Julia Rosario on the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

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The east pediment of the temple displays the chariot race between King Oinomaus and Pelops, the thirteenth suitor to strive for the hand of Hippodamia, the king’s daughter. Pelops had to race against Oinomaus whose chariot was drawn by immortal horses.[1] Although Pelops bribed the king’s charioteer to replace the metal lynch-pins for wax, Pelops still receives the endorsement of Zeus himself; the turn of the god’s body and neck show that he will favor Pelops.[2]

Pindar wrote:

We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not?

The dream of a shadow is man, no more. But when brightness

comes, and the gods give it, there is a shining light on man,

and his life is sweet. Pythian 8.95-98

This poem suggests that those who receive divine favor may be forgiven for certain indiscretions if the gods approve. In the case of Pelops, Zeus overlooked his cheating. The pediment and poem remind man of divine power out of his control, and which can affect an entire outcome – as with Oinomaus, who had divine advantages but was overthrown by Pelops.

In another ode, Pindar wrote:

Two blessings only can nurse the dearest gift of life …

If a man knows success and hears his glory proclaimed abroad.

Seek not to become Zeus. The best is yours if the hand of fate

grants to you these things: for mortals, mortal gifts are fitting. Isthmian 5.12-16

Pindar means to remind listeners to avoid hubris. To receive divine favor is one thing, but do not abuse your gift and the power given. Oinomaus has abused his powers by creating a deadly race. In the pediment he is proudly puffed up, filled with pride and acting god-like. Athletes should take note: stay humble, because to abuse the gift of success could lead to your end.

The pediment illustrates anticipation and excitement. It evokes the thrill of succeeding through competition, along with its challenges and sacrifices, and the possibility of divine blessing. Zeus, standing tall, ensures that those who are filled with hubris, like Oinomaus, will fall.

[1] Bernard Ashmole, Architect and Sculptor in Classical Greece . New York: New York University Press, 1972, p. 24.

[2] Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2012, p. 228.