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Mare Nostrum

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

By E.S.

~The Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece

Important facts about the Statue of Zeus

    The Statue of Zeus was the fourth oldest Wonder. It was built in Olympia in 433 BCE by the famous sculptor Pheidias to adorn the Sanctuary of Zeus, where the Olympic games were held each year (King 10). Pheidias began to build it around 440 BCE (Pathak).

    The Statue was the smallest of all the Wonders, but it was nonetheless impressive (Ashmawy). It was 40 feet high and represented Zeus seated elegantly on his throne. Its base was 20 feet wide and 3 feet high. The Statue was so large that it dominated the temple's interior (Ashmawy). Unfortunately, the size of the statue was often a magnet for criticism (Ashmawy). Strabo was one such critic:

    . . . Although the temple itself is very large, the sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct proportions. He has shown Zeus seated, but with the head almost touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus moved to stand up he would unroof the temple. (qtd. in Ashmawy)

    Others liked the concept that Zeus was, in effect, larger than life (Ashmawy). It was this aspect of the Statue that made it so popular. The concept that the god would "unroof the temple" if he tried to stand fascinated poets and historians endlessly (Ashmawy).

    The Statue was beautifully sculpted with rare and expensive materials (Pathak). Its skin was made of ivory, and his robes and the ornaments that decorated his body were skillfully crafted from gold (Pathak). He was crowned by an olive branch wreath and he held an image of his personal messenger, the goddess of victory, Nike, in his right hand (Silverberg 56). In his left, he held a scepter with an eagle perched on the end (Ashmawy). Pausanias the Greek of the second century CE describes the idol's splendor:

    On his head is a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In his right hand he holds a figure of Victory made from ivory and gold . . . In his left hand, he holds a sceptre inlaid with every kind of metal, with an eagle perched on the sceptre. His sandals are made of gold, as is his robe. His garments are craved with animals and with lilies. The throne is decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory. (qtd. in Ashmawy)

    In the second century BCE, the aging Statue was repaired. In the first century CE, the Roman emperor Caligula tried to move the statue to Rome. Before he could, the scaffolding his workmen had built collapsed (Ashmawy).

The last years of the Statue of Zeus

  • In CE 391, Emperor Theodorius I banned the Olympics as Pagan practices and the Sanctuary of Zeus was closed. Earthquakes, landslides, floods, and fire damaged the temple horribly. These disasters did not affect the Statue, as it had already been moved to a palace in Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a huge fire in CE 462 (Ashmawy).

Nothing remains of either the temple or the Statue. Ironically, Pheidias' workshop still stands. It is identical in size and placement to the Sanctuary of Zeus (Ashmawy).

History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, IL 60466

This page was created by E.S. Last revised 05/12/00.

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