Orestes in Olympia

CHS–International Olympic Academy Pre-doc Fellow in Sport and Society 2020–21

In Euripides’ Electra, Orestes comes to Argos from Phokis to exact revenge from his father’s murderer, Aegisthus, to whom he poses as a Thessalian on a pilgrimage to Olympia. This project, Orestes in Olympia, consists of a description and analysis of the hero’s journey, if he had been indeed a traveler from Thessaly to Olympia. In this drama, Euripides mentions many locations, which, if put them in order, show a route from Thessaly to Olympia. My hypothesis is that the all the places mentioned as part of this route, would be necessary stops for resting and getting supplies. It is possible that this imaginary route of Orestes and Pylades represented the main road for the inhabitants of the Eastern Greece and the islands of the Aegean, who travelled to Elis. 

Although this hypothetical journey starts from Thessaly, I focus mainly on its section in  the Peloponnese. The starting point is Athens, where the trial and acquittal of Orestes takes place, as also mentioned by Castor in the play’s exodos (1254-72). The duration of the journey from Athens to Olympia was about eight days and depended on many factors such as the weather conditions, the means of transport or the traveler’s age (Crowther 2001). Xenophon mentions that the travel from Athens to Olympia usually took six days (Xenophon Memorabilia 3.13.5). 

The trip by land from Athens through Eleusis and Megara was possibly more difficult than sailing directly to Corinth, because of the mountainous passage of Scironian Rocks (Casson 1974). Nevertheless, Corinth was the first Peloponnesian town the travelers would encounter, the entrance point to the Peloponnese from mainland Greece. It seems that Euripides makes an extended reference to Corinth in the first stasimon of Electra (458-75), where he is describing the artistic monuments around the marketplace of the city.  In particular, the Spring of Peirene, mentioned indirectly in line 475, was the emblem of the city and Euripides describes it in detail in this choral song (Engels 1990, Fowler 1932). 

Passing through Mycenae and Argos the traveler would reach the famous Lerna, near Argos, where I assume that Euripides places Electra’s house. That land was also known as “Amymone’s Springs.” Ιn Electra‘s second strophe, we find a reference to ξηραί τ’ Ἀμμωνίδες ἕδραι (“dry Ammon’s temples”) in line 734, instead of which I suggest the correction to ξηρὰν τ’ Ἀμυμώνιαν ἕδραν (‘‘Amymone’s dry temple’’), restoring the meaning and the metrical correlation with verse 744 in the second antistrophe. It was possibly the final stop before starting to climb the mountainous passages of Arcadia.  The towns of Hysiae and Tegea, near which Agamemnon’s old servant is located with his flock, are possibly the next two places  where the traveler would have to spend the night. 

Oresteion is the next town where is it mentioned in Electa, named by the hero himself, where Orestes has to hide himself after Clytemnestra’s death as Castor prophesizes in the play’s Exodos (1273-5). The remaining journey to Olympia would take about two days and the best option was to follow the mountain passages next to Lykaion Mountain. The town of Bassai, near Mt Lykaion, and the newly built temple of Epicourios Apollo there, would be the last stop before reaching Olympia. The eighth day the traveler would arrive to Olympia, the final destination. 

I argue that Euripides visited Olympia during the Games at least once. It is possible that he visited Olympia in 416 BCE, when Alcibiades won the chariot race. As we know, Euripides composed an epinician for Alcibiades’ victory, although we don’t know when and where it was first performed (Gribble 2012, Bowra 1960). The hypothetical route described in Electra was perhaps the route Euripides took to visit Olympia at least once during his life. It would appear that the poet incorporated in this play the impressions, images, and memories from his journey. If this the case, we may consider 416 BCE the terminus post quem for the performance of Euripides’ Electra.

In the play, some places or towns are referred to with their own names, but many others are mentioned in an indirect way, like the town of Corinth, which is mentioned through a reference to the Peirenean horse, one of the city’s best known landmarks. This was the first stage of my project, to identify the indirectly referred to places by using ancient sources and archaeological evidence. The second was to show and describe the route in order, given that Euripides mentions the various toponyms places in an unusual order: Athens is mentioned in the Exodos, and Corinth in the second stasimon. Finally, the most important task was to check the accuracy of this route by using ancient and modern travelers’ accounts as well as modern bibliography. 

