Zeus statue of Phidias

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Illustration of the statue of Zeus on a coin from Elis

The Zeus statue of Phidias was the seated colossal statue of Zeus for the in 456 BC. Completed Temple of Zeus at Olympia . The seat was made by the sculptor Phidias between 438 and 430 BC. It was created in BC and was one of the " Seven Wonders of the World " not only because of its height of around 13 meters . The statue was made of gold and ivory . The throne was made of ebony . Zeus held Nike in his right hand and a staff in his left. The base and throne were also richly decorated with sculptural figures and reliefs, and painted barriers kept the visitor at a distance.

While remains of the foundations of the statue base in Olympia have been preserved, the statue itself is lost and can only be reconstructed from coin representations and ancient descriptions. According to a legend from the 12th century, the statue was in Constantinople in the 5th century AD , where it was burned in 475.


Archaeological evidence

The statue itself has not survived, but the foundations of its base could be found between 480/70 and 456 BC. The temple of Zeus built in BC is to be excavated. It started at the height of the fifth inner columns from the east and took up the entire width of the rear third of the central nave. Their dimensions were 6.65 meters in width and 9.93 meters in depth. In the middle third of the central nave was a 12 centimeter deep and 6.40 meter square basin made of dark gray to black-bluish slabs of Eleusinian limestone framed by white marble. It served either to catch the oil that was needed to care for the ivory, or it served as a water container to regulate the humidity.

The width of the base and the interior of the temple allow the reconstruction of a 12 to 13 meter high statue. The foundations of the base were reinforced after the temple was completed, so they were not originally designed for a statue of the dimensions that were realized later. At the same time, the column arrangement inside the cella was slightly changed.

The Zeus statue was only used from 438/435 BC. BC, almost twenty years after the end of the construction of the temple , created by Phidias, who lived until around 430 BC. BC worked on this statue, one of his greatest masterpieces. The delay compared to the completion of the temple is due on the one hand to repair work after a severe earthquake in the 5th century BC. BC, but on the other hand it can also be due to the political situation in Greece after the end of the first Peloponnesian War .

Replicas of the statue or its parts have not survived. Assumptions that Antiochus IV had a copy of the statue set up in the temple of Apollo in Daphne near Antioch do not contribute to the reconstruction. In addition to pieces of ivory, clay models of the statue that served as glass matrices were discovered in the workshop of Phidias , also mentioned in ancient tradition , which probably originated from parts of Zeus 'clothing and can at least give a vague impression of Zeus' plasticity. A ceramic cup with the words: ΦΕΙΔΙΟΥ ΕΙΜΙ (Φειδίου εἰμί; Pheidiou eimi "des Pheidias [property] I am") carved into the bottom was found in the rubble of the workshop next to remains of material and tools.

Numerous coin issues from the Roman Empire depict either the head or the entire statue of Zeus in profile or three-quarter view. Accordingly, Zeus was depicted sitting on a high throne. His feet rested on a stool. He held a winged Nike in his right hand and a propped up lance in his left hand. Sphinxes are shown below the back.

Written tradition

Marble seated statue of Zeus in the Hermitage , created after Phidias' Zeus statue

The statue of Zeus was often mentioned in ancient writings, often without further description, often in an anecdotal context, but mostly simply as a work of Phidias. Some of the first technical details come from Callimachus of Cyrene , a scholar of the 3rd century BC. Chr. He describes in a rather fragmentary poem especially the extent and mentioned that on the throne of Zeus back Horen were, the term Nike falls into the context. According to this, the Zeus was 30 cubits high, which corresponds to about 13.20 meters, the statue was probably 20 cubits at the base, i.e. 8.80 meters wide and the throne was 5 cubits lower than the Zeus, therefore about 12 meters high. Incidentally, its costs cannot be calculated.

The Greek travel writer Pausanias gives a detailed description of the statue, according to which the appearance can only be reconstructed to a limited extent, as much in the description leaves room for interpretation. Pausanias deliberately refuses to give the size of the statue, as the result of any measurement cannot do justice to the size and impression of the statue. The statue was built on an inner frame, clad on the outside with gold , ivory and ebony , so it was chryselephantine , and decorated with cast colored glass and precious stones. It showed Zeus seated on a throne ruling the earth with a raised eyebrow. In his right hand he held a Nike adorned with a taenie , in his left he had a staff adorned with precious metals, on the end of which sat a bird. His hair was in long curls, on which he wore an olive wreath. The god's feet rested on a stool decorated with figurative reliefs.

