In honor of the Olympic Games, I'm posting something every now and again about the ancient version of the Games. Today, I would like to discuss some of the specifics of Olympia, the location of the ancient games.

Olympia was a rural sanctuary in a fertile valley between two rivers. It was named for Mount Olympos, home of the Gods. The sanctuary, known as the Altis, consists of an unordered arrangement of various buildings. Enclosed within the temenos (sacred enclosure) are the Temple of Hera (or Heraion/Heraeum), the Temple of Zeus, the Pelopion, and the area of the altar, where the sacrifices were made.

To the north of the sanctuary stood the Prytaneion and the Philippeion, as well as the array of treasuries representing the various city-states. The Metroon lay to the south of these treasuries, with the Echo Stoa to the east. The hippodrome and later stadium were located east of the Echo Stoa. To the south of the sanctuary is the South Stoa and the Bouleuterion, whereas the Palaestra, the workshop of Pheidias, the Gymnasion, and the Leonidaion lie to the west.

The map above displays the location of: 1. Northwest Propylon, 2. Prytaneion, 3. Philippeion, 4. Temple of Hera, 5. Pelopion, 6. Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus, 7. Metroon, 8. Treasuries, 9. Crypt (arched way to the stadium), 10. Stadium, 11. Echo Stoa, 12. Building of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, 13. Hestia stoa, 14. Hellenistic building, 15. Temple of Zeus, 16. Altar of Zeus, 17. Ex-voto of Achaeans, 18. Ex-voto of Mikythos, 19. Nike of Paeonius, 20. Gymnasion, 21. Palaestra, 22. Theokoleon, 23. Heroon, 24. Pheidias' workshop and paleochristian basilica, 25. Baths of Kladeos, 26. Greek baths, 27. and 28. Hostels, 29. Leonidaion, 30. South baths, 31. Bouleuterion, 32. South stoa, 33. Villa of Nero. Treasuries. I. Sicyon, II. Syracuse, III. Epidamnus(?), IV. Byzantium(?), V. Sybaris(?), VI. Cyrene(?), VII. Unidentified, VIII. Altar(?), IX. Selinunte, X. Metapontum, XI. Megara, XII. Gela. [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Its many foundation myths were emblazoned in sculptures on the fifth-century BC. temple of Olympian Zeus:

- The games were held in celebration of Zeus defeating his father Kronos at Olympia and seized supreme power
- After cleansing the Augean stables and then defeating the local king in battle, Herakles inaugurated the early Games in Zeus’ honor, at this place
- Pelops, Zeus’ grandson, established the games, having won the hand of a local princess, Hippodameia, after sabotaging her father’s chariot to win a race, for which she was the prize. Her father died as a result, and Pelops set up the early competitions in his honor

Whatever the case, the games were a fact and established at Olympia. Most impressive about the temple of Zeus were not the sculptures but the seated statue of Zeus that stood inside the temple. The seated statue, created by the Greek sculptor Phidias, was thirty-nine feet, or twelve meters, tall. Ancient accounts say that, if Zeus would have stood, he would have unroofed the temple.

The statue was richly decorated with ivory and gold-plated bronze. The sculpture was wreathed with golden olive shoots and sat on a grand throne  cedarwood, inlaid with ivory, gold, ebony, and precious stones. He held a small statue of crowned Nike, goddess of victory, in his right hand, and in his left hand, a sceptre inlaid with gold, on which an eagle perched.

The statue was eventually destroyed, either in the fire that also destroyed the temple, or before, when it was carried off by Romans who either used the stone and precious metals to create something new, or to repurpose the statue as a representation of one of their own emperors. While it stood at Olympia, it was the literal seat of Zeus' power, and a focal point of His worship.
As the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote:

“You journey to Olympia to gaze on the statue of Zeus and every one of you would think it a great misfortune to die never having seen it.”

The tempe to Hera was used to store some of the key paraphernalia of the Olympic Games, including a discus on which were inscribed the terms of the 'Olympic Truce', proclaimed by itinerant heralds months before the festival began to ensure that participants and spectators could enjoy safe passage.