Temple of Zeus the Olympian in Athens

Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus, also known as the Olympion, is a grandiose temple in the center of the Greek capital, dedicated to Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods. It began to be built in the 6th century BC during the reign of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, who planned the most ambitious structure in the world, but it was never completed until the Roman Emperor Hadrian began in the 2nd century AD, 650 years after it was begun.

The temple is located 500 meters southeast of the Acropolis and a few blocks south of Syntagma Square. Construction of the Temple of Olympian Zeus began in 520 BC on the site of the destroyed Temple of Pisistratus. The construction of the Temple was entrusted to the sons Hippiasomus and Hipparchosomus. They were going to surpass the two famous modern temples, the Heraion at Samos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Designed by the architects Antistates, Kallaeschrus, Antimachides, and Porinous, the Temple of Olympic Zeus was to be built of local limestone in the Doric style on a huge platform measuring 41 m by 108 m. It was enclosed on two sides by colonnades of eight columns on the front and back, and 21 on the sides.

Work was suspended when the tyranny was overthrown and Hippias was banished in 510. Only the platform and some elements of the columns were completed by this time and the Temple remained in this condition for another 336 years. The temple remained unfinished during the years of Athenian democracy, evidently because the Greeks considered it impossible to build on such a scale.

This continued until 174 BC, when Antiochus IV of Epiphanius, who presented himself as the earthly incarnation of Zeus, revived the project and appointed the architect Desimus Cossutius to supervise it. It was then decided to surround the temple with three rows of eight columns at the back and front of the temple and double rows of twenty columns at the sides, for a total of 104 columns. The columns were to be 17 m high and 2 m in diameter. The building material was also changed to expensive but high quality marble and the order was changed to Corinthian. But the project was suspended until 164 B.C. because of the death of Antiochus.

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In 124-125 A.D., when Emperor Hadrian came to Athens, a program to build a number of structures began, one of which was the Temple of Olympic Zeus. The design of Kossuthius was realized with some modifications and the temple was officially inaugurated by Hadrian in 132 A.D., being named Panellenios. The temple and the surrounding monasteries were decorated with numerous statues depicting Hadrian and the gods. A statue of Hadrian towered behind the building in honor of the emperor’s generosity. The statue of Zeus, made of gold and ivory, took center stage in the temple. The shape of the statue was unusual because the use of gold and ivory was considered something archaic for the time. It was originally thought that Hadrian had deliberately copied the famous statue of Athena of Parthenon in an attempt to draw attention to the temple and to himself as creator.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was severely damaged by the sacking of Athens in 267. Its reconstruction was unlikely, especially considering the extent of the damage. And in 425 the Temple was completely closed by the Christian Emperor Theodos II, when he forbade obedience to the old Roman and Greek gods. The building materials of the building were used for a basilica, built in the V-VI centuries AD. By the end of the Byzantine period the Temple was almost completely destroyed.

Fifteen columns have survived to this day and another sixteen lie on the ground after falling during a storm in 1852. Nothing remains of the great statue. The temple was excavated in 1889-1896 by Francis Penrose, who was the architect of the temple. Francis Penrose, who also directed the restoration of the Parthenon, and later in 1922 by the German archaeologist Gabriel Welter and in the 1960s by the Greek archaeologist Ioannes Travlos. The temple today is administered by the Hellenic Ministry of the Interior.

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The Temple of Zeus the Olympic, a giant of ancient architecture

In the center of Athens, 700 meters southeast of the Acropolis, stands a group of columns in a Corinthian ornament. This is all that remains of the once magnificent structure, the largest sanctuary of Hellas – the Temple of Zeus the Olympic.

Temple of Zeus the Olympic

Creation history

The history of the construction of the Temple of Zeus Olympic, or Olympaeum, is unique and stretches for more than 6 centuries. According to the legend, earlier on the place, where the temple was constructed, there was the most ancient sanctuary of Noah Deucalion, Hellenic, who had survived after the world Flood and had become the forefather of the new human race. His son, Hellenes, was considered the forefather of all Greeks. The temple being built in such a sacred place could not be ordinary, and the plans for its construction were very ambitious.

