The Temple of Olympian Zeus (Olympieion)
Begun in the 6th century BC this massive temple
took more than 700 years to complete. The Emperor Hadrian eventually finished
the job in AD 131. It was the largest temple in Greece, impressive for the sheer
size of its 104 Corinthian columns (17m high with a base diameter of 1.7m). The
site is just southeast of Plaka.
The largest ancient temple in Athens. There are traces of
human settlement on this site that date back to the prehistoric period, attested
to by archaeological evidence and ancient sources. Pausanias reports that it was
founded by Deukalion, the mythical founding father of the Greeks.
Worship of Zeus here is attested to from early historic
times. In 515 BC, during a period of tyranny, Peisistratos the Younger, grandson
of the famous Peisistratos, endeavored to replace this early temple with a
larger one, modeled after those in Asia Minor. Construction had reached the
level of the crepis when the tyranny was overthrown. The democracy did not
continue construction of the temple as it was a reminder of the tyranny.
In 174 BC, the King of Syria, Antiochos IV Epiphanes,
restarted work with the Roman architect Cossultius. On the death of Antiochos
the work halted in 163 BC at the level of the entablature. Hadrian decided to
finish the temple after his stay in Athens in 124-125 AD.
The temple was inaugurated in 131 AD. It stood in an open
space 250x130 meters. It was 110.35 by 43.68 meters, with two rows of 20 columns
on the sides and three rows of 8 columns on the ends which were 17.25 meters
high, 1.7 m base diameter. 16 are preserved, 13 at the southeast corner and 3
near the southwest corner, of which the middle one fell down after a storm in
The cella housed a chryselephantine statue of Zeus and a
statue of Hadrian honored jointly with the god. A rectangular poros enclosure
wall measuring 205.85x128.72 m was constructed and buttressed with built
pillars. Entrance to the enclosure was by a small propylon on the north side.
After the construction of the temple, the Athenians
honored Hadrian by building an arched gateway, 18 m high, 13.5 m wide and 2.3 m
deep, in the northwest corner of the enclosure. The central arch is 6.2 m wide
and surmounted by Corinthian columns and pilasters with Ionic epistyles at the
ends and a pediment in the center. On the epistyle blocks above the arch and the
columns, on the side of the old city (west façade) is carved the inscription:
“This is Athens, formerly the city of Theseus”, while on the side facing the
sanctuary and the extension of the city by Hadrian: “This is the city of
Hadrian and not of Theseus.”
The remains of other important sanctuaries have been excavated in the area immediately bordering on the Olympieion to the north. The foundations of a Classical temple just outside the south side of the enclosure wall of O. have been identified with the Delphinion, the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. A small peristyle Doric temple of Roman times, surrounded by an enclosure wall, has been identified with the Kronion, the sanctuary of Kronos and Rhea. Finally, the remains of a large rectangular peristyle and the foundations of a small temple, to the south-west of the Kronion, have been identified with the Panhellenion, the sanctuary of Zeus Panhellenios.