Statue of Zeus at Olympia

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A fanciful reconstruction of Phidias' statue of Zeus, in an engraving made by Philippe Galle in 1572, from a drawing by Maarten van Heemskerck

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia was a giant seated figure, about 13 m (43 ft) tall,[1] made by the Greek sculptor Phidias around 435 BC at the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, and erected in the Temple of Zeus there. A sculpture of ivory plates and gold panels over a wooden framework, it represented the god Zeus sitting on an elaborate cedar wood throne ornamented with ebony, ivory, gold and precious stones. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,[2] it was lost and destroyed during the 5th century AD with no copy ever being found, and details of its form are known only from ancient Greek descriptions and representations on coins.

Coin from Elis district in southern Greece illustrating the Olympian Zeus statue (Nordisk familjebok)


The great seated statue as fashioned by Phidias occupied half the width of the aisle of the temple built to house it. "It seems that if Zeus were to stand up," the geographer Strabo noted early in the 1st century BC, "he would unroof the temple."[3] The Zeus was a chryselephantine sculpture, made with ivory and gold panels on a wooden substructure. No copy in marble or bronze has survived, though there are recognizable but only approximate versions on coins of nearby Elis and on Roman coins and engraved gems.[4]

In the 2nd century AD, the geographer and traveler Pausanias gave a detailed description. The statue was crowned with a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. It had gold sandals, and a golden robe carved with animals and lilies. In its right hand was a small chryselephantine statue of crowned Nike, goddess of victory. Its left hand held a sceptre inlaid with many metals, supporting an eagle. The throne was decorated in gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory.[5] According to the Roman historian Livy, the Roman general Aemilius Paulus (the victor over Macedon) saw the statue and “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person,”[6] while the 1st century AD Greek orator Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.[7]

Roman Seated Zeus, marble and bronze (restored), following the type established by Phidias (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg).

According to a legend, when Phidias was asked what inspired him—whether he climbed Mount Olympus to see Zeus, or whether Zeus came down from Olympus so that Phidias could see him—the artist answered that he portrayed Zeus according to Book One, verses 528 – 530 of Homer's Iliad: [8]

ἦ καὶ κυανέῃσιν ἐπ' ὀφρύσι νεῦσε Κρονίων
ἀμβρόσιαι δ' ἄρα χαῖται ἐπερρώσαντο ἄνακτος
κρατὸς ἀπ' ἀθανάτοιο μέγαν δ' ἐλέλιξεν Ὄλυμπον.
He spoke, the son of Cronos, and nodded his head with the dark brows,
and the immortally anointed hair of the great god
swept from his divine head, and all Olympos was shaken.[9]

The sculptor also was reputed to have immortalised his eromenos, Pantarkes, by carving "Pantarkes kalos" into the god's little finger, and placing a relief of the boy crowning himself at the feet of the statue.[10]

Loss and destruction

According to Suetonius, the Roman Emperor Caligula "gave orders that such statues of the gods as were especially famous for their sanctity or for their artistic merit, including that of Zeus at Olympia, should be brought from Greece, in order to remove their heads and put his own in their place."[11] Before this could happen, the emperor was assassinated (AD 41); his "approaching murder was foretold by many prodigies. The statue of Jupiter at Olympia, which he had ordered to be taken to pieces and moved to Rome, suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffolding collapsed and the workmen took to their heels."[12]

The circumstances of the statue's eventual destruction are unknown. The 11th-century Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos records a tradition that it was carried off to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in the great fire of the Lauseion, in AD 475. Alternatively, it perished along with the temple, which burned down in AD 425.[13] Earlier loss or damage is implied by Lucian of Samosata in the later 2nd century;[14] "they have laid hands on your person at Olympia, my lord High-Thunderer, and you had not the energy to wake the dogs or call in the neighbours; surely they might have come to the rescue and caught the fellows before they had finished packing up the loot."[15]

Photo (2005) of the workshop of Phidias at Olympia

Phidias' workshop

The approximate date of the statue (the third quarter of the 5th century BC), was confirmed in the rediscovery (1954–1958) of Phidias' workshop, sited more or less where Pausanias said the statue of Zeus was constructed. Archaeological finds included tools for working gold and ivory, ivory chippings, precious stones and terracotta moulds. Most of the latter were used to create glass plaques, and to form the statue's robe from sheets of glass, naturalistically draped and folded, then gilded. A cup inscribed "ΦΕΙΔΙΟΥ ΕΙΜΙ" or "I belong to Phidias" was found at the site.[16]

See also


  1. Phidias from encyclopæ Retrieved 3 September 2014
  2. Statue of Zeus from encyclopæ Retrieved 22 November 2006
  3. Alaa K. Ashmawy. The Seven Wonders: The Statue of Zeus at Olympia]." Retrieved on 2 December 2001.
  4. Gisela M. A. Richter, "The Pheidian Zeus at Olympia" Hesperia 35 .2 (April–June 1966:166-170) pp. 166f, 170. Details of the sculpture in this article are corroborated in the Richter article.
  5. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.11.1-.10). Pausanias was told that the paintings on the throne were by the brother of Phidias, Panaenus.
  6. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, XLV. 28, 5.: “Iovem velut praesentem intuens motus animo est.”
  7. Or. 12.51
  8. Zamarovský, Vojtěch. Za sedmi divy světa. p. 186.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Iliad, I, 528-530
  10. John Grimes Younger, Sex in the Ancient World from A to Z, p. 95. Routledge; Abingdon and New York, 2005.
  11. Suetonius, Gaius 22.2; compare Cassius Dio, 59.28.3.
  12. Suetonius, Gaius, 57.1. In Roman religion Jupiter was the equivalent of Zeus.
  13. Richter, 1966, note 1, citing Georgius Kedrenos, Historiarum Compendium §322c, in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 34, vol. I, p. 564.
  14. Lucian, Timon, 4.
  15. Lucian's dialogue Timon the Misanthrope, translated by H. W. Fowler And F. G. Fowler.
  16. James Grout, The Workshop of Pheidias, Encyclopaedia Romana (accessed 31 July 2013)


External links