Greece - Out By Olympia
( Originally Published 1936 )
Olympia is usually the first ancient center visited by the traveler who enters Greece by the port of Patras. It is the only famous ruin in the west and the distance from Patras is but seventy-four miles. We reversed the customary procedure, reserving Olympia for the last stage of our journey. This necessitated a continuous trip of two hundred and seven miles from Athens. On the "greatly ameliorated " Peloponnesus Railway this required exactly fifteen hours.
It was Sunday. Some workers were afield, but much of the rural population was assembled at the stations. For company we had a copy of The Saturday Evening Post, purchased in Athens on the date of issue at the price of fifty cents, and a considerable party of German tourists. When I failed to find diversion in either, there was always the amusement of timing the train. We made the run between two villages, four miles apart, in thirteen minutes, but at each stop the locomotive was allowed ten minutes to recuperate. There was no restaurant car on this day, but we carried luncheon and were not dependent on the skewers of meat and the tiny pomegranates sold at the stations.
From Patras southward we skirted the sea and to the east the Arcadian mountains were constantly in view. During our stop we received a visitor. A boy not more than twelve years old came into our compartment and asked to be employed as guide. Young as he was he had a guide's certificate. This, and a large silver watch, were his most cherished possessions. He was a precocious youth, not lacking in self-assurance, and he already had a fair smattering of five languages. When he learned that we were not stopping in Patras and could not be regarded as immediate business prospects, he ostentatiously consulted his watch, which he carried on a large steel chain attached to the lapel of his coat.
"I must meet other clients," he said, replacing his watch and then pulling it out again. " Do you like my watch? It is a very fine one. I bought it in Paris and paid three hundred and seventy-five francs. It tells me that I am already late and I must go. Good-bye."
At Pyrgos we left the main Iine and made the final twelve miles on a small branch railway. This little train was so crowded that we could find accommodations only in an empty baggage van, which had but a single window and was illuminated by a smoky lantern.
At nine o'clock we reached Olympia and the train emptied. A young man was waiting on the platform with a lantern formed of a candle enclosed in glass. He was the courier of the Grand Hotel Chemin de Fer and he was attended by a porter who had a pushcart for the luggage. The guests were assembled around the dim beacon. Preceded by the lantern and followed by the cart, we marched away into the night. .
I had but the vaguest impression of our surroundings. For a time we walked amid trees and at length we climbed a steep hill, bringing up at last before the inn. It is the property of the Peloponnesus Rail-road and is managed by an old Frenchman and his son, who had been our pilot from the station. Dinner had been held pending the arrival of the train, and in severely plain but clean surroundings we enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Greece.
This was the establishment which the Swedish scholar had said was good, but without luxury. It was a just description. There was no lounge and the oil lamps and candles made so dim a light that I could not read. The chamber was clean, but bare. Two iron beds, a chair and a washstand comprehended the furnishings, and one candle supplied the light. Nothing remained but to go immediately to bed, and listening to the soothing chorus of the frogs in the near-by river Cladeus, I was eventually lulled to sleep.
The morning was dull, with a threat of rain; but when I threw open the shutters the first glance convinced me that Olympia is one of the fairest spots in Greece. On an adjoining hill, but a few rods away, was the museum. just beyond the small river Cladeus flowed between high cut banks. Some distance to the south it joined the broad Alphaeus, which Hercules had once turned into the stables of King Augeus in the performance of one of his twelve labors. In the low ground, now well removed from the junction of the rivers, was the ancient Altis, the sacred grove of Olympia's treat days. Above rose the conical hill of Kronos, cohered with trees.
The aspect of the countryside was fresh and green, in pleasing contrast to the arid bareness of the regions in which we had been sojourning. The Alpheus has changed its course. Formerly it flowed directly past the Altis, but now it is removed from it by three hundred yards. It was ever a strange and tricky stream. I have mentioned the legend of Hercules. There is another of the love of Alpheus and Arethusa in which the river god, pursuing the nymph, carried the river beneath the sea, to rise in Sicily as the fountain of Arethusa. For all its vagaries it remains the chief river of the south and the principal outlet of the waters accumulating in the mountains and highlands of the Arcadian wilderness.
The museum is a credit to the generosity of Mr. Syngros. The side walls of the central hall are given over to the original sculptures from the pediments of the Temple of Zeus, and at one end is the Victory, of Paeonius, regarded by many as the equal of the larger Winged Victory, found in Samothrace. The subjects of the pediment groups are hackneyed, but of the highest interest and value. The composition taken from the west pediment occupies the right wall, and represents the fight of the Centaurs and Lapiths at the wedding of Perithous. In the center stands Apollo, prepared to stay the battle.
