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From Chariot Racing to a Christian Church: Olympia & the last Olympic Games

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Dr Amelia R. Brown examines recent evidence that sheds new light on the little-known glory years of the Olympic Games of Late Antiquity.

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The Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia was once the most famous ancient Greek sportsground, growing from a modest sacred grove for local Greeks into a sprawling complex of temples, stadiums and baths. At the height of the Roman Empire, the ancient Olympics drew athletes (and horses) from today’s Spain to Armenia. Though the modern Olympics were modeled directly on these ancient Greek games, these Roman-era Olympic games, and Olympia’s long Late Antique afterlife, both remain little known. Earthquakes, flooding, Christian persecution and ‘barbarian’ invasions all contributed to centuries of change, the eventual end of the ancient Olympic games, and the return of the sanctuary’s grounds to local significance as a farming town of Elis.

Recent excavations and new studies have discovered inscriptions and extensive sports-related construction of the third and fourth centuries AD. The Athletes’ Clubhouse even held a bronze tablet listing Olympic victors down to Zopyrus of Athens at the 291st Olympiad in AD 385. The contemporary orator Themistius praised Phidias’ centuries-old chryselephantine cult statue of Zeus, and Zeus’ temple with its intact pediments stood into the fifth century. Pro-Christian legislation of the late fourth century, pagan persecution and ‘barbarian’ unrest then took a severe toll on the ancient Olympics, however, as well as the sanctuary of Olympia. By the reign of Justinian, the temple had been converted to a fortress, a nearby Pantheon into a church, and the statue of Zeus burned in Constantinople.

This talk will cover the little-known glory years of the Olympic Games in the ‘early’ Late Antiquity of the third to fourth centuries, as well as the more shadowy sources for the actual ‘last’ ancient Olympic games and Christian town of Olympia in the fifth to seventh centuries of our era.

Dr. Amelia R. Brown is Senior Lecturer in Greek History & Language in the Classics & Ancient History discipline of the School of Historical & Philosophical Inquiry, at the University of Queensland, Australia. She held a Discovery Early Career Research Award from the ARC to research the impact of sailors and travellers on the development of ancient Greek religion and identity from 2014-2018, and is now working on a monograph on ancient Greek sailors’ cults.

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