Olympia and the Games in Roman Times

Olympia and the Games in Roman Times, by Ulrich Sinn (p. 53, Olympics – Past & Present)

© 2013 Qatar Olympic & Sports Museum, Qatar Museums Authority and Prestel Verlag, Munich-London-New York.

The first few paragraphs:

The taking and partial destruction of Corinth by the Roman consul and general Lucius Mummius in 146 BCE marked the beginning of direct Roman influence in the Peloponnese and thereby in Olympia, too. This held no negative consequences for Olympia. Like other sanctuaries with cross-regional charisma the Zeus sanctuary was granted the special status of “liberty and immunity” (libera et immunis)(1).

Once his military deployment was completed, Mummius remained in Greece as a proconsul and governed the administrative restructuring with a [an e]specially appointed senate committee. In this capacity he also visited Olympia in 145 BCE. At the Zeus temple, according to the report by Pausanias, (2) and thinking along the lines of an ancient Greek consecration practice, he had 21 gilt signs affixed and consecrated several statuary monuments. As a counter-move, the Eleans pronounced their gratitude for the proconsul’s benevolent administration by erecting an equestrian statue.(3)

This sequence of events exemplifies the overwhelmingly positive development undertaken by Olympia throughout its membership of the Imperium Romanum. As one of the Greek world’s foremost sites, the Zeus sanctuary profited from the Romans’ pronounced interest in the cultural achievements of the Hellenes.

The rise of Gaius Octavius, to whom the honorific name Augustus was given in 27 BCE, to princeps senatus is associated closely with Greece: he ascribed the victory over his rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. in the sea battle in front of the Northern Greece coast to Apollo, honoured in Aktion. On his journey through Greece he founded the city of Nikopolis, not far from Aktion, in commemoration of his victory. He neither visited Olympia nor showed up with a consecration; however, as elsewhere travel companions and confidants of Augustus come onto the scene in his stead as donors. In Olympia these are the son-in-law of Augustus, Agrippa, along with Herod the Great, King of Judea. Two striking construction measures of the late 1st century can be attributed to them: the completion of the Echo Hall in the east of the Altis, left unfinished after the death of Alexander the Great, plus the first complex in Olympia to have the under-floor heating characteristic of Roman baths (hypocaust heating).(4)

Following contemporary convention, the Eleans in Olympia set up a site of cultic honouring of the Emperor, or respectively of his genius. For this they chose the building of the former Meter temple, which they dedicated to the Emperor with the following inscription: “The Eleans [consecrated the temple] of Caesar Augustus, son of the god, the saviour of the Hellenes and of the entire inhabited world”. A colossal statue of the Emperor found its place at the southern side of the temple. Inside the temple a gallery of statues, continued into the time of Vespasian (69–79 CE), paid homage to the imperial dynasty (fig. 2)(5). Several inscriptions retained in fragments (6) afford a clear clue that the Eleans, apart from the Emperor himself, also venerated Augustus’ close family members with the setting up of statues. The later Emperor Tiberius (4 BCE?) and his son Germanicus (17 CE) dispatched quadriga to the contests and thus gained entry into the winner lists as Olympians.

(continues to page 57)

(1)        Schwertfeger 1974, 54-55

(2)        Pausanias 5, 10, 2.

(3)        Philipp – Koenigs 1979.

(4)         Koenigs 1984, 64; Ladstätter 1995, 4-5.

(5)         Hitzl 1991; Bol 2008.