The Temple of Olympian Zeus took more than 600 years to build, and once finished, lasted only 142 years before someone knocked it down.
The temple was begun by Hippias and Hipparchus, two brothers who ruled the greek city-state of Athens in 520 BCE, in the tumultuous years before Athens became a democracy. At the time, Athens was competing with other Greek city-states like Sparta, Corinth and Thebes to attract scholars and trade. To establish their city as the hottest thing in the Peloponnese peninsula, the two brothers hired the architect Cossutius to draft the largest temple in the ancient world. Intentionally laying out a floor plan that dwarfed the two most famous Greek temples of the day, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, and a temple to the goddess Hera in Samos.
The new Athenian temple was dedicated to Zeus, king of the gods, and it would be the biggest and best temple in Greece. Unfortunately, ten years after construction began, Hippias was ousted from Athens by a Spartan invasion and the ambitious project ground to a halt. For the next 336 years, the temple’s foundation and a few half-completed columns sat unused.
Over the next century, Athens tumbled through the experimental phases of their democracy, and the half-finished Temple of Olympian Zeus came to represent the selfish extravagance of tyrannical governments. Luckily, in 215 BCE the conquering tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in Athens and, fancying himself the reincarnation of Zeus, re-started the temple construction in 174 BCE. But once again, on Antiochus’s death ten years later, the project was canceled.
It took Roman emperor Hadrian’s sweeping infrastructure projects to finally finish the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Far from the vanity-fueled dreams of the previous builders, Hadrian’s completion of the temple was more of a public-relations gambit. The completed temple was finished in bright white marble, and behind the building a massive statue of Hadrian was erected, a reminder to the Greeks of the generosity of their emperor.
For 142 years, the temple shown at the heart of Athens, but in 267 CE the Heruli, an East Germanic tribe, flooded into Greece and wrecked the temple, burned Athens, and left. The ruined temple was dissected and used to rebuild the city, and today only 15 columns remain standing. A 16th lies broken on the ground.
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Reed Enger, "Temple of Olympian Zeus," in Obelisk Art History, Published July 24, 2017; last modified November 08, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/timeline/the-ancient-world/greece/temple-of-olympian-zeus/.