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The Greeks called their land Hellas, derived from Hellene, legendary daughter of Zeus and Leda. The Romans called this place Graecia.

We're talking about the land on the western side of the Aegean Sea, the southern Balkan Peninsula. There is a northern or "mainland" part of Greece, containing its capital, Athens. Then to the south, where Sparta was located, we have the Peloponnesus. A canal cuts through Greece at Corinth, the ancient capital of Greece. That canal, first attempted by the Roman Emperor Nero, was not completed until 1893, and now divides the country physically in two.

Some general remarks first, and then we will look at some sites in the area.

Greek mythological gods perched high atop Mt. Olympus on the Greek mainland, north of Athens. Yet the Olympic Games began in Olympia, in the northwestern Peloponnese (the large peninsula forming the southern half of Greece), west of Athens. No clear-cut reason seems to exist for the separation of the two most important activities in the lives of the ancient Greeks.

Settlements seemed to begin in the region in 2000 B.C.E., if not earlier. The main god of the locals was Kronos (also spelled Cronos), later to be thought of as the father of Zeus. Cronos (Chronos) was also said to be the personification of time, leading, of course, to the naming of today's watchmaking firm and also the web calendar outfit. Western Greek tribes began to inhabit the area as Mycenae crumbled, and it seems that Zeus came into being as the supreme deity of the Greeks. In keeping with their spirit, Zeus was regarded as a warrior.

The exact origin of the Olympiads is not known. Games of physical competition had been held in Homeric times to honor the dead. At some point competition purely for the sake of competition, rewarded only by an olive crown, admiration and praise, and the moral sense of having emerged victorious brought a new attitude in Grecian life.

The first Olympic Games were officially held in 776 B.C.E. and provide the first accurate recording of Grecian history. The Greeks were scattered as tribes from Asia Minor to Africa, and much of the land in-between. Strangely, for their time, the tribal Greeks seemed very aware of their ethnic heritage and kinship, and though they fought each other constantly, they kept that spirit of belonging. And so the Olympiads were held, limiting participation only to Greeks, and "free" Greeks, not slaves.

A truce was declared for as much as three months time, preceding and following the Olympics, to allow traveling participants and spectators passage free from hostilities. The attendance often celebrated writers, poets, musicians, and military heroes. The activities were presided over by Zeus. Obviously, ancient Greeks were infinitely more civilized than some living in the 20th century, witness the Munich massacre in 1972.

This is the "Philippeion," a circular peripteral building, which was begun by Philip II in 338 B.C.E., and completed by his son Alexander the Great. The building was used to worship the heroes of the Macedonian dynasty. As with much of architectural history, there are few round structures, except for mausoleum-type structures, and later baptistries. This is an exception on this site, too.

The "Heraion," or the Temple of Hera, dates from the 7th century B.C.E. In Greek mythology, Hera was the sister and wife of Zeus. The famous Hermes by Praxiteles was found here (see below). The Doric order produced designs in which proportions were heavy; in other words, the columns are relatively short compared to the diameters of the shafts. This was dictated by the particular "order," and the Doric was the most conservative. This particular building is one of the oldest Doric designs in stone. Earlier versions had been constructed in wood. It contained statues of Zeus and Hera.

The "Krpte" was the official entrance to the stadium. The surviving arch was part of a barrel vault apparently built in the Hellenistic period (after the time of Alexander). Since the Greeks are not known for their arches, inquiries were made on the site and the consensus was that the Romans had built the vault. While the Romans did participate in the Olympic Games after conquering the Greeks in the 2nd century B.C.E., subsequent research seems to indicate that the Hellenic Greeks built this. What this indicates, perhaps, is that the land-grabbing by Alexander obviously took Greeks throughout the world known to them, and apparently they were influenced by construction other than post and lintel.

An interesting point here is that the vault was covered by a grassy embankment, and thus became a tunnel. Whether or not the athletes came charging out of the depths to the accompaniment of a roaring crowd is open to speculation. Picture the beginning of any football event in the United States and you get the idea.

This construction could be a topic for further research and extra credit.

