The Temple of Hera at Olympia

The Temple of Hera was one of the oldest buildings in the site of Olympia. After the first games had been organized in 776 BC, they gradually became more important throughout the Greek world.

The first buildings erected were small and simple, with none of the sophistication displayed in later centuries.

The first temple

It was during the middle of the 7C BC that work began on the Temple of Hera. Initially it was a fairly small structure, about 10m by 40m. In about 600 BC an opisthodomosThe room at the rear of some ancient Greek temples. It was located behind the naos, or cella. was added, together with a ring of columns.

The final dimensions of the temple were 18.75m by 50m, substantially larger than the original. By later standards it was long and narrow, and looked rather squat and heavy (see the illustration below). But the temple is important, because it is one of the oldest examples of monumental temple construction in ancient Greece.

Materials used

If you've seen the Parthenon at Athens, you might think that all Greek temples were constructed using marble. But this was only possible if there was a good source for the marble, that there was a way of transporting it to where you wanted to build your temple, and you had the means to pay for all of this work.

temple hera plan

In the early years of Greek temple building when they were developing their style of architecture and wealth was not widespread, they use local materials for building. The Temple of Hera was made using local limestone, with upper parts of the walls made from unbaked brick. The entablatureThe part of a temple above the supporting columns. was mostly made of wood, covered with terracottaThe word comes from Latin and means "baked earth". Terracotta is a clay-based ceramic, usually reddish-brown in colour., and the roof tiles were also of terracotta.

temple hera west
Temple of Hera seen from the west

The columns of the Temple of Hera were originally made from wood. Around the end of the 7C BC there was a rapid development in building techniques. (One theory is that the Egyptian king Psamtik 1st regained control of Egypt from the Assyrians in about 660 BC. Because of trading contacts the Greeks would have seen the building works which were begun, and learned about monumental stone constructions.) When columns needed replacing because of war, earthquakes, or the wood started to rot, stone columns were used. They also used column styles which were in fashion at the time. When PausaniasA Greek traveler and geographer of the 2nd century AD. He wrote 'Description of Greece' which describes his observations of ancient Greece. visited Olympia in the 2C AD there was a column of oak in the opisthodomos.

Inside the Temple of Hera

hera elavation

In the naos (or cella)A room at the centre of the temple, usually containing a cult image or statue. there is the pedestal where the cult statue of HeraIn Greek Mythology Hera was the wife and one of three sisters of Zeus in the Olympian pantheon of gods and goddesses. She was revered as the goddess of women and marriage. once stood. She was seated on her throne with ZeusKing of the gods, and associated with sky and thunder. He basically looked after everything, and could do as he liked. standing by her side. Unfortunately only the head of Hera has survived.

A number of other items important to the ancient Greeks were believed to have been stored in the temple. These included a bronze disk belonging to IphitusIphitos was king of Elis who set up the Olympic Games after the Dorian invasion., and a carved ivory chest in which CypselosWhen Cypselos was a baby and men were sent to kill him, he smiled at them and they didn't have the heart to carry out their plan. He was then hidden in a chest. Returning with renewed resolve to complete their mission, the men failed to find him. was supposed to have hidden. Pausanias describes the chest in detail.

Other valuable offerings were stored in the Temple of Hera. In later years it housed the famous Hermes of Praxiteles (which you can see in the museum).

The temple stood for about a thousand years until the late 3C AD.

What you can see today

temple hera olympia
From the east, the front of the temple.

Some of the columns have been re-erected, and this gives added interest to the site. You can see the columns are not very tall, and would have given the temple a low, squat appearance (see the illustration of the elevation). You can get a very good idea of how it would have looked from the models in the museum.


Return to Ancient Olympia from the Temple of Hera

Return to Visit Ancient Greece from the Temple of Hera