“Greeks kept the memory of victory over other Greeks" - The Olympian Nike of Paeonius

3 November 1879, a team of archaeologists discovered fragments of the head of the Nike of Paeonius 100 yards away from the site where the statue was excavated at Olympia.

“Greeks kept the memory of victory over other Greeks alive by every means possible. The less they had been able to overthrow or destroy an enemy permanently, the more lavish they made their tropaeum marking a victory over this enemy, so as to nettle him the more. The centers where the greatest communal festivals and divine worship took place were crammed with mementos of Greek victories over other Greeks. In Olympia, the Elians set up a tropaeum for repelling a Spartan attack, and in the temple of Zeus, directly under the Nike of Paeonius, hung the golden shield of the Lacedaemonian confederacy commemorating their victory at Tanagra over the Argives, Athenians, and Ionians.“ (Jakob Burkhardt, “History of Greek Culture”)

The Nike of Paeonius

During most of the time, ancient Olympia was a bit like out-of-season St Moritz or Lake Placid, posh architecture, nothing special going on, quiet, and the dogs slept in the middle of the street. Every four years, though, Hell was unleashed on the quiet sanctuary of Zeus in Elis, in the middle of nowhere of the western Peloponnese. Up to 40,000 people from all Greek city-states, athletes, priests, politicians and a host of camp followers, set forth to Olympia. The famous games, held in honour of Zeus, were important enough to become a unit of time in Greece, the Olympiads, and were as much a major political and religious event as they were a sports meeting. Hygienic conditions must have been disastrous since no one bothered to care for a proper infrastructure during the 1,000 years the games took place, not even the Romans, who at least constructed a fountain to ensure the potable water supply. In 160 CE. The antique author Aelian hands down a story of a landowner being angry with his slave, who threatened the wretch that he would not send him to the mills but take him along to Olympia. 

A 19th century imagination of Olympia

Since the Greek city-states were usually at war with themselves, benedictions to the gods were indeed a celebration of victory over their own neighbours and every major religious centre had so-called treasure houses were the related votive offerings were stored, in Delos, Dodona, Delphi, the “museum of hatred” as Burkhardt called it, as well as Olympia. The twelve treasure houses there stood north of the world-renowned temple of Zeus that housed one of the Seven Wonders, the giant statue of the deity created by Phidias and donated by Pericles and the Athenians, five years before the Peloponnesian War broke out. To the south of the temple, the Athenian allies, the Messenians and Naupactians, members of the Delian League, had the Nike of Paionios put up to commemorate their victory over the Spartans at the Battle of Sphacteria in 425 BCE, a memorable event insofar as it was one of the very few events when Spartans actually surrendered – in this case 440 survivors of another engagement, stranded on an island, who faced the Delian League’s rather superior numbers of 11,000 men. The Spartans had placed a clearly visible golden shield on the Temple of Zeus to celebrate their victory over  the Athenians at Tanagra 30 years before, and the Nike of Paeonius stood right at the opposite as an anathema in the original sense, a votive gift that was not to be touched. The Spartans won the Peloponnesian War nevertheless. After 27 years in 404 BCE.

Nike flying across a vase in typical a typical black-figure pottery painting

Nike was the Winged Goddess of Victory and Zeus’ divine charioteer. The deity was famed for flying over battlefields and distributing war glories and was one of the most popular images in Greek art. The creator of the statue, Paeonius of Mende, was probably a student of Phidias and a member of his workshop at Olympia. Maybe he had won a few awards for designing the frieze of the Temple of Zeus. His Nike is a masterpiece of sculpture of the classic period of Greek art at its climax. The 7’ statue with a wingspan of 9’ was, according to the antique travel writer Pausanias, mounted on 30’ pedestal, coloured blue to gave the statue the appearance of hovering over the site. Paeonius’ Nike stood in place for 800 years until Emperor Theodosius forbade all pagan ritual acts in 394 CE, including the Olympic Games and the site fell into ruin, suffered a couple of earthquakes and floodings, until Olympia was rediscovered by the English antiquarian Richard Chandler in 1766. Excavations began in 1875 by a German team of archaeologists led by Ernst Curtius and young Wilhelm Dörpfeld who continued to dig at Olympia until 1929. Paeonius Nike is now at Olympia’s Archaeological Museum and features prominently in the design of the medals awarded at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

The picture of the Nike above was found on


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