Temple of Zeus
The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Written for the KidsKnowIt Network by: Meredith Tennant
Zeus was the king of all the ancient Greek gods. A temple was built in his honor at Olympia, in a sacred grove between two rivers, from where he could watch over the Olympic games held every four years.
Around 432 BC, Greece’s most famous sculptor, Phidias, traveled to Olympia to begin work on a statue of Zeus that would become the fourth wonder of the world. He set up a workshop next to the temple and spent the next 12 years completing the project.
When finished, the statue was amazing. Zeus was depicted sitting on his throne. He was over 40 feet high and his head almost brushed the roof of the temple. Some people thought that Phidias had got the proportions wrong, as the temple was believed to be Zeus’s actual home and it looked as though he would take the roof off if he stood up, but others thought it made the god even more awe-inspiring.
The throne was 22 feet wide and made from cedarwood, inlaid with precious stones and decorated with gold, ivory, and ebony carvings of lesser gods, heroes, and mystical animals. Zeus himself was made from a wooden frame that was covered with pieces of ivory and bronze. The god’s skin was polished ivory, his hair, beard, robes, and sandals gold. In his right hand he held a life-size statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, while in his left was an eagle-headed scepter, made from rare metals and jewels. Two golden lions supported the stool under his feet.
A pool was created in front of his feet, filled with olive oil that was used to anoint the ivory, to prevent it cracking in the humid Olympian climate. This pool may also have served to reflect light onto the statue.
According to Pausanias, a Greek traveler, Phidias asked Zeus for a sign that he approved of the finished statue. Zeus, who was in charge of thunder and lightning, apparently obliged by striking the temple with a thunderbolt that caused no damage. Zeus again showed his power when, during the first century CE, Emperor Caligula tried to have the statue moved to Rome. According to legend, the scaffolding erected around the statue fell down to the sound of god-like laughing.
Zeus sat in the temple at Olympia and presided over the Games until 392 AD, when the Christian Emperor of Rome, Theodosius I, abolished the Games as he considered them pagan. It is not known for certain what happened to the statue. In 426 AD Theodosius I ordered all temples to be destroyed, so it may have perished then. Some records suggest that a Greek named Lausus took it to Constantinople where it was eventually destroyed in a huge fire that swept the city in 475 AD.
Archaeological research has found the outline of the temple, oil pool, Phidias’s workshop, and fragments from the temple itself, but of Zeus, king of the gods, nothing.