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The Statue of Zeus at Olympia: History & Facts

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes an exciting look at the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Specifically, this lesson addresses the history of its construction and the mystery of its destruction as well as the specific details of its design.

Big Is an Understatement

The sight of a giant statue, nearly four stories high, might not surprise you as much today, seeing as how we have the Lincoln Memorial and Mt. Rushmore to visit. However, in ancient Greece, a statue of that size was a marvel to behold. This is why the Statue of Zeus at Olympia was included in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Illustration of Temple and Statue of Zeus
Illustration of Temple and Statue of Zeus

What are the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

You may have heard that term before, but do you know what they are? In the ancient past, writers debated what great marvels of human creation should make such a notable list. With much debate and even controversy, the official seven included the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Today, only one of those wonders still stands, the Great Pyramid of Giza. Another wonder, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, may not have ever existed except in legends. Our focus here, however, will be the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Zeus and the Olympic Games

Image of Zeus on ancient Greek vase
Image of Zeus on ancient Greek vase

Zeus, the ruler of the ancient Greek gods, had a special connection with the people of Olympia, a city in ancient Greece. Legend has it that Zeus blessed the city by hurling a thunderbolt, one of his powers, to earth to strike a spot in the city. His worshipers built a sacred altar to him on that very spot, but their honoring him did not end there. Beginning in 776 BCE, the people of Olympia added athletic competition to their festival honoring Zeus. These games occurred every four years and brought athletes from every part of Greece to participate.

Illustration of ancient Olympia
Illustration of ancient Olympia

As the city's wealth and prosperity grew, they expanded their devotion to Zeus by commissioning a large temple to house the sacred altar and a large statue in the likeness of Zeus to house his presence. The temple, designed by the great Greek architect Libon, took ten years to construct. The final stone was placed in 456 BCE.

Statue of Zeus

The people of Olympia commissioned the famous Greek sculptor Phidias in 450 BCE to create the statue. They relied on his reputation for creating a magnificent statue of Athena but contracted with him before they learned of the scandal in which he was accused of stealing funds from the Athena project. The Zeus statue offered Phidias a chance to restore his reputation, an opportunity he did not squander. Setting up a workshop on the temple grounds, he quickly got to work creating the greatest masterpiece of his career.

The statue, completed in 435 BCE, measured 13m (42ft) high with a width of 6m (21ft). Unable to find a suitable stone of these proportions to carve into a statue, Phidias used his ingenuity to create a more elaborate and opulent alternative. The interior of the statue was supported by the construction of a cedar framework; cedar was selected for the wood's strength and resistance to insects and decay. Phidias covered the framework with long strips of ivory, cutting and shaping it to the frame after carefully treating it to be pliable. Painstakingly burnished, the ivory served as the exposed portions of Zeus's skin. The limitations of the material meant that temple servants needed to clean the statue and rub the ivory with olive oil each day or Zeus's skin would crack and crumble.

Atop the ivory, Zeus's robe, sandals, hair, and beard shone with gold life. His eyes were set with precious jewels and a silver crown of an olive wreath rested on his head. In his left hand, Zeus held a gold scepter topped with an eagle's head, representing his power over the world. In his open, right hand stood a human-sized statue of the winged goddess of victory, Nike. The statue itself posed in a seated position on a throne carved with many animal figures. Zeus's head rested just below the roof of the temple; the four-story statue would have been gargantuan if standing rather than sitting.

Model of the temple and statue located in the Louvre
Model of the temple and statue located in the Louvre

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