minute description of the temple (5.10); and its site, plan, and dimensions have been well ascertained by the excavations of the French Commission of the Morea. The foundations are now exposed to view; and several fine fragments of the sculptures, representing the labours of Hercules, are now in the museum of the Louvre. The temple stood in the south-western portion of the Altis, to the right hand of the Pompic entrance. It was built of the native limestone, which Pausanias called poros, and [p. 2.476]which was covered in the more finished parts by a surface of stucco, which gave it the appearance of marble. It was of the Doric order, and a peripteral hexastyle building. Accordingly it had six columns in the front and thirteen on the sides. The columns were fluted, and 7ft. 4in. in diameter, a size greater than that of any other existing columns of a Grecian temple. The length of the temple was 230 Greek feet, the breadth 95, the height to the summit of the pediment 68. The roof was covered with slabs of Pentelic marble in the form of tiles. At each end of the pediment stood a gilded vase, and on the apex a gilded statue of Niké or Victory; below which was a golden shield with the head of Medusa in the middle, dedicated by the Lacedaemonians on account of their victory over the Athenians at Tanagra in B.C. 457. The two pediments were filled with figures. The eastern pediment had a statue of Zeus in the centre, with Oenomaus on his right and Pelops on his left, prepared to contend in the chariot-race; the figures on either side consisted of their attendants, and in the angles were the two rivers, Cladeus to the right of Zeus, and Alpheius to his left. In the western pediment was the contest of the Centaurs and the Lapithae, Peirithous occupying the central place. On the metopes over the doors at the eastern and western ends the labours of Hercules were represented. In its interior construction the temple resembled the Parthenon. The cella consisted of two chambers, of which the eastern contained the statue, and the western was called the Opisthodomus. The colossal statue of Zeus, the master-work of Pheidias, was made of ivory and gold. It stood at the end of the front chamber of the cella, directly facing the entrance, so that it at once showed itself in all its grandeur to a spectator entering the temple. The approach to it was between a double row of columns, supporting the roof. The god was seated on a magnificent throne adorned with sculptures, a full description of which, as well as of the statue, has been given in another place. [Dict. of Biogr. Vol. III. p. 252.] Behind the Opisthodomus of the temple was the Callistephanus or wild olive tree, which furnished the garlands of the Olympic victors. (Paus. 5.15.3.)


