The Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, is a Greco-Roman temple in the center of Athens. Begun in the 6th century BC and was built over several centuries starting in 174 BCE and completed by Roman emperor Hadrian in 131 CE. Its unusually tall columns and ambitious layout made the temple one of the largest ever built in the ancient world.
History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
The foundations were laid (on the site of an earlier temple) by the tyrant Peisistratus in 515 BC, but the work was abandoned when Peisistratus’s son, Hippias, was overthrown in 510 BC.
During the years of Greek democracy, the temple was left unfinished, because the Greeks of the classical period thought it anti-democratic to build on such a big scale. Aristotle cited the temple as an example of how tyrannies engaged the populace in great works for the state and left them no time, energy or means to rebel.
Work resumed in the 3rd c. BC, during the period of Macedonian domination of Greece, under the patronage of the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV of Syria. Antiochus hired the Roman architect Cossutius to design the largest temple in the known world, but when Antoichus died in 164 BC the work was abandoded again.
In 86 BC, under Roman rule, the general Sulla took two columns from the unfinished temple to Rome to adorn the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. These columns influenced the development of the Corinthian style in Rome. In the 2nd century AD, the temple was taken up again by Hadrian, a great admirer of Greek culture, who finally brought it to completion in 131 CE.
The temple was destroyed by an earthquake during the medieval period, and disassembled for building materials. The Olympieion was first excavated in 1889-1896 by Francis Penrose of the British School in Athens, who also played a leading role in the restoration of the Parthenon. Further work was done in 1922 by the German archaeologist Gabriel Welter and in the 1960s by Greek archaeologists led by Ioannes Travlos.
Today, along with the surrounding ruins of other ancient structures, the Olympieion is a historical precinct administered by the Greek Interior Ministry.
What to See
The graceful ruins of the Temple of the Olympian Zeus can be clearly seen from the Acropolis and are floodlit at night. The temple is made of fine marble brought from Mt Penteli and originally measured 96 m long and 40 m wide.
Hadrian had erected a giant gold and ivory status of Zeus in the cella, and placed an equally large one of himself next to it. Unfortunately, nothing remains of these or anything else from the interior of the temple.
There were originally 104 Corinthian columns, each 17 meters high; 48 of these stood in triple rows under the pediments and 56 in double rows at the sides. Only 15 columns remain standing today, with lovely Corinthian capitals still in place. A 16th column blew over in 1852 and is still lying where it fell.
LAYOUT & DIMENSIONS
The temple was given extra grandeur by being built in an open space of 250 x 130 m. This area was enclosed by a low poros wall buttressed with regularly spaced Corinthian columns set along the interior face. A propylon gate in Hymettan marble was placed in the north-west corner of the wall. In the centre of this rectangle the massive marble Temple of Zeus measured 110.35 x 43.68 m. The Corinthian columns are unusually tall at 17.25 m and have a diameter of 1.7 m and 20 flutes. The long side presented 20 columns each and the short sides 8 (dipteral octastyle). These were placed in double rows along the length and triple rows at each short side. Thus there were originally 104 columns. The columns are capped by highly decorative Corinthian capitals carved from two massive blocks of marble. Within the cella were gigantic chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statues of Zeus and the temple’s main benefactor Hadrian, who was given equal status to the great Greek god.
The temple suffered over the centuries and much of its material was used in other buildings so that today only 15 of the temple’s columns are still standing, 2 in the south-west corner and 13 at the south-east corner. One other column collapsed as recently as 1852 CE in a storm and now lies across the site with its column drums spread along a perfect line.