Construction of the sanctuary began around 520 BC. It was the brainchild of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, but it was his son and successor, Hippias, who started it. The new temple was intended to eclipse in its magnificence the renowned religious buildings of Hellas of that era – the Temple of Hera on the island of Samos and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, ranked among the wonders of the world.

The scale of the plan was truly impressive. According to the original plan, the building was to be Doric in style. The main material was limestone. The dimensions of the foundation were 41×108 meters. According to its form, the temple was to be a classical peripeter, surrounded by a double colonnade. The number of columns at the ends was eight in each row, and 21 on the sides.

But Hippias was not able to realize his father’s plan. In 510 BC, the democratic party deposed the tyrant. By the time Hippias was overthrown only the foundations were ready and the construction of the columns had begun. To the democratic Athenians the Olympeion seemed too haughty and arrogant, and the rejection of tyranny led to the cessation of construction. Moreover, on the orders of the strategist Themistocles, who had become famous at the battle of Salamis, the stone blocks used to build the temple were partially dismantled and used to build Athenian fortifications.

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The next stage in the construction of the Temple of Zeus the Olympic is connected with the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid dynasty, king of Syria, a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s associates. Antiochus was anxious to strengthen his authority in Athens and ordered his architect, the Roman Decimus Cocytius, to complete the Olympeion. The design of the building was seriously revised. The Doric order was replaced by a more elegant Corinthian one, and the main material was replaced by the more valuable and prestigious Pentelicon marble. The idea of Cositius was to erect three rows of 8 columns at the ends, and two rows of columns on the sides, 20 columns in each. But in 164 B.C. Antiochus was killed by mutinous soldiers (according to other sources he died during an epidemic) and the building was left unfinished again.

The end of the ancient “long construction”.

The further pages of Olympeion’s history are connected with Roman rule. However, the Romans did not hurry to complete the sanctuary. Moreover, in 84 BC the Roman dictator Sulla, who seized Athens in the war with the Pontic king Mithridates, ordered to remove some of the Corinthian capitals he liked from the columns and took them to Rome, where they went to build a temple of Jupiter Capitol.

Temple of Zeus the Olympic in front of the city

Only 200 years later, the history of the main “long building” of antiquity ended. It happened during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian adored everything Greek; he even grew a beard, which was contrary to Roman tradition. The emperor especially liked Athens, where by his order large-scale construction work was unfolded. Thus, in 129-131 AD, the construction of the Temple of Zeus the Olympic was finally completed.

The temple was a truly majestic construction, a giant of antique architecture, worthy of the Father of the Gods. It stood on a foundation of three steps and measured 107.7 x 41.1 meters. The building itself was 96 meters long and 40 meters wide. The temple was surrounded by a double colonnade; porticoes with 8 columns each were attached to the ends of the temple. In total the colonnade had 104 columns in height of 17 meters, topped with magnificent Corinthian capitals. Diameter of columns at the basis was 2 meters, and diameter of capitals was up to 3 meters.

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In the central hall of the temple was a giant statue of Zeus, made in chrisoelphantine technique and being a copy of the famous statue of the Thunderer by Phidias from the temple in Olympia. The statue made a lasting impression and was visited by pilgrims from all over the Roman world. As a sign of gratitude the Athenians ordered a huge statue of Hadrian himself, which was placed next to the temple.

The fate of the Olympeion

The temple was highly revered by both Greeks and Romans, who saw Zeus as their supreme god, Jupiter. Many emperors came to Athens for ceremonies in the famous sanctuary, and the emperor Caligula, according to legend, even tried to take the statue of Zeus to Rome, but when workers approached the statue allegedly burst into laughter, and workers categorically refused to go near it.

With the spread of Christianity the temple began to fall into disrepair. In 425, Emperor Theodosius completely forbade the worship of the old gods, and the building began to crumble. The occasional earthquake inevitably turned the abandoned temple into ruins. The people had a hand in this as they stole elements of the temple for the construction of new buildings. By the end of the Byzantine era little was left of the once grandiose construction.

Now only 15 slender columns rising into the sky are left as a monument of former magnificence. Here lies the 16th, tumbled down by a hurricane in 1852. Today the Temple of Zeus the Olympic is one of the most famous sights in Athens, although, alas, only an outstanding imagination can provide all the greatness of one of the largest sanctuaries of the ancient world.

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