The statue was decorated with reliefs and free sculptures. The base was covered with golden images of numerous gods and pairs of gods. The throne probably had feet in the shape of lion paws. The throne, like the statue, was made of gold, ivory and ebony, and also set with precious stones. There were four dancing niks at each of the four feet of the throne, two more niks were added per forefoot. In addition, boy-robbing sphinxes adorned the front legs, probably below the side arms of the throne. Niobid friezes adorned the throne, the upper end of which bore the Horen and Charites mentioned in Callimachos . Struts stiffened the legs of the throne and the front strut was decorated with figures of boys in the form of sculptures or reliefs. The other strivings showed an Amazonomachy with Heracles , Theseus and 27 other fighters on the side of the Greeks, who were faced by 29 Amazons .

Painted barriers from the hand of Panainos , who was also responsible for the color design of the statue, kept the visitors at a distance. The front barrier was monochrome in a strong blue, while the other three barriers were each painted with three image fields: Heracles as he is about to take the burden off the shoulders of Atlas ; Theseus and Peirithoos , probably in the underworld, personifications of the Hellas and the Salamis with ship's beaks in their hands as allusions to the sea victories of the Greeks against the Persians ; the lion-conquering Heracles; the desecration of Kassandra by the Locrian aias ; Hippodameia and Sterope , daughter and wife of Oinomaos ; Prometheus and Heracles bound ; Achilles supporting the dying Amazon Penthesilea ; Finally, and taking up the story of the first picture again: two Hesperides with two apples in order to be able to steal their apples, Heracles lifted the burden from Atlas, father of the Hesperides, so that he could pick the apples.

Each side of the throne showed the sequence “Heracles myth” - “dramatic love story” - “mythical female figures”. For Theseus and Peirithoos were also stuck in the underworld, Hades , because they wanted to kidnap Persephone .

Strabo calls Panainos, who was a close relative of Phidias, "Synergolabos" ( συνεργόλαβος ), which indicates a position at eye level with Phidias. Because, as a synergistic subscription, he was co-contractor for the advertised statue of Zeus. In the discussion with Panainus, Phidias is said to have uttered the famous words that Homer's verses about Zeus served as a model for his artistic design :

"Ἦ καὶ κυανέῃσιν ἐπ 'ὀφρύσι νεῦσε Κρονίων
ἀμβρόσιαι δ' ἄρα χαῖται ἐπερρώσαντο ἄνλκταος
θδλοτο νακέτανανοιτοές“ νγλτο “νλλέταναντοτο νλλτανοποτο νλλτο νλλττανανοτος “νλλτο “νλλττ θαντοτο νλλτα θαντοτ νλλτα θανοτοέ ἀνλλτα θανοτοέ ἀνλλτασ θανοτο ἄνλλττν.

“So spoke, and beckoned to Kronion with blackish brows;
And the ambrosial locks of the king flowed forward
from his immortal head; the heights of Mount Olympus trembled. "

- Homer : Iliad 1 : 528-530

This artist anecdote was taken up again and again up to Byzantine times.


The Greeks considered unhappy who had not seen the sanctuary and the things in it. Even a senseless creature would be shocked by the sight of Zeus . The Zeus of Olympia was the last work of the Greek sculptor Phidias, from whom the statue of Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis in Athens , erected using the same technique, came. She represented the chief of the gods with a furrowed eyebrow (supercilium) . For according to ancient beliefs, Zeus ruled the world with a lift of his brow; with a frown he made Olympus shake. Even ancient times accused Phidias of violating the rules of right proportion with his statue. Because the seated Zeus reached up to the temple roof, which he would have destroyed if he had got up. On the other hand, the sight must have been an emotionally exciting event. In the early 2nd century BC The Roman general Aemilius Paullus was frightened at the sight of the statue and expressed the opinion that Phidias alone had copied Zeus Homer. Aemilius Paullus was so moved by the lifelike impression of the statue that he ordered a sacrifice to the god that was comparable to a sacrifice for the Capitoline Jupiter .

