A short distance south-east of the Acropolis are the remains of a colossal temple called the Olympieion, or the Temple of Olympian Zeus. It was begun around 520 B.C. with the expressed purpose of being the largest and most impressive such structure in the Greek-speaking world, but it fell victim to political fortunes. Work on the temple was abandoned around 510 B.C. when one of its advocates, Hippias, was removed from power and expelled from Athens.
Thereafter it lay in an incomplete state for centuries. Although funding was often given as the reason, the truth is that there was little interest in colossal building projects; such buildings were not considered appropriate in a democratic republic. In 174 B.C., the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes renewed interest in the project, but a decade later he was dead and construction again faltered. It appears that Antiochus’s motivations for getting involved in the project were based on religion and prestige: he is said to have seen himself as an embodiment of Zeus, and he probably believed attaching his name to the building would ensure his immortality. The Syrian king was also something of an eccentric; he like to surprise his subjects by appearing unannounced in bath houses and other pubic places.
The temple would not be completed until the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who formally dedicated it in A.D. 132. It was indeed a massive building, and must have been awe-inspiring to walk through in its prime: it contained over 100 columns, each one 55.5 feet high and 6.5 feet in diameter. Its interior housed an immense statue of Zeus, finished in ivory and gold. Not to be outdone, Hadrian apparently had statues of himself included in the building as well. Thus the building was not completed until over 600 years after it was first begun! The following short video gives one artist’s idea of what the completed structure looked like:
The Olympieion did not enjoy a long period of use. A Germanic tribe, the Herulians, plundered Athens in A.D. 267 and probably stripped the temple of most of its valuables. The early Christian emperors of the would have later prevented it from being maintained, with the result that it would gradually have decayed. It is also a tragic practice from this period of history that stone from old buildings was often recycled to make new structures. Little of the old Olympieion remains today, but we can still get a feel of its old grandeur.
Photos of the site are shown below. One of the remaining columns fell over in the early 1850s during a severe storm. I have also included some photos of restaurants and shops in the surrounding area.
Read more in the classic life guide On Duties, which is available in print, Kindle, and audio book: