Countryside Journeys

Countryside Journey to Ancient Olympia

Where Hercules Instituted the Olympic Games

13 hours

According to the World Heritage website, there is probably no ancient archaeological site anywhere in the world that has more relevance on today’s world than Olympia. While competitive sacred athletic games date back to at least Minoan Crete, the official “birthplace” of the Olympic Games is at Olympia in the Peloponnese peninsula. The first Olympic Games are said to have been held there in 776 b.c.e

Olympia is connected to many gods and myths and there are different versions on how the Olympic Games got started. One legend says the games were started when Hercules brought a sacred olive tree to Olympia after he successfully completed one of his 12 labors (to clean the stables of King Augeus of Elis). Another myth says the games started when Pelops established a festival after defeating King Oenomaus in a chariot race. Others say the Olympic Games were first held as part of a religious festival honoring Zeus after beating his father Cronus and seized the throne.

The ancient Greek Olympics were held every four years during the full moon of midsummer. That date was chosen so the games could last into the night.  The time between games was called an Olympiad, and each Olympiad was named for an athletic victor at the previous contests. Coribus from Elis won a 200-meter foot race.  To honor him, Coribus’ name was given to the first Olympiad. When it was time for the games, the rulers of Elis sent out messengers all over Greece and to the Greek colonies around the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. They declared a truce throughout the Greek world for a month. No matter who you had a war with, you had to stop the war and let their athletes and performers go through your city-state safely to get to the Olympic Games.

Only freeborn male Greek citizens not accused of murder or sacrilege were eligible to participate. Training began as early as one year before the games in the athlete’s home city. A month before the games, the athletes were the obligated to move to Elis or Olympia for their final training. It was here that the athletes were taught the rules of fair play and honorable competition.

The first day of the games began with sacrifices to the gods, for the games were meant as religious tributes. At the great altar of Zeus, the athletes vowed that they were eligible to participate in the games and that they would obey the Olympic rules while competing. Judges, trainers, and even the athlete’s parents all had to make a similar vow.

The second day of the games began early with the chariot races followed by the horse races. Spectators then hurried to the stadium to watch the pentathlon. These contests lasted until evening and marked the end of the first day of the festival.

The third day of the games began with a sacrifice to Zeus, which was the most solemn moment of the entire festival.  A herd of 100 bulls were slaughtered by assembled priests after a procession to the Great Altar of Zeus. The thighs of the killed bulls were burned as a sacrifice while the remains of the bull was used in the victory banquet at the end of the games. The remainder of the day was the boys’s events.

On the forth day, foot races, wrestling and boxing events and the pankration (combination of wrestling and boxing) took place. This day marked the end of the athletic events of the Olympic festival.

On the final fifth day, there was a banquet for all of the participants, consisting of 100 oxen that had been sacrificed to Zeus on the first day. It started with a procession to the Temple of Zeus, referred to by the Greeks as the Altis, where each winner received his wreath of live branches from olives. Then crowds showered them with flowers.

In 146 BC, the Romans gained control of Greece and, therefore, of the Olympic Games. In 85 BC, the Roman general Sulla plundered the sanctuary to finance his campaign against Mithridates. Sulla also moved the 175th Olympiad (80 BC) to Rome. The ancient Olympic Games were abandoned in AD 394 by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, who considered the Games to be a savage celebration.

Centuries of earthquakes and floods buried Olympia and the Temple of Zeus until 1870 when German excavations unearthed the beauty and magnificent statues of the classical Greek Games. These archeological findings in the sacred ground of Olympia fascinated French historian and educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin so much that he was inspired to conceive the idea of reviving the modern Olympic Games. On June 23, 1894, speaking at the Sorbonne in Paris to a gathering of international sports leaders from nine nations proposed that the ancient Games be revived on an international scale. The idea was enthusiastically received and the Modern Olympics, as we know them, were born.





Deaprting from Athens and after about 4hours driving (including a short stop at the Corinth Canal) we arrive at Ancient Olympia.

The entrance of the site is beyond the bridge over the Kladeos River. Thanks to Theodosius II and various earthquakes, little remains of the magnificent buildings of Ancient Olympia, but enough exists to sustain an absorbing visit in an idyllic, leafy setting. A visit to the Archaeological Museum beforehand will help with visualising the ancient buildings. The first ruin encountered is the gymnasium, which dates from the 2nd century BC.