For the purposes of this study, I have grouped the sources in three categories: ancient texts and archaeological evidence, travelers’ accounts from antiquity until modern era, and modern bibliography. Ancient writers such as Pausanias and Strabo were very useful mainly for the description of lost monuments, such as the statue of Hermes and Phaethon in the Corinthian market, which I believe that is referred to in the second choral song. Ancient texts give also a lot of  information about pathways, carriageways and routes followed by armies, merchants, and pilgrims. 

The accounts of medieval and modern travelers were also valuable sources because they describe with detail the route I suggest and confirm the continuity of its use until recent years. Ancient routes remained in use for millennia, and travelers followed itineraries similar to the one described in Electra up until the late 19th century, when infrastructure changed. Similarly, means of transport in Greece remained the same on account of the mountainous terrain in both mainland and islands. For example in 1891, Spyridon Paganelis travelled as a tourist from Athens to the Peloponnese. He took the boat from Piraeus to Kalamaki, next to ancient Kenchreai, one of the two Corinthian harbors. Next he followed the suggested route in my paper to reach Olympia. He narrates with details his trip and more importantly confirm the correlations between ancient and modern toponyms (Paganelis 1908). Similarly Antonios Meliarakis followed the same route in 1886 identifying the places with Pausanias description (Meliarakis 1886). 

Third group includes modern sources. Very important among others are the referred works of Yannis Pikoulas, who has catalogued the remaining ancient paths in Peloponnese, and systematically has identified the ancient road-network of Peloponnese with the descriptions of the ancient sources (Pikoulas 2007, 2002, 1999). 

The initial thought for this paper came to when I hiked Olympia from Athens in the summer of 2020. I followed the mountainous roads from Athens to Achaia and then through Arcadia, from where I reached my final destination, Olympia. A part of this road is mentioned by Castor as an alternative way in the Exodos of Euripides’ Electra (1285). Around that time, I submitted my fellowship application to CHS and IOA, and it was accepted.  

I am grateful for the opportunity offered to me by my CHS-IOA Predoctoral Fellowship in Sports and Society to access all the literary and bibliographical sources required for the completion of this project. I am also grateful for the opportunity to present my research at the CHS workshop in Nafplion in August 2021, and at the 10th International Scholar’s Symposium in October 2021 remotely. Finally, I would like to thank all the members of the Center for Hellenic Studies with whom I have worked during my fellowship. I am particularly grateful to my CHS advisor, Professor Stamatia Dova, for her valuable feedback and kind guidance at all stages of this project. This fellowship has been a wonderfully enriching experience and I am looking forward to incorporating my research from this project into my doctoral dissertation. 

Select Bibliography 

Bowra, C. M., 1960. ‘‘Euripides’ Epinician for Alcibiades.’’ Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Jan., 9(1), pp. 68-79.

Casson, L., 1974. Travel in the Ancient World. Toronto: Hakkert.

Crowther, N., 2001. ‘‘Visiting the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece: Travel and Conditions for the Athletes and Spectators.’’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, 18(4), pp. 37-52.

Engels, D. 1990. Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Fowler, H. N., 1932. ‘‘Corinth and Corintia.’’ In: H. N. Fowler & R. Stillwell, eds. Corinth: Introduction, Topography, Architecture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 18-114.

Gribble, D., 2012, ‘‘Alcibiades at the Olympics: Performance, Politics and Civic Ideology.’’ The Classical Quarterly, 62(1), pp. 45-71.

Meliarakis (=Μηλιαράκης), A., 1886. Γεωγραφία Πολιτική του νομού Αργολίδος και Κορινθίας (Political Geography of Argos and Corinth). Athens: Βιβλιοπωλείον Εστίας -Τυπογραφείον Κορίννης.

Paganelis (= Παγανέλης) S., 1908. Ἀπὸ τῆς Ἀκροπόλεως εἰς τὴν Ἄλτιν. Νέα Ὑόρκη: Ἀτλαντίς.

Pikoulas (= Πίκουλας), Y. A., 2002. Αρκαδία: Συλλογή μελετών. Αθήνα: Horos.

Pikoulas, Y. A., 1999. ‘‘The Road-Network of Arkadia.’’ In: T. Heine Nielsen & J. Roy, eds. Defining Ancient Arkadia. Copenhagen: CPC, pp. 248-319.

Pikoulas, Y. A., 2007. ‘‘Travelling by Land in Ancient Greece.’’ In: C. Adams & R. Jim, eds. Travel, Geography and Culture in Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Near East. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 78-87.