The statue of Zeus is first found in the late 2nd century BC. With Antipater of Sidon and with Philon of Byzantium in the canon of the seven wonders of the world . Philo even expressly describes its effect by stating that the gods only invented ivory for this image; and while one only admires the other miracles, one would even worship this one, for as a work of art it would be incredible, but as a portrait of Zeus it would be sacred. The statue was mentioned as a wonder of the world until late antiquity , with the size information becoming more and more fantastic. If Hyginus still meets the actually achievable height relatively well at 60 feet or just under 18 meters, the height of the statue, according to Ampelius , measured 150 cubits or over 66 meters, and even 170 cubits or 75 meters is named by an anonymous person . In contrast, the height of 100 feet or around 30 meters for Vibius Sequester is a moderate exaggeration. Even the Roman statesman and learned writer Cassiodorus benevolently mentions the statue of the highest elegance among the seven wonders of the world in the 6th century AD.


Statue of Zeus (Olympiae Iovis simulacrum - statue of Zeus in Olympia) by Martin van Heemskerck

Already in the 2nd century BC The statue must have suffered from the climatic conditions or the effects of earthquakes in such a way that a fundamental repair was necessary, which Damophon carried out.

In 40 AD, the Roman emperor Caligula failed in his attempt to bring the statue to Rome , according to older tradition, because Caligula could be convinced that the statue could not be dismantled without its automatic destruction. According to a later, anecdotal turn of the project, Zeus himself intervened and let out a loud laugh after he had destroyed the ships intended for the transport.

In the 2nd century AD, Lukian , a well-traveled traveling speaker and satirist, who visited Olympia four times in his life , reports of a hair stealing against which even the Olympian Zeus was unable to defend himself. It cannot be clarified to what extent this is based on an actual event or whether Lukian only invented a pretty story in the context of his discussions about the helplessness of the gods, also directed against the Stoics , for whom the head hair was considered the seat of life and strength.

The further fate of the statue is unknown. According to a badly corrupt Scholion at Lucian, the temple of Zeus burned down in the 4th century AD, which must have also affected the statue of Zeus. However, since the temple was not knocked down by an earthquake until 522 or 551 AD, it should have been renovated after the fire.

Georgios Kedrenos , a Byzantine historian of the 11th or 12th century, tells the story that an ivory Zeus, for Kedrenos an anathema of Pericles , was brought from Olympia to Constantinople and in the Lauseion , the palace of the supreme eunuch Lausos , head of the imperial bedchamber ( praepositus sacri cubiculi ), under Theodosius II. , was established. In view of the works of art of the Lauseion, which Kedrenos further enumerated - an archaic Athena of Lindos made of hard green stone , an archaic depiction of Samos , the Aphrodite of Knidos des Praxiteles , Eros and Kairos des Lysipp , besides unicorns , Taurelephants, Pane , Centaurs and other creatures - the mention of Zeus only seems to emphasize the value of the collection. For in particular Athena, Aphrodite and Hera - all of the usual statue size - are also mentioned by Johannes Zonaras in the 12th century for the lauseion, but Zeus is missing. The Lausoeion burned down in AD 475. So the mention of Kedrenos remains unique and untrustworthy, the reference made to Pericles reinforces this impression. Should he have drawn his information from Malchos , it remains surprising that this source has found no further precipitation.


  • Hans Schrader : The Zeus image of Pheidias in Olympia. In: Yearbook of the German Archaeological Institute. Vol. 56, 1941, pp. 1-71.
  • Josef Liegle : The Zeus of Phidias. Weidman, Berlin 1952.
  • Wolfgang Schiering , Alfred Mallwitz : The workshop of Pheidias in Olympia Vol. 1. Olympic Research Vol. 5. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1964.
  • Gisela MA Richter : The Pheidian Zeus at Olympia. In: Hesperia . Vol. 35, 1966, pp. 166-170.
  • Wolfgang Schiering: The workshop of Pheidias in Olympia. Vol. 2: Workshop finds. Olympic Research Vol. 18. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1991.
  • Beate Bergbach-Bitter: Greek cult images. Archaeological evidence and literary tradition. Würzburg, Dissertation 2008, pp. 11–179 ( digital publication, PDF, 1.85 MB )
  • Janette McWilliam, Rashna Taraporewalla, Tom Stevenson, Sonia Puttock (Eds.): The Statue of Zeus at Olympia. New approaches . Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge 2011.

