December 3, 2020

From the Rubble of Atlases, a Colossus Will Rise

Of all the punishments chronicled in Greek mythology, none were as heavy-handed as the one that Zeus meted out to Atlas. Having led the Titans in their losing battle with the Olympian gods for control of the heavens, Atlas was condemned to bear the sky aloft for eternity.

And of all the temples built during the ancient Greek empire, none enlisted more Atlases than the one dedicated to the Olympic Zeus in Akragas, a city-state now called Agrigento, on the southwest coast of Sicily. Atