Following the Persian Wars, Olympia reached its highest pinnacle of glory. The numerous offerings found in Olympia attest to the large number of participants from all the Greek cities. Athletes from Sparta and Kroton in Italy dominated the Olympic festivals of this century. The Greek victory against the Persians strengthened their national awareness, and Olympia soon became the symbol of their unity.
At Olympia, new secular and religious constructions were set up. The famous temple of Zeus and the elaborated statues placed in Altis added more glory to the site. Built in the middle of the 5th century BC, the temple of Zeus became the most magnificent monument of Olympia, a symbol of the common religion and communal strength of the Greeks.
It was dedicated to the highest of the gods, Zeus, and it was decorated with
various pieces of free-standing sculptures and reliefs. The eastern pediment
of the temple portrays the mythical chariot-race between Pelops and the king of Pisa,
At the center of the pediment, Zeus judges the outcome of the contest. In the
western pediment, the Centaurs fight the Lapiths: the first
drank excessively during the wedding of the king of the Lapiths, and thus,
attacked the women, girls and boys of the latter. Apollo, the son of Zeus,
intervenes to restore order in favor of the human Lapiths.
The reliefs of the metopes inside the Pronaos
showed the "Labours of Herakles".
As the visitor stood in the main room (cella) of the temple faced the most famous cult statue of antiquity, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world: the gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus. It was built by the famous sculptor Pheidias, and depicted Zeus as the ruler of the world seated in an elaborated throne, holding a sceptre in his left hand and a "Nike" (Winged Victory) in his right hand.
New athletic facilities such as the Stadium III and the Hippodrome were constructed. In its third phase of construction, the stadium took its final shape. In order to preserve the area east of the altar of Zeus for cult purposes, the track was shifted 75 m east.
An embankment on its west side closed off the track. This track was 212 m wide. It was made of packed earth, whereas the starting and finishing-lines were marked by stone kerbs 192.28 m apart. No special seats were made, apart from the seats made for the umpires, the guests of honor, and the priestess of Demeter Chamyne, the only woman that was allowed to attend the games.
The Hippodrome was the area of the chariot races. Unfortunately, no ancient horse-racing track has survived, so we turn to Pausanias' descriptions for a better understanding of this arena: it was in the south of the Stadium. It was a broad area, 600 m long and 200 m wide. Two posts, placed at its two ends, marked the starting/finishing line and the turning point respectively. The main track was divided in two by a stone or wooded wall (390 m long), the "embolon". The chariots had to go up one side, make a turn and return down the other. This made a total circuit of 1,200 m. In Delphi ten chariots could participate together in a race, but we do not know how many in Olympia.
Pausanias has left us with a full description of the complex starting system, the "hippaphesis". It is set on the west short side of the Hippodrome. These were starting positions that formed a triangle; at the apex of the triangle was a bronze dolphin on a raised pole; a brick altar was built along the axis of the triangle's apex. This altar contained the starting mechanism. On top of the altar a bronze eagle lied. Just before the race, the chariots entered the special compartments. Upon the signal of the trumpet, the eagle was raised high on the altar so it would be visible to the spectators, while the dolphin fell to the ground.
The turn was the most dangerous place in chariot racing. Taraxippos was the deity that interfered in the events held at the hippodrome: he could disturb the horses at the turning post of the track. All riders sacrificed in front of his altar, erected at the turning post in the hippodrome at Olympia. The manoeuvres of the rider at the turning point indicated his skills.
The Prytaneion was built at the NE side of the site in
In the late 5th century, important changes in the life and the values of the Eleans took place: Elis ceased to live in prosperity and the Eleans became temporary allies of different city-states.
The Peloponnesian War brought the decline of many of the moral values expressed by the games. These changes in the spirit of the political life are particularly evident in the spatial organization of the site: from now on the main sanctuary is separated from the area of the games and the stadium. The erection of the Echo colonnade, the largest in the sanctuary, on the eastern boundary of the Altis, marked off the separation of the religious center from the stadium, which was moved further to the east. It was named "Echo" after its acoustics, and "poikile" (painted) after the paintings which decorated its interior.
Those athletes who were caught cheating paid fines, that were used for the erection of the Zanes: these were the statues of Zeus which were put up to remind them of the penalties issued for those who did not obey the rules of the games.
In the late Classical times, a few more religious buildings were erected at
Olympia: the Metroon, and a number of Stoas. Built in
The South colonnade was built in the southern edge of the sanctuary. The original
Sacred Way passed in front of it. Other colonnades were built as facades of the
Bouleuterion and other buildings.
Archaic and Geometric | Hellenistic | Roman