The statue of Zeus in Olympia was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the masterpiece of Phidias, antiquity’s greatest sculptor. Sadly, the statue was destroyed under unknown circumstances at some point in late antiquity. However, legends and mysteries surround its 1,000-year-old history. Some stories are as strange as they are entertaining, like the one where it foretold the murder of the Roman Emperor Caligula.
The Statue of Zeus: Among the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
As Alexander the Great drew his final breath in 323 BCE, he left a vast empire behind him. Alexander’s sword had created a world of unprecedented cultural interactions, as the Hellenic culture spread from Greece to the oasis of Siwa and from there to the Indus river.
Greek-speaking travelers of the ensuing centuries would go on to write travel diaries and share their experiences and instructions. Some of them even compiled lists of must-see monuments which they called theamata (sights) and later thaumata (wonders). These lists changed depending on the traveler and their experiences. The list of monuments that we recognize today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World belongs to Antipater of Sidon (c. 100 BCE) and Philo of Byzantium (2nd century BCE). Among the most famous of the wonders was the statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was probably lost at some point in late antiquity, but more on that later.
Phidias: The Divine Sculptor
For the ancient Greeks, there was no greater sculptor than Phidias (beginning of the 5th century – c. 430 BCE). He was the one who oversaw the construction program of the Athenian Acropolis and created the Parthenon’s large chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena. In fact, he was the first sculptor ever to dare represent the gods with gold and ivory.
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Right after finishing Athena’s statue, Phidias was blamed for embezzlement by the enemies of his friend and prominent Athenian statesman Pericles. In the end, Phidias was relieved of the charges, after proving that he used the right amount of gold on the statue. Still, he did not manage to fend off the second wave of accusations. Apparently, he had depicted himself and Pericles on the shield of the goddess, which was a great hubris. This time, Phidias had to leave Athens to save himself.
It was probably this misfortune that brought the sculptor to the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia. The sanctuary was under the protection of the city of Elis. Seeing the opportunity, the Elians asked Phidias to create a statue of Zeus like no other, and so he did.
There is also another version, told by Plutarch, in which Phidias first visits Olympia to make the statue of Zeus and then goes to Athens, where he dies in prison. However, both versions agree on one thing: Phidias visited Olympia and created a unique image of Zeus.
The sculpture was larger than the one he had made in Athens. It was also more majestic. There was a magnetism that made it famous almost instantly. Centuries later, Pliny the Elder would write that this was a work “which no one ever equaled”. If you visit Olympia today, you can even see the workshop where the sculptor built the statue.
The Statue of Zeus
Pausanias saw the 12m tall statue with his own eyes in the 2nd century CE and wrote about it in detail. His description is valuable:
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.
However, what appears to have impressed Pausanias more, is Zeus’ throne. He goes on to describe it in extreme detail, so I am only quoting part of the description here:
“…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 each of the two front feet are set Theban children ravished by sphinxes, while under the sphinxes Apollo and Artemis are shooting down the children of Niobe…”
In front of the throne, the Elians kept a pool filled with oil. The oil protected the statue from the moisture of Olympia and helped preserve it to a good condition. Likewise, on the Acropolis of Athens, where the climate was dry, the Athenians used a pool of water to preserve the chryselephantine statue of Athena.
The Greek painter Panaenus, Phidias’ nephew, assisted in the creation of the statue “with respect to the colours with which it was ornamented, and particularly the drapery” (Strabo, Geography VIII.3.30). He also painted the panels that covered the front of the statue’s base.
What Did the Statue of Zeus Look Like?
According to legend, when someone asked Phidias what inspired him to make Zeus’ statue, the sculptor replied with the following verse from Homer’s Iliad (I.528-530):
“He said, and nodded with his shadowy brows;
Wav’d on th’ immortal head th’ ambrosial locks,
And all Olympus trembled at his nod.”
Even with Pausanias’ testimony and the words that inspired the sculptor, it is still not easy to picture how the statue would have looked. Luckily for us, its image appears on ancient Greek and Greco-Roman coins, gem and stone engravings, vase paintings, and sculptures.
Interestingly, the statue served as a reference for later depictions of Zeus as an old fatherly figure with a beard and long hair. We can find traces of this tradition in later Christian depictions of the Christ Pantocrator. It is kind of soothing to think that the same Christians who ferociously destroyed all things pagan, in a way, preserved the old tradition through their art.
