The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was one of the well known wonders of the ancient world, and has become the basis for modern structures such as the Lincoln Memorial.

In Washington D.C. there stands a relic of a long-since past, but never to be forgotten era in American history – a monument to one of her truly great leaders. This is referring, of course, to the Lincoln Memorial, that vast statue of our tallest president carved from 28 blocks of white marble and sitting inside an even grander temple-like structure. It is the least we could do for the man who won the Civil War.

To deny the grandness of this structure would surely be foolish, though equally foolish would be to pretend that it possessed even a hint of originality. After all, it is widely accepted that the Lincoln memorial was designed very purposefully to be reminiscent to at least one other such statue in history.

The Lincoln memorial is, in many ways, a direct copy of the Statue of Zeus which stood in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, from 432 B.C. to sometime in the fifth century, A.D.

The Statue of Zeus

It was a well-chosen source of inspiration, to be sure. As one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the statue of Zeus demanded great respect amongst the people of the ancient world.

The statue actually stood notably taller than the statue of Lincoln ( at an estimated 40 feet, it was more than twice as tall, in fact), and in the fifth century B.C., it was one of the grandest sights in all of the region of the Mediterranean.

Like so many other grand structures of ancient times, the temple of Zeus was built from the spoils of a war fought between the Eleans (the culture who lived in and around Olympius at that time) and the armies of Pisa.

The Doric style temple (the same style which was used in the Lincoln Memorial) was built around 450 B.C., to a size nearly that of a modern-day football field, and out of the finest marble (most temples at the time were made from baked mud). It was adorned with many sculptures and reliefs, though despite all of its beauty, it did not yet possess the statue which would become its most famous aspect.

The Fineries

The actual image of Zeus did not come until nearly 20 years after the templ’s construction, around 432 B.C. It was designed by an artist named Pheidias of Athens (whose workshop was discovered and excavated in 1958, which gave archeologists great insight into his tools and methods), who built perhaps the grandest statue the world had ever seen.

While the Lincoln memorial today is somewhat unadorned by fineries, being made from just one kind of material and of a single color, probably to retain a little humility, the Statue of Zeus, when completed, had no expense spared. The statue, built of ivory and ornamented in gold and other precious metals, along with expensive jewels, ebony and more ivory still, sat solemnly in the center of the temple, holding a second statue in his right hand of the goddess Nike, who represented victory, and in his left hand held a scepter, on top of which stood an eagle.

Surrounding the statue was a reflecting pool filled with olive oil (need I mention that in front of the Lincoln Memorial today is a reflecting pond as well, except filled with regular water), which along with being ornamental, helped to keep the air in the temple moist, as the ivory used could become brittle if allowed to dry out too much.

The Beginning of the End… And the End

The image of Zeus amazed the many travelers who made the grand pilgrimage to Olympia every four years to compete in and observe the great Olympic games, which had begun around 776 B.C.

It was beloved enough to survive much over the years (being refurbished as it began to show its age over the years), including an attempt by the Roman emperor Caligula to transport the statue to Rome in the first century A.D. (he failed to do so).

Finally, when the Olympics were banned in A.D. 391 by Emperor Theodosius I, the Temple of Zeus was closed for good. Both the temple and the statue were beginning to show their age at this point, from natural erosion as well as from landslides, floods and Earthquakes, but the statue remained rather marvelous.

After a fire in the temple in the fifth century A.D., the statue was somehow transported by some Greeks to a new temple in Constantinople. This feat alone probably deserves some sort of honorable mention in a list of great human accomplishments in history. There the statue sat until finally destroyed by another fire in A.D. 462. Today, while it is known where the ancient foundations of this temple are, nothing remains of the great statue. It is lost to the refuse pile of history.

But, President Lincoln remains. And comfort can be taken in knowing that, with modern technology and concern for the well-being of great architecture, this little version of Zeus will remain long into the future.