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Representations of Interstate Cooperation in the Archaic Treasuries at Olympia: A Constructivist’s Interpretation

Nicholas Cross

Queens College, CUNY

Between 600 and 480 B.C.E., ten Dorian Greek communities from across the Mediterranean world – six from the west (Syracuse, Epidamnus, Sybaris, Selinus, Metapontum, and Gela), one from the Propontis (Byzantium), one from north Africa (Cyrene), and two from the Greek mainland (Sicyon, Megara) – dedicated treasuries at Olympia. In the northern sector of the Altis, the treasury terrace (Schatzhausterrasse) overlooked the Sacred Road which connected the preexisting Temple of Hera to the west and the Stadium to the east. Ranging from 4.42 x 5.78 m (Treasury VIII) to 13.17 x 10.85 m (Treasury XII), each treasury displayed objects of a military, athletic, mythological, or religious nature. Why did the donors exhibit their objects in this way, and why at Olympia? What was it about this site, a place of competition and religious ceremony, that attracted such monuments? What messages were conveyed through these buildings, their location, and their inventories?

Questions such as these have occupied scholars ever since Ernst Curtius and Wilhelm Dörpfeld published the results of their Olympia excavations in the late nineteenth century. The treasuries have been characterized as “une offrande et comme un abri d’offrandes” (Roux 1984, 154), a means of elite display (Morgan 1990; Neer 2007, 225-264), “a permanent embassy, representing the . . . wealth of the cities that had built them” (Valavanis 2004, 63), “club houses” for visitors from the donating communities (Spivey 2012, 187), and an “‘international’ stage for architectural display and . . . a center for architectural innovation” (Klein 2016, 132). This paper engages with and builds upon this previous scholarship but proposes that the treasuries signified interstate cooperation between their donors.

Although it is tempting to compare the treasuries at Olympia with those at Delphi (Morgan 1990; Jacquemin 2003, 67-80; Mari 2006, 36-70; Scott 2010), a comparison which leads to interpretations of the treasuries at both sites as symbolic of interstate rivalries, this paper sees the ones at Olympia as emblematic of interstate cooperation in the Archaic period. The first half of the paper shows this through its exploration of the archaeological and literary evidence (Paus. 6.19.1-15; Ath. 9.479f-480a; Di Nanni 2012) for the architectural features, location, and inventories of the Olympic treasuries. Their relatively homogeneous architectural designs, their interactive grouping in an orderly, roughly equidistant line, and the similarity of (and transferability of) their inventories make it difficult to see the buildings engaging in a fundamentally agonistic display. Instead, when taken all together, the treasuries and their common elements of design, location, and inventory were visible expressions of interconnected political identities.

Having established the appearance and spatial dynamics of the treasuries, the paper proceeds in the second half to interpret this evidence in light of Constructivism (no relation to Constructivist Architecture of the early twentieth century), a relatively new political science model that sees relations between states as socially constructed through ideas and discourse (Zumbrunnen 2015, 296-312). When applied to the treasuries at Olympia, Constructivism illuminates the intersection of the buildings and the interstate political identities of their donors. While following many scholars who reject the Panhellenic ideology as a motivating factor  the building of the treasuries (Morgan 1990; Scott 2010; Spivey 2012), this paper’s Constructivist reading nonetheless argues that the treasuries were positioned in a collective dialogue with each other and with those who viewed them. For the majority of the donors, located far away from the mainland, investing in the development of Olympia, instead of in their own civic centers or their metropoleis, was a sign of their Greek identity and their treasuries communicated a collective political identity. In the Archaic period, Olympia, already a popular site for religious activity and athletic competition, became a conductor for interstate cooperation. By focusing on the competitive aspects in the athletics and architecture at Olympia, modern scholarship has neglected this important feature of the treasuries. This paper, with its interdisciplinary and innovative approach to the subject, fills in that gap.

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Monumental Expressions of Political Identity

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