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Historical Landmarks: The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Updated on June 11, 2017

One of the astonishing structures of classical antiquity is the Statue of Zeus. Built primarily to honor the King of Greek Gods and Goddesses, this humongous figure of the Greek God of Thunder was housed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece – where the competition and game events of the well-known (ancient) Olympics first took place. The Statue of Zeus, like most of the Ancient Wonders (except the Great Pyramid of Giza) had gone through, had not survived to the present day. It is principally believed to have been destroyed by a fire around 5th and 6th centuries AD. Primary accounts containing enriched descriptions about the Statue of Zeus as well as the compliments of the people who have (luckily) seen this astounding structure are enough evidence to note this famous “masterpiece” a true “wonder of the ancient world”.

How Ancient Olympics led the construction of Temple of Zeus?

Color engraving by Ferdinand Knab/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images
Color engraving by Ferdinand Knab/The Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images | Source
  • The Olympics, a Panhellenic festival, is a central celebration in the ancient Greece. Nowadays, it gains its reputation as the most prestigious and renowned game event in the whole world.
  • Commemorated every four years to honor the Greeks’ great King of Gods - Zeus, the event was first participated by Greek athletes coming from the Athens, Sparta and other Greek city-states. It was then later joined by athletes residing from the distant lands of Syria, Egypt etc.
  • Foot race, horse-racing, wrestling and boxing, discus and javelin throw were some of the games played in the ancient Olympics.
  • All of these games were played by the athletes in nude – covering their bodies with oil.
  • Married women were then not allowed to watch the games. Those who dared to do so were charged with deathly consequence.
  • Athletes who proved to be victorious in the competition were laid with laurel of wild olives on their heads, also given the right to erect a statue at Olympia.
  • The first ever concluded Olympic Games dated back in 776 BC.

The event was traditionally held at Olympia where a shrine to Zeus is located. Overtime, the event had attracted many highly competitive athletes and had gained great significance which demanded for a construction of a much larger temple – which known to become the “Temple of Zeus”.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The temple was as tall as 4-story building, was stretched 210 feet high (64 meters) from the surface and was maintained by 72 Doric columns. Thirteen large columns were set up along the sides to support the roof. A total of 12 larger columns, 6 each at the front and back of the temple, were also raised for the same purpose. Sculpted images showing the 12 labors of Heracles (Greek mythology, demi-god, son of Zeus) filled the pediments of the said temple.

The Temple of Zeus was built following the design used in constructing the Parthenon in Athens and Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Though, well-thought-out as being splendid of its construction, the temple was thought of being unworthy of the Greek god king. This then raised the idea of making a stunning statue for the interior depicting the Greek god of thunder - Zeus.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Phidias, an Athenian sculptor, painter and architect was the man tasked of the construction of the Statue of Zeus. Perhaps considered as the greatest Greek sculptor of the classical times, this man had also formerly constructed the statue of Athena (the Greek Goddess of Wisdom) sited in the Parthenon in Athens.

 The supposed workshop of Phidias at Olympia, where it is said he fashioned the cryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The supposed workshop of Phidias at Olympia, where it is said he fashioned the cryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. | Source

The construction of the statue of Zeus began in 435 BC (450 BC in other accounts). It was actually made on a wooden framework masked in ivory and gold. The statue of Zeus was seated on a distinguished throne richly carved with precious stones. Measured 22 feet wide and more than 40 feet (12 meters) high, the statue was so tall that according to Strabo (historian and geographer), the statue would “unroofed the temple” if it were bring into life and move to stand up.

More detailed description of the statue was documented by the traveler Pausanias, as stated:

"On his head is a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In his right hand he holds a figure of Victory made from ivory and gold... In his left hand, he holds a scepter inlaid with every kind of metal, with an eagle perched on the scepter. His sandals are made of gold, as is his robe. His garments are carved with animals and with lilies. The throne is decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory."

Cause of Destruction

Until now, the cause which led to the eventual loss of the famed “wonder” remains uncertain. According to the Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos, the statue was carried off to Constantinople, bought by a wealthy Greek art collector Lausus to be part of his collection. There, it was believed to have been destroyed by a great fire (in year 475 AD).

Varying accounts stated that the Statue of Zeus was still in the Temple at Olympia where it was burned down in year 425 AD.

Brief History

  • During 170 BC, an earthquake trembled over the location of the temple. The Statue of Zeus was partially damaged but was eventually restored.
  • During the 4th century AD, Emperor Constantine commanded that pagan shrines must be shredded of its carved gold – the Temple of Zeus was no exception.
  • In 391 BC, the celebration of the Olympic Games was banned by the Emperor Theodosius I who deemed that the event is no different to pagan practices.

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      5 years ago

      Thanks for incnidutorg a little rationality into this debate.


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