Seven wonders of the ancient world: The statue of Zeus at Olympia
Records fall far short of the impression made by a sight of the image,” was how Pausanias, a Greek traveller, described the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, in 150AD.
“It seems that if Zeus were to stand up, he would unroof the temple,” Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher and historian, noted early in the 1st century BC. And 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.
And it was not only the Greeks who marvelled at the sight of this magnificent 43 feet (12 metres) statue made of ivory and gold-plated bronze, but all others who saw it. Roman general Aemilius Paulus records that when he saw the statue he, “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person.”
For ancient Greeks, Zeus was the king of gods, a sky god who controlled lightning and thunder. He was also considered the protector of cities and homes, so the forecourts of homes usually had altars dedicated to Zeus and larger temples were found in all cities of Greece. One of the most important temples of this Greek god was the temple in Olympia, the site of the Olympic Games in classical times, built in 460BC in a sacred grove between two rivers.
From his high throne on this temple, people believed that Zeus presided over the Olympic games, which took place every four years (as it does today too), and athletes would take an oath before the altar of Zeus that they would compete fairly in the Games. This statue presided over the Games until they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, in 393AD, because he considered it a pagan practice. He then went on to order the destruction of the temple in 426AD and what happened to the statue of Zeus is still a bit of a mystery.
The temple that housed this statue of Zeus was constructed from 466 to 456BC, in a classic Doric style that was simple, yet strong. Libon, a Greek architect, designed this temple that was as tall as one of our four-story buildings today. The statue, which sat on a throne, occupied most of the building space, with Zeus’ head almost touching the roof!
The statue was made by Phidias, perhaps the greatest Greek sculptor and there is a story about how he got inspiration for his artistic masterpiece. Phidias disclosed that he was inspired by one of the verses of the poem Iliad by Homer and the translation of the lines are as follows: “He spoke, the son of Kronos, and nodded his head with the dark brows, and the immortality anointed hair of the great god swept from his divine head, and all Olympus was shaken”.
No copies of the statue are found in the various archaeological excavations done on the site of the temple and nothing of the original statue remains, so all we can do is to assume how it was based on the descriptions by the historians and travellers of the time. Records of Pausanias, a Greek traveller and geographer in Second Century AD, carry detailed description of the statue and the throne on it rested. According to him, the statue rested on a throne of cedar wood that was ornamented with ebony, gold, precious stones and ivory.
In his right hand Zeus held a statue of the Greek goddess Nike, the goddess of victory, made from ivory and gold and in his left hand was his sceptre with an eagle on top of it, symbolising his rule over the earth as the king of gods. The whole sceptre was decorated with precious metals. His hair, bead, rope and sandals of the statue were of gold and glittered in the sun, giving it a magnificent appearance. As for his unclothed body, i.e., his head, hands and feet, they were of burnished ivory.
Two impressive golden lions upheld the stool beneath his feet and the statue itself was kept adorned with branches of olive, as was the custom in those days.
The climate of Olympia was very humid and the statue had to be maintained by constant application of oil so that the ivory would not crack.
When this region came under Roman rule, the Roman Emperor Caligula is said to have been jealous of the importance given to this temple and Olympia. He ordered that the statue be shifted to Rome but, apparently, the Olympian god did not want to be moved. The scaffolding attached to the statue collapsed, followed by a loud laughing noise, according to local legends, and it was then left alone.
Several earthquakes and natural disasters followed but Zeus remained seated on this throne until the statue is believed to have been uprooted and carted off to Constantinople, in 394AD and a fire eventually destroyed it 475AD. However, another legend tells of the destruction of the temple and the statue with it in a fire, in 425AD.
Archaeological excavations in the last couple of centuries have uncovered remains of this temple, mainly a few columns, but there has been no trace of the statue itself. As recently as 1954 and 1958, archaeologists have found several tools and terracotta mould carrying the inscription “I belong to Phidias”, where Phidias’ workshop was believed to have existed.
Philo of Byzantium, whose manuscripts about the wonders of the ancient world inform us about the grandeur and skill of civilisations so long ago, clearly held this masterpiece in special regard. These lines by Philo aptly convey his admiration, “Whereas we just wonder at the other six wonders, we kneel in front of this one in reverence, because the execution of the skill is as incredible as the image of Zeus is holy…”