Temple of Zeus


Upon arrival at the Temple, the visitor is met by a vast field of ruins, the remains of the many other ruins that were used in the 13th century in the construction of the docks of Porto Empedocle. The following centuries saw the remaining ruins distributed for new uses. At some distance from the eastern facade lie the remains of the temple’s high altar: a huge rectangle (54.50m x 17.50m) with a number of pillars which formerly supported the platform of the high altar. The exceptional size of this altar allowed for the sacrifice, in a single ceremony, of around 100 oxen, a rite to which was given the name hecatomb. The temple of Zeus may be dated to the 5th century B.C. Construction work was carried out over a 70-year period, from 480 to 406 B.C. when, according to the consistent accounts of Polybius and Diodorus, the temple remained partially completed. Its dimensions (112.60 m × 56.30 m at the base) were completely out of the ordinary, especially in the field of Doric architecture. These unusual proportions are not the only characteristic of the immense building which, although conceived in accordance with the fundamental rules of the Doric style, was of such conceptual and structural originality that it may be classed as unicum in the whole of Greek architecture. The five-step crepidoma stood on an imposing base. The perimeter supported a relatively narrow wall, reinforced on the outside at irregular intervals by Doric semi-columns, whilst the inside was supported by pillars. Walls, semi-columns and pillars were adorned with simple Doric-style moldings. It is not possible to accurately calculate the height of the columns: an informed estimate would be of around 17/18 metres. Their diameter at the base was 4.05m and their flutes, as we are reminded by Diodorus, were large enough to accommodate the width of a man’s back. The distance between the axes exceeded 8 metres. The columns supported colossal capitals, with an echinus consisting of two juxtaposed blocks and adorned with a quadruple collar and abacus made up of three slabs. The Doric entablature was of incomparable grandeur. Its weight and the breadth of the intercolumniations forced the temple’s unknown builder/architect to increase the size of the supporting elements. Therefore, between the semi-columns of the pseudo-peristasis – located halfway up on the walls of the intercolumniations – he added gigantic telamons (around 7.65 m in height), separated into several pieces corresponding to the courses of the wall and supporting, with their arms arched to head height and with a vigorous relief representing muscles stiffened by the immense effort, the temple’s architrave with their capitals. The fragments of telamons that have been discovered during different excavations originate from these ruins. Rafaello Politi rebuilt an example from several scattered pieces. However, to save it from the serious degradation provoked by the ravages of time and man, in 1965 it was decided that it should be transferred to the Regional Archaeological Museum. It was considered appropriate to install a faithful cement imitation in the same place. In addition to their static function, the telamons struggling under the weight of the entablature are the symbol of Zeus’ triumph over the arrogance of the Titans. The Greeks of Sicily, including the akragantinos, obtained a victory over the Carthaginian barbarians at Himera in 480 B.C. Hence the image of these barbarians supporting the enormous weight of the structures of the temple dedicated to Olympus. The Olympieion must be considered closely related to the victory in Himera and, therefore, it is logical that the start of the construction work was directly related to the time when this battle took place.