The Statue of Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was located near the western coast of Greece near the city of Olympia within the region called Peloponnese. The Temple of Zeus was created first and later, inside the temple, the Statue of Zeus was built.
On a location near Ancient Olympia was the Sanctuary of Zeus also known as the Altis. The Altis, or sacred grove, was a place where people could go to worship the gods of ancient times. It held many different worship centers including the Temple of Zeus, altars, treasuries, and many other buildings. The Greeks wanted to please the highest of gods named Zeus. One way of honoring Zeus was to hold a ceremony for athletic competitions. In the year of 776 BC, the first recorded Olympic Games were held between competitors from other regions in the area.
The Olympic Games were held every four years creating the term “Olympiad”. When the Olympic Games were to be held, there was a truce throughout the Greek world. Messengers would travel the region announcing the time period when the competitions were to begin and end. All fighting was to cease during this time so that athletes from all regions would have safe travel to and from the competitions. Only athletes who could speak the Greek language and who were free men were able to participate in the competitions.
In 400 BC, Hippias of Elis had gathered historical data from the past Olympic Games. He listed the only game held from 776 BC through 724 BC was the 200 yard dash. Additional games were added in future years and by 408 BC, there were a total of eleven games which included the Pentathlon (added in 708 BC), Wrestling (added in 708 BC) and Races in Armor (added in 520 BC).
Around the year 470 BC, the Greeks decided to begin construction on a magnificent temple for Zeus within the Altis. The construction of the temple began around 470 BC and was completed around 450 BC. The temple was designed by Libon of Elis, a Greek architect.
The beautiful, rectangular shaped temple consisted of massive columns along each side. There were eleven columns located along the sides and six columns at each end. The columns supported the artistically sculptured roof over the top of the temple. After the temple was completed, the Statue of Zeus was designed to be located near the back end of the temple.
The Statue of Zeus was designed and built by Pheidias, a Greek sculptor. Pheidias was chosen for this project because he had completed other magnificent works such as the statue of the goddess of Athena located in the Parthenon. Pheidias began working on the Statue of Zeus around the year of 435 BC. The statue was completed in about 12 years.
The Statue of Zeus was seated on a beautifully carved throne near the rear of the Temple of Zeus. The statue was 22 feet wide (approximately 6.70 meters) and 40 feet tall (approximately 12 meters). Pheidias used a special technique in creating the statue called chryselephantine. The process involved creating an object out of inferior materials such as wood and overlaying that material with ivory for flesh, gold and other magnificent jewels for additional regal decorations.
In his right hand, Zeus held a form of Nike, the winged goddess of victory. The left hand of Zeus held a jeweled scepter of which an eagle sat on top. Pheidias placed upon the head of Zeus a sculpted olive wreath in the form of olive sprays.
The impressive throne was stunning as it was finished with gold, ivory, ebony and a variety of precious jewels. The detailed carvings in the legs of the throne included mythical pictures of gods and animals.
It was recorded that some people felt the statue was excessive compared to the temple. The head of Zeus almost touched the ceiling and it was said that if Zeus were to stand up, his head would lift the roof of the temple. Others stated that the proportions were exactly correct as the size of Zeus portrayed his magnificence and importance of the time.
Pausanias, Pheidias’ student who also worked on the Statue of Zeus, wrote that after the statue was completed, Pheidias asked for a sign from Zeus showing he was happy with the statue. Soon thereafter, Zeus had responded by striking the temple with a lightning bolt but allowing no damage to be done to either the temple or the statue. It was also stated that if a troubled man stood in front of the Statue of Zeus, all his troubles would be forgotten.
To this day, there are discrepancies as to how and where the Statue of Zeus was destroyed. One suggestion lists the Roman Emperor Theodosius I (379 AD to 395 AD) ordered all the Greek statues be destroyed because of their pagan affiliations. Another account stated that Theodosius II ordered all the temples to be destroyed and that perhaps the Statue of Zeus was destroyed at that time or was moved to Constantinople and was destroyed by a fire which occurred around 475 AD.
There have been many archeologists trying to find the location of Pheidias’ workshop. In the early 19th century, some French researchers located parts of the Temple of Zeus. Later in the 19th century, German archeologists located more areas of the temple. During the mid 1950’s, Pheidias’ workshop was discovered through excavation work by other German archaeologists. Items which have been found included terracotta molds, sculptors tools, and a wine cup inscribed on the bottom stating “I am [the property of] Pheidias”.
Quick Facts & Figures
Temple Construction Start: 470 BC
Temple Construction Ended: 450 BC
Temple Architect: Libon of Elis
Zeus Construction Start: 435 BC
Zeus Construction Ended: 422 BC
Zeus Designer: Pheidias