The sanctuary of Olympia, dedicated primarily to Olympian Zeus, King of the Gods, and Hera, his consort, was a complex of temples and treasuries, including the twelve metre-high ivory and gold statue of Zeus which numbered among the wonders of the world. At the peak of its wealth and influence in the fifth century BC, the prestige of Olympia was demonstrated by the rich gifts laid on the temple altars by visiting dignitaries and foreign kings. Such pilgrimages took place in particular every four years, when the religious and political significance of the site reached its zenith at the Olympic Games, held to honour Zeus.
The origins of the Games are recounted in numerous myths which attest the importance of the event throughout the Greek world. In one version, the Games were inaugurated in 776 BC to mark and maintain peace in the Greek world, with a treaty between Ifitos king of Elis, Lykourgos king of the Spartans, and Cleisthenes King of Pissa, to be protected and honoured in the temple of Hera as long as the Games continued. By the fifth century BC, the Games comprised of ten events and lasted for five days, during which time around 45,000 spectators would attend the stadium. Women were allowed neither to watch the games nor participate as athletes, though they could put forward horses for chariot races. Winners were crowned with olive branches cut from the sacred bush in the temple of Zeus (in accordance with the instructions of the Delphic Oracle) and accorded great honours and benefits when they returned home.
Throughout the duration of the Games, religious festivals, fairs and markets provided alternative entertainment. Together with the huge number of spectators from all over the Greek world, these obliged the Elean administrators of the sanctuary to establish a standardised currency and system of weights and measures. Besides being an opportunity to make money for the upkeep of the site – visitors were charged a small fee to change currency – the Eleans also used their coinage as a means to demonstrate the prestige and grandeur of the Olympian site. The finest artists worked on intricate portrait depictions of Zeus and Hera to grace the currency of each new Games which was probably minted on-site in the Olympian complex. That of previous Olympiads had to be validated – for a fee – before it could be re-used. Olympian coinage also featured novel and exquisite designs based on the powerful symbols of Zeus (the lightening bolt, the eagle), the figure of winged Nike and the olive wreath awarded to victors.
The Games had always been exploited politically, but with the Roman conquest of much of the Greek empire by A.D. 146 contemporary observers tended to be of the opinion that finally the Games were losing their sacred virtue. The end finally came in A.D. 393 when, on the order of Theodosius I, the Games were abolished; in A.D. 426, by dictate of Theodosius II, much of the complex was destroyed. The coinage which survives attests the importance and artistic achievement of the Olympian mints and helps to convey the spirit and grandeur of the original Olympics.
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