Temple of Olympian Zeus - History and Facts | History Hit

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Attica, Attica, Greece

The Temple of Olympian Zeus is one of the most impressive ancient temples in Greece.

Peta Stamper

24 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Temple of Olympian Zeus

The Temple of Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympeion, is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) ancient temples in Greece. Vast and impressive, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was begun by Peisistratus the Young in the 6th century BC, but various events and circumstances meant it took almost 650 years to construct.

Eventually, it was the Roman emperor Hadrian who completed the temple around 132 AD.

Today, a ticket to the archaeological site of the Temple of Olympian Zeus provides access to multiple ancient sites.

Temple of Olympian Zeus history

The foundations of the temple were built on an ancient outdoor sanctuary built by the tyrant Peisistratus around 550 BC. After his death, the temple was demolished and his sons Hippias and Hipparchos began construction of a second, colossal temple to Zeus in 520 BC.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus was to be built with limestone in the Doric style, flanked by columns surrounding a cella. However, the work was abandoned when Hippias was expelled in 510 BC – at which point only the platform was finished.

During the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, the Greeks left the temple untouched, believing it hubris to build on such a large scale. Aristotle even used the temple as an example of how tyrannies kept the population busy with projects to prevent them considering rebellion.

In 174 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who thought himself Zeus-on-earth, began the project again. This time, the temple would be made of marble in the Corinthian style. When he died in 164 BC, the temple was only half finished and left vulnerable to attack when Sulla sacked Athens in 86 BC. Sulla took several columns back to Rome, used in the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill.

It was not until the reign of Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD that the project was completed: the temple boasted 2 immense statues, one of Zeus and one of Hadrian for his generosity and to signify his godly status.

Under the Christian emperors, the temple would have been out of usage for worship, and material from the building was used in a basilica constructed in the 6th century. The temple was excavated from 1889 until the 1960s.

Temple of Olympian Zeus today

Overlooked but not overshadowed by the Acropolis in Central Athens, today the open-air Temple of Olympian Zeus dominates a large archaeological site near Syntagma Square. While it may take a little imagination to see the temple in its original glory, the remaining columns give you an idea of the temple’s massive scale.

Of Greece’s biggest temple, 15 marble columns still stand – one blown over during the late 19th century. The temple site isa quiet corner of Athens in which you can stroll along the river to find the foundations of ancient shrines, Hadrian’s Gate, the Themistoclean Wall and the Doric Temple of Apollo Delphinios.

Bring a bottle of water and wear a hat as there is little shade around the park.

Getting to the Temple of Olympian Zeus

On foot, head for the main entrance on Leof. Vascilissis Olgas where there is a small car park and the entrance ticket booth to the site. Via public transport, bus 209 stops outside the entrance and the M2 subway service stops nearby at Acropoli.

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