Was Phidias’ Lover Depicted on the Statue?
Pausanias shares some gossip relating to the statue. At the feet of the throne, there were four rods, each with sculpted figures. One of these figures, a young boy placing a ribbon of victory on his head, was said to have been sculpted in the image of Pantarces, who was said to have been the lover of Phidias. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 CE) even claims that Phidias had written the phrase “Pantarkes kalos” (Pantarkes is beautiful/good) on Zeus’ finger! This directly implied that the sculptor maintained an erotic relationship with Pantarces.
Legends About the Statue
For the ancients, the statue of Zeus was more than just a statue, more than one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For them, it was a version of the god on earth. It is no coincidence that Pausanias referred to the statue as “ὁ θεὸς” (the god) and not as “the statue” or “the image”. This was not an uncommon thing in ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, it was the canon. Sculptures of gods were thought to mediate between the realm of gods and humans. Talking to a statue of Artemis, for example, was a way to communicate with the goddess. However, the statue of Zeus had moved beyond that. It was thought to have captured the very essence of the divine. This belief was strengthened by legends such as the one that claimed that when Phidias finished the statue, he asked Zeus if he was satisfied. As a response, thunder fell from the sky and opened a hole in the ground. Zeus approved.
“Nay, the god himself according to legend bore witness to the artistic skill of Pheidias. For when the image was quite finished Pheidias prayed the god to show by a sign whether the work was to his liking. Immediately, runs the legend, a thunderbolt fell on that part of the floor where down to the present day the bronze jar stood to cover the place.”
Livy relates that when the Roman general Aemilius Paulus visited Olympia, he saw the statue and “was stirred to the quick as he gazed on what seemed Jupiter’s very self”.
Dio Chrysostom, the Greek philosopher and orator of the 1st century CE, wrote that if animals could catch a glimpse of the statue, they would willingly submit themselves to a priest to be sacrificed to the god. Moreover, Dio claimed that whoever stood before the statue of Zeus “would forget all the terrors and hardships that fall to our human lot”.
Still, some found faults with Phidias’ creation. Strabo relates that the statue’s size was not proportional to that of the temple. Phidias had presented Zeus seated with his head almost touching the roof. But what would happen if the god decided to leave his temple and rise? Strabo replies: “he would unroof the temple!”
Caligula Wanted to Bring It to Rome
According to the Roman historians Suetonius (Gaius 22.2; 57.1) and Cassius Dio (59.28.3), the Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar, also known as Caligula, wanted to transport the statue of Zeus to Rome, and replace its head with a bust of his own.
Suetonius claims that the only reason this did not happen was because of Caligula’s assassination. He even writes that while the statue was being prepared to be shipped to Rome, the statue foretold the emperor’s death, when it suddenly burst out laughing so loudly that:
“… the scaffoldings collapsed and the workmen took to their heels; and at once a man called Cassius turned up, who declared that he had been bidden in a dream to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter”.
Cassius Dio partially agrees with Suetonius. For him, it wasn’t the emperor’s death that prevented the statue’s removal, but the wrath of the god:
“… the ship built to bring it was shattered by thunderbolts, and loud laughter was heard every time that anybody approached as if to take hold of the pedestal; accordingly, after uttering threats against the statue, he set up a new one of himself.”
Obviously, these stories have more to do with legend than reality. In these narrations, the statue is clearly illustrated as a monument so holy that the very idea of transporting it is hubris.
What Happened to the Statue of Zeus?
In 391 BCE, Theodosius forbade the cult of the pagan gods and closed all pagan sites. As the Olympic Games were forbidden, Olympia could no longer be the place it once was. In 408 CE, new legislation asked for the removal of cult statues from their temples. The old world was not dying; it was getting destroyed! The statue of Zeus possibly survived this wave of destruction, but no one really knows what happened. Most scholars argue that it was moved to Constantinople, where it was lost sometime during the 5th or the 6th century.
However, thanks to its status as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the legends that the ancient authors had spread, Phidias’ statue remained alive through the art of the subsequent centuries. The statue of Zeus at Olympia changed the way the king of the gods was depicted, ultimately setting a visual precedent that even the Christian God would not fail to follow. In addition, imaginary reconstructions from Van Heemskerck to Quatramere de Quincy and Salvador Dali to Assassin’s Creed clearly indicate that the legend of the statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, has remained alive throughout the centuries.