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The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

"The god sits on a throne, and he is made of gold and ivory. On his head lies a garland which is a copy of olive shoots. In his right hand he carries a Victory, which, like the statue, is of ivory and gold; she wears a ribbon and—on her head—a garland. In the left hand of the god is a scepter, ornamented with every kind of metal, and the bird sitting on the scepter is the eagle. The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily. The throne is adorned with gold and with jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory. Upon it are painted figures and wrought images. There are four Victories, represented as dancing women, one at each foot of the throne, and two others at the base of each foot....On the uppermost parts of the throne Pheidias has made, above the head of the image, three Graces on one side and three Seasons on the other.... I know that the height and breadth of the Olympic Zeus have been measured and recorded; but I shall not praise those who made the measurements, for even their records fall far short of the impression made by a sight of the image."

Pausanias, Description of Greece (V.11.1-2, 7, 9)

Regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia (c. 430 BC) was the final masterpiece of Pheidias, who also was responsible for the Parthenon sculptures. Philo of Bzyantium writes that "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. The work brings praise, and the immortality brings honour" (III.3). Measuring forty feet in height, it was so large, says Strabo in his Geography (VIII.3.30), that, even seated, it almost touched the roof of the cella, "thus making the impression that if Zeus arose and stood erect he would unroof the temple." Indeed, fragments of a poem by Callimachus confirm the height and that the head of the statue likely was no more than three feet from the roof of the cella. (The written description of Pausanias is supplemented by coins minted at Olympia. Issued under Hadrian, who himself posed as Olympian Zeus, they depict the god seated on his throne.) Pausanius goes on to say that in front of the statue was a reflecting pool of olive oil to keep the ivory from being harmed by the marshy ground of the site (V.11.10; the statue of Athena Parthenos, on the other hand, required water to keep the ivory from drying out).

Suetonius relates that Caligula, grown increasingly megalomaniacal, gave "orders that such statues of the gods as were especially famous for their sanctity or their artistic merit, including that of Jupiter of Olympia, should be brought from Greece, in order to remove their heads and put his own in their place" (XXII.2). The attempt failed, however, when the statue purportedly "uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffoldings collapsed and the workmen took to their heels" (LVII.1).

Soon after the founding of Constantinople in AD 330, Constantine had ordered that all gold, silver, and bronze be removed from pagan temples, both to adorn his new city and augment the imperial treasury.

"...he used every means to rebuke the superstitious errors of the heathen. Hence the entrances of their temples in the several cities were left exposed to the weather, being stripped of their doors at his command; the tiling of others was removed, and their roofs destroyed. From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore his name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders. With regard to those images which were of gold, he dealt with them in a different manner. For as soon as he understood that the ignorant multitudes were inspired with a vain and childish dread of these bugbears of error, wrought in gold and silver, he judged it right to remove these also, like stumbling-stones thrown in the way of men walking in the dark, and henceforward to open a royal road, plain and unobstructed to all....They ordered the priests themselves, amidst general laughter and scorn, to bring their gods from their dark recesses to the light of day: they then stripped them of their ornaments, and exhibited to the gaze of all the unsightly reality which had been hidden beneath a painted exterior. Lastly, whatever part of the material appeared valuable they scraped off and melted in the fire to prove its worth, after which they secured and set apart whatever they judged needful for their purpose, leaving to the superstitious worshipers that which was altogether useless, as a memorial of their shame. Meanwhile our admirable prince was himself engaged in a work similar to what we have described. For at the same time that these costly images of the dead were stripped, as we have said, of their precious materials, he also attacked those composed of brass; causing those to be dragged from their places with ropes and as it were carried away captive, whom the dotage of mythology had esteemed as gods."

Eusebius, Life of Constantine (III.54)

The church, having endured persecution, itself, was to be no less intolerant, although the tendency was not to attack pagans so much as the places where they worshipped and the demonic statues they revered. If Constantine had been obliged to be more circumspect in an empire that still was predominantly pagan, his sons were not. In AD 341, Constantius and Constans decreed that "Superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifice shall be abolished" (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.2). Writing sometime in the later AD 340s, the astrologer Firmicus, with all the religious zeal of the recent convert, exhorts the emperors to

"Take away, yes, calmly take away, Most Holy Emperors, the adornments of the temples. Let the fire of the mint or the blaze of the smelters melt them down, and confiscate all the votive offerings to your own use and ownership. Since the time of the destruction of the temples you have been, by God's power, advanced in greatness."

