Statue of Zeus at Olympia

One of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

 Culture Club/Getty Images

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was a 40-foot-high, ivory and gold, seated statue of the god Zeus, king of all the Greek gods. Located in the sanctuary of Olympia on the Greek Peloponnese Peninsula, the Statue of Zeus stood proudly for over 800 years, overseeing the ancient Olympic Games and being acclaimed as one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Sanctuary of Olympia

Olympia, located near the town of Elis, was not a city and it had no population, that is, except for the priests that took care of the temple. Instead, Olympia was a sanctuary, a place where members of the warring Greek factions could come and be protected. It was a place for them to worship. It was also the place of the ancient Olympic Games.

The first ancient Olympic Games was held in 776 BCE. This was an important event in the history of the ancient Greeks, and its date -- as well as the foot-race winner, Coroebus of Elis -- was a basic fact known by all. These Olympic Games and all that came after them, occurred in the area known as the Stadion, or stadium, in Olympia. Gradually, this stadium became more elaborate as the centuries passed by.

So did the temples located in the nearby Altis, which was a sacred grove. Around 600 BCE, a beautiful temple was built to both Hera and Zeus. Hera, who was both the goddess of marriage and the wife of Zeus, was seated, while a statue of Zeus stood behind her. It was here that the Olympic torch was lit in ancient times and it is also here that the modern Olympic torch is lit.

In 470 BCE, 130 years after the Temple of Hera was built, work began on a new temple, which was to become famous around the world for its beauty and wonder.

The New Temple of Zeus

After the people of Elis won the Triphylian war, they used their spoils of war to build a new, more elaborate temple at Olympia. Construction on this temple, which would be dedicated to Zeus, began around 470 BCE and was done by 456 BCE. It was designed by Libon of Elis and centered in the middle of the Altis.

The Temple of Zeus, considered a prime example of Doric architecture, was a rectangular building, built upon a platform, and oriented east-west. On each of its long sides were 13 columns and its shorter sides held six columns each. These columns, made of local limestone and covered with white plaster, held up a roof made of white marble.

The exterior of the Temple of Zeus was elaborately decorated, with sculpted scenes from Greek mythology on the pediments. The scene over the entrance of the temple, on the east side, depicted a chariot scene from the story of Pelops and Oenomaus. The western pediment depicted a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs.

The inside of the Temple of Zeus was much different. As with other Greek temples, the interior was simple, streamlined, and meant to showcase the statue of the god. In this case, the statue of Zeus was so spectacular that it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

Inside the Temple of Zeus sat a 40-foot-tall statue of the king of all Greek gods, Zeus. This masterpiece was designed by the famous sculptor Phidius, who had previously designed the large statue of Athena for the Parthenon. Unfortunately, the Statue of Zeus no longer exists and so we rely on the description of it left us by second century CE geographer Pausanias.

According to Pausanias, the famous statue portrayed a bearded Zeus sitting upon a royal throne, holding a figure of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, in his right hand and a scepter topped with an eagle in his left hand. The entire seated statue rested upon a three-foot-high pedestal.

It was not the size that made the Statue of Zeus unequaled, although it was definitely large, it was its beauty. The entire statue was made from rare materials. Zeus’s skin was made out of ivory and his robe was made up of plates of gold that were intricately decorated with animals and flowers. The throne was also made of ivory, precious stones, and ebony.

The regal, godlike Zeus must have been amazing to behold.

What Happened to Phidius and the Statue of Zeus?

Phidius, the designer of the Statue of Zeus, fell out of favor after he finished his masterpiece. He was soon jailed for the offense of placing his own and his friend Pericles’ images within the Parthenon. Whether these charges were true or trumped up by political disfavor is unknown. What is known is that this master sculptor died in prison while waiting for trial.

Phidius’ Statue of Zeus fared much better than its creator, at least for 800 years. For centuries, the Statue of Zeus was carefully cared for -- oiled regularly to avoid damage done by the humid temperatures of Olympia. It remained a focal point of the Greek world and oversaw hundreds of Olympic Games that occurred next to it.

However, in 393 CE, Christian Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games. Three rulers later, in the early fifth century CE, Emperor Theodosius II ordered the Statue of Zeus destroyed and it was set on fire. Earthquakes destroyed the rest of it.

There have been excavations done in Olympia that have not only revealed the base of the Temple of Zeus, but the workshop of Phidius, including a cup that once belonged to him.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Statue of Zeus at Olympia." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2023, April 5). Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Statue of Zeus at Olympia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).