Temple of Olympian Zeus

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus was built as a form of thanksgiving to the Father of All Gods after the victory of the city of Akragas in the Battle of Imera. It had unusual dimensions, and in fact, historians of the time describe it as the largest Doric temple in the West. The construction of such a monument prompted Greek architects to find creative architectural solutions to give the structure stability. The most interesting of these was the use of telamons, imposing male statues, as supporting columns.

History and origin of the name of the Temple Olympian Zeus

After the victory in the Battle of Imera in 480 AD, the Agrigentines decided to build the Temple of Zeus as a sign of gratitude. The battle pitted the army of Akragas (Agrigento), allied with that of Syracuse, against the Carthaginian army commanded by Hamilcar I. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the temple was never completed because in 406 B.C. came the revenge of the Carthaginians, who conquered the city of Agrigento. In Greek mythology, Zeus (Jupiter for the Romans) was the father of all the Olympian gods, and indeed this temple is also known as the Olympieion. Only a few remains of the ancient temple of Zeus can be seen today. It collapsed after several earthquakes in the past and was used as a quarry from the Middle Ages. In the eighteenth century, the stones of the sanctuary were even used for the construction of the pier of Porto Empedocle.

The Temple of Zeus between innovation and experimentation

The construction of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento was a moment of architectural experimentation in several respects. The first is that of size: it actually measured 113 meters in length and 56.30 meters in width. According to various historical sources, the Temple of Zeus was the largest Doric sanctuary in the West. The construction of such challenging work required the adoption of some innovative engineering solutions. One of these was to carve some elements of the structure from a single block of material to make it easier to erect. The Greek architects also experimented with new structural solutions. In fact, the temple, unlike the others in the Valley of the Temples, is pseudo-peripteral, meaning that the colonnade does not completely follow the perimeter of the building. Among all the solutions adopted, however, the addition of the so-called Telamons stands out.

The Telamons of the Temple of Zeus

The Telamons were huge statues representing a male figure, used in place of columns or as supporting pillars. They were the male counterparts of the caryatids, statues with the same supporting function but depicting female figures. The Greeks called the telamons “atlases” because in their mythology Atlas was the giant who supported the world with his shoulders. These huge statues were placed between the columns of the Temple of Zeus and were about eight meters high. A cast of a Telamon, reconstructed in the 19th century by the artist Raphael Politi, can be seen inside the temple cell. A reconstruction of one of the original statues is in the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento. Recent studies have shown that the Telamons had their legs spread, contrary to the way Politi’s cast appears.

Architecture of the Temple of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus stands on a rectangular platform with a base of five steps (crepidoma). It was surrounded by a wall and had seven semicolumns on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides, all in Doric style. Inside, the temple of Jupiter had a double row of columns that divided the area into three naves. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the Temple of Zeus was richly decorated on both sides. On the east side were sculptures depicting the Gigantomachia, an episode in Greek mythology that tells of the battle between the giants and the gods of Mount Olympus. On the west front were scenes from an ancient Greek epic poem, the Iliou persis, which recounts the fall of the city of Troy.

The altar of the Temple of Jupiter

Not far from the eastern front of the Temple of Jupiter are the remains of its monumental altar. This feature was also astounding in its size and in fact at the time of its construction was the largest altar in the entire Greek world. Over the centuries, the altar of the Temple of Zeus, like other monuments in the Valley of the Temples, was used as a quarry for the construction of other buildings in Agrigento. The only surviving part is the structure of stone blocks needed to support the steps that led to the top of the altar. In Greek religion, sacrifices in honor of the gods played a very important role. Altars had different shapes and sizes depending on the deity to which they were dedicated. Sacrifices to the Olympian gods were usually made during the day. The animals used were mainly sheep and oxen, which were slaughtered with their heads up. The meat was then roasted and consumed by the worshippers at sacred feasts.

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