Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Exposure: Temple of Olympian Zeus

Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens
The Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The largest temple of ancient Greece was built not by a Greek, but by a Roman.

Begun by Greeks around 520 BC, construction was first abandoned in 510 BC when the tyrants controlling Athens were overthrown. The builders had sought to eclipse the size of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When they were forced out, however, only the platform and bits of the columns had been completed.

The temple lay untouched for hundreds of years until a Seleucid king restarted it in 174 BC. He set a Roman architect in charge, who tweaked the design to have double rows of 20 columns on each of the long sides, and three rows of eight columns on each end (counting the corners twice). Instead of limestone, the temple would be built with expensive Pentelic marble. But the king died in 164 BC with the temple only partially completed.

In 84 BC, the Roman general Sulla sacked Athens. As part of his booty, he claimed many of the columns and took them back to Rome, where they were incorporated into the Temple of Jupiter atop the Capitoline Hill. Once again, the half-built temple sat abandoned. Rome's first emperor, Augustus, made a small effort to complete the temple in the early years of the first century AD, but not much was done.

Arch of Hadrian in Athens
Standing on the "city of Hadrian" side of the arch.
Finally, another century later, Rome's emperor Hadrian made the temple a centerpiece of his rebuilding of Athens. Hadrian was an ardent Philhellene. He restarted construction in 124 AD not only of the temple, but also a brand new city adjacent to the decaying cityscape of Athens. At the border of his new town he placed an arch, proclaiming on one side "This is Athens, ancient city of Theseus" and on the other "This is the city of Hadrian, and not of Theseus."

When it was dedicated in 132 AD, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was among the largest structures of the ancient world. It measured approximately 134 feet wide and nearly 360 feet long. One hundred and four massive columns supported the roof. Atop the columns were flowery Corinithian capitals, the first time Corinthian was used on the exterior of a major temple in Greece.

Corinthian capitals on the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Corinthian capitals atop the columns.
Inside the double and triple rows of columns stood a colossal statue of Zeus. Made in a self-consciously archaic Greek manner from chryselephantine — a wooden structure covered with ivory slabs for skin and gold leaf for garments and accoutrements — the statue was meant to echo the massive statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, within view from the new temple to Zeus. A similarly colossal statue of Hadrian was erected outside the temple, and many other statues and carvings decorated the temple and the surrounding area.

View of the Temple of Olympian Zeus from the Acropolis
The ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus as seen from atop the Acropolis.
After taking more than six centuries to be completed, the temple enjoyed only 130 years or so before the city of Athens was sacked by a Germanic tribe. The barbarian Herulians greatly damaged the temple, which fell into disuse. By medieval times the marble slabs were frequently culled for use in other buildings. As the Byzantine Empire wound down in the mid-fifteenth century, only 21 of the 104 columns were left.

By the 1800s, when archeologists started carefully examining the site, a mere sixteen columns remained. At that time, they found the hut of stylite atop the pillars. In the medieval era, Christian ascetics would live on top of pillars for years at a time, fasting and praying, their only sustenance from offerings placed in baskets which they would draw up to their huts with ropes. Viewing the stylite hut as an improper Christian incursion on the ancient temple, they tore down the hut to return the ruins to a supposed authentic state.

1833 painting by Johann Michael Wittmer
An 1833 painting by Johann Michael Wittmer.
1858 photo of Temple of Olympian Zeus
In this 1858 photo by Dimitris Konstantinou, note the prominent Christian stylite hut atop the ruins.
Temple columns are 56 feet high
The temple's columns are 56 feet high. The offending stylite has been removed.
One of the sixteen remaining columns toppled over in a storm in 1852, where it remains. The overturned pillar illustrates how the massive columns were built in segments. These column drums, each weighing several tons, likely were carved at the quarry and then transported to the site for hoisting into place. Inside the drums are holes, in which metal poles were placed to help align the segments and to hold the column together once it was erected.

Toppled column drums at the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Note the square and rectangular holes in the column drums.
Ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
Though only sixteen columns remain, the immense scale of the project is apparent.
As it stands now, the Temple of Olympian Zeus is just a fragment, much as it was for its first 600+ years. Indeed, in its more than 2,500 years, the temple has stood proudly complete for only 5% of the time. For all of the remainder it has been either incomplete, or in ruins.

Nevertheless, hints of its grandeur — and of the grandeur of its builders, both Greek and Roman — shine through.

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