This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
When to go
Readers with the latest computational devices will know already that this is an Olympic year – to be precise, the year of the 75th Olympiad. So, come August, Olympia in Greece will be simply the place to be – and to be seen. And maybe even compete – so long as you are not a woman, of course! Don’t let a small thing like the impending Persian invasion put you off. It hasn’t deterred the organisers, who’ve been putting on the Games here in honour of Zeus of Mount Olympus for the past 296 years – well, every four years anyway. Zeus will provide!
So, come one, come all – all Greeks, that is, wherever you happen to live in the Greek world, to this most truly all-and only-Greek extravaganza. It all happens in a remote backwater of the north-west Peloponnese.
What to take with you
Be sure to travel light – you don’t want a barbarian cutpurse to rob you within an inch of your life, do you? (Or to rob you of your life for that matter). Indeed, why not take a barbarian (slave) with you for personal security – and service. And besides, there’ll be a sacred truce in place to guarantee you safe passage to the venue. Well, fairly safe. There haven’t been too many recorded deaths on this pilgrimage.
Costs and money
You won’t need much cash – five drachmas for each of the festival’s five days should do more than just nicely. And you don’t have to bring coins – in fact, watch out for speculative money changers. It’s better to bring uncoined silver or other goods to barter, because you will want to make your offerings to the gods for good luck – and maybe buy your own private water supply too.
You shouldn’t expect 5-star accommodation at any price, unless you happen to be a VIP, an ambassador or someone like that. Do remember there could be as many as 40,000 of you crammed together in a small space at the height of summer – darlings, the smell doesn’t even bear thinking about. So whatever you do, don’t forget the aryballos (perfume-flask) or sponge.
But there will be compensations, believe me, many and various. Lots of temporary stall holders offering sweetmeats and alcoholic beverages, not to mention other more, shall we say, fleshly delights. (When I said ‘no women allowed’, I meant no free Greek citizen women, naturally).
Sights and activities
Some of you may have already visited Olympia off-season. To you I say that you are in for a big surprise. Some of the buildings are lovely, no doubt, any year, any time of year – the temple of Hera, for instance (but it so needs a temple to the patron god Zeus to go with it, don’t you think?), and there are lots of gorgeous statues to gaze at.
But frankly there’s not a lot else to do – apart from consult Zeus’s oracle, say, or pay your pious respects to the host of other gods and heroes who have their shrines and altars here.
Fun and (the) games
But every four years, at the second full moon after the summer solstice, Olympia itself – as well as the athletes of course – really jumps. If you arrive a bit early, you can watch potential competitors in training, hoping to be selected for their chosen events on the big day.
The full programme includes sprint and middle distance running, the ‘heavy’ events: boxing, wrestling, all-in fighting; and field events: discus, javelin, long-jump. All the competitors are stark naked too – gymnasia are just what they say they are: ‘stark-naked training-grounds’. And on top of all that there are the equestrian events: horse-racing, mule-cart racing, chariot-racing. With any luck you might see a spectacular chariot wreck.
Of course the equestrian events are only for the rich – who sponsor the teams, the jockeys and the drivers. They don’t actually compete in person, but they get lots of kudos anyway. Poor boys can do very well in the running or boxing, mind you – and can then cash in on their success later on.
But remember that all that victors at Olympia win is a symbolic prize of a crown of wild olive. You, though, will make heroes of them and you can rub shoulders with them in the huge parade and animal-sacrifice at Zeus’s massive ash-altar that mark the festival’s central act of communion between gods and men.
When you get home – by mule-cart for some of you, on horseback for the lucky few, but for most on foot – you can worship the victors, literally, as superhuman heroes. That is even (or especially) if they’ve got themselves killed, in the all-in fighting or whatever. Errosthe (fare well)!
Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (OUP, 2009).
One of the most delightful of Greece’s ancient sites, Olympia is today a day trip from Athens. That it is a glorious one rather than a hot, underwhelming slog is to do with two things: the efforts locals and firefighters made in 2007 to save the site from bush fires, and the ruins themselves.
Persevere with Olympia: the modern town is little more than a service centre for the ancient, and first impressions will be of souvenir shops and uninspiring restaurants. There’s better and more typical Greek fare on offer in the village of Floka, a mile or so up the hill.
The star attraction is south of the new town, across the Kladeos river. Set in wonderfully quiet and green surroundings, the Olympic site can absorb half a day. There are four museums to complete the theme of the day: one devoted to the ancient games, another to the modern one, a third tells the story of excavations and a fourth, the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, shows off some of the best finds. There’s a joint ticket for this and the site itself.
Even if you only see ancient Olympia, it will almost certainly prove a highlight of any tour of Greece’s historical treasures.
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There are comparable sites in Greece – Delphi notably – which will awe and educate, but you need to go to Mexico to find evidence of lost civilisations enjoying sport on this scale, particularly the ball courts of Monte Alban and Chichen Itza.
Tom Hall, Lonely Planet travel editor. You can read a selection of articles by Tom at the Lonely Planet website www.lonelyplanet.com.