Home  »  library  »  prose  »  The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

By Pausanias (c. 110–180 A.D.)

Translation of Arthur Richard Shilleto

MANY various wonders may one see, or hear of, in Greece: but the Eleusinian mysteries and Olympian games seem to exhibit more than anything else the Divine purpose. And the sacred grove of Zeus they have from old time called Altis, slightly changing the Greek word for grove: it is indeed called Altis also by Pindar, in the ode he composed for a victor at Olympia. And the temple and statue of Zeus were built out of the spoils of Pisa, which the people of Elis razed to the ground, after quelling the revolt of Pisa, and some of the neighboring towns that revolted with Pisa. And that the statue of Zeus was the work of Phidias is shown by the inscription written at the base of it:—

“Phidias the Athenian, the son of Charmides, made me.”

The temple is a Doric building, and outside it is a colonnade. And the temple is built of stone of the district. Its height up to the gable is 68 feet, its breadth 95 feet, and its length 230 feet. And its architect was Libon, a native of Elis. And the tiles on the roof are not of baked earth; but Pentelican marble, to imitate tiles. They say such roofs are the invention of a man of Naxos called Byzes, who made statues at Naxos with the inscription:—

“Euergus of Naxos made me, the son of Byzes, and descended from Leto, the first who made tiles of stone.”

This Byzes was a contemporary of Alyattes the Lydian, and Astyages (the son of Cyaxares), the king of Persia. And there is a golden vase at each end of the roof, and a golden Victory in the middle of the gable. And underneath the Victory is a golden shield hung up as a votive offering, with the Gorgon Medusa worked on it. The inscription on the shield states who hung it up, and the reason why they did so. For this is what it says:—

“This temple’s golden shield is a votive offering from the Lacedæmonians at Tanagra and their allies, a gift from the Argives, the Athenians, and the Ionians, a tithe offering for success in war.”

The battle I mentioned in my account of Attica, when I described the tombs at Athens. And in the same temple at Olympia, above the zone that runs round the pillars on the outside, are 21 golden shields, the offering of Mummius the Roman general, after he had beaten the Achæans and taken Corinth, and expelled the Dorians from Corinth. And on the gables in bas-relief is the chariot race between Pelops and Œnomaus; and both chariots in motion. And in the middle of the gable is a statue of Zeus; and on the right hand of Zeus is Œnomaus with a helmet on his head; and beside him his wife Sterope, one of the daughters of Atlas. And Myrtilus, who was the charioteer of Œnomaus, is seated behind the four horses. And next to him are two men whose names are not recorded, but they are doubtless Œnomaus’s grooms, whose duty was to take care of the horses. And at the end of the gable is a delineation of the river Cladeus, next to the Alpheus held most in honor of all the rivers of Elis. And on the left of the statue of Zeus are Pelops and Hippodamia, and the charioteer of Pelops, and the horses, and two men who were Pelops’s grooms. And where the gable tapers fine there is the Alpheus delineated. And Pelops’s charioteer was, according to the tradition of the Trœzenians, Sphærus; but the custodian at Olympia said that his name was Cilia. The carvings on the gables in front are by Pæonius of Mende in Thracia; those behind by Alcamenes, a contemporary of Phidias and second only to him as statuary. And on the gables is a representation of the fight between the Lapithæ and the Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous. Pirithous is in the centre, and on one side of him is Eurytion trying to carry off Pirithous’s wife, and Cæneus coming to the rescue, and on the other side Theseus laying about among the Centaurs with his battle-axe; and one Centaur is carrying off a maiden, another a blooming boy. Alcamenes has engraved this story, I imagine, because he learnt from the lines of Homer that Pirithous was the son of Zeus, and knew that Theseus was fourth in descent from Pelops. There are also in bas-relief at Olympia most of the Labors of Hercules. Above the doors of the temple is the hunting of the Erymanthian boar, and Hercules taking the mares of Diomede the Thracian, and robbing Geryon of his oxen in the island of Erytheia, and supporting the load of Atlas, and clearing the land of Elis of its dung. And above the chamber behind the doors he is robbing the Amazon of her belt; and there is the stag, and the Cretan Minotaur, and the Stymphalian birds, and the hydra, and the Nemean lion. And as you enter the brazen doors on the right in front of the pillar is Iphitus being crowned by his wife Ecechiria, as the inscription in verse states. And there are pillars inside the temple, and porticoes above, and an approach by them to the image of Zeus. There is also a winding staircase to the roof.

