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A peaceful battlefield: the stadium of Olympia

Today, our virtual journey will take us once again to the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, this time to see its stadium, where the famous Olympic Games were held.

The English word “stadium” (plural stadiums or stadia) is Latin, derived from the Greek word stadion (plural stadia). This in turn is probably derived from the verb histemi (ίστημι) which means to stand (at the starting line, no doubt). It was used since the 5th century BCE to describe both the venue and the shortest of the footraces run there.

Stadium of Olympia (1)

The stadium of Olympia, as it is today.

Before we turn to the stadium itself, I’d like to briefly pause to list the events held there.

The events

Ancient Greeks had two categories of sport: equestrian events and gymnastics. The latter name was due to the fact that all athletes competed gymnoi (i.e. naked). These were the events held in stadiums and they comprised footraces, the long jump, javelin and discus throwing as well as wrestling, boxing and pangration (a brutal mixture of the other two).

The essential footrace, which is considered the first Olympic event, was the one-stadium long footrace. As we’ve already seen, the length of a stadium was nearly 200 metres/yards, but varied from place to place. Other events started being added after the 14th Olympic games.

The stadiums

Stadiums were the first sporting venue for which space was made in the sanctuaries where games were held. The stadiums of Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia have been found, the venues of the four major sporting events of Ancient Greece. The sanctuaries of Asclepius in Epidaurus and of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion also had stadiums. Others were found in cities such as Athens or Messene.

In their simplest form, stadiums were nothing more than a rectangular strip of earth (the track) with embankments for the spectators along the sides. The track was bare earth, with a starting and a finishing line at each end. Another essential was a source of water nearby.

To afford spectators a good view of the race, Greeks chose a natural slope, where possible, or made embankments where not. Much later, stone seats replaced the beaten earth, but this only happened in a handful of stadiums. It is interesting that the embankments (or seats) did not run straight along the track, but curve, so that everyone would have an unobstructed view of both start and finish.

Later, a post called the campter (turning point) was added, to mark where athletes would have to turn in races of more than one lap. After the 4th century BCE, a curved end was formed at one end of some stadiums and a tunnel for the athletes.

The capacity of stadiums varied, depending on the available area and/or the anticipated number of spectators, from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands.

The stadium of Olympia

This was the most famous and most revered among the Greeks. Being a winner here was an unsurpassed honor; winners returned home as heroes and were treated as such to the end of their lives.

This stadium was moved at least three times during its history, probably to accommodate the rising numbers of spectators as the reputation of the sanctuary and its games spread to the far reaches of the Greek world.

Olympia plan

A plan of Olympia. In the centre, the sanctuary. On the West, the river Cladeus, on the NE, the stadium. The plans shows the three phases excavated: No. 6, shaded, was the 6th century BCE stadium, No. 7, also shaded, was the 500 BCE stadium and to the right, without number or shade, the final stadium, the one we see today.

It is not certain where the sanctuary’s first stadium was; it is safe to assume it was somewhere within its limits. Archaeologists have established that in the mid-6th century a stadium was formed near the temple of Zeus; it was half in and half out of the sanctuary and had an embankment on its southern side.

Around 500 BCE the stadium was moved to the east; its orientation changed slightly but the room afforded to spectators was greatly enlarged. In the 5th century BCE, the games and the sanctuary were reorganized. The changes included moving the stadium to the northeast, without changing its orientation. This is the stadium visitors see today.

This stadium had embankments on all sides, except the western one, so that the altar of Zeus would be visible. In the 4th century BCE, this was no longer possible, due to the construction of a portico, called the portico of Echo. Then an embankment was made along that side too, raising the stadium’s capacity to an estimated 40.000 people. It is possible that the vaulted athlete’s entrance to the stadium was constructed at that time.

The stadium had a total length of 212 metres, but the starting and finishing lines were 600 local feet from one another (192 m). The starting line allowed for 20 participants; in the 4th century BCE, a starting device called hysplex was installed.

Stadium of Olympia (3)

The finishing line at the stadium of Olympia. Depending on how many laps the race had, this could serve as a starting line too.

Spectators sat on the ground. A small number of stone seats existed on the southern side, but these were reserved for the judges, called Hellanodikai. Across the stadium from them there was an altar to Demeter Hamyne, an old earth deity. The goddess’ priestess sat there, the only woman allowed to watch the games.

The judges’ seats and the altar were 100 ft from the western starting line; this was probably the spot where the non-racing events took place.

Stadium of Olympia (2)

The altar of Demeter Hamyne in the stadium of Olympia. Across the track from it, the seats of the judges.

 

This was the stadium mentioned in the famous odes of athletes composed by Pindar and the descriptions of ancient traveler Pausanias. The games were held here until the 4th century CE, when they were discontinued.

The excavations conducted from 1937 until 1960 made an unexpected but very important discovery. Buried into the embankments were hundreds of bronze armor pieces, such as helmets, shields, cuirasses and greaves. On its own, the find is undoubtedly important, but what makes it even more interesting is that there is evidence that most of these weapons had been exhibited for a while as trophies on wooden poles at the top of the embankments for the spectators.

Ancient Greek bronze shield

Bronze outer covering of a hoplite shield. An inscription at its rim reads: “Zanglians [from] Regians.” The Greek cities of Zangle and Region (nowadays Messina and Reggio, in Sicily and Calabria, respectively) were at nearly constant warfare across the strait separating them. 6th century BCE, Olympia museum.

The number of weapons found proves just how important the sanctuary of Zeus was to Greeks, as a space where they would advertise their military victories.

Thus, the stadium of Olympia functioned for hundreds of years as a peaceful battlefield, where Greeks competed to show, not only their own physical prowess but also their military one.

To this day it remains a place where people compete, in impromptu and improvised races among the many visitors of the site.

 

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