The east pediment shows the preparations for the chariot race between the young Pelops and King OEnomaus. The stake was a desperate one. Victory won for the challenger the hand of Hippodameiathe portion of defeat was death. The marble of Paros was used in the production of these figures, with the exception of the two in reclining posture at the ends of the west pediment. These are pentelican and the difference of material has led to the belief that they are not originals. Quite possibly the first statues were dislodged by a forgotten earthquake and the figures now existing are ancient copies with which they were replaced.
Both groups are greatly mutilated. On the whole the chariot race is the better preserved, but the Apollo from the west pediment is the most perfect individual figure. Above the knees there is little mutilation, and this is fortunate, since many critics regard it as the finest work done in Greece prior to the Golden Age.
The arrangement of the figures in their present positions is the reconstruction of Dr. Ernst Curtius, who was the moving spirit in all the work of excavation done at Olympia. For some years it was accepted as authentic, but Treu and other Germans have now cast doubt upon its accuracy. I pretend to no knowledge of such matters, but it is not apparent that any serious mistake has been made. The triangular form of the pediment allows no great latitude of treatment, and the figures, as Dr. Curtius has arranged them, bear a logical and satisfying relation to one another. Be this as it may we must gaze with reverence upon these ancient sculptures, ever conscious that they delighted eyes that were extinguished twenty-five centuries ago.
Near the entrance a small outhouse of wood and stucco gives protection to the most treasured statue now existing.
It is the Hermes of Praxiteles, the one work of an ancient master of the first order, whose authenticity has never been called into question. The circumstances of its discovery are of romantic interest. In the early seventies of the last century Dr. Curtius was able to interest the German Imperial family in the project of exploring the site of Olympia, and the sum of $200,000 was provided for the purpose. The actual digging consumed seven years and was concluded in 1881.
Pausanias, in the narrative of his memorable journey through Greece, describes his visit to Olympia in the year 175 A. D. In his account of the Herxum, possibly the. oldest of all Greek temples, he casually remarks that on a certain spot stood a statue of Hermes, holding the infant Dionysos in his arms, the work of Praxiteles. The Germans, going directly to the indicated place, unearthed the price-less treasure.
The preservation of this immortal figure is superb. Only the legs below the knees and the right arm from the elbow are missing. The remainder is almost as perfect as when it came fresh from the chisel of the master. The fine texture of the surface is one of its charms. The Venus of Melos, in the Louvre, is seriously pitted, but the delicate patina of the polished Hermes remains unmarred. The statue was undoubtedly thrown from its pedestal by earthquake and buried under the silt of many river floods.
No other sculptured figure is to me so noble, and when I reflected upon it and remembered that Praxiteles was not esteemed the first artist of Greece and this Hermes was but one of his minor works, I marveled at the standards of art that prevailed in the great days.
The god stands naked, bearing the infant on his left arm. There is some uncertainty as to the posture of the missing right hand, but the accepted belief is that it upheld a cluster of grapes for which the child was reaching. The symmetry of the head and the dreamy serenity of the expression mark the statue as a great work, though it had no ancient reputation such as the Aphrodite, the Eros and the Satyr, of the same artist. While the figure is developed in the round the back is in part unfinished, and was doubt-less used as a support in the original mounting.
One need not travel far in Greece to realize how proud of this masterpiece the country is. It has been reproduced many thousand times in every size, from the miniature to the colossal. In the better art stores it is always on sale. It figures in every display of photographs and post-cards. It adorns private mansions and a full-size copy was set up in our hotel.
The games celebrated in Olympia began in pre-historic times, and it became the custom to reckon the passing of time by the quadrennia of the games. The first authentic reference to the Olympic Festival carries us back to the year 776 B. C., and this is the earliest recognized date in the history of the Greek people.
Although no prize was ever given except the simple wreath of olive leaves, a victory was the most coveted of distinctions. The heroes were honored by sculpture and verse and practically all the Pindaricodes that have survived were written to commemorate the feats of winners.
In yet another way the Olympic games encouraged art. It was the custom of athletes to train and compete in absolute nudity, and the opportunity thus afforded to study the forms of the finest youth of the country is believed to have greatly aided the sculptors in their reproductions of the human body.
