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Temple of Zeus

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Temple of Zeus
Discover interesting facts and information about the magnificent Temple of Zeus at Olympia.  Read about when and where the temple was made, its function and a full description of the layout and design of the Temple of Zeus. Read about the materials used to create the temple and the magnificent decorations that adorned the temple.

Gain an appreciation of the structure that housed the colossal Statue of Zeus, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World that was made of , ivory, gold and precious stones. Additional, intriguing information about all of the ancient gods and goddesses and the mythical creatures and monsters that feature in their legends are also available via about the Temple of Zeus:

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia
The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was housed in the sanctuary of Zeus, the king of all the Olympian gods. The Temple of Zeus at Olympia measured 64 meter (210 foot) long and was designed by the architect Libon and was built around 450 BC. It was designed to honor Zeus and was located in the city of Olympia. In ancient times the city of Olympia was a place of the cult of Zeus and contained numerous treasures, baths, temples, monuments, altars, theaters, and beautiful statues and Olympia was where the ancient Greek Olympic games were held - refer to Zeus at Olympia..

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The Colossal Statue of Zeus was housed in the Temple of Zeus in the city of Olympia in the west of Greece. The statue measured over 42 ft high and 21 feet wide and it stood in the temple for over 800 years.

Short Facts about the Temple of Zeus
Discover interesting information and short facts about the Temple of Zeus, the king of the gods.

  • Location: It was erected in the sanctuary dedicated to the king of the gods at Olympia, on the western coast of Greece, where the ancient Olympic Games were held every four years

  • Does it still exist? Only remains of the Temple have survived.

  • How big was it? The temple was 68 feet high, 95 feet wide and 235 feet long

  • Design: The Temple of Zeus followed a design used on many large ancient Greek temples and was similar in design to the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

  • Who built it? The name of the architect was Libon of Elis. Elis was an ancient district in southern Greece on the Peloponnesos peninsula.

  • The city of Elis financed the building after defeating the rival city of Pisa. The booty gained during the war that paid for the temple and ensured that Elis had control over the Olympic Games.

  • When was it constructed? It was built between 472 and 456 BC. It was completed by 457BC. The completion date is verified because the Spartans hung a shield from the peak of the gable commemorating their victory over the Athenians at Tanagra in the same year.

  • How long did it take to build? It took 14 years to build, but many repairs and improvements were made in following years

  • What was it made of? It was made from white stone, using a local limestone. The Stone structure was coated with a thin layer of stucco which give the temple an appearance of being made of marble. All the sculptural decoration on the temple was made of Parian marble. The roof tiles were made of Pentelic marble.

  • Why was it made and what was its function? As a shrine to Zeus, the king of the gods and a place of worship and various rites and ceremonies, many relating to the ancient Olympic games. It was also used as a treasury to store expensive gifts

  • The interior was divided into three separate rooms, the Proanos, the Cella and the Opithodomos

  • The Proanos: The entrance room called the proanos, the inner area leading from the portico. The proanos was equipped with two bronze doors that opened to the outside

  • The Cella or Naos: The cella, also called the Naos, was the inner part of a temple, the main room at the centre of the building which contained the colossal statue of Zeus

  • The Opithodomos: The third room was called the opithodomos which had little decoration, but was lined with a stone bench to provide a place for the public to convene after visiting the temple. It was open at the end of the room which served as the exit

  • The cella (naos) contained the massive statue of Zeus which was 13m (42 ft) tall and 6m (21 feet) wide

  • The cella (naos) had a wooden ceiling and a double colonnade of columns with seven columns on each side which supported a wooden viewing gallery

  • The viewing gallery allowed visitors to see the great statue of Zeus from a high vantage point.

  • The viewing gallery was accessed via two spiral staircases

  • The floor was originally made from limestone tiles but was later replaced with marble. Mosaics were added by the Romans to both the floor of the cello and the Proanos (entrance room). A reflecting pool was also built on top of the marble floor in order to mirror the Statue of Zeus.