De Errore Profanarum Religionum, XXVIII.6

He is the first Christian apologist to demand the complete intolerance of pagan worship: The ruler, in exercising secular power under God, is obliged to legislate for the spiritual good of his subjects, even it means their forceful conversion.

"These practices must be eradicated, Most Holy Emperors, utterly eradicated and abolished. All must be set aright by the severest laws of your edicts, so that the ruinous error of this delusion may no longer besmirch the Roman world....We know the dangerous nature of their crime, and we know what punishments are appropriate for delusion; but it is better for you to save them against their will than to let them follow their wishes into perdition" (XVI.4).

Indeed, the edict of AD 346 (CTh. XVI.10.4), immediately ordering the closure of temples "in all places and in all cites" and threatening death and the confiscation of property for anyone who sacrificed, may have been prompted by this exhortation.

Enforcement by officials who, themselves, often were pagans was lax, and prohibitions had to be reiterated and penalties made more severe. One shrine, probably at Edessa, was allowed to remain open, its images to be "measured by the value of their art rather than by their divinity" (CTh. XVI.10.8). But that was the exception. The edicts promulgated by Theodosius I in AD 391 and 392 outlawed paganism in a now Christian world. No person was to sacrifice, approach the temples or wander through them or revere the images found there. The household gods were not to be venerated nor trees tied with ribbons or images honored. There were no sacrifices in temples, shrines, or any other building or field. (Such measures also effectively abolished the Olympic games, which ended in AD 393, the 293rd Olympiad, almost twelve hundred years after they had begun.)

In AD 408, further legislation was promulgated that authorized the removal of statues from the temples. For the first time, too, bishops were granted the ecclesiastical authority to enforce such laws.

"If any images stand even now in the temples and shrines, and if they have received, or do now receive, the worship of the pagans anywhere, they shall be torn from their foundations, since We recognize that this regulation has been very often decreed by repeated sanctions. The buildings themselves of the temples which are situated in cities or towns or outside the towns shall be vindicated to public use. Altars shall be destroyed in all places, and all temples situated in Our landholdings shall be transferred to suitable uses. The proprietors shall be compelled to destroy them."

CTh. XVI.10.19

Unlike the Cnidian Aphrodite, which Cedrenus says was destroyed in the fire of AD 475, the fate of the colossal statue of Olympian Zeus is not recorded. It may have been lost then, as well, or in the earlier fire of AD 464, about which Evagrius writes so lamentably. If not, the ancient wooden frame of the statue, its hammered gold drapery of lilies and jewels long since stripped away, would have succumbed to an even greater conflagration in AD 532, when half the city was set afire during the Nika revolt. Theophanes notes that the whole palace was destroyed in that fire.

A sense of the destruction can be gleaned from Procopius, who records that Belisarius, in approaching the Hippodrome to suppress the revolt, was obliged to "made his way over ground covered by ruins and half-burned buildings" (I.24.48). Here, more than thirty thousand rioters were massacred in a single day. Next to the stadium, on the northwestern side, was the probable location of the palace. It consisted of a large rotunda, which served as a reception hall, and a long gallery, at the end of which was an apse where the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, now almost a thousand years old, likely was displayed.

Although a lone column has been reconstructed, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which held the statue of the cult god, now is in ruins, destroyed by earthquakes in AD 522 and AD 551.

With a beard and long hair parted in the middle, this mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, Ruler of All, looks down from the central dome of Monreale Cathedral, Santa Maria la Nuova (1174). It derives its formal iconography from the lost statue of Olympian Zeus, which had resided in Constantinople for perhaps half a century before it was destroyed. Strabo (also Dio Chrysostom, Twelfth Discourse, 25-26) relates that Pheidias had sought to evoke an image of Zeus first created by Homer in the Iliad (I.528-530): "He spoke, the son of Kronos, and nodded his head with the dark brows, and the immortally anointed hair of the great god swept from the divine head, and all Olympos was shaken." And so it is seen here.  


