Statue of Zeus: History and Characteristics

The Zeus' statue , also known as Zeus of Olympia or Olympian Zeus, was a sculpture more than ten meters high, made of ivory and gold, erected by the sculptor Phidias in the city of Olympia, Greece, sometime during the fourth century BC. It was considered one of the seven Wonders of the ancient world .

The statue of Zeus was inside a temple built only to contain it, and its magnitude and size were such that it occupied the entire corridor of the building. It was a representation of the great Greek god sitting on a throne.

Statue of Zeus: History and Characteristics Artistic representation of the statue of Zeus in Olympia (1572). It is inaccurate in some details: according to historical sources Zeus had a statuette of Victoria in the right hand and a scepter with a bird sitting in the left hand.

Around the throne and the base there were descriptions and engravings that evoked great actions on the part of this deity.

The statue was kept for centuries in its temple in Olympia, until by order of Emperor Caligula, it was allegedly moved to Constantinople, where it was kept in a temple until a fire destroyed it completely.

All the vestiges and reconstructions of the statue of Zeus today do not come directly from the original piece, but from its representation in murals, engravings and even minted coins of the time.

History of the statue of Zeus

It is estimated that the statue of Zeus was built at some period of the classical period, possibly in the middle of the fifth century BC.

Olympia had become the site of the Olympic Games and an urban center of worship for Zeus, so the Hellenes, custodians of the Olympics, entrusted the construction of a statue of the god to house it inside the temple.

The task was entrusted to the architect Fidias, who was at his best after having erected a statue of Athena Partenos in Athens. It is said that one of the reasons why the Hellenes entrusted the construction of the statue of Zeus was their rivalry with the Athenians.

The temple in which the statue of Zeus was housed was designed by the architect Libón, and it did not have as fine finishes as the statue itself did. Once completed, the statue of Zeus was the object of veneration and protection, as well as the celebration of the Olympic Games every four years.

The threat of Emperor Caligula

During the period of power of Emperor Caligula, his arrogance caused him to order that all statues of god of great artistic and religious value be decapitated and his own head placed in its place. The statue of Zeus was one of these victims, but the emperor was killed before it could be carried out.

A legend that shows the value of the statue is that when the soldiers sent by Caligula went to behead her, Zeus through the statue, made a great laugh making everything around him tremble, scaring those present, who no longer dared to approaching, and announcing in some way the death of Caligula for his arrogance.

The transformation to Catholicism of the Roman Empire and the prohibition of pagan cults promoted later by the Emperor Theodosius the Great, resulted in the abandonment and disuse of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia.


Two historical versions are handled around the eventual destruction of the statue of Zeus in Olympia. A story that was transferred to Constantinople, to be housed in the Palace of Lausos, and eventually succumb during a fire that suffered the structure approximately in the year 475.

The other version relates that the statue was slowly looted and dismantled in its own temple of Olympia, due to its composition in ivory and large portions of gold, and that it was already damaged by another fire that affected the temple in the year 425 .

It is said that because the faith in Zeus was not as strong as before, he could not react to the pillage and looting of his own image on earth.

The original statue of Zeus did not have any replica or copy in marble or other material of the time, and today several representations have been made that today seek to emulate, from the historical vestiges, what could have been this great piece sculptural One of the most popular is the Dresden Zeus, preserved in the Hermitage Museum in Russia.

Description and characteristics

The statue of Zeus was a work of crisoelefantina technique (that Fidias had already applied in the construction of the statue of Athena), that is, a combination of the most polished ivory with elements in pure gold.

It is said to be over 12 meters high. It is estimated that if the statue of Zeus had risen from the throne and stood up, he would have broken the roof of the temple.

The statue depicts Zeus sitting on a throne, bare-chested and wearing a large mantle of gold covering his legs. His arms are raised, holding in one hand Nike, goddess of victory, and in the other a scepter. On that same side, at his feet, a golden eagle whose height reaches the waist of the god. The sandals were also made of gold.

The throne on which Zeus sat had its own ornaments in gold, ebony, and precious stones, as well as detailed engravings.

The base of the statue contained a series of sculpted murals that evoked some divine historical sequence; Phidias chose to represent the birth of Aphrodite through cosmic representation and the presence of other gods.

A legend tells that at the end of the statue, Phidias asked Zeus for a sign to see if his representation was to his liking. Zeus responded by throwing a ray to the floor of the temple in approval.

Around the statue, the temple was decorated with murals in sequence that glimpsed themes related to the same Zeus and his offspring, as is justice and the work of one of his sons, Hercules.

There was also the place where the Olympic torch is lit and which, like today, remained lit during the course of the Olympic Games.


  1. Barringer, J. M. (2005). The Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Heroes, and Athletes. Hesperia , 211-241.
  2. Jordan, P. (2014). Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. New York: Routledge.
  3. Müller, A. (1966). The seven wonders of the world: five thousand years of culture and history in the ancient world. McGraw-Hill.
  4. Pastor, P. A. (2013). A reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus of Olympia: towards the resolution of the"Phidiasprobleme". Madrid: Complutense University of Madrid.
  5. Richter, G. M. (1966). The Pheidian Zeus at Olympia. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens , 166-170.

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