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Temple of Zeus at Olympia

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Archaeological Development

It is thought that the Temple of Zeus was the main focus of the sanctuary during ancient times, but instead it was constructed in the years after 471 BC [1]. Pausanias indicates that the temple was paid for with the victory booty from the Eleans' final defeat of Pisa, and was the biggest military commemoration in the sanctuary.

The temple was commemorating a victory where Olympia was the reward, and the temples construction directly served to show the control that the Eleans had over the sanctuary since their victory [2]. While the Temple of Zeus as a statement of victory showed Olympia as exclusive, the temple, according to Scott, was also a means of Olympia showing their "links to the wider Greek world". [3] Furthermore, the Temple of Zeus served as a display of competition and rivalry among the Greeks. [4]

The altar to Zeus had a huge significance, as it was built up from the ashes of all the previous sacrifices. This meant that the altar served as a display of the piety of the people of Olympia, and the extent to which they honoured Zeus Olympios.


The altar Temple of Zeus, made of the ashes of sacrifices, belonged to Zeus Olympios. However, there were many other Zeus' around the sanctuary possessing different epithets. These variety of Zeus' all shared the same name, but each had their own functions and could therefore be seen as their own distinct deity.

  • Zeus Keraunios and Katabaites: Zeus of thunder and lightning. This meant that any place that was struck by lightning was sacred to him.
  • Zeus Agoraios: Zeus of the agora, the marketplace.
  • Zeus Areios: Zeus of war.
  • Zeus Moiragetes: "Probably affecting the fortunes of the competitors"[5].
  • Zeus Herkeios: The protector of homes. This Zeus watches over the walls of the property and keeps it safe.
  • Zeus Katharsios: Zeus of purification.
  • Zeus Chthonios: Represents the underworld aspect of the god.
  • Zeus Apomyios: When honoured with sacrifices, this Zeus would keep the flies away from the sanctuary. This version of Zeus was specific to Olympia, and was not worshipped anywhere else in the Greek world.

Pausanias claims to have found and described all of the statues of Zeus in and around the sanctuary. As well as the Great Statue of Zeus in the sanctuary, he also found 43 others.

The main heroes worshipped at this site were Herakles and Pelops, as the stories of them both were shown on the pediment. Herakles was linked to the area as "the mythological founder of the Olympic games" [6]. The temple of Zeus shows an image of Herakles cleaning the stables of Augeias which, according to Scott, was the first appearance of this local myth in Greek art [7].

Furthermore, Pausanias 5.10.9 describes most of the labours of Herakles as depicted on the pediment. This includes the hunting of the Arcadian boar, his exploit against Diomedes, and him about to receive the burden of holding the world up for Atlas.

Ritual Activity

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Rules and Regulations

Other Activities

Though it might be expected that the Temple would be open during the Olympics, an occurrence every four years, it was actually open all year-round.[8] Its primary function during this time was as a tourist attraction; for this purpose there were guides about the site who would provide tours to visitors.[9] The exact content of these tours is unknown, as Pausanias does not provide a great amount of detail, but one can presume that the guides would have been very familiar with the site and its history from conducting these tours so regularly.

A significant number of additional staff were active across the broader site of Olympia and given the enormity and fame of the statue it is safe to assume it would have been used as a kind of showpiece, particularly with distinguished visitors. Additionally, some staff would have been necessary to conduct the oiling of the statue, which Pausanias alleges kept the ivory from harm by the climate.[10]

Historical Significance

Built in Olypmia, a famous and important religious site, the Temple of Zeus aggrandised the historical significance of the area. Pausanias tells us that the temple, and the statue within it, though made two decades apart, were funded as a result of Pisa's defeat by the Eleans.[11]

Acclaimed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the statue within the temple had a great deal of importance as a Hellenistic tourist attraction for many centuries.[12]

The Temple suffered damage over time due to both neglect and natural disasters. In the 5th Century AD Theodosius II enforced a ban on pagan festivals, which included the destruction and abandonment of the Temple. A century later the remains of the Temple were completely destroyed by two Earthquakes.[13] The statue in particular, though long since destroyed, remains relevant to modern discussion thanks to its status as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Who used the site, and where did they come from? 

Replace this with a discussion of the different communities who used the site, including dates and sources.

Select Site Bibliography

Primary Sources:

  • Euripides. Hippolytus, trans. T. Wertenbaker. Faber and Faber, 2009.
  • Herodotus, The Histories, trans. R. Waterfield. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece, trans. W.H.S. Jones. Harvard University Press, 1918.

Secondary Sources:

  • Argyris Alexandris, Ioannis Psycharis and Eleni Protopapa 'The Collapse of the Ancient Temple of Zeus at Olympia Revisited', 2014.
  • Emerson, M. Greek Sanctuaries: An Introduction. Bristol Classics Press, 2007.
  • Jeffrey Becker, Tom Elliott, and Sean Gillies, 'Temple of Zeus at Olympia: a Pleiades place resource', Pleiades: A Gazetteer of Past Places, 2018 <> [accessed: 06 February 2020]
  • Jordan, P. Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Routledge, 2002.
  • Mee, C., and Antony Spawforth. Greece: an Oxford Archaeological Guide. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Mikalson, J. D. Ancient Greek Religion. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
  • Pedley, J. Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Scott, M. Delphi and Olympia: The Spatial Politics of Panhellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods. Cambridge University Press, 2010.


[1] Scott, M., 2010: 183

[2] Scott, M., 2010: 184

[3] Scott, M., 2010: 185

[4] Scott, M., 2010: 192

[5] Mikalson J. D., 2009: 201

[6] Scott, M., 2010: 184

[7] Scott, M., 2010: 184

[8] Emerson, M. (2007) 49.

[9] Pausanias 5.10.

[10] Pausanias 5.11.

[11] Pausanias 5.10.

[12] Jordan, P. (2002) 71.

[13] Alexandris, A. (2014) 2.


Coordinates: 316294900

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Site Plan

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