The Temple of Olympian Zeus (Italian: Tempio di Giove Olimpico) in Agrigento, Sicily was the largest Doric temple ever constructed, although it was never completed and now lies in ruins. It stands in the Valle dei Templi with a number of other major Greek temples.
The history of the temple is unclear, but it was probably founded to commemorate the Battle of Himera (480 BC), in which the Greek cities of Akragas (Agrigento) and Syracuse defeated the Carthaginians under Hamilcar. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the temple was built using Carthaginian slave labour – presumably defeated soldiers captured after the battle. It is otherwise little mentioned in ancient literature. The Greek historian Polybius mentions it briefly in a 2nd-century BC description of Akragas, commenting that “the other temples and porticoes which adorn the city are of great magnificence, the temple of Olympian Zeus being unfinished but second it seems to none in Greece in design and dimensions.”
According to Diodorus, it remained unfinished due to the Carthaginian conquest of the city in 406 BC, with the Siege of Akragas. The temple’s roof was already missing at this time. The temple was eventually toppled by earthquakes and in the 18th century was quarried extensively to provide building materials for the modern towns of Agrigento and nearby Porto Empedocle. Today it survives only as a broad stone platform heaped with tumbled pillars and blocks of stone.
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 clash with the Carthaginians
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.
According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, construction began immediately after the great victory of the Greek cities of Sicily over the Carthaginians in the battle of Himera in 480 BC.
The historian also maintained that the construction of the temple was never finished because it was still lacking a roof when the city of Akragas was conquered by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. The building, characterised by its highly original architecture, was constructed on a gigantic rectangular platform above which sat a five-step base, the final step being twice as high as the other four, to create a podium and set the temple apart from the surrounding environment.
Completion of the temple
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.
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.
The ruins of the temple of Olympian Zeus bear testament to one of the largest Doric temples of classical antiquity. Unfortunately, the area – likely already damaged by earthquakes in the past – was used as a quarry in the Middles Ages (the cava gigantum cited in archival documents). The temple was totally destroyed by an earthquake on December 19, 1401. In the 1700s became the site of the harbour of Porto Empedocle.
In 1787 Goethe visiting the ruins of the temple left this description in The trip to Italy:
«The next stop was dedicated to the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter. They stretch for a long stretch, similar to the bones of a gigantic skeleton In this heap of rubble all artistic forms have been canceled, except for a colossal triglyph and a fragment of half-column of equal proportions. ”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Journey to Italy)
The temple, whose structure is still under debate, measured 112.7 x 56.3 m at the stylobate, with a height of some 20 m. The whole construction was made of small stones blocks, which has led to uncertainty to the total size of the building. According to Diodorus, the columns’ grooves could easily house a man; their height has been estimated from 14.5 to 19.2 meters. Each stood on a five-stepped platform approximately 4.5 m above the ground. The enclosure occupied a large basement with a five-step krepidoma. The front of the temple had seven semi-columns, an archaic feature that precluded the addition of a central door. The long sides had fourteen semi-columns.
Unlike other temples of the time, the outer columns did not stand on their own as a freestanding peristyle but were engaged against a continuous curtain wall needed to support the immense weight of its entablature. In between the columns were colossal atlases, stone figures standing some 7.5 m high. The figures appear to have alternated between bearded and clean-shaven figures, all nude and standing with their backs to the wall and hands stretched above their heads.
The exact positioning of the atlases has been the subject of some archaeological debate, but it is generally believed that they stood on a recessed ledge on the upper part of the outer wall, bearing the weight of the upper portion of the temple on their upheld hands. One of the fallen atlases has been reassembled in the nearby archaeological museum and another can be seen on the ground among the ruins of the temple. Attempts to make a detailed reconstruction of the telamons’ original appearance have been hampered by their poor condition; they are heavily eroded and all of their feet appear to be missing.
The atlases are an exceptionally unusual feature, and may possibly have been unique in their time. They have been interpreted by some as symbolising the Greek enslavement of the Carthaginian invaders, or have even been attributed to Egyptian influences. Joseph Rykwert comments that “the sheer size of the temple seems to confirm the reputed extravagance of the Akragans, their love of display.”
The presence of windows between the columns is not confirmed. The cell was formed by a wall connecting 12 pilasters on each long side, the angular ones enclosing the pronaos and the episthodomos. The entrance to the cella was provided by an unknown number of doors. The interior was inspired by Phoenician-Carthaginian architecture: it comprised an immense triple-aisled hall of pillars, the middle of which was open to the sky. The roof was probably never completed, though the pediments had a full complement of marble sculptures. The eastern end, according to Diodorus Siculus’ enthusiast description, displayed a Gigantomachy, while the western end depicted the fall of Troy, again symbolising the Greeks’ triumph over their barbarian rivals.
In front of the eastern façade is the pilastered basement of the huge high altar, measuring 54,50 x 17,50 m.
The Olympeion complex centers on the colossal sacred building, described in enthusiastic terms by Diodorus (XIII 81, 1-4) and remembered by Polybius (IX 27, 9). Today the temple is reduced to a field of ruins from the destruction started already in antiquity and continued until modern times, when the building was used (still in the XVIII century) as a stone quarry for the construction of the docks of Porto Empedocle. The overall appearance of the temple is broadly known, but there are still many controversies over important details of the reconstruction of the elevation, to which an entire room of the National Museum is dedicated.
