The Ancient Olympics: Heroes, Myths and Society

Olympia excites scholars and travellers with its links between politics, religion, art and the social life of the Classical Greeks. It was also home of the most important festivals in honour of Zeus in the ancient world: the four-year cycle of games which were in existence for over 1000 years. This illustrated morning presents Olympia, from its foundations to its closure by Christian Roman emperors, and includes study of art, myth and the games themselves, with reference to the wider Classical Greek world.


  • Catherine Morgan, Athletes & Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia & Delphi in the 8th Century BC, Cambridge University Press, 1990
  • Mark Golden, Sport & Society in Ancient Greece, Cambridge University Press, 1998
  • David C Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics, Ares Publishers, 1985
  • Nigel Spivey, The Ancient Olympics, OUP 2005
  • J Swaddling, The Ancient Olympics, University of Texas Press, 1984


  • Introduction: Overall history of Olympia and the Games. Background to religious content of festival. Importance of Olympia to Greek Art. Early Olympia – Iron Age: Near East Contacts. First Building – Temple of Hera (local Links – Bassae).
  • Olympia in the 5th century BC: The peak Classical Greek period. Treasuries of wealthy cities. The Temple of Zeus – buildings, sculpture. The works of Phaidias. Comparison to other 5th century temples (Parthenon, Aegina, S. Italy). Late 5th century art.
  • Governing Olympia: Council hall, fines, oaths (cf. Priene/Athens). The Stadium and the games – comparison to other festivals (Delphi, Panathenaic, Dionysius, etc). Serving the athletes – gymnasium, baths.
  • Hellenistic and Roman Olympia: Pan-Hellenism. Philip II. Roman alterations – inns, fountains, stoas. Debasement of the games. Images of Roman sport – mosaics, statutes – chariot races, boxers, etc. Conclusion.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Briefly describe the history of the site of Olympia.
  2. Discuss aspects of the Ancient Games – history, sports, commercialism.
  3. Describe the evolution of Greek temple architecture.
  4. Identify different styles of Greek sculpture.
  5. Pursue sources of further study.