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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens

What is the Temple of Olympian Zeus?

The Temple of Olympian Zeus is a corinthian temple dedicated to the worship of Zeus Olympios (chief of the gods), it is known in antiquity to be the largest temple in Greece.

Temple of Olympian Zeus

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Temple of Olympian Zeus History

The construction of this huge temple, also known as the Olympieion, began in the Archaic Period, but it took almost 700 years to complete the building. Not by chance, the ancient historian Thucydides refers to the Temple of Olympian Zeus as age-old.

The structure was originally designed as a Doric sanctuary (its columns without decoration), but the building project changed over the years and in the 2nd century BC it was converted into a temple in the Corinthian order (notice the acanthus leaves at the tops of the columns that denote this). The construction works went through several chronological phases, and during the 1st century BC, when the structure must have been quite far advanced, some of its columns were even stolen and transported by General Sulla to Rome to be incorporated into the Temple of Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) on the Capitoline Hill.

The Olympieion, however, remained unfinished for several more centuries. Finally, in the 2nd century AD, the sanctuary was completed thanks to the intervention of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, a huge admirer of Greek history and culture, who started and completed several other building projects as part of his program for the revitalisation and renovation of Athens.

The temple is placed on an artificial terrace and surrounded by a long wall. Most of its 104 giant Corinthian columns are now scattered on the ground, with only 15 still standing. Inside, in the naos (or cella), the temple housed a large cult statue of Zeus, which was chryselephantine (made of ivory and gold), together with various other impressive statues of deities and important personalities of the time. The sanctuary was also full of images of Hadrian offered by various Greek cities. Some of the marble bases of these statues are still visible in the area. Curiously, there was no altar in front of the temple, as we would normally expect to see, while archaeological excavations have found scattered remains of Roman baths and ancient houses in the area.

The sanctuary was dedicated both to Zeus and to Hadrian: the emperor’s cult had its centre on the Olympieion, and Hadrian had taken from the god the title of ‘Olympios’. The emperor also took part in the dedication ceremony in AD 132, which celebrated the construction of the biggest shrine ever built to Zeus. The temple was probably linked to the Olympieia, an agonistic festival in honour of Zeus Olympios.

As with many other ancient buildings in Athens, the temple was pillaged and damaged during the Herulian invasion in AD 267. Several centuries later, part of the temple was reused in the construction of a Byzantine church built on the site.

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