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date: 18 April 2024



  • Catherine A. Morgan,
  • Simon Hornblower
  •  and Antony Spawforth


  • Ancient Geography
  • Greek Material Culture
  • Greek Myth and Religion

Olympia, panhellenic sanctuary of Zeus located in hill country beside the river Alpheus in Elis.

1. Before 500 bce

There is evidence of extensive prehistoric settlement in the vicinity including a large EH tumulus in the Altis which remained visible into the early iron age, MH houses, and Mycenaean tombs (see mycenaean civilization) in the vicinity of the archaeological museum.

Votives (tripods and figurines) in an ash layer in the Altis indicate cult activity at least from the late 10th cent. (perhaps with an early ash altar). The first Olympiad was traditionally dated 776 bce (see time-reckoning). According to Pindar, Heracles founded the Olympian Games; an alternative tradition attributed the foundation to Pelops after his victory over Oenomaus (see olympian games). A sequence of wells on the eastern side of the sanctuary beginning in the late 8th cent. served visitors.

The first temple (ascribed to Hera) was built c.590. A row of eleven treasuries (primarily of W. Greek i.e. Italian and Sicilian states) lay under Cronus Hill. The first phase of the stadium (c. mid-6th cent.) consisted of a simple track west of the later stadium, extending into the Altis. The first bouleuterion (building for the boulē) was built in c.520. From at least the 6th cent., sanctuary and festival were managed by Elis. (See also pheidon; pisa.)

2. Classical

The Greeks of the west (see (1) above) always had close connections with Olympia, cf. ML 10 of c.525 (treaty between Sybaris and the Serdaioi); ML 29, bronze helmet commemorating Hieron(1) I's victory over the Etruscans at Cumae in 474 (cf. BCH1960, 721 and SEG33 no. 328); ML 57 (victory dedication of Tarentum over Thurii) and I. Olympia266 (statues dedicated by Praxiteles of Syracuse and Camarina). But Olympia, the paramount athletic sanctuary (Pind. Ol.1), was properly panhellenic. Thus the Persian Wars were commemorated at Olympia, though less spectacularly than at Delphi; for instance (Mallwitz 32 ff.) the Athenians dedicated at Olympia a helmet ‘taken from the Medes’; another splendid helmet-dedication by Miltiades might be from Marathon (see marathon, battle of) but is probably earlier. The battle of Plataea prompted a colossal bronze Zeus (Paus. 5. 23), inscribed with a roll of honour of the participating states, including Ionian Athens in second place after Sparta. But the Dorian character of Olympia is marked, even if we deny political symbolism to the labours of Heracles depicted on the temple metopes of the mid-5th-cent. Zeus temple, the second to be built within the Altis. Thus the Olympian Games of 428 were turned by Sparta into an overtly anti-Athenian meeting, Thuc. 3. 8 ff. But Athens was never, even in the Peloponnesian War, formally denied access to Olympia, any more than to Delphi; and to balance ML 22 (Spartan victory dedication over Messenians, 490s?) we have, from the 420s, R. MD. L 74, the lovely Nike of Paeonius—a dedication by Athens' friends the Messenians of Naupactus (cf. Thuc. 1. 103). We do hear of a classical exclusion from the Olympic games, but of Sparta not Athens: Thuc. 5. 49–50, a rare Thucydidean glimpse of the continuing political importance of athletics.

3. Hellenistic and Roman

Hellenistic kings affirmed by their dedications Olympia's panhellenic standing. New buildings included a palaestra, gymnasium, and (c.100 bce) the earliest Roman-style baths found in Greece. Roman domination, signalled by the dedications of L. Mummius (146 bce), at first saw Olympia decline in prestige: by 30 bce the games had dwindled into an essentially local festival. Imperial patronage prompted a marked revival: M. Vipsanius Agrippa repaired the temple of Zeus and both Tiberius and Germanicus won chariot-races, to be outdone by Nero, who performed in person at irregularly convened games (67) including (uniquely) musical contests (full refs.: N. Kennell, AJPhil.1988, 241). In the 2nd cent., with the popularity of the games never greater, Olympia once more attracted orators (see second sophistic), as well as cultural tourism (Phidias' statue of Zeus was among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world); facilities saw a final expansion, including a nymphaeum, attracting conservative attack (Lucian, Peregr. 19). From fear of the Heruli, the sanctuary was fortified (c.268) at the cost of many classical monuments. Cult survived well into the 4th cent. A Christian basilica was built c.400–450; the temple was only toppled by earthquake (or by tsunami, as recently suggested) in the 6th cent.


  • A. Mallwitz, Olympia und seine Bauten (1972).
  • A. Mallwitz, in W. Raschke, The Archaeology of the Olympics (1988).
  • B. J. Peiser, Das dunkle Zeitalter Olympias (1993).
  • Olympia Bericht 5, 10, 11.
  • Olympische Forschungen 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12, 13.
  • A. Hönle, Olympia in der Politik der griechischen Staatenwelt (1968).
  • C. Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century BC (1990).
  • N. J. Richardson, Cambridge Ancient History 5, 2nd edn. (1992), 223ff.
  • M. Scott, Delphi and Olympia (2010).