Web links

Commons : Statue of Zeus at Olympia  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Already mentioned in Pausanias 5, 11, 10.
  2. On the cella of the temple and base see Arnd Hennemeyer: New results on the cella of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In: Report on the 43rd Conference on Excavation Science and Building Research of the Koldewey Society. May 19-23, 2004 in Dresden. Habelt, Bonn 2006, pp. 103–111.
  3. Ulrich Sinn : The ancient Olympia. Gods, games and art. 3rd edition, CH Beck, Munich 2004, p. 213.
  4. Arnd hen Meyer: The Temple of Zeus at Olympia. In: Wolf-Dieter Heilmeyer u. a. (Ed.): Myth Olympia. Cult and games in antiquity. Prestel, Munich 2012, pp. 121–125.
  5. For example András Patay-Horváth: The builders of the Temple of Zeus. In: Hephaestus . Vol. 29, 2012, pp. 35-50, here p. 48 f.
  6. Ammianus Marcellinus 22, 13, 1.
  7. Pausanias 5:15 , 1; Himerios , orationes 64, 4.
  8. On the workshop and its finds see Wolfgang Schiering , Alfred Mallwitz : Die Werkstatt des Pheidias in Olympia 1 .; Wolfgang Schiering: The workshop of Pheidias in Olympia 2.
  9. Hans Schrader: The Zeusbild of Phidias in Olympia. Pp. 5-10; Josef Liegle: The Zeus of Phidias. Pp. 318-332.
  10. Callimachos, Iambos 6, also the Diegesis for Callimachos 7, 25–31.
  11. ^ Pausanias 5:11 , 1-11.
  12. ^ Wilhelm Völcker-Jansen: Classical paradeigmata. The paintings of Panainus on the throne of Zeus at Olympia. In: Boreas. Münster contributions to archeology. Vol. 10, 1987, pp. 11-31.
  13. Pausanias 5:11 , 5-6.
  14. Pliny , Naturalis historia 35, 54 and 57; 36, 177; Pausanias 5, 11, 6.
  15. Strabon 8, 354 (= 8, 3, 30).
  16. Strabon 8, 354
  17. ^ Translation after Johann Heinrich Voss .
  18. Valerius Maximus , facta et dicta memorabilia 3, 7, ext. 4; Dion Chrysostom , Olympic Speech 25 f .; Macrobius , Saturnalia 5, 13, 23; Proklos , in Timaeum 265, 18-20; Eustathios , commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem 1, 529.
  19. Epictetus , dissertationes 1, 6, 23.
  20. Dion Chrysostom , Olympic Speech § 51.
  21. ^ Strabo 8, 3, 30.
  22. Polybios in Suda , keyword Φειδίας , Adler number: phi 246 , Suda-Online (= Polybios 30, 10, 6); Plutarch , Aemilius Paullus 28.
  23. Livius , from Urbe condita 45, 28, 4 f.
  24. Antipatros von Sidon in Anthologia Graeca 14, epideiktika epigrammata 58 Antipatrou v. 2; Philon of Byzantium, de septem mundi miraculis 3.
  25. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 223.
  26. Lucius Ampelius, liber memoralis 8
  27. ^ Anonymus, de incredibilibus 2 (= Mythographi Graeci III (1902) p. 85).
  28. Appendix to Vibius Sequester (ed. Oberlin 1778).
  29. ^ Cassiodorus, variae 7, 15.
  30. ^ Pausanias 4, 31, 6.
  31. Flavius ​​Josephus , Antiquitates Judaicae 19, 8-10.
  32. ^ Suetonius , Caligula 22, 2 and 22, 57; Cassius Dio 59, 2-4.
  33. Lukian, Zeus Tragodos 25, see also Lukian, Timon 4.
  34. Scholion zu Lukian, Rhetorum Praeceptor 9.
  35. Georgios Kedrenos, compendium historiarum 322 B.
  36. Johannes Zonaras, epitomae historiarum 14, 2, 52 D (= Edition Büttner-Wobst 3, p. 131).
  37. On the Lauseion, see last Jonathan Bardill: The Palace of Lausus and Nearby Monuments in Constantinople: A Topographical Study. In: American Journal of Archeology. Vol. 101, 1997, pp. 67-95.
  38. ^ So Cyril Mango, Michael J. Vickers , ED Francis: The Palace of Lausus at Constantinople and Its Collection of Ancient Statues. In: Journal of the History of Collections. Vol. 4, 1992, pp. 89-98.
  39. Beate Bergbach-Bitter: Greek cult images. Archaeological evidence and literary tradition. Würzburg, Dissertation 2008, pp. 118–119. 121

Coordinates: 37 ° 38 ′ 16.3 "  N , 21 ° 37 ′ 48"  E