The Tholos of Olympia

Continuing our digital covid-19 journey, today we’ll visit Olympia, to see the Tholos (round building) built there by Philip II of Macedon.

Tholos of Olympia (3)

Philip II and the Olympic games

 In the 356 Olympic Games, the king of Macedon, Philip II, took part in the horse race and won (not personally; his horse and jockey did). He promptly advertised the fact by minting a commemorative series of coins. According to Plutarch, the Macedonian king won in the chariot races in two more Olympic games.

Philip’s political aims

Philip was not the first Macedonian king to win in the Olympic Games, but this time there was a difference. This time the kingdom of Macedon was the strongest by far military force on Greek soil and had incomparably superior resources. Its king did not hide his ambition to unite the entire Greek peninsula under his rule.


Ivory portrait of Philip II

Ivory head believed to be a portrait of Philip II. Found in his grave (grave B) in Vergina (ancient Aigai). Museum of Royal Tombs of Aigai-Vergina. Image source [1]

Philip’s victory in the Olympic Games was but one move in his policy of either winning over or subduing by force the fiercely independent Greek city-states. Naturally, becoming a champion of the most revered games in the Greek world enormously enhanced his fame and did wonders for his image. At the same time, his mere participation served as irrefutable proof that Macedon was part of the Greek cultural and religious community, in the face of his detractors who strove to prove otherwise.

After 18 years of military engagements and diplomatic efforts, Philip had succeeded in controlling all of Macedonia and Thrace and Thessaly; Philip was also one of the leading members of the Delphic Amphictyony (alliance), thus presenting himself as protector of one of the most important sanctuaries of the Greek world. The culmination of Philip’s expansionist policy came in 338 BCE, when Philip defeated the allied armies of Athens and Thebes in the battle of Chaeronea. The next year he convened a conference of Greek city-states in Corinth, where he was pronounced leader of the “Greek Federation” completing his plan.

The Philippeion

Philip knew how important the sanctuary of Olympia was to Greeks; that was the reason he chose it as part of his communications strategy. Tradition demanded that victors dedicate a monument of their victory to the sanctuary; Philip decided that his would be something to talk about.

About 5 centuries later, the Greek traveller Pausanias saw and described his monument. He says it was a tholos, called  Philippeion. In its interior he saw three gold-and-ivory statues, of Philip, his father, Amyntas, and his son, Alexander. Initially there were two more statues, of Eurydice, Philip’s mother, and Olympias, his wife and mother of Alexander the Great. These had been moved to the temple of Hera, where Pausanias saw them.

Pausanias’ description helped the excavators identify a building whose round foundations were discovered in a prominent spot within the sanctuary.


Excavations found only the round foundations of the colonnade and the cella. However, the finds enabled restorers to deduce that the building was round, and had 18 Ionic order columns on the outside. Twelve Corinthian order semi-columns were along the interior wall. The ceiling had diamond-shaped coffers.


Of the statues that stood in the Philippeion’s interior, none survived, save the curved base they stood on.

Tholos of Olympia base of Statues

The curved base of the 5 statues that stood in the interior of the Tholos. Olympia Museum.

Marble was used for the steps, the floor of the peristyle [colonnade] and the decorated gutter [sima] around the roof. The rest of the building was made of lesser quality stone, namely tufa and conchite, which were covered in painted motifs.

Philippeion - the tholos of Olympia

The Tholos from the W. The ionic columns visible have been restored. The foundations under the colonnade and the wall of the building are visible, as is part of the colonnade’s marble floor. In the background, the hill of Kronion and the temple of Hera.

Compared to the Tholos of Epidaurus and the Tholos of Delphi that we have seen, this third Tholos is relatively simpler. However, it is remarkable for the precision and the symmetry of its design, down to very particular details.

The building’s architect is unknown, but he was obviously familiar with the architectural tradition of Athens and the Peloponnese, as well as that of Macedonia. It is possible that he was Macedonian himself; the Ionic order was very popular there, while the Philippeion’s capitals bear similarities to those of the Macedonian palace at Aigai.

Philippeion - the Tholos of Olympia

The Tholos of Olympia from the East.

Archaeologists used to credit Alexander with building the Philippeion, after his father’s assassination in 336 BCE. Hence, it was believed that the choice of statues reflected his agenda and not necessarily that of Philip. Recent research has changed that; today most scholars believe that both the building and the statues had been completed before Philip’s death.

Studies of the statues’ bases revealed that these were not made of ivory and gold, but of marble. It is possible that their surfaces were polished and gilded, leading Pausanias to believe they were precious. Another view is that perhaps the lower parts of the statues were made of marble while the upper ones were made using the gold and ivory technique. However interesting, this is a view that has yet to be accepted by the majority of archaeologists.

The Philippeion, or Tholos of Olympia, was more than a monument to a great victory. It was also the monument with which Philip and Alexander stressed the relationship of the Macedonian dynasty with their mythical ancestor, Hercules, and, through him, Zeus himself. The statues of the members of the royal family stressed the continuity of the dynasty and the stability of the Macedonian kingdom.

Finally, the Tholos was a fusion of architectural styles from several Greek areas, built in the most important of all Greek sanctuaries. Its message was clear: Philip was the leader of not just Macedonia, but of all of Greece.


[1] Loykopoulou, L. D., Chatzopoulos M., (ed) Philip, king of Macedon, Athens, 1980.

[2] Spalding, J., The Ancient Olympic Games, London 2004.

[3] Mallwitz, Α., Olympia und seine Bauten, München 1972.

[4] Valavanis, P., Sanctuaries and Games in Ancient Greece, Αθήνα 2004.





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