The temple measured 112.70 x 56.30 m to the stylobate. On a powerful base, surmounted by a five-step krepidoma, there was the fence, with seven Doric half-columns on the short sides and fourteen on the long sides, connected to each other by a continuous wall and to which, inside, there were as many pillars. In the intercolumns of this pseudo-peristasis or in the cell telamons are supposed to have hung 7.65 meters high, which certainly had no bearing function, given the slender proportions of the clenched legs and the feet joined with respect to the massive bust and the powerful arms folded behind the head. Doubts persist on the presence of windows, interspersed between the telamons and the half-columns, which are thought to have given light inside the pesudo-peristasis, between this and the cell, if the temple (which in the part of the cell was certainly hypetral, i.e. discovered) instead, it appeared covered at least in the space of the pteròmata.
The cell consisted of a wall connecting a series of twelve pillars for each of the long sides, of which the angular ones delimited the spaces of the pronaos and the opisthodomos, while the entrance of the pseudo-peristasis to the cell itself was secured by number and uncertain location, open in the continuous wall of the pseudo-peristasis. The gigantic construction was entirely built in small blocks, including columns, capitals, telamons and lintels, which leaves many uncertainties about the actual development of the elevation: to mention some certain data, in addition to the already mentioned height of the telamons (7.65 m), the entablature was 7.48 m high and the diameter of the columns was 4.30 m, with grooves in which – as Diodorus says- a man could comfortably enter, while the columns had to develop a height calculated between 14.50 and 19.20 m; the surface covered an area of 6340 m2.
Diodorus’s description speaks of scenes from the gigantomachy in the east and the Trojan war in the west. It has been discussed whether he speaks of pediment decoration or simple metopes (in Selinunte – remember – only the metopes of the pronaos and the opisthodomos are decorated), but the recent discovery of an attack between a warrior’s torso and a beautiful helmeted head of full severe style (at the National Museum), confirms that the temple had an all-round marble decoration more compatible with pedimental cables than with metopal spaces, of which the original function of space was always felt in the classical and Hellenistic age close, possibly painted (and the relief decoration replaces the painted one).
L ‘ Olympeion says Diodorus, remained unfinished for the Carthaginian conquest: according to Diodorus, it was devoid of rooffor the continuous destruction suffered by the city. Of it, the south-east corner, two northern sections of the pseudo-peristasis, the pylons of the pronaos, the opisthodomos and about half of the north side of the cell remain visible. Around the remains of the base some parts of the elevation are preserved, sometimes in a fall position, as well as the reconstruction of a capital and a telamon (in cast; the original at the Museum). In front of the eastern front, the pillared base of the altar is visible, no less colossal than the temple (54.50 x 17.50 m). At the southeast corner of the temple there is a small building (12.45 x 5.90 m) with two naves with a deep pronaos, double access door and altar. In front, a chapel rather than a thesauros, of controversial chronology, according to some of the Hellenistic age, but most probably archaic, given the numerous architectural terracotta of the sixth century BC, found in the area during the excavations of Ettore Gabrici in 1925.
To the south-west of this chapel, along the line of the walls, are the remains of a stoà of the fourth century BC, with a plastered tank at the eastern end and cisterns on the forehead and shoulders, where votive material from the Timoleontean age comes, while the remains of a previous building (to which the cisterns seem to refer) are visible around the cistern closest to the walls.
Valley of the Temples
The Valley of the Temples is an archaeological park in Sicily characterized by the exceptional state of conservation and by a series of important Doric temples from the Hellenic period. It corresponds to the ancient Akragas, monumental original nucleus of the city of Agrigento. Today it is a regional archaeological park.
The Valley includes remains of seven temples, all in Doric style. The ascription of the names, apart from that of the Olympeion, are a mere tradition established in Renaissance times. The temples are:
Temple of Concordia, whose name comes from a Latin inscription found nearby, and which was built in the 5th century BC. Turned into a church in the 6th century AD, it is now one of the best preserved in the Valley.
Temple of Juno, also built in the 5th century BC. It was burnt in 406 BC by the Carthaginians.
Temple of Heracles, who was one of the most venerated deities in the ancient Akragas. It is the most ancient in the Valley: destroyed by an earthquake, it consists today of only eight columns.
Temple of Olympian Zeus, built in 480 BC to celebrate the city-state’s victory over Carthage. It is characterized by the use of large scale atlases.
Temple of Castor and Pollux. Despite its remains including only four columns, it is now the symbol of modern Agrigento.
Temple of Hephaestus (Vulcan), also dating from the 5th century BC. It is thought to have been one of the most imposing constructions in the valley; it is now however one of the most eroded.
Temple of Asclepius, located far from the ancient town’s walls; it was the goal of pilgrims seeking cures for illness.
The Valley is also home to the so-called Tomb of Theron, a large tuff monument of pyramidal shape; scholars suppose it was built to commemorate the Romans killed in the Second Punic War.
Since 1997 the whole area has been included in the list of world heritage sites drawn up by UNESCO. It is considered a popular tourist destination, as well as being the symbol of the city and one of the main ones on the whole island. The archaeological and landscape park of the Valley of the Temples, with its 1300 hectares, is the largest archaeological site in the world.