The Forgetting and Rediscovery of Olympia

The Forgetting and Rediscovery of Olympia from the Beginnings to the Expédition de Morée, by Alain Schnapp (p. 85, Olympics – Past & Present)

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

The Ancient Philosophy of the Ruins

What is a monument? It is a place of remembrance, a site which through its name alone recalls to memory a time and events that no-one can forget. Places of remembrance are often an encounter between the deeds of important people and the landscapes where they performed their deeds – erga as Herodotus termed them, as he pictured an association and a fusion between monuments and human deeds. The Greeks saw an indissoluble connection between ergon, the heroic deed, and mnémosynon, its moment worthy of remembrance.(1) The Greeks and Romans knew from experience that even the clearest traces of the most famous monuments pale with the centuries, until they become a sort of shadow of memory that continues to exist only through poets’ voices. When Caesar in Lucan’s Pharsalia comes to Troy, he can only make out the city’s crumbled remnants, whose name (nomen) contrasts with the barely verifiable relics of what they once were.

This poetry of ruins stands in stark contrast to the antiquarian enthusiasm of the Enlightenment and Western Romanticism. Where the antique poets see only the inescapable ephemeralness of the human age, they rush upon the tiniest traces of the past in order to trace the original landscapes in all their glory. The Stoics’ pessimism of ruins, heavily applied in the Romano-Greek tradition, is set against by a – one could say: triumphant – optimism. François Pouqueville, one of Olympia’s discoverers at the beginning of the 19th century, expresses it as follows: “[…] thus I leave aside the poetic side of the Olympic Games and limit myself to tracing the topography of the places, so that travellers conveyed by the love of science to these fields, to these contemporary witnesses of the earth’s greatest festivities under the sun, can experience how the testimonies of ancient history clash with the condition of these same places today”(2) (Fig. 2). Pouqueville was a doctor and diplomat, who found himself in the captivity of the Pasha of Morea for a while during the Franco-Turkish conflicts. As a diligent pupil of Abbé de La Rue, he saw in the landscape a history book rather than an occasion for stirrings of sentiment. Whereas, in the antique tradition, a visit to however famous a site ultimately constitutes only an opportunity of remembering, a way of paying tribute to the memory and, in a certain manner, of accepting our own mortality, Pouqueville asserts that positive knowledge is possible, that the ruins are traces of events that are interpretable to a rational mind, be it ever so little aware of the constitution of the terrain and of the ruins. Reason does not abolish the ruins’ poetry, but tries to tame it and come to grips with it. At the same time, the Positivism of the 19th century meets with another guiding principle, that of Pausanias, who, unlike the poets and historians, is interested rather in the social situation suggested by the ruins than in their purely poetic force. To Pausanias the distant past, the one before the world of the ancient city, is a revealing object of reflection. It brings contour and depth of focus into the structures and landscapes he describes, which, as traces of classical Greece, are testimonies to an ideal and superlative moment. At the same time, though, this distant past harbours something unclear (adelon). It lends the monuments from the past their ambivalent note, in the way quotes from ancient authors provide poetic works with elegance.(3) To Pausanias, the past is not a narrative but a phenomenon of reality that can be observed and described. In Olympia itself he reports of a find during the erection of a victory statue in the sanctuary, which the donor watched with his own eyes: “[…] when the earth was dug […] so that the statue’s pedestal could be set up, parts of weapons, bridles and bits were discovered, emerging from the earth before my eyes.” (4) The history of Olympia’s exploration is so special because it is made up of a mixture of keen interest and forgetting, of peaks of poetic splendour and extremely objective accounts. From the Greek Archaic period to the end of the Roman Empire, Olympia lived poetically in the minds of the Greeks and Romans. The names of the victors of the Olympic Games are known up to 385 CE, but it is not clear until which year between the end of the 4th century and the year 435, when Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all intact heathen temples, the Games were held.(5) It is established that the sanctuary was abandoned in the 5th century, and so massively destroyed that the scholars of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment even pursued endless debates over its exact location.


Although Olympia as a location gradually disappeared from the scholars’ field of vision, its nomen continued to be present in the scholarly tradition. One finds Olympia on the famous Roman road map, the so-called Peutinger Table, as well as in the works of Hierocles and Constantine Porphyrogenitus,(6) yet Olympia is a shadow, a handed-down notion that is not confirmed in any precise description. On a beautiful map of Morea, for which we thank Gian Battista Agnese, the famous Venetian cartographer of the 16th century, the name Olympia does not appear.(7) The cartographer has carefully drawn in names of towns and villages in his extremely detailed work. Close to the s-shaped loop of the river Roufiás (Alpheios) appears the name Antilalo, which antiquarians at the end of the 18th century interpreted as the location of the antique Olympia: the only antique indication is the symbol of a massive castle, which supposedly refers to a corresponding monument. Agnese had no interest in antique topography, even though his map of 1554 was created at the same time as the map by the Greek-born, Italian immigrant Nikolaos Sophianos of 1552.(8)

(1)         Immerwahr 1960, 15.

(2)           Pouqueville 1805, 124. – On the history of Olympia’s rediscovery, see Curtius 1851, 115–148; Boetticher 1886, 48–74; Weil 1897.

(3)         Pausanias 7, 17, 7: “[…] for it is a Greek tradition to use in poetry the ancient names [archaiotera] instead of the new.”

(4)         Pausanias 5, 20, 8.

(5)         Fargnoli 2003.

(6)         Curtius 1851, 128.

(7)         Venice, St. Mark’s Library 4, 62, 5067.

(8)         Tolias 1996, 96–104.

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