Athens’s ancient stadium and its long history

More than a century ago, the first Olympic Games took place in Athens and the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, neglected for centuries, was reconstructed for that purpose, using public money and the generous donations of the nation’s patrons. Since then, the Panathenaic Stadium has been associated with the Olympic spirit. Fittingly, its history is the subject of a book that was recently published on the occasion of the forthcoming Olympic Games in a joint initiative by the General Secretariat of the Olympic Games at the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Historical and Ethnographic Association of Greece. Written by archaeologist and curator of the National Historical Museum Aristea Papanikolaou-Christensen, the book traces the history of the stadium from antiquity to the present through documents, rare photographs, drawings and prints. Located near the Ilissos River, the Panathenaic Stadium was first built during the reign of Lycurgus in 330 BC as one of a number of works (the construction of the Gymnasium and the renovation of the Long Walls were among them) that were to enhance the city’s status. Hadrian’s rule marked another important stage for the stadium. It was then, thanks to the sophist and orator Herodes Atticus, that the stadium was relaid with slabs of Pendelic marble. Slight changes were also made to its shape. After the fourth century AD, the Panathenaic Stadium gradually fell into complete disuse and neglect. Almost no written evidence of it has survived from the Byzantine period. Gradually parts of it became dismantled and the marble slabs were used in the construction of other buildings. The first concerted attempts to document the monument were carried out at the beginning of the 18th century. In their urban planning design for Athens, Stamatis Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert proposed that a main artery connect the palace (to be built in present-day Omonia Square) with the Panathenaic Stadium. Their plan was rejected and replaced by Leo Von Klenze’s plan of 1834. A few decades later, systematic archaeological excavation was conducted on the site. Ernst Ziller’s was probably the most important. The book contains a separate extensive chapter on Ziller’s excavations. The author leads the reader step by step through the stadium’s important stages. An extensive bibliography and notes reinforce the good work that has gone into this state-funded publication.