South of here is the partly restored palaestra (wrestling school), where contestants practised and trained. The next building was the theokoleon (priests’ house). Behind it is Pheidias’ workshop, where the gargantuan ivory-and-gold Statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sculpted. The workshop was identified by archaeologists after the discovery of tools and moulds.

Beyond the theokoleon is the leonidaion, an elaborate structure that accommodated dignitaries. The altis, or Sacred Precinct of Zeus, lies east of the path. Its most important building was the immense 5th-century Doric Temple of Zeus, which enshrined Pheidias’ statue, later removed to Constantinople by Theodosius II (where it was destroyed by fire in AD 475). One column has been restored and re-erected, and helps you put into perspective its sheer size. South of the Temple of Zeus is the Vouleuterion (council house), containing the altar of oaths , where competitors swore to obey the rules decreed by the Olympic Senate.



The Stadium lies to the east of the altis and is entered through an archway. The start and finish lines of the 120m sprint track and the judges’ seats still survive. The Stadium could seat at least 45,000 spectators. Slaves and women spectators had to be content to watch from the Hill of Cronos.

To the north of the Temple of Zeus was the pelopion, a small, wooded hillock with an altar to Pelops. It was surrounded by a wall containing the remains of its Doric portico. Many artefacts now displayed in the museum were found on the hillock.

Further north is the 6th-century Doric Temple of Hera , the site’s most intact structure. Hera was worshipped along with Rea until the two were superseded by Zeus.


To the east of this temple is the Nymphaeum , erected by the wealthy Roman banker Herodes Atticus in AD 156–60. Typical of buildings financed by Roman benefactors, it was grandiose, consisting of a semicircular building with Doric columns flanked at each side by a circular temple.

The building contained statues of Herodes Atticus and his family. Despite its elaborate appearance, the Nymphaeum had a practical purpose; it was a fountain house supplying Olympia with fresh spring water. Beyond the Nymphaeum and up a flight of stone steps, a row of 12 treasuries stretched to the stadium, each erected by a city state for use as a storehouse and marking the northern boundaries of the altis.


At the bottom of these steps are the scant remains of the 5th-century-BC metroön, a temple dedicated to Rea, the mother of the gods. Apparently the ancients worshipped Rea in this temple with orgies.

The foundations of the Philippeion , west of the Temple of Hera, are the remains of a circular construction with Ionic columns built by Philip of Macedon to commemorate the Battle of Chaironeia (338 BC), where he defeated a combined army of Athenians and Thebans. The building contained statues of Philip and his family.

North of the Philippeion was the Prytaneum , the magistrate’s residence. Here, winning athletes were entertained and feasted. Time for lunch and after we start our drive back to Athens.

Alternative Tour Options:
There are so many other things to see in this area. Keep in mind that your driver is at your disposal, so if you would like to adjust the proposed itinerary at all, just let him know!


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Did you Know?

  • Famous visitors of the Olympic Games was Plato and Aristotle, and before them,in the 6th century BC., Thales of Miletus,were to compete in the games, and so was Alexander the Great and Nero.Thales died of sunstroke in the stadium during the games of 548 BC.
  • Slaves and women,especially married ones,were strictly forbidden to wtch the games, and if a woman was caught as a spectator,she was thrown off Mt.Typaeon.
  • Barbarians were allowed to watch,but not to compete.
  • The victors of the Olympic games were hailed as heroes. Statues were built in their honor around the magnificent Temple of Zeus and the stadium of Olympia. Parades with chariots, songs, and poems written in their honor were given in their hometowns. Other special privileges awarded to the athletes were choice seats at all public spectacles; statues carved in their image were placed in prominent locations in the city, and they were also exempt from paying taxes. Cash rewards were common. In some Greek cities, part of a wall was torn and victorious athlete was led in though the opening. This ritual signified that any city with strong citizens had no need to defend itself with a wall from its enemies.
  • The first modern Winter Olympic games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. There was no winter Olympic festival in ancient times. Separate Winter Games were first authorized in 1911 to be held in 1916, but due to World War I they didn’t occur until 1924, in Chamonix.
  • The Modern Olympic flag of five linked rings, each with a primary color used in the flags of the nations competing in the games, was introduced in 1908. There is no ancient basis for this modern symbol.
  • The idea of the Olympic torch or Olympic Flame was first inaugurated in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. There was no torch relay in the ancient Olympic Games. There were known, however, torch relays in other ancient Greek athletic festivals including those held at Athens. The modern Olympic torch relay was first instituted at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
  • The Olympic Oath was introduced in 1920.