  • An altar dedicated to Zeus was erected outside the temple where sacrifices took place

  • The foundations were 2.5 meters deep

  • The temple was built on a raised, rectangular platform and access was via an entry ramp

  • The portico: The portico was a porch outside the entrance of a building with a roof structure over a walkway, supported by the columns

  • The architectural design and style was of the Doric order

  • 13 large Doric columns supported the roof along the long sides of the temple

  • 6 Doric columns supported the shorter front and rear ends of the temple

  • The pillars were tapered - narrower at the top than the bottom

  • The pillars featured 20 fluted grooves. The capitals (tops) of the pillars were simple unlike the later Ionic and Corinthian columns. The corner columns were always counted twice when describing such buildings (see the pictures of the temple)

  • The Pediment: A pediment is a classical architectural element consisting of the triangular section found above the horizontal structure (entablature), supported by columns

  • The pediments were filled with a frieze containing sculptures and referred to as the East Pediment, which was the entrance to the temple and the West pediment, which served as the exit.

  • The Metopes: Under the pediments, in the metopes, were sculptures depicting the 12 labors of Heracles (Hercules). There were six metopes on either end of the temple.

  • The sculptural decorations on the metopes and pediments were made from Perian marble

  • There were 40 lion-shaped marble gargoyles on the roof which served as water spouts

  • Various gilded sculptures were added to the temple including a gilded figure of Victory, with a gold shield which was set upon the apex of the gable, gilded vases at the extremities these were traditional prizes given during athletic games. In 146 BC gilded shields were fastened all along the architraves by the Roman general Lucius Mummius from the spoils of Corinth

Materials used to build the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
The main structure of the building was built with a relatively poor quality limestone that was coated with a thin layer of stucco which give the temple an appearance of being made of marble. All the sculptural decoration on the temple was made of Parian marble. Parian marble was a fine-grained, semi-translucent, pure-white and entirely flawless marble that was quarried during the classical era on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea. The roof tiles were made of weather resistant Pentelic marble which came from the quarries of Mount Pentelikos near Athens. In ancient Greece, this marble was renowned for it's quality and beauty and used to build the Parthenon at Athens and the Elgin marbles. Inside the temple the floor in front of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was paved, not with white, but with black tiles. In a circle round the black stone ran a raised rim of Parian marble that contained olive oil, which was used to clean the great statue of Zeus on a daily basis. Other materials used in the construction of the Temple of Zeus and its great statue were imported from India and Ethiopia.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia - East Pediment (entrance)
The East Pediment, which was located above the entrance to the temple contained a frieze of sculptures depicting:

  • The preparation of the great chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus

  • In the centre was Zeus, holding his symbol of the thunderbolt

  • Oenomaus stands to the right of Zeus with his wife Sterope, his charioteer Myrtilus sitting before the four horses, and two grooms

  • Pelops to the left of Zeus with his wife Pelops, Hippodamia, and a like number of horses and attendants

  • At the narrow ends of the field were figures of the Alpheus (a River-God of Elis and Arkadia) and Kladeus, another River-God (the Kladeus river flows through Olympia and empties into the Alpheus)

  • Alpheus and Kladeus were depicted as graceful young men lying forward on the ground, and raising their heads to witness the contest

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia - West Pediment (exit)
The West Pediment, which was located above the exit to the temple contained a frieze of sculptures depicting:

  • The Battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs

  • In the centre was Apollo

  • Pirithous, whose wife is just being carried off by the Centaurs

  • On each side of this figure a Centaur carrying off a maiden and the other a boy with Kaeneus and Theseus at each side, coming to the rescue

  • At the narrow ends of the field were lying figures of two beautiful mountain or river nymphs

Mosaics in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
The Romans added mosaics to the floor of both the cello and the and the Proanos. The entrance room, the proanos, featured a floor mosaic composed of round pebbles which depicted a scene of the god Triton.

Sacrifices at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia
Sacrifices and many other rituals took place around the altar of Zeus which was situated outside, at the east front of the temple. Every sacrifice was accompanied by salt and also by a libation, which usually consisted of wine, the cup being always filled to the brim, indicating that the offering was made without stint. When sacrificing to the gods the cup containing the libation was filled with blood. The animals offered to the Olympian divinities, such as Zeus were white when practical, whilst those to the gods of the Underworld were black. The sacrifices to Zeus were often accompanied by music, whilst dances were performed round the altar, and sacred hymns were sung. These sacred hymns were generally composed in honour of Zeus, and contained an account of his famous actions, his clemency and benefits and the gifts he had bestowed on mankind.  In conclusion, Zeus was invoked for a continuance of his favour, and when the service was ended a feast was held in his honor. 

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