Temple of Zeus

Valley of the Temples

 The largest Temple in the Greek world

Theron
The huge heap of ruins of the temple of Olympian Zeus is one of the main attractions of the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which houses the monumental remains of the ancient Greek colony of Akragas. The size of the area it covers, the enormity of the blocks, the sections of columns and fragments of capitals, and the pieces of huge statues of giants all captivate and inspire visitors, who will certainly never forget what they see here. For the European travellers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who rediscovered the ruins of Akragas after centuries of neglect, the remains were so impressive that they inspired numerous descriptions and reproductions. Moreover, from the moment of its conception, the Temple of Zeus had been designed specifically to make an impact those who saw it, overcome by its immense size, impressed by the originality of its appearance, and influenced by the great male figures, alternating with half-columns, supporting the trabeation. Construction of this temple was desired by Theron, the tyrant of Akragas who ruled the city from 488 to 472 BC, the years in which the polis established itself as one of the main Greek cities of Sicily, capable of rivalling Syracuse in terms of power, wealth and splendour. For several decades the city, founded in 580 BC, had been growing in structures and monuments. Around the last decades of the sixth century, the 12 km long city walls were built, which defined and protected an immense area, 450 hectares wide. This area was organised according to a regular town plan, based on parallel and perpendicular streets which intersected and delimited regular blocks, within which private homes and public monuments were developed. According to the ancient historian Polybius, the sanctuary of Athena and Zeus Atabyrios rose on the acropolis, a reminder of the cults practised on the island of Rhodes, where some of the founding settlers of the city came from; no traces have ever been found of this sanctuary. The Temple of Olympian Zeus was perhaps conceived by Theron from the beginning of his tyranny: like many of the tyrants of the Greek cities of the West, he wished to express his power and prestige through the construction of a grandiose monument, inextricably linked to the power and prestige of the city. With this project, he wanted his name tied to the largest building of worship in the entire Greek world, the temple of Zeus was to remain such any centuries.

The copy of the Giant on display at the Archaeological Museum

The ruins of the Temple of Zeus

The clash with the Carthaginians and completion of the temple
In 480 BC, however, there was a crucial event in the history of the Greeks in Sicily. The expansionism of Akragas, which had extended its sphere of influence to the north coast, occupying Himera, was causing concern to another great Mediterranean power, that of the Carthaginians, who were settled in the western sector of the island. The pitched battle took place in the plain of Himera: here the Carthaginian army led by Hamilcar confronted the army of Theron, who was joined by the tyrant of Syracuse, Gelo. The Greeks triumphed, capturing a huge amount of plunder and an immense number of slaves. For the Greeks of Sicily it was a victory so important that the ancient historians created parallels with another major victory which occurred in the same year, that of the Spartans and the Athenians over the Persians barbarians. The rich spoils and the huge mass of slaves led to a sharp acceleration in the monumental process of the Greek cities of Sicily: many large sanctuaries were built in those years. In Akragas, Theron had the resources to resume his grand plan. The construction site must have been immense: in addition to slaves there were high pulleys for raising and placing the enormous blocks, which still show the grooves for the ropes that were passed around to move them. The temple stood on a huge rectangular platform of approximately 56 by 113 metres; on it was built a base of five steps, which raised and isolated the temple above the surrounding landscape. The temple did not have a peristyle of columns, but a boundary wall against which stood Doric columns, seven on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides, whose diameter was more than four metres and the height of which, according to scholars, must have been approximately 18 metres. The Giants, built of stone blocks, and each 7.65 metres high, were probably placed on a shelf and leant against the top of the perimeter wall, to hold up, along with half columns, the trabeation. Visible among the ruins are metopes and triglyphs which formed the Doric frieze, and lion's head gutters for the drainage of rainwater were previously found and are preserved in the Archaeological Museum; in the same museum there is also one of the Giants, reconstructed from recovered fragments. The cell, which remains uncovered, is divided into pronaos, naos and opisthodomos, and the walls were spaced out by quadrangular pillars. It is fascinating to think that the majestic Giants, forced to hold up the roof of the great temple, were symbols of the subjection of the Carthaginian barbarians to Greek power. On the other hand, according to the historian Diodorus Siculus, there were war scenes illustrated on the gables: the battle of the Giants, rebelling against Zeus and the gods of Olympus, and the Trojan war, which saw the defeat of the Trojans by the Greeks, thanks to the astute deceit of Ulysses. These are two mythological stories at the basis of Greek civilisation and identity, celebrating the triumph of the controlled force of reason over blind and destructive power. Even the altar, 54 m long by 15.7 m, is distinguished by its monumental scale, the greatest of the entire classical age of Greek Sicily. Because of its size, it must have been intended to impress the faithful with the sacrifice of a large amount of animals: the religious celebration was thus associated with the celebration of the power of the tyrant.

A Giant partially reconstructed

Detail of the recesses in which the ropes for lifting blocks were inserted

Cava Gigantum
The will of Theron to rapidly complete the ambitious project also brought about its fragility; according to scholars, the blocks used were too small compared with the size of the building and the weight of the entablature, which caused a certain static weakness of the monument. It soon fell into ruin. Ever since the Middle Ages, the huge mass of rubble has been considered a large quarry, called the cava gigantum: the blocks were used to  build many of the monuments of the new city which, having abandoned the valley, which developed on top of the hill of Girgenti. Part of the Norman cathedral was also built with this material, carried on large oxcarts. Finally, in 1700, the pier of the port of Porto Empedocle was built with temple blocks: still today the ancient tuff blocks are recognisable while walking along the shore.

Part of a capital

Architectural elements of Temples

Blocks on the north side of the Temple

Credits: Story

The exhibition was curated by Giusi Messina.
General Coordination: Giuseppe Parello, Director of Archaeological Park and Landscape of the Valley of the Temples.
Texts: Maria Serena Rizzo and Valentina Caminneci
Photos: Emanuele Simonaro, Fabio Florio, Angelo Pitrone.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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