Olympia: A Cultural History 
by Judith M. Barringer.
Princeton, 281 pp., £28, January, 978 0 691 21047 6
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No​ ancient Greek site, except perhaps Delphi, is now so richly imbued with the spirit of Hellenism as Olympia in the Peloponnese. Its ruins and museum suggest lofty Greek values: the drive (among males, anyway) to excel, simply for the honour of being the best; the aspiration towards the wise use of power (again, by males only), as seen in the site’s idealised portraits of Zeus; and the hope that rival, even warring states could put aside conflict in favour of athletic competition. Olympia’s evolution over eleven centuries – the span of its athletic games began in 776 BC (according to tradition) and ended, by decree of the Roman emperor Theodosius, in 393 AD – reveals the way Greece as a whole evolved through its archaic, classical and Hellenistic ages. The site’s monuments and memorials, known today through inscribed stone blocks that once supported bronze and marble statues, are markers of historical turning points.

The statues were long ago carted off to Rome and Constantinople or melted down for their metal, but in other respects Olympia’s archaeological record is remarkably ample. Since its main structures were ceremonial, not residential, they stayed largely intact throughout antiquity; even when damaged by earthquakes, many were restored along original lines. Eventually, though, the quakes took their toll and the buildings were left unrepaired. In Byzantine times the flooding of two rivers, the Alpheus and the Cladeus, buried the stones in silt. Very little was visible when the English antiquarian Richard Chandler rediscovered the site in 1766; recovery efforts began in the next century. Since the 1870s, the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut has supervised excavation, assisted more recently by the local Greek ephorate. New finds still come to light: an intact bronze cast of a bull, with burn marks suggesting it had been a symbolic sacrificial offering, emerged last year when heavy rain exposed one of its horns.

Interest in Olympia has been concentrated on its athletic games since the modern Olympics began in 1896. This has tended to eclipse other aspects of the site’s legacy. Olympia: A Cultural History helps correct the imbalance, offering ‘to consider the site in its many facets – archaeological, political, social, religious – in depth over the longue durée’. Judith Barringer skirts the topic of sport to avoid repeating what’s already well documented, and instead probes mythic and historical levels of meaning.

Exploring Olympia this thoroughly requires enormous breadth. The evidence comes not only from archaeology but from written sources too, especially the work of the travel writer Pausanias, who described the site in detail – though not always reliably – in the second century AD. Xenophon’s Hellenica and Pindar’s Olympian victory odes contribute odd bits of data. Coins, vase paintings and inscriptions come into play as well. The appearance of the colossal statue of Zeus, created by Phidias for Olympia’s major temple, can be reconstructed in part from coin images: the god sat magisterially on his throne, one hand on a sceptre, the other supporting a figure of winged Nike, gazing calmly at whoever entered his shrine. Clad in ivory and gold, the statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It survived intact at the site for nearly nine hundred years, but was eventually carted off to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a fire.

Barringer has an intriguing theory about that seated image, and other portrayals of Zeus at Olympia which show him oddly passive, removed from battle and tumult rather than hurling his thunderbolt. She cites an inscription from the 470s, after the Greek victory in the Persian Wars, that implies disputes being settled at Olympia by a process of arbitration. A seated Zeus, a judge rather than a warrior, may have held special appeal for the people of Elis, who administered the site. Olympia’s excavation records show a huge number of metal weights inscribed with dedications to Zeus, far more than have been found elsewhere in Greece. Perhaps, Barringer suggests, these humdrum objects were thought fitting gifts to the god who, at Olympia, weighed the competing claims of rivalrous city-states.

Zeus was central to nearly everything that took place at Olympia. The quadrennial athletic festival began not with a torchlight ceremony and a parade of the competing nations but with a pious procession in Zeus’ honour. The god’s images and altars were everywhere, and his oracle – who interpreted the patterns of dancing flames – delivered prophecies from the ash altar, a mound built up from the charred remains of sacrificed animals. Athletes swore oaths to Zeus that they would play fair and not bribe the judges. Anyone caught cheating or bribing was fined and the money was spent on a bronze statuette of the god, placed on a pedestal inscribed with the name of the cheater. Sixteen of the bases can be seen today, their statues (Zanes) long since melted down; they stand at the entrance to the Stadion, the central arena, where they once gave a timely reminder to those about to compete that the cost of infractions was high.

The marble sculptures from the two pediments of the temple of Zeus, recovered in damaged condition, are among the finest surviving examples of the high classical style in statuary, though there is still uncertainty as to their arrangement and meaning. In the scene from the west pediment, a beardless central figure, who ‘most scholars now agree … is Apollo’ (but apparently other theories exist), stretches out a right arm in a gesture of lordly command, while on either side a battle rages between humans of the mythical Lapith clan and monstrous centaurs bent on rape. The scene from the east pediment is harder to reconstruct or interpret: Barringer says that more than seventy different arrangements have been proposed. The subject is known, thanks to information supplied by Pausanias: a legendary chariot race won by Pelops, the founder of the Olympic games, according to one tradition. But the Greeks gave different accounts of the race. In one, Pelops won fair and square, but in another he secretly had his rival’s metal axle pins replaced with wax, causing a fatal crash. Barringer, repeating an argument she first made in 2005, disagrees with colleagues who believe the second version was represented on the temple as a warning, like the Zanes, against the temptation to cheat. ‘It is clear that the myths depicted by the sculptures originally offered positive models of heroism,’ she insists. The odd way that Zeus, in the centre, holds his hands has been taken by some to indicate that his head (now missing) was turned towards Pelops in an angry glare, but Barringer cites new research suggesting that the god originally held a tainia, a kind of headband, as a prize for the winning charioteer.

