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The Temple of Zeus and the Statue of Zeus in ancient Olympia

31 Aug 2014
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Without a doubt the temple of Zeus in ancient Olympia was the greatest and most important of all the monuments in the Sacred Altis. Built in the centre of the Altis, the temple of Zeus was a symbol of the religion that united all the Greeks and dominated with its imposing and brightening presence the grove of Sacred Altis.



Year of the construction of the temple of Zeus

The temple of Zeus was the work of the Elian architect Livon and it was constructed in the 5th century BC. Specifically, the construction began around 470 BC, after the reorganization of the state of Elis, using the spoils the city had got from the wars with the neighboring town of Pisa and Trifyllia. The construction lasted fifteen years and it was finally completed in 456 BC.

Architectural information of the temple of Zeus

The temple of Zeus was considered as the most perfect expression of the doric order and it was actually used as a model in the way the doric temples in ancient Greece were built. The temple of Zeus, which was oriented from east to west, was built on an artificially elevated base and there was a ramp leading to its entrance. The dimensions of the giant temple of Zeus were 64.12 meters long, 27.68 meters wide and its overall height was 20.25 meters.
The temple of Zeus was “peripteros”, which means that it was surrounded by columns, six columns in width and thirteen in length. In the middle there was the main part of the temple, which was divided into three parts: the “pronaos” was on on the east side just after the entrance, the “opisthodomos” on the back to the west and the “sikos” in the middle, which was the inner shrine. The basic material used for the temple was the limestone (a hard porous stone taken from the banks of the Alpheus River). However, it was coated with white marble mortar and colors, giving the impression that it was made of marble. But for the pediments, the “metopes” and the tiling of the temple of Zeus was indeed used the white marble of Paros.


Some of the basic decorative elements of the temple of Zeus

On the pediments of the temple of Zeus one could admire various mythical representations. On the eastern pediment there was a composition depicting the chariot race between the Lydian prince Pelops and the king of Pisa, Oinomaos (who wanted to marry his daughter, Hippodamia with the winner of the race). In the center of the pediment was standing Zeus, who would be the judge of the competition. Whereas on the western pediment there was a representation of the battle between the Lapithes and the Centaurs, in which the mythical ancient Greek hero Theseas took part. In this one, god Apollo is standing in the middle. In the twelve metopes at the cornice of the temple of Zeus, six of them above the entrance to the pronaos and six over opisthodomos, the twelve labours of Hercules were depicted. The compositions of both the pediments and the metopes are attributed to one yet unknown so far artist.

The pronaos and the opisthodomos of the temple of Zeus

Just before entering the pronaos, somewhere to the right, they used to place a table made of gold and ivory, upon which they set the olive wreaths for the crowning of the ancient Olympic winners. The pronaos was decorated with many statues the most impressive of which was the one depicting Ifitos, the founder the ancient Greek Olympic Games. In the back part of the temple of Zeus, the opisthodomos, there was a long stone bench used for lectures by various orators and philosophers.


The “sikos” of the temple of Zeus and the "miracle" inside the temple

Having already admired the outer part and the details of the magnificent temple of Zeus, and after going through the pronaos and entering the “sikos” the inner part, the visitors would stand in front of one of the greatest masterpieces of the era: the statue of Zeus.
The impressive statue of Zeus was made by the famous ancient Greek sculptor Phidias and his two assistants, the painter Panainos and the sculptor Kolotis. Unfortunately, there is no part of the statue of Zeus preserved nowadays (except a few parts of the base). Nevertheless, we have been able to depict the statue of Zeus through the detailed description of the ancient Greek writer Pausanias and also same coins of Elis, that represented the head of Zeus on the one side and the entire statue on the other.

Description of the statue of Zeus

The statue of Zeus, which was set on a pedestal, depicted the god sitting on a throne crowned with an olive branch and wearing a mantle draped over his shoulder and falling at his feet covering his shins. In his right hand he held a small statue of Niki, goddess of victory, and in the left a scepter with an eagle on the top, symbolizing the god’s sovereignty.
The framework of the statue of Zeus was made of wood on which plates of gold and ivory were fastened. Specifically, the uncovered parts of the body and face of the statue of Zeus were made of ivory whereas the hair, the beard, the mantle, the sandals, the statue of Niki and the scepter were all made of gold.
The throne and the podium were decorated with legendary representations, gods, heroes made of gold, ebony, ivory and precious stones. At the footrest there were two carved golden lions and a representation of the battle of Theseus with the Amazons.
Ιn the floor in front of the statue of Zeus there was a shallow tank. According to Pausanias, they used to pour oil in the tank with which some specified workers responsible for the preservation of the statue, the “faidryntai” anointed the statue. Also, under the feet of the statue of Zeus there was a sign saying that the statue was the work of Phidias, son of the Athenian Charmides.
The statue of Zeus along with the pedestal was 12 m tall, about seven times greater than a normal person. The statue caused such amazement to anyone who saw it that it was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus actually said that everyone should visit ancient Olympia to see the work of Phidias, because it would be a tragedy for someone to die without having seen it.

The workshop of Phidias

For the construction of the statue of Zeus a special building was erected to the west of the temple of Zeus, the workshop of Phidias. The workshop had exactly the same dimensions with the inner shrine of the temple, in order to help Phidias to have a better sense of the space and the proportions that should be used.
In the laboratory various tools of iron, copper, ivory, amber, clay molds were found in the laboratory, all of which helped defining the exact dating of the statue of Zeus. The most important of these findings was a small wine-jug at the bottom of which Phidias inscribed the phrase "PΗΙDIO EIMI" which means "I belong to Phidias".
Later, after Phidias had completed the construction of the statue of Zeus, the workshop was used as a warehouse for objects connected with the care of the statue and also as a residence of the “faidryntes".

The year of the construction and the destruction of the statue of Zeus

According to the calculations, the statue of Zeus must have been set on the podium around 430 BC and stayed there until 395 AD, ie a long period of nine centuries. After the abolition of the ancient Greek Olympic Games, the statue of Zeus was moved to Constantinople, where it was burned in a fire in 475 AD. Besides, long before its complete destruction it had been seriously damaged as the byzantine emperor Constantine I ordered to remove pieces of gold and precious stones of the statue.

Rumors about the statue of Zeus

It was said that when Phidias constructed the statue of Zeus in his workshop in ancient Olympia, he was hidden behind the door waiting to see the reactions of people who saw the statue for the first time. When a macedonian poet named Philip saw the statue, after admiring it for some time, said to Phidias "Phidias, either Zeus came down from Olympus and showed you his divine face or you ascended to Olympus and you saw him!”.
In addition, according to some reports, as Phidias wanted god Zeus himself to like his creation, he asked him to give him a sign. Then Zeus replied by throwing a thunderbolt showing him that way how pleased he was.

Consequently, whoever visited ancient Olympia not only would he be able to attend the ancient Olympic Games but he would as well have the chance to admire the various monuments and buildings in the Sacred Altis, the most of which were the famous temple of Zeus and also the marvelous statue of Zeus, one of the most amazing masterpieces of the ancient world.


Dimi NtouranidouWritten by Dimi Ntouranidou


Graduate teacher of Greek literature (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Literary editor of publications, Responsible for writing articles about the ancient Olympic Games   


Images of the ancient Greek Olympic Games blog are taken from the Ancient Greek Olympic Games Comic. In the Ancient Olympic Games Comic you will find much more about the ancient Olympic Games while having fun reading a wonderful comic story. You can download a sample episode of the comic here.









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