Homeric Time and Space at Olympia

Aileen Ajootian

University of Mississippi

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was completed ca 456 B.C.E., coinciding with the sacred games late that summer. Two distinctive sculpture groups occupied choice spots nearby, both standing on curved bases, the earliest examples on the Greek mainland. Pausanias, the only writer to mention these works, described both fully, even quoting their inscriptions. Based on his reports, the remains of the two monuments have been identified. The statues have vanished, but the bases provide evidence for the construction of large-scale Homeric sculptural narratives. Just east of the Zeus Temple, the Achaian Dedication created by the Sicyonian sculptor Onatas included nine bronze Greek warriors on a semicircular base. A second – round --  base supported King Nestor, who held a helmet full of lots, about to determine which Achaian hero would fight Hector, an episode from the Iliad (7.161 ff). Pausanias did not mention, however, that a processional path some seven meters wide leading north through the Altis separated the monument's two parts. Yet the Homeric scene enacted by Onatas' sculptures was still recognizable when the periegete visited Olympia. Nine bronze Achaians on the curved base waited in the moment before King Nestor shook Agamemnon's helmet so that one kleros, or lot, would pop out. Roughly contemporary with the temple, the impact of the Achaians' dedication apparently relied not only on the effect produced by large bronze statuary and inscriptions, but also on the viewers' knowledge of the Homeric story, and their imaginative completion of events set in motion by the sculptures. According to Pausanias, the Achaians offered this monument to Zeus, claiming Pelops as their ancestor. Though the precise occasion for the dedication is unknown, it is likely that the figures creating the Homeric tableau echoed the still pose of Pelops standing above in the east pediment of the Zeus Temple. South of the Temple of Zeus, Illyrian Apollonia, a Corinthian colony, dedicated another Homeric vignette on a curved base. Pausanias reports that Lykios, son of the well known fifth-century sculptor Myron, made this military victory monument, celebrating the Apollonian defeat of Thronion and Abantas. Dated to the 430's B.C., the statue group must have been influenced by the earlier Achaian dedication, but also by the organization of the Zeus Temple's east pediment, where the protagonists of a local agon, the chariot race between King Oinomaeus and the young suitor Pelops, flanked the central figure of Zeus.  So too in the Apollonian dedication, Zeus dominated the center of the base. Flanking him, Thetis and Eos supplicated for their sons Achilles and Memnon. In addition to this psychostatis, Greek and Trojan warrior pairs stood opposite each other on the curving arms of the base. There were thirteen bronze figures altogether, the same number as in the Zeus temple's east gable. Both monuments compelled viewers to complete the Homeric narratives begun in bronze, imposing heroic space and time on the panhellenic landscape.


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