Although she is careful not to sensationalise, Barringer allows us to imagine the awesome experience of passing under the west pediment and entering the temple. The statue of Zeus, more than twelve metres high, would have been visible in the dim light: ‘The marble roof tiles were … translucent, creating a glowing effect around the deity.’ The light was also reflected by a shallow pool of olive oil that separated the visitor from the statue. (The oil may have been run-off from the lubrication system built into the statue’s wood frame to keep it from warping or splitting.) On an altar or table before the immense effigy, the olive wreaths for victorious athletes were laid out in rows. The tree from which they’d been cut, according to legend, had been brought from the land of the Hyperboreans by Heracles. He was Greek mythology’s greatest athlete, as well as a son of Zeus, so he too had his place in the temple’s sculptural programme. Twelve metopes – sculptural panels above the two ends of an inner colonnade – showed him performing his twelve labours, feats of strength and stamina to inspire those preparing to compete. The temple fused the distant past and the present, the divine and the human. From its central position it radiated its meaning to the whole site.

Directly outside the temple were other sculptural groups, free-standing this time, put up by various cities to commemorate their victories. Only the bases survive but, with the help of Pausanias’ descriptions, Barringer reimagines them. One elaborate group, dedicated to Zeus by the Achaians, featured the bronze figures of nine Homeric warriors, Achilles and his comrades, drawing lots from a helmet to see who would fight Hector. Watching them from a separate base, some distance apart, stood the solitary figure of Nestor, the grand old man of the Greek army. The unusual separation of this figure, in Barringer’s reading, probably meant ‘that the viewer was intended … to become a part of this ensemble’ by walking between its two segments. The intermingling of myth and reality was more pronounced during the ceremonies when victorious athletes received their olive-wreath crowns. Barringer locates these rites, and the theatron or viewing space from which spectators observed them, alongside the Achaian monument: ‘The victorious athletes … can be construed as living embodiments of the Achaian warriors, who faced in the same direction,’ she suggests, while onlookers aligned themselves with the watching Nestor. ‘This idea of image mirroring the reality of ritual’ is typical, Barringer writes, of the way monumental art functioned at Olympia.

Statue groups like the one sponsored by the Achaians highlight Olympia’s role as a place for public display and status-seeking. Since so much of the Greek elite gathered there every four years, city-states, or individual rulers, used it to advertise their success or assert their power. The tyrant Gelon, who dominated the Sicilian cities of Syracuse and Gela in the early fifth century, commissioned a bronze four-horse chariot to mark both his own ascension and his sponsorship of a winning chariot team in the games of 488. The bronze was long ago melted down but the three marble blocks that formed its base, one inscribed with the name of the sculptor, Glaucias, show where it once stood, east of the temple of Zeus. Chariot teams were expensive to raise and equip, and the chariot itself – the favoured means of transport for Homeric heroes – was thought to possess an ancient grandeur. The statue, and the victory it recalled, demonstrated to Greeks how much Gelon had achieved in Sicily, the far west of the Hellenic world. (The chariot and horse-race victories of Gelon’s brother, Hieron, later inspired several of Pindar’s most famous odes.)

A smaller but no less eloquent object was displayed at Olympia by the Cypselid family, rulers of Corinth in the seventh century BC. The dynasty’s founder, Cypselus, had as an infant supposedly been hidden in a cedar chest by his mother, to protect him from assassins after an oracle had prophesied his future ascension. His name, closely related to the Greek word for such a chest, evoked this tale (or perhaps gave rise to it), highlighting the idea that Cypselus was destiny’s child. After seizing control of Corinth, he sent the chest to Olympia and dedicated it to Zeus, as a way both to give thanks and to remind the Greek world that his rule was decreed by the gods. The chest, decorated with ivory and gold reliefs, was described in detail by Pausanias some eight centuries later, but afterwards vanished, presumably plundered by treasure seekers. Barringer suggests that ‘one of the most extraordinary objects recovered from Olympia’, a bronze relief plaque of a mother griffin nursing its baby, came from the chest’s lid; the theme of maternal care, she argues, would fit the legend behind the object. The nails in the holes along the plaque’s edges still have bits of wood adhering to them; whether cedar or not is unknown. Another mysterious find from Olympia, a wooden column base too thin to have had an architectural use, might once have supported one leg of the chest.

