Perhaps one of the oldest traditions still alive today is the Olympic Games. Just as they do now, the games were practiced once every four years in ancient Greece, but there were was one fundamental difference; the temple of the Gods that had to be present at each event.
At around c. 470BC the number of people from around the Mediterranean who were attending the games reached a crescendo and it was decided a larger, more impressive and worthy temple was needed. The Temple of Zeus was designed and built soon after, but it was deemed too ‘empty’ and a statue of the God himself was needed. Architect Phidias was paid for the job and by 435BC the impressive Statue of Zeus sat on his golden throne within the temple. Critics often commented that the Temple of Zeus was supposed to be his home, and that it was strange his head almost touched the roof even though he was sitting. Others dismissed this view, saying his size depicts his great power and he shouldn’t be any other way.
The statue’s skin was plated with ivory, with golden hair and beard. He sat atop a golden, ebony and ivory throne which also sat in a pool of water and oil. That pool was used by Phidias and his descendants to coat and protect the statue of Zeus, as the ever-changing temperatures of Olympia meant that it may crack.
For an incredible 827 years the Statue of Zeus remained at Olympia, studied, looked at and worshiped by many. It was removed in c.392AD when a Christian came to the throne and taken to Constantinople instead.
The main hero in this story is, of course, Phidias who was the architect who created the statue. He was very well revered by the Greek community for years. Unfortunately, Phidias was very close to the ruler of Athens; Pericles, who had deeply upset and angered his enemies. Unable to attack or get revenge on Pericles directly, the enemies spread rumors about Phidias, saying he had carved his and Pericles’ names into his works throughout Greece. This was something deemed unacceptable by the Greeks and Phidias was incarcerated where he died before even being convicted.
Libon if Elis is another person who should be noted within this story as he was the architect who designed and constructed the Temple that Zeus’ statue was to reside within. Although Phidias gains most of the acclaim for the Statue of Zeus, it was actually Libon who was responsible for the design.
Where it is Today:
The statue was removed from the Temple of Zeus in c.392AD when it was taken by Greeks to Constantinople in order to save it. Unfortunately some sixty years on, a fire gutted Constantinople and took the Statue of Zeus with it, leaving no remains. The Temple of Zeus itself, however, remained standing even throughout the Christian Emperor Theodosius I of Rome’s reign. Today all that remains at the site of the Temple and Statue of Zeus in Olympia is a few of the temple’s thirteen magnificent pillars, but nothing of the original statue which was deemed to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Visitors to modern day Olympia can still visit the site of the stadium where the original Olympic Games took place. This stadium has been restructured and preserved until this very day, even though it is around 2500 years old.
Much of what we know of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece is all thanks to the traveler Pausanius, who wrote travel guides in the mid second century. He, of course, saw the statue of Zeus in Constantinople and was able to document his appearance in quite some detail. We have also gained knowledge from ancient Greek coins, which have the image of Zeus’ statue printed on them.
Members of the public today can visit the Louvre National Museum of France to see remnants of the Temple that the statue resided in for all those 800+ years. Phidias’ workshop was also discovered by German archaeologists in 1954 and can still be visited today where it still stands just to the West of where the Temple of Zeus once stood. Although they are not still there now, the tools and materials used to construct the Statue of Zeus were excavated there.