The image of the god is in gold and ivory, seated on a throne. And a crown is on his head imitating the foliage of the olive-tree. In his right hand he holds a Victory in ivory and gold, with a tiara and crown on his head; and in his left hand a sceptre adorned with all manner of precious stones, and the bird seated on the sceptre is an eagle. The robes and sandals of the god are also of gold; and on his robes are imitations of flowers, especially of lilies. And the throne is richly adorned with gold and precious stones, and with ebony and ivory. And there are imitations of animals painted on it, and models worked on it. There are four Victories like dancers, one at each foot of the throne, and two also at the instep of each foot; and at each of the front feet are Theban boys carried off by Sphinxes, and below the Sphinxes, Apollo and Artemis shooting down the children of Niobe. And between the feet of the throne are four divisions formed by straight lines drawn from each of the four feet. In the division nearest the entrance there are seven models,—the eighth has vanished no one knows where or how. And they are imitations of ancient contests, for in the days of Phidias the contests for boys were not yet established. And the figure with its head muffled up in a scarf is, they say, Pantarces, who was a native of Elis and the darling of Phidias. This Pantarces won the wrestling-prize for boys in the 86th Olympiad. And in the remaining divisions is the band of Hercules fighting against the Amazons. The number on each side is 29, and Theseus is on the side of Hercules. And the throne is supported not only by the four feet, but also by four pillars between the feet. But one cannot get under the throne, as one can at Amyclæ, and pass inside; for at Olympia there are panels like walls that keep one off. Of these panels the one opposite the doors of the temple is painted sky-blue only, but the others contain paintings by Panænus. Among them is Atlas bearing up Earth and Heaven, and Hercules standing by willing to relieve him of his load; and Theseus and Pirithous, and Greece, and Salamis with the figure-head of a ship in her hand, and the contest of Hercules with the Nemean lion, and Ajax’s unknightly violation of Cassandra, and Hippodamia, the daughter of Œnomaus, with her mother; and Prometheus still chained to the rock, and Hercules gazing at him. For the tradition is that Hercules slew the eagle that was ever tormenting Prometheus on Mount Caucasus, and released Prometheus from his chains. The last paintings are Penthesilea dying and Achilles supporting her, and two Hesperides carrying the apples of which they are fabled to have been the keepers. This Panænus was the brother of Phidias; and at Athens in the Painted Stoa he has painted the action at Marathon. At the top of the throne, Phidias has represented above the head of Zeus the three Graces and three Seasons. For these too, as we learn from the poets, were daughters of Zeus. Homer in the Iliad has represented the Seasons as having the care of Heaven, as a kind of guards of a royal palace. And the base under the feet of Zeus (what is called in Attic [Greek]) has golden lions engraved on it, and the battle between Theseus and the Amazons,—the first famous exploit of the Athenians beyond their own borders. And on the platform that supports the throne there are various ornaments round Zeus, and gilt carving,—the Sun seated in his chariot, and Zeus and Hera; and near is Grace. Hermes is close to her, and Vesta close to Hermes. And next to Vesta is Eros receiving Aphrodite, who is just rising from the sea and being crowned by Persuasion. And Apollo and Artemis, Athene and Hercules, are standing by, and at the end of the platform Amphitrite and Poseidon, and Selene apparently urging on her horse. And some say it is a mule and not a horse that the goddess is riding upon; and there is a silly tale about this mule.

I know that the size of the Olympian Zeus both in height and breadth has been stated; but I cannot bestow praise on the measurers, for their recorded measurement comes far short of what any one would infer from looking at the statue. They make the god also to have testified to the art of Phidias. For they say that when the statue was finished, Phidias prayed him to signify if the work was to his mind; and immediately Zeus struck with lightning that part of the pavement where in our day there is a brazen urn with a lid.

And all the pavement in front of the statue is not of white but of black stone. And a border of Parian marble runs round this black stone, as a preservative against spilled oil. For oil is good for the statue at Olympia, as it prevents the ivory being harmed by the dampness of the grove. But in the Acropolis at Athens, in regard to the statue of Athene called the Maiden, it is not oil but water that is advantageously employed to the ivory; for as the citadel is dry by reason of its great height, the statue being made of ivory needs to be sprinkled with water freely. And when I was at Epidaurus, and inquired why they use neither water nor oil to the statue of Æsculapius, the sacristans of the temple informed me that the statue of the god and its throne are over a well.