The remains of the Altis are too extensive to de-scribe in detail. Of the temples, palaces and memorials not much remains except the foundations. There are later ruins of Byzantine walls, and a church; but these, I think, give a slightly discordant touch to the ancient scene. The Heraeum dated back to very remote times, and a temple of Hera stood on the site in a period when no better materials were used than timbers and sun-baked clay. In the museum there is an archaic head of the goddess believed to be from the statue that the early temple was built to protect. In examining Greek temples it must always be remembered that they were merely the houses of the gods and they were erected as sanctuaries for their statues.
A portion of the pedestal on which the Hermes stood remains near the foundation wall nearest Kronos Hill. A German scholar, whose name and attainments are unknown to me, but who was treated with great deference by his fellow countrymen, pointed out the spot.
The Temple of the Olympian Zeus adjoined the Heraeum and was of far greater size. The stylobate is intact, but little else remains. The material from which these buildings were constructed is very inferior to the marbles of Athens. It is a native lime-stone, rich in shells, and even the large blocks are tending to disintegration.
The gold and ivory statue of the Olympian Zeus, which this temple contained, is believed to have been the greatest work of Pheidias and the supreme masterpiece of all sculpture. Its fate is clouded in mystery. There is a possibility that it was destroyed by a fire in the temple, but the Byzantine writer, Kedrenos, asserts that it was carried to Constantinople and set up in the palace of Mausos, which was burned in the year 475 A. D.
In this figure Pheidias is said to have reflected the true Homeric conception of the King of Gods and Men. There is ample evidence of the impression it produced on all beholders. The unsentimental Roman, Amelius Paulus, said that it surpassed his highest expectations and the more emotional Dio Chrysotom asserted that a single view of this figure sufficed to make a man forget the hardships and the sorrows of his life.
The stadium has never been excavated and the ground over it now lies twenty feet above the Altis. The seats were established on one slope of Kronos Hill, but on the other side they were of necessity artificial. A field of wheat now covers the site and in its midst is a solitary tree. Whether the stadium will ever be excavated is a question that only the future can answer. The task would be enormous and it is improbable that anything found would repay the expenditure. In any case there are many more promising situations still unexplored and the archaeologists will wish to deal with them first.
We were joined in our ramble by the official care-taker, a thick-set man in rough clothes. He produced a letter which he prized highly' and insisted that I read. His purpose was soon apparent. The lady had sent him a gift. When we departed he requested my address, and some weeks after my return I received from him two long letters. The most important paragraph ran:
I love you as a father. I love you as a brother. When you write to me do not forget to send an American dollar or two."
We traveled up to Patras in company with Professor Westfall, of Princeton, and his family. It was a slow journey, broken only by a long wait at Pyrgos —a town in which I failed to find any evidence of the progress and animation described by earlier writers. I had occasion to open one of my bags on the station platform and was immediately surrounded by a large and interested company, eager to see what my luggage contained.
We were once more in Patras, this time destined to spend the night in one of her hotels. Scholars, who in other days were compelled to tour Greece on mule-back and to put up in the comfortless village khans, or the vermin-infested hovels of the mountaineers, were accustomed to speak in praise of the luxuries of Patras. We were given a large double room at the Royal, looking out on Saint Nicholas Street; but the mechanical piano in the picture theatre across the way and the conversations of the crowds in the coffee houses below precluded sleep until nearly 2 A. M. During the night I was awakened by a stinging sensation in the leg, which in my innocence I attributed to an attack of hives. It was my first and only acquaintance with cimex lectularius, once the terror of every wayfarer in Greece.
George Zafiropoulos again took us under his protecting wing, and appeared next morning with an American motor car. We saw all the sights of the town, including some really pleasant suburban villas and a large picture palace on the second floor of a garage. Crossing the dry bed of a wide river we ascended the foothills to the plant of the Achaia Wine Company. It is a truly charming place, with a view that includes the islands, the mountains and the sea. This institution is one of the most famous in Greece and is the source not only of the popular Domestica, but of some of the richest and fruitiest desert wines I have ever seen.
The superintendent acted as our host and took pride in his rare vintages. The " Imperial Mavrodaphne " produced here is of heavier body and finer bouquet than any other wine of the world, and one great cask bore this inscription:
"The Princess Alexandra, of England, drank from this cask in the year 1890."
Not long ago she died—the widow of King Edward the Seventh and the Queen Mother of England.
The ship was very late and we joined the crowd in the cafe at the end of the Patras pier. It was a lovely spot, and around the harbor circled a graceful sailboat—the only pleasure craft I saw in Greece. As we sat there, lost in enjoyment of the soft air and the blue waters, a steamship entered the harbor. That night, from the deck of the Washington, we bade farewell to the ancient land of Greece.