    2. The Pelopium stood opposite the temple of Zeus, on the other side of the Pompic way. Its position is defined by Pausanias, who says that it stood to the right of the entrance into the temple of Zeus and to the north of that building. It was an enclosure, containing trees and statues, having an opening to the west. (Paus. 5.13.1.)
  • 3. The Heraeum was the most important temple in the Altis after that of Zeus It was also a Doric peripteral building. Its dimensions are unknown. Pausanias says (5.16.1) that it was 63 feet in length; but this is clearly a mistake, since no peripteral building was so small; and the numerous statues in the cella, described by Pausanias, clearly show that it must have been of considerable dimensions. The two most remarkable monuments in the Heraeum were the table, on which were placed the garlands prepared for the victors in the Olympic contests, and the celebrated chest of Cypselus, covered with figures in relief, of which Pausanias has given an elaborate description (5.17--19). We learn from a passage of Dion Chrysostom (Orat. xi. p. 163), cited by Leake, that this chest stood in the opisthodomus of the Heraeum; whence we may infer that the cella of the temple consisted of two apartments.
  • 4. The Great Altar of Zeus is described by Pausanias as equidistant from the Pelopium and the Heraeum, and as being in front of them both. (Paus. 5.13.8.) Leake places the Heraeum near the Pompic entrance of the Stadium, and supposes that it faced eastward; accordingly he conjectures that the altar was opposite to the backfronts of the Pelopium and the Heraeum. The total height of the altar was 22 feet. It had two platforms, of which the upper was made of the cinders of the thighs sacrificed on this and other altars.
    5. The Column of Oenomaus stood between the great altar and the temple of Zeus. It was said to have belonged to the house of Oenomaus, and to have been the only part of the building which escaped when it was burnt by lightning. (Paus. 5.20.6.)
    6. The Metroum, or temple of the Mother of the Gods, was a large Doric building, situated within the Altis (Paus. 5.20.9.) It is placed by Leake to the left of the Pompic Way nearly opposite the Heraeum.
  • 7. The Prytaneium is placed by Pausanias within the Altis, near the Gymnasium, which was outside the sacred enclosure (5.15.8.)
  • 8. The Bouleuterion, or Council-House, seems to have been near the Prytaneium. (Paus. 5.23.1, 24.1.)
    9. The Philippeium, a circular building, erected by Philip after the battle of Chaeroneia, was to the left in proceeding from the entrance of the Altis to the Prytaneium. (Paus. 5.17.4, 5.20.10.) [p. 2.477]
    10. The Theecoleon, a building belonging to the θεηκόλοι or superintendents of the sacrifices (Paus. 5.15.8). Its position is uncertain.
    11. The Hippodamium, named from Hippodameia, who was buried here, was within the Altis near the Pompic Way. (Paus. 6.20.7.)
    12. The temple of the Olympian Eileithyia (Lucina) appears to have stood on the neck of Mount Cronius. (Paus. 6.20.2.)
    13. The Temple of the Olympian Aphrodite was near that of Eileithyia. (Paus. 6.20.6.)
    14. The Thesauri or Treasuries, ten in number, were, like those at Delphi, built by different cities, for the reception of their dedicatory offerings. They are described by Pausanias as standing to the north of the Heraeum at the foot of Mount Cronius, upon a platform made of the stone poros (Paus. 6.19.1).
    15. Zanes, statues of Zeus, erected from the produce of fines levied upon athletae, who had violated the regulations of the games. They stood upon a stone platform at the foot of Mount Cronius, to the left of a person going from the Metroum to the Stadium. (Paus. 5.21.2.)
    16. The Studio of Pheidias, which was outside the Altis, and near the Pompic entrance. (Paus. 5.15.1.)
    17. The Leonidaeum, built by Leonidas, a native, was near the Studio of Pheidias. Here the Roman magistrates were lodged in the time of Pausanias (5.15. §§ 1, 2).
    18. The Gymnasium, also outside the Altis, and near the northern entrance into it. (Paus. 6.21.2.) Near the Gymnasium was (19) the Palaestra.
  • 20 and 21. The Stadium and the Hippodrome were two of the most important sites at Olympia, as together they formed the place of exhibition for all the Olympic contests. Their position cannot be determined with certainty; but as they appear to have formed a continued area from the circular end of the Stadium to the further extremity of the Hippodrome, the position assigned to them by Leake is the most probable. He places the circular end of the Stadium at the foot of the heights to the NE. of the summit of Mount Cronius, and the further end of the Hippodrome on the bank of the Alpheius. The Stadium is described by Pausanias as a mound of earth, upon which there was a seat for the Hellanodicae, and over against it an altar of marble, on which sat the priestess of Demeter Chamyne to behold the games. There were two entrances into the Stadium, the Pompic and the Secret. The latter, through which the Hellanodicae and the agonistae entered, was near the Zanes; the former probably entered the area in front of the rectilinear extremity of the Stadium. (Paus. 6.20.8, seq.) In proceeding towards the Hippodrome from that part of the Stadium where the Hellanodicae sat was the Hippaphêsis or starting place of the horses ( ἄφεσις τῶν ἵππων). In form it resembled the prow of a ship, the embolus or beak being turned towards the racecourse. Its widest part adjoined the stoa of Agnaptus. At the end of the embolus was a brazen dolphin standing upon a pillar. Either side of the Hippaphesis was more than 400 feet in length, and contained apartments, which those who were going to contend in the horse-races obtained by lot. Before the horses a cord was extended as a barrier. An altar was erected in the middle of the prow, on which was an eagle with outstretched wings. The superintendent of the race elevated this eagle by means of machinery, so as to be seen by all the spectators, and at the same time the dolphin fell to the ground. Thereupon the first barriers on either side, near the stoa of Agnaptus, were removed, and then the other barriers were withdrawn in like manner in succession, until all the horses were in line at the embolus.

