Piece Together Greece's Past in Olympia

Eric G. Anderson, MD

Physician's Money Digest, May 15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 9

After standing in line for the Olympic Gamesand restaurant tables, visitors to Greece thissummer may be disinclined to spend time outsideof Athens—especially when there's so much to seein the capital of the "cradle of civilization." However,not to visit Olympia would be unfortunate, and notjust because that's where it all began. The museum inOlympia, which is about 180 miles from Athens, hassome of the most magnificent exhibits in Greece. Andmany tour operators run day trips out of Athens.

Yesterday and Today

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Of course, the games have changed since 776 BC,when athletes competed in the nude and only menwere allowed to watch the events. The priestess ofDemeter received exemption, but her seat was placedsome distance from the activities. Several local womencaught watching from a cliff were hurled to theirdeaths as punishment. Their fate was no more violentthan the fate of competitors in the (no-holds-barred wrestling), where winners often receivedtheir medals posthumously.

You don't get a sense of this brutality, though,when you tour the ruined grounds of Olympia—justthe grandeur of the land and its place in history. Thedomed entrance to the stadium still stands. Beyond itlies the 210-yard long field of packed earth that wasflattened in the fourth century BC for foot races. Thepaved areas for the starting and finishing lines are stillin place here and there. A careful eye can discern thegrooves in the stones where runners placed their feetat the start of the races.

Historical Timeline

The games had enormous prestige in ancienttimes. Every 4 years, a truce was called between thewarring city-states of Greece for 3 months. The athleteswere then safe to travel across the difficult terrainof the Peloponnesus peninsula to get to Olympia,which was a site of worship before the glory days ofGreece. Gradually, politics began to intrude.

In AD 69, the Emperor Nero fixed the games anddeclared himself the winner. By that time, however,the games at Olympia had declined in significance.The Romans, who had long dominated the games,were past their peak. In fact, it's said that for the last200 years of their existence, the games resembled littlemore than banal street fairs.

Finally, in AD 393, the Christian emperor Theodosiusbanned the games, considering them to be paganfestivals. Then in AD 426, his successor, Theodosius II,ordered the site at Olympia to be destroyed and had thefamous statue of Zeus by Phidias moved toConstantinople. In AD 475, a fire destroyed the 40-footivory and gold statue, which was one of the seven wondersof the ancient world.

Olympia Uncovered

In the 6th century, natural disasters struck. Oddly,these disasters saved what was left of Olympia. First,earthquakes toppled the remaining 50,000 statues,which had been created for the winners of certainevents since the games' inception. Then, unforgivingfloods buried everything that was left standing withmany layers of protective mud.

Excavations in the 19th century uncovered unexpectedartifacts, which are now on display in Olympia'smuseum. Some of the treasures uncoveredinclude the Helmet of Miltiades, thevictorious general at the Battle ofMarathon; the Statue of Hermes byPraxiteles, which is arguably the mostrenowned work of ancient Greek sculpture;and parts of the pediments andmetopes of the Temple of Zeus.

As we examined the displayed metopes,which illustrate the 12 labors ofHercules, the museum guide shed lighton the Greek culture. "Hercules is bearingthe world on his shoulders, but theeffort is too much for him. And despitehis strength, he falters," the guidepointed out. "So the goddess Athenacomes up behind and adds some support.We Greeks believe this is true oflife—if you're doing your best, the godswill help a little."