Noruler exploited the prestige of Olympia more fully than King Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. He came to the throne in 359 BC and three years later his racehorse won at the games. He minted coins with the image of a horse and rider, making a point to Greeks everywhere about his Hellenic identity. Traditionally the Olympic games were open only to Greeks, and Philip’s ancestor Alexander I had at first been excluded by judges who doubted whether he qualified. He later either argued or bribed his way into the competition, but some Greeks remained unpersuaded that their northern neighbours belonged in their ranks. Philip went on to prove his point with two more Olympic victories, fielding winning chariot teams in 352 and 348, and issued coins depicting a chariot at full tilt. Around the time of his first win he married a woman called Myrtale, who at some point came to be known as Olympias. It’s possible that the renaming was part of Philip’s campaign to forge an indelible link between his royal line and the glory of Olympic victory.

The crowning touch in this campaign came shortly after Philip’s defeat of a Greek alliance at Chaeronea in 338 BC. Now the undisputed master of the Balkan peninsula, he commissioned an elegant circular structure at Olympia to house statues of himself, Olympias, his parents, and his son and heir, Alexander. The Philippeion is among the most eye-catching of the remains at the site; three of its Ionic columns have been reconstructed, along with the portion of the architrave they supported, giving a sense of the whole. Scholars have long debated the intention behind the building and the exact placement of the statues in it, but Barringer endorses the widely held view that it was a victory monument for Philip’s triumph at the Battle of Chaeronea – an audacious assertion of supremacy. The statues were audacious too, bedecked with gold and possibly ivory in a manner ‘usually reserved for images of deities’, with the central figure aligned with the entranceway, like a god in a temple. Some of the statues had been moved by the time Pausanias described the building, and all have since disappeared, so it’s not clear whether Philip or Alexander stood in this privileged spot. Either way, the orientation and design of the building, as Barringer says, ‘suggest an elevation of Philip and his family to the ranks of heroes or gods’.

Philip and Alexander paved the way for the Hellenistic Age, an era of rivalrous kings and warlords who escalated the political signalling at Olympia. Monuments and statues proliferated as Greek cities strove to proclaim their loyalty to one dynastic clan or another, or as the clans themselves displayed their wealth and ambition with costly constructions. Inscribed statue bases and building foundations, mere blocks of stone at first glance, mark the rise and fall of leaders, the forging of alliances and the victories of one dynast over another across a span of centuries. Barringer takes particular interest in the Ptolemaic Monument, two free-standing marble columns supporting statues of Ptolemy II, ruler of Egypt from the 280s BC, and his sister/wife, the much revered queen Arsinoë II. The statues were placed to mirror those of the Philippeion, ‘perhaps … to draw a visual parallel’, reflecting the enduring power of Alexander the Great to bolster the legitimacy of the Ptolemies. Some observers have also seen a connection between the two figures on the columns and the nearby temples of Zeus and Hera, another brother and sister who married each other. ‘A highly attentive viewer,’ Barringer says, might have detected an echo between the divine and human examples of incestuous marriage.

Barringer’s book is largely concerned with the Altis portion of the Olympic site, the enclosure containing the principal temples, altars and monuments, but she also gives insight into what took place outside the sacred boundary. A ‘hierarchy of dining’ allowed the tens of thousands of visitors at the festivals to take food and drink. Many seem to have picnicked out in the open, but banquet halls were available for those with means: the south-east building for ‘the relatively small numbers of VIPs’ and, from around 330 BC, the Leonidaion, a huge complex of more than thirty dining rooms, many quite large. It has been suggested that winning athletes rented these rooms for celebratory feasts; the building must have become quite raucous if several victory parties went on simultaneously. The most exclusive eatery was the Prytaneion, where victorious athletes could continue to enjoy free meals and lodging whenever they visited Olympia.

The Romans reshaped Olympia to suit their own needs, adding to its material comforts with baths and lodging houses but carting away some of its artistic treasures. Nero plundered the shrine to help pay for the restoration of Rome after the great fire of 64 AD. New water supplies were brought by aqueduct. In the second century AD a huge fountainhouse, the Nymphaion, was added by Herodes Atticus, a wealthy Greek who had also held high office at Rome. It dwarfed all previous efforts to glorify ruling families; its semicircular arcade housed no fewer than 22 life-size statues, most depicting Roman emperors or their consorts. A pious inscription by Regilla, Herodes’ wife, indicates that the whole affair was a dedication to Zeus, but Zeus by that time held far less sway than when Phidias had created his statue. Lucian, a contemporary of Herodes, noted in one of his satires that poor Zeus had been unable to prevent a temple robber from shearing off some of the gold-plated locks of his effigy’s hair.

Barringer’s survey comes to a close with the Theodosian decree of 393 AD forbidding further Olympic games on account of their pagan nature. ‘There is no clear evidence of a last Olympiad,’ she writes, ‘a final festival.’ The games no doubt went on for a while longer in some much smaller form, supervised by the Christians who now occupied the site. At some point, new supports were cut in the base of the temple of Zeus, and twenty bronze statues collected from elsewhere were installed – a last attempt to glorify the god in whose honour the games were created. But those statues too were gone, pillaged and melted down, by the time earthquakes levelled the site and floods buried it three hundred years or so later.

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