    One side of the Hippodrome was longer than the other, and was formed by a mound of earth. There was a passage through this side leading out of the Hippodrome; and near the passage was a kind of circular altar, called Taraxippus (Ταράξιππος), or the terrifier of horses, because the horses were frequently seized with terror in passing it, so that, chariots

    • A A. Course of the Alpheius in 1829.
    • B B. The Cladeus.
    • 1. Site of Pisa. a
    • 2. Mount Cronius.
    • 3. Village Miráka.

    [p. 2.478]

    after Leake
    • 1. Olympieium.
    • 2. Pelopium.
    • 3. Heraeum.
    • 4. Great Altar of Zeus.
    • 5 Pillar of Oenomaus.
    • 6. Metroum.
    • 7. Prytaneium.
    • 8. Bouleuterion.
    • 9. Philippeium.
    • 11. Hippodamium.
    • 12. Temple of Eileithyia.
    • 3. Temple of Aphrodite.
    • 14. Treasuries.
    • 5. Zanes.
    • 6. Studio of Pheidias.
    • Gymnasium.
    • 19. Palaestra.
    • 20. Stadium.
    • 21. Hippodrome:--
      • a a. Secret entrance to the Stadium.
      • b b. Pompic entrance to the Stadium.
      • c. Stoa of Agnaptus.
      • d. Hippaphĕsis.
      • e e. Chambers for the horses.
      • f. Embolus.
      • g. Taraxippus.
      • h. Passage out of the Hippodrome.
      • i i. νύσσαι.
      • k. Temple of Demeter Chamyne.
      • l l. Artificial side of the Hippodrome.
      • m m. Natural height.
    • 22. Theatre.

    [p. 2.479] were broken. There was a similar object for frightening horses both at the Corinthian Isthmus and at Nemea, in consequence of which the difficulty of the race was increased. Beyond the Taraxippus were the terminal pillars, called νύσσαι, round which the chariots turned. On one of them stood a brazen statue of Hippodameia about to bind the taenia on Pelops after his victory. The other side of the Hippodrome was a natural height of no great elevation. On its extremity stood the temple of Demeter Chamyne. (Paus. 6.20.15-5.21.1.) The course of the Hippodrome appears to have been two diauli, or four stadia. (Δρόμου δὲ εἰσι τοῦ ἱππίου μῆκος μὲν δίαυλοι δύο, Paus. 6.16.4.) Mure, indeed (vol. ii. p. 327), understands μῆκος in this passage to refer to the length of the area; but Leake (Peloponnesiaca, p. 94) maintains, with more probability, that it signifies the length of the circuit.

  • 22. The Theatre is mentioned by Xenophon (Xenoph. Hell. 7.4.31), but it does not occur in the description of Pausanias. A theatre existed also at the Isthmus and Delphi, and would have been equally useful at Olympia for musical contests. Xenophon could hardly have been mistaken as to the existence of a theatre at Olympia, as he resided more than 20 years at Scillus, which was only three miles from the former spot. It would therefore appear that between the time of Xenophon and Pausanias the theatre had disappeared, probably in consequence of the musical contests having been discontinued.

Besides the buildings already mentioned, there was a very large number of statues in every part of the Sacred Grove, many of which were made by the greatest masters of Grecian art, and of which Pausanias has given a minute description. According to the vague computation of Pliny (34.7. s. 17) there were more than 3000 statues at Olympia. Most of these works were of brass, which accounts for their disappearance, as they were converted into objects of common utility upon the extinction of Paganism. The temples and other monuments at Olympia were, like many others in different parts of Greece, used as materials for modern buildings, more especially as quarries of stone are rare in the district of Elis. The chiefs of the powerful Albanian colony at Lala had in particular long employed the ruins of Olympia for this purpose.

The present article is confined to the topography of Olympia. An account of the games and of everything connected with their celebration is given in the Dictionary of Antiquities.

(Stanhope, Olympia, Lond. 1824; Krause, Olympia, 1838; Mure, Tour in Greece, vol. ii. p. 280, seq.; Leake, Peloponnesiaca, p. 4, seq.; Curtius, Peloponnesos, vol. ii. p. 51, seq.)

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: