Phidias: The Greatest Sculptor of Antiquity

In this article we will explore the life and work of Phidias, the greatest sculptor of antiquity who sculpted divine images of the gods.

Mar 18, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Detail of Phidias from Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, by Alma Tadema, 1868-9; with Phidias’ workshop at Olympia, Greece


Phidias was by far the most famous ancient Greek sculptor. The Greeks spoke of his sculptures as if they were gods themselves and their creator earned a seat amongst the greatest artists of all times. 2,500 years after his death, Phidias’ name remains synonymous with classical Greek sculpture, the Acropolis of Athens, as well as one of the seven wonders of the world, the statue of Zeus in Olympia.


The Life Of Phidias

Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, by Alma Tadema, 1868-9, Birmingham Museums


Most of Phidias’ life is unknown. , what is known with certainty is that he was highly respected among the ancients and considered to be the greatest sculptor of all time.


Phidias was the son of Charmides and was born in Athens at some point around 490. He studied the principles and techniques of Greek sculpture next to Hegias and Hageladas and quickly rose to prominence as he became friends with Pericles, the man that dominated the politics of Athens and led the city through its Golden Age, also called the Golden Age of Pericles.


At the time, Pericles was looking to rebrand Athens by transforming the sacred hill of Acropolis into a monument to Athenian democracy and the city’s cultural supremacy. At the same time, the reshaping of the Acropolis was a celebration of the triumph of the free Greek city-states against the all-powerful Persian Empire at the battle of Marathon. The gravity of the work called for an artist with excellent aesthetic perception, and, for Pericles, that was Phidias. In 447 BCE, Pericles asked Phidias to oversee the work, and the sculptor proved more than capable of the job. Phidias worked in the Acropolis until the decade of the 430s when he left for Olympia due to a scandal.


Phidias Was Accused Of Embezzlement

Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon, possibly designed by Phidias, 438-432 BCE, British Museum

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In Athens, Phidias made his most famous images of the goddess Athena and oversaw the creation of the Parthenon frieze. He made the bronze sculptures of Athena Promachos and the Lemnian Athena and the gold and ivory image of Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon.  While he was working on this last one, Pericles warned Phidias that he should be extremely careful not to leave a suspicion that he embezzled public money in any way.


Truly when Phidias completed the work, Pericles’ political enemies accused Phidias that he had kept for himself some of the gold that should have been used for the statue. However, Phidias expected this accusation and made sure that all of the statue’s golden parts were detachable. The gold was weighed, and Phidias disproved his accusers once and for all. Or not… After this event, some blamed Phidias for something worse than embezzlement. They accused him of depicting himself and Pericles on the shield of Athena. This was great hubris going against the religious morality of the time. Although we cannot know for sure what happened, Phidias must have been guilty of these charges.


What happened next is not certain. There is the opinion that he died imprisoned in Athens. More likely is though that he was banished to Olympia, where he completed the statue of Zeus and met his end.


Phidias’ Place In The History Of Greek Sculpture

Marble statue from the East pediment of the Parthenon, possibly designed by Phidias, 438-432 BCE, British Museum


Phidias is quite possibly the originator of the famous Greek Classical idealist style. He was the one who made two of the most important works in the history of Greek sculpture, the gold and ivory statues of Athena in the Parthenon and Zeus in Olympia. Through his works, he managed to influence countless artists in Greece, Rome, and beyond. His images of the gods became a canon for centuries to the point that the ancients said that he had either visited Olympus or the gods had presented themselves to him.


It is truly difficult to overstate how important was the place of Phidias in ancient Greek sculpture. He was by far the most famous and the most revered sculptor. The only one that competed with his fame was Praxiteles, but no one ever managed to claim to be able to make images of the gods as well as Phidias. In many ways, Phidias did not only sculpt images of the gods but rather the gods themselves. For centuries, the Greeks and the Romans would think of the gods in the way that Phidias had made them.


Works In Bronze


Kassel Apollo, possibly a Roman copy of Apollo Parnopios, 2nd century CE, Louvre


Apollo Parnopios (parnops means locust in ancient Greek) was devoted in 450 BCE to Apollo to thank the god for saving Attica from the locusts that were destroying the crops. The god was presented holding his on the left hand and a laurel leaf in his right.


The statue is preserved today indirectly through more or less loyal marble Roman reproductions. Phidias’ Apollo represented a leap forward in the history of ancient Greek sculpture from the austerity of late archaic Greek sculpture to the fluid movement of the classical age.


Lemnian Athena

Furtwangler’s reconstruction of Lemnian Athena, via Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge


Lycinus: So far, so good. But among the works of Phidias what did you praise most highly?

Polystratus: What could it be but the Lemnian Athena, on which Phidias deigned actually to inscribe his name? Lucian, Imagines 4


It seems that the ancients considered the Lemnian Athena to be Phidias’ masterpiece. Except for the above dialogue from Lucian’s Imagines, Pausanias (1.28.2) also referred to the statue as “the best worth seeing of the works of Phidias.” Other ancient authors also mention the statue, always indicating that it was a particular sight to see.


The Lemnian Athena was an artwork that Phidias made some time during the 450s BCE. The statue was commissioned by Athenians who lived on the island of Lemnos, and it was dedicated to the Acropolis of Athens.


The original is not preserved today, but in the late 19th century, there was an interesting attempt by Adolf Furtwangler to reconstruct the lost work. Furtwangler combined parts of two different Roman marble sculptures of Athena that he thought were copies of Phidias’ original. The 19th-century reconstruction is a matter of debate among archaeologists.


Works In Gold And Ivory

The Statue Of Athena Promachos

Reconstruction of Athena Promachos


“There is first a bronze Athena, tithe from the Persians who landed at Marathon. It is the work of Phidias, but the reliefs upon the shield, including the fight between Centaurs and Lapithae, are said to be from the chisel of Mys, for whom they say Parrhasius the son of Evenor, designed this and the rest of his works.” Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.28.2


According to Pausanias’ testimony, Athena Promachos was a colossal bronze statue created by Phidias. The Athenians ordered the statue to thank the goddess Athena after defeating the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.


Athena Promachos was a colossal bronze statue of the goddess Athena on the Acropolis of Athens. Phidias created the statue between 465-456 BCE as part of the Periclean construction program that completely reshaped the sacred hill of Acropolis. The statue was placed between the Erechtheum and the Propylaea. It presented an image of Athena ready for battle, holding her spear and shield.


No one knows how large the statue actually was, but one thing is certain; it must have been really tall:


“The point of the spear of this Athena and the crest of her helmet are visible to those sailing to Athens, as soon as Sounium is passed.” (Sounion is around 60km away from Athens).


The Statue Of Zeus In Olympia

Statue of Zeus in the Temple at Olympia, Alfred Charles Conrade, 1913-1914, British Museum


“…the Olympian Jupiter, which no one has ever equalled…” Pliny the Elder, Natural History 34.19


Phidias’ most famous work was the statue of Zeus at the god’s temple in Olympia. It was so famous that it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Although it did not survive past the fourth century CE, we can get an idea of how the statue looked like from ancient descriptions and depiction on ancient Greek coins.


The statue was made of ivory, for the naked parts, and gold, for the rest. However, the core was wooden. Zeus seated on his throne, holding a sculpture of the victory goddess Nike and a scepter with an eagle at the top. It was so large (almost 12,5 meters) that the locals were joking that if Zeus wanted to stand up, he would hit his head on the temple’s ceiling.


In front of the statue, there was an oil reservoir meant to balance the humidity and preserve the gold and ivory parts of the statue.


Statue of Zeus, possibly a Roman copy of Phidias’ original, 1st Century, Hermitage Museum


Pausanias (5.11) relates a legend according to which when Phidias finished making the statue, he looked at the sky and asked Zeus if he liked his golden-ivory image. Right away, thunder opened a hole in the ground as a symbol of the god’s approval. Until Pausanias’ time, there was still a hole on the floor that was said to be made out of Zeus’ thunder.


The Roman emperor Caligula wanted to transport the statue to Rome and have Zeus’ head replaced with his own bust. Caligula’s death in 41 CE was a twist of luck that allowed the statue to survive a bit longer.


Phidias’ Workshop In Olympia

The workshop of Phidias, 430-420 BCE, Olympia


One of the most interesting monuments in Olympia is the workshop of Phidias. Today the visitor to the archaeological site can only see ruins, but back in the 5th century BCE, this was the place where Phidias sculpted the statues of Zeus. The building was constructed sometime between 430-420 BCE when Phidias completed the statue of Athena at the Parthenon and moved to Olympia to work on his Zeus. The most probable scenario is that the sculptor made the statue in parts that were moved to the nearby temple of Zeus and assembled there.


Archaeological finds inside the workshop include clay matrices, ivory pieces, semi-precious stones, tools, and others. However, the most important finding by far was a  small cup belonging to the Phidias. How do we know that it was his? The cup is a small black painted cup with the following words written on it: “Phidio eimi,” which translates into “I belong to Phidias.”

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.