History of Temple of Zeus

History of Temple of Olympian Zeus

The history of Temple of Zeus was uncovered in the late nineteenth century when scholars began to excavate and study the site. Known as one of the largest temples in the ancient Peloponnese, the structure dates to 520 BCE. Situated near the River Ilissos, the Temple of Zeus was the largest temple in Athens which was destroyed in a massive earthquake in the sixth century CE.

Different rulers, from the Roman tyrant, Peisistratus to the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, commissioned and continued the construction of the temple over centuries. The ambitious project was finally completed nearly six centuries later in 131 CE under the reign of Hadrian. Later additions to the colossal complex include the Temple of Zeus Panhellenios, the Temple of Kronos and Rhea, and the Basilica Olympieion.

A majestic architectural component of the temple was its 104 Corinthian columns with marble adornments, of which only 15 remain on the premises today.

The Timeless History of the Temple of Zeus

A Pleasant Refuge

The role it played as a place of refuge for Athenians was an important aspect of the history of Temple of Olympian Zeus. A new neighbourhood was developed around the Olympieion under Hadrian to add to the Athenian Acropolis. The temple was situated on the banks of River Ilissos and was surrounded by lush greenery, which made it a place for Athenians to relax and stroll. Plato’s records of Socrates indicate how the banks of the Ilissos around the temple were preferred by locals as a place to spend quiet time. People could sit here with their ‘feet in the water’ as they discussed philosophical affairs.

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The construction of the ceremonial Arch of Hadrian near the Temple of Zeus marked the transition of ancient Athens into the Roman Hadrianopolis. Greek inscriptions on the arch indicate how the city went from the land of Theseus to being the city of Hadrian in the first century CE. About the history of Temple of Zeus Athens in this period, the ancient structure was finally completed into an octostyle dipteral temple with 104 Corinthian columns. A massive cult statue of Zeus made of ivory and gold was installed on the premises, creating an illusion of walking through a dense marble forest for visitors.

The Corinthian Order Capitals of the Olympian Zeus

Designed and created by the Roman architect Decimus Cossutius, the Corinthian capitals are an integral part of the history of Temple of Zeus. These stunning marble capitals were invented by Peloponnesians which combine natural-looking acanthus leaves with intricate designs. On every capital, a central stem rises to a flower that overlaps the abacus between the spiral scrolls going up. The designs were added under the Hellenistic construction period of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and were said to be inspired by baskets of growing acanthus plants. Only 15 of the original 104 capitals survive within the temple grounds today.

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Imperial Cult and Panhellenic Ambitions

Although the history of Temple of Olympian Zeus is a testament to the structure’s dedication to the Olympian King of Gods, the main intent was the worship of Hadrian. Since the construction was completed under the Roman Emperor, he promoted the Athenian place of worship as the base of an imperial cult in Eastern Greece. The Olympienion upon completion had four stone portraits of Hadrian at the entrance and a massive colossus behind the temple, signifying his influence and power. As he established Athens as the Panhellenic headquarters, he also constructed another temple dedicated to Zeus Panhellenios and Hera near the Olympienon to reinforce his importance.

Fallen Columns

The history of Temple of Zeus Athens is marked by numerous attempts to acquire building materials from the unfinished structure, which continued even after its completion. Almost a century after the construction, Athens saw an invasion by northern tribes and needed a new city wall. The Valerian Wall was built by obtaining stones from the Temple of Zeus, a process that was repeated countless times over centuries. In fifteenth-century records, only 21 of the original 104 marble columns had survived in the ruins of the ‘Palace of Hadrian’. Subsequent felling and earthquakes led to the survival of only 15 columns to the present day.

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Stylite Monks

Among the most intriguing details of the history of Temple of Zeus is the existence of Stylite monks. The fifteen columns of the temple have inspired numerous artworks over the last few decades, most of which depict a strange structure atop the ancient marble columns. There are records mentioning that the columns were used as watch towers by the Byzantines of late antiquity and later taken over by Stylite monks. Their first mentions are found in the early nineteenth century when the monks made their homes atop the high columns to be closer to God. The monks are said to have lived there for more than a century before they disappeared from the premises.

The Temple of Zeus was Destroyed by an Act of GOD

The most curious detail about the history of Temple of Olympian Zeus was regarding the destruction of the magnificent complex. Many scholars for centuries speculated that the Greek structure was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Theodosius II when he began to embrace Christianity. Since he had made intense efforts to spread Christianity throughout the ancient world, he was believed to have ordered the burning down of the Temple of Zeus in 426 CE. Today, most historians agree that he indeed damaged the temple, although debate about his complete responsibility for the decimation. Another popular theory was that the Byzantines pulled the columns down by ropes and completed the destruction started by Theodosius.

However, as the nineteenth-century excavations began and continued over decades, scholarly theories began to change. It was now generally believed that the great temple complex was destroyed in a massive earthquake in the sixth century. 

More archaeological excavations are being conducted at the Temple of Zeus to discover more hidden facts, which would still need a couple of decades.

Historical Splendor of the Temple of Zeus

Exploring The Fascinating History Behind the Temple of Zeus

One of the most popular attractions in Athens, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is a majestic example of Greco-Roman architecture. The temple, which is renowned as one of the largest in the ancient world, is located in the Acropolis area of the city. As you explore the ruins of this once-magnificent structure, listen to fascinating stories about its history from an audio guide. Discover the legends of Zeus, the King of Gods, and learn how the temple developed over the centuries. Admire the Gate of Hadrian, the Themistoclean Wall, the Temple of Kronos and Rhea, and the Doric Temple of Apollo Delphinos during your tour.

The best time to visit the Temple of Zeus is in the early morning hours. During this period, the crowds are fewer and the ruins look spectacular under the morning sun. You would need at least two hours to completely explore the site as you admire its mesmerising architecture.

FAQ's of History of Temple of Zeus

When was the Temple of Zeus built?

The construction of the Temple of Zeus first began in 520 BCE under the Roman ruler Peisistratus. The process was stalled and restarted numerous times over six centuries, and the structure was finally completed in 131 CE under Emperor Hadrian.

What is the history of the Temple of Zeus?

The history of Temple of Zeus Athens starts in 520 BCE when construction was initiated by Roman ruler Peisistratus. After a gap of a few centuries, Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes restarted the process but was again stalled. Under Roman Emperor Hadrian, the temple was completed in 131 CE. It is believed that it was later destroyed in a sixth-century earthquake and was rediscovered in nineteenth-century excavations.

When was the Temple of Zeus destroyed?

Scholars differ on the timeline of the destruction of the Temple of Zeus. Earlier scholars believed that Roman Emperor Theodosius destroyed the temple by burning it down in 426 CE. However, recent excavations show that the structure was finally ruined in a sixth-century CE earthquake.

Is there any story of Fallen Columns?

Yes, the most well-known story about the Fallen Columns is that their stones were used for different construction purposes over the centuries. Since the sixteenth column fell during a nineteenth-century storm, only fifteen columns survive out of the original 104 marble structures.

How long did it take to build the Temple of Zeus?

It took more than six centuries to construct the Temple of Zeus. The construction began under the Romans in 520 BCE and was abandoned several times. It was finally during the reign of Emperor Hadrian that the temple was completed in 131 CE.


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