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Statue of Zeus at Olympia
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the Statue of Zeus at Olympia

In ancient times the Greeks held one of their most important festivals, The Olympic Games, in honour of the King of their gods, Zeus. Like our modern Olympics, athletes travelled from distant lands, including Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Sicily, to compete in the games. The Olympics were first started in 776 B.C. and held at a shrine to Zeus located on the western coast of Greece in a region called Peloponnesus. The games, held every four years, helped to unify the Greek city-states. Sacred truce was declared during the games and wars were stopped. Safe passage was given to all travelling to the site, called Olympia, for the season of the games.

The site consisted of a stadium (for the games) and a sacred grove, or Altis, where temples were located. The shrine to Zeus was simple in the early years, but as time went by and the games increased in importance, it became obvious that a new, larger temple, one worthy of the King of the gods, was needed. Between 470 and 460 B.C., construction on a new temple was started. The designer was Libon of Elis and his masterpiece, The Temple of Zeus, was completed in 456 B.C..

This temple followed a design used on many large Grecian temples. It was similar to the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The temple was built on a raised, rectangular platform. Thirteen large columns supported the roof along the sides and six supported it on each end. A gently-peaked roof topped the building. The triangles, or "pediments," created by the sloped roof at the ends of the building were filled with sculpture. Under the pediments, just above the columns, was more sculpture depicting the twelve labours of Heracles, six on each end.

Though the temple was considered one of the best examples of the Doric design because of its style and the quality of the workmanship, it was decided the temple alone was too simple to be worthy of the King of the gods. To remedy this, a statue was commissioned for the interior- a magnificent statue of Zeus that would become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The sculptor chosen for this great task was a man named Phidias. He had already rendered a forty-foot high statue of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon in Athens and had also done much of the sculpture on the exterior of that temple. After his work in Athens was done, Phidias travelled to Olympia to start on what was considered his best work, the statue of Zeus. On arriving he set up a workshop to the west of the temple.

The Lincoln Memorial Exterior

According to accounts, the statue was located at the western end of the temple. It was 22 feet wide and some 40 feet tall. The figure of Zeus was seated on an elaborate throne. His head nearly grazed the roof. The historian Strabo wrote, "...although the temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct proportions. He has depicted Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple..."

Others who viewed that temple disagreed with Strabo and found the proportions very effective in conveying the god's size and power. By filling nearly all the available space, the statue was made to seem even larger than it really was.

In its right hand the statue held the figure of Nike (the goddess of victory) and in its left was a sceptre "inlaid with every kind of metal..." which was topped with an eagle. Perhaps even more impressive than the statue itself was the throne made out of gold, ebony, ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Carved into the chair were figures of Greek gods and mystical animals, like the sphinx.

The figure's skin was composed of ivory and the beard, hair and robe of gold. Construction was by the use of gold and ivory plates attached to a wooden frame. Because the weather in Olympia was so damp, the statue required care so that the humidity would not crack the ivory. For this purpose it was constantly treated with oil kept in a special pool in the floor of the temple. It is said that for centuries the decedents of Phidias held the responsibility for this maintenance of the statue.

Besides the statue, there was little inside the temple. The Greeks preferred the interior of their shrines to be simple. The feeling it gave was probably very much like the Lincoln Memorial (Left above and right below) or Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. with their lofty marble columns and single, large statues.

Copies of the statue were made, but none survive, though pictures found on coins give researchers clues about its appearance.

The Lincoln Memorial Interior

Despite his magnificent work at Olympia, Phidias ran into trouble when he returned home. He was a close friend with Pericles, who ruled the Athens. Enemies of Pericles, unable to strike at the ruler directly, attacked his friends instead. Phidias was accused of stealing gold meant for the statue of Athena. When that charge failed to stick, they claimed he had carved his image, and that of Pericles into the sculpture found on the Parthenon. This would have been improper in the Greeks' eyes and Phidias was thrown into jail where he died awaiting trial.

His masterpiece lived on, though, at the temple in Olympia until 392 A.D. when the Olympics were abolished by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, a Christian who saw the games as a pagan rite. After that the statue was moved by wealthy Greeks to the city of Constantinople where it survived until destroyed by fire in 462 A.D..

The first archaeological work on the Olympia site was done by a group of French scientists in 1829. They were able to locate the outlines of the temple and found fragments of the sculpture showing the labours of Heracles. These pieces were shipped to Paris where they are still on display today at the Louvre.

The next expedition came from Germany in 1875 worked at Olympia for five summers. Over that period they were able to map out most of the buildings there, discovered more fragments of the temple's sculpture, and located the remains of the pool in the floor that contained the oil for the statue.

In the 1950's an excavation uncovered the workstop of Phidias which was discovered beneath an early Christian Church. Archaeologists found sculptor's tools, a pit for casting bronze, clay moulds, modelling plaster and even a portion of one of the elephant's tusks which had supplied the ivory for the statue. Many of the clay moulds, which had been used to shape the gold plates, bore serial numbers which must have been used to show the place of the plates in the design.

Today the stadium at the site has been restored. Little is left of the temple, though, except a few columns. Of the statue, which was perhaps the most wonderful work at Olympia, all is now gone.