This exquisite watercolor (1883) of Olympian Zeus was drawn by Victor Laloux and is from the library of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the Palais des Etudes (Paris). It was noted by the judges at the time that it "captured a view of reality that, if it is not reality itself, is at least a very close reality." That having been said, the decoration and color of the interior have been overemphasized, especially the open roof, which was conjectured to have allowed light to illuminate the cult statue.

The temple is Doric peripteral hexastyle, with thirteen columns along the long sides. Pausanias himself describes it (V.10.1-10) as being sixty-eight feet in height, ninety-five feet in width, and two hundred and thirty feet in length. The roof tiles, rather than of terracotta were of marble cut to look like tiles. At the ends of the roof were gilt caldrons and at the apex of the pediment, a gilt Victory, beneath which was a golden shield dedicated by the Spartans (in 456 BC) with the head of Medusa in relief. Partially around the frieze, itself, were twenty-one additional gilt shields offered by the Roman general Mummius to commemorate his sack of Corinth (in 146 BC).

"To come to the pediments: in the front pediment there is, not yet begun, the chariot-race between Pelops and Oenomaus, and preparation for the actual race is being made by both. An image of Zeus has been carved in about the middle of the pediment; on the right of Zeus is Oenomaus with a helmet on his head, and by him Sterope his wife, who was one of the daughters of Atlas. Myrtilus too, the charioteer of Oenomaus, sits in front of the horses, which are four in number. After him are two men. They have no names, but they too must be under orders from Oenomaus to attend to the horses. At the very edge lies Cladeus, the river which, in other ways also, the Eleans honor most after the Alpheius. On the left from Zeus are Pelops, Hippodameia, the charioteer of Pelops, horses, and two men, who are apparently grooms of Pelops. Then the pediment narrows again, and in this part of it is represented the Alpheius. The name of the charioteer of Pelops is, according to the account of the Troezenians, Sphaerus, but the guide at Olympia called him Cillas" (V.10.6-7).

"The sculptures in the front pediment are by Paeonius, who came from Mende in Thrace; those in the back pediment are by Alcamenes, a contemporary of , ranking next after him for skill as a sculptor. What he carved on the pediment is the fight between the Lapithae and the Centaurs at the marriage of Peirithous. In the center of the pediment is Peirithous. On one side of him is Eurytion, who has seized the wife of Peirithous, with Caeneus bringing help to Peirithous, and on the other side is Theseus defending himself against the Centaurs with an axe. One Centaur has seized a maid, another a boy in the prime of youth. Alcamenes, I think, carved this scene, because he had learned from Homer's poem that Peirithous was a son of Zeus, and because he knew that Theseus was a great grandson of Pelops" (V.10.8).

References: "The Palace of Lausus at Constantinople and Its Collection of Ancient Statues" (1992) by Cyril Mango, Michael Vickers, and E. D. Francis, Journal of the History of Collections, 4(1), 89-98; "The Place of Lausus and Nearby Monuments in Constantinople: A Topographical Study" (!997) by Jonathan Bardill, American Journal of Archaeology, 101, 67-95; Pausanias: Description of Greece (1918) translated by W. H. S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod (Loeb Classical Library); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; The Seven Wonders of the World (1995) by John and Elizabeth Romer; A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II (Vol I: Eusebius) (1890) edited by by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; Procopius: History of the Wars (The Persian War) (1914) translated by H. B. Dewing (Loeb Classical Library); The Lausiac History of Palladius (1918) translated by W. K. Lowther Clarke; The Iliad of Homer (1951) translated by Richmond Lattimore; Firmicus Maternus: The Error of the Pagan Religions (1970) translated by Clarence A. Forbes; The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor: Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813 (1997) translated by Cyril Mango and Roger Scott, with Geoffrey Greatrex; The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire: Vol II: AD 395-527 (1980) by J. R. Martindale; "The Measurements of the Zeus at Olympus" (1941) by R. Pfeiffer, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 61, 1-5; Pausanias: Description of Greece (1918) translated by W. H. S. Jones (Loeb Classical Library). The illustration and quotation are taken from Greece: Temples, Tombs, & Treasures (1994) by the Editors of Time-Life Books.

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