Temple of Zeus in Agrigento

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Temple of Zeus in Agrigento

There are two main architectural questions or problems raised by the Temple of Zeus: the entrance, which could not be set in the centre, as usual, given the odd number of semi columns, but above all the structure and the position of the male figures of gigantic proportions with the arms refolded behind the nape, today known as Telamons, which, as the Caryatids of Athens, had to be situated outside of the temple building.

The most accredited hypothesis for the entrance to the temple, is that there were two doors in the angle intervals of the front, even if the present state of the remains of the temple cannot confirm with certainty any hypothesis. Equally it cannot be established if the temple had pediments or a flat roof.

There have been a number of suggestions concerning the unusual sculptures called Telamons, one of which has been reconstructed and is housed within the Regional Archaeological Museum in Agrigento, while a copy lies in horizontal position among the ruins of the temple. Quite a lot of fragments of such sculptures have been recovered and from these we can identify two different types: those with beard, moustache and long hair and those which are shaved and have curled short hair.

The Telamons represent figured elements of a new design which symbolically represent the “BarbarianCarthaginians defeated in Himera. It is certain, as has been said, they were situated outside the temple and that they articulated, beginning from a certain height, the space of the intercolumniations. They probably rested against a thickened wall of the pseudo-peristasis or on a continuous frame, and they helped to support the heavy corbelled entablature. Among the most recent hypotheses is that of Ernesto De Miro who has postulated an originary disposition wide apart of the legs of the giants, with proportions in symmetrical correspondent with the distance and to the prominence of the folded up arms.

The features emerging from the suggested reconstructions seem in general to underline that the Olympieion had little in common with the canons of Greek architecture. Even if it is possible to detect in this colossal construction the influence of Phoenician-Carthaginian grandiose architectural models (and particularly the buildings with pillar central room) or even the presence of Egyptians models, scholars now tend to believe that the temple of Zeus could be the result of local initiative and genius, which had already proved a notable creativeness and talent in the artistic production. In fact the Olympieion as well as the other temples of Akragas expresses with strength the conception, typical of the Siceliot environment, of the circumscribed and concluded space.

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Short history of

Temple of Zeus in Agrigento

The Temple of Zeus in Akragas was the greatest Doric temple of the West and the third of the Greek world, after the Artemision of  Ephesus  and the Didymaion of Miletus. The uniqueness of this building is based not only on its exceptional proportions but also because it introduces new and original architectural solutions which diverged from the canons of Greek Doric architecture.

According to the literary accounts of (Diodorus Siculus XIII, 82 and Polybius IX, 27) the construction began immediately after the victory over the Carthaginians in Himera in 480 BC. but it was never completed.

The ruins apparent to the visitor today are what it remains after the ravages of ancient historical events and natural calamities. Today the south-eastern corner, two northern segment of the pseudo-peristasis, the pillars of the pronaos, of the opisthodomus and half of the northern side of the cella of the temple are visible. On some of the blocks, visible among the ruins, it is possible to see the channels cut for the lifting ropes.

The temple was conceived as a colossal building and was set on an imposing rectangular five steps crepidome of 56,30 x 112,70 meters. Instead of the usual peristasis with an open colonnade, there was a sort of pseudo-peristasis constituted by a screen wall strengthened by Doric semi columns (7 x 14) which corresponded, in the inner part, with a series of rectangular pillars. Inside the temple showed the canonical trisection in pronaos, cella and opisthodomus, delimited by perimeter walls defined by 12 quadrangular pillars mostly leaning toward the interior, set at the distance of 4 meters from each other. The cella was probably hypaethral while the corridor between the pseudo-peristasis and the walls of the cella was covered only with tiles. The semi columns of the pseudo-peristasis had a diameter at the base of ca. 4 meters and they were not composed by normal circular drums but, on the contrary, by small blocks, wedge-cut and radially arranged, their axial spacing was over 8 meters; the hypothetical height was over 18 meters. The top columns were surmounted by capitals with echinus adorned of fourfold necks and abacus composed by three enormous slabs. The epistyle was formed by three rows of overlapped blocks and it was crowned by a taenia and by a regula with six guttae of which fragments in the collapse are identifiable. Elements of the frieze, formed by metopes and triglyphs, as well as of the cornice (geison), are also identifiable among the ruins, together with fragments of lion heads datable to the end of the 5th c. BC (some of which are exposed in the Regional Archaeological Museum in Agrigento) and together with fragments of the sculptures probably pertinent to the pediment (Diodorus XIII,82,1-4 reports that on the east side there was represented a battle among the gods and the giants and on the other side the Fall of Troy).

At a little distance from the Eastern front of the Temple is visible part of the plinth of the monumental altar, of rectangular shape and colossal dimensions (54,50 x 17,50), on which, during the religious festivals, blood sacrifices were performed including among which the hecatomb,  the massacre of one hundred oxen.