We have been looking into the Altis, the sacred and historical epicenter of Olympia. Just past the arch were located statues of the "cheaters" of the games who, when caught, were forever marked for infamy by having statues or busts made in their likeness. A question arises, however, in that it is always taught that Greeks did not create realistic likeness in their sculptures, but idealistic ones. Obviously, these culprits would not have suffered by having non-distinctive busts made of them. The question is: how realistic were these sculptures, and were the Greeks really the first to create authentic likeness in stone or marble, and not the previously-credited Romans?

In the 6th century A.D., an earthquake destroyed what was left of the Temple of Zeus, and the drum sections fell in rows. What makes this scene interesting is the fact that a 1.6 meter tall (five-foot) person, with arms outstretched, seems to account for the diameter of the base drum section. Could this be an early form of anthropometric design?

The architect was Libon of Elis.

The entire row of the columns of the Temple of Zeus collapsed: the drum sections were obviously not cemented together, but had metal rods connecting them to keep them in place vertically - something which obviously offered protection against earthquakes – at least for a while. The Doric temple dates from 470-456 B.C.E. Its order was Doric, and peripteral. It was by far the largest and tallest structure on the site. The dimensions were 27.68 x 64.12 meters (86 by 200 feet). At its time it was the largest temple in Greece. Its pediments featured Zeus and Apollo. The sculptor Pheidias, after completing the statue of Athena in the Parthenon, came to Olympia, built a studio the size of the temple, and created a statue of Zeus, which was to become one of the 7 wonders of the world. The gold and ivory statue of Zeus, seated on a throne, was 12 meters (37 feet) high. An olive tree growing near this temple was used to make the crowning wreaths for the winning athletes.

The ruins within the Temple of Zeus.

This is the hole in a drum section, in which a metal rod would be placed. The section immediately above (or below) would be fitted similarly, and as one section was placed over another, the rod secured the two from horizontal sliding. It also created vertical alignment.

The obvious shells in the stone indicate that the building material is coquina, a form of limestone, which does contain shell fragments.

The Leonidaion foundations: this was a guest house built in the middle of the 4th century B.C.E. to accommodate official visitors to the Olympic games. It was very much like an 80-room hotel.

Piece of a pediment from a 6th century B.C.E. building. Notice the triglyph, and immediately below it the guttae, indicating the transformation from wood tombstone construction by the Greeks. The triglyph would be like our joists today, small beams spanning short distances. The guttae would have been wooden pegs holding the triglyphs to the architrave. In the stone Doric Order they became mere ornamental objects.

Hermes by the sculptor Praxiteles, 340 B.C.E., found in the Temple of Hera. There are conflicting reports as to whether or not this is the original, or an excellent Roman copy. In any event, the story seems to be that Hermes is, or rather was, holding a bunch of grapes in his right hand (now lost), and the child in his left arm is the infant Dionysus, who is trying to reach for those grapes with his left hand. Hermes has taken off and draped his "himation" (loose outer-garment worn by ancient Greeks) over a tree trunk, revealing to us his nude body in its entire idealistic Greek splendor.

The stadium itself, or at least the 3rd of three. This one dates from about 350 B.C.E. The embankment on the left was for spectators, and apparently judges’ seats were provided on the opposite side. All sorts of amenities began to develop, such as drainage channels for water removal in the track area. Whatever building or site problems we have today, the Greeks had them then, too, and apparently set out to address those construction issues.

This stadium is outside of the original Altis. Its length is approximately 212 meters (657 feet), and its width is 28.50 meters (88 feet). The stadium held 45,000 spectators.

On a closing note, we had the good fortune to obtain the services of the same female guide on two separate visits to Olympia. Being a woman, she related some historical items from a feminist's point of view. One in particular was the story of a mother whose 5 sons had participated in the Olympics, some of them winning athletes. Since the events were all performed in the nude, and only by men, women spectators were forbidden. This particular mother disguised herself as a man in order to watch her sons compete. She was discovered. The penalty was death. Her life was spared, however, but only because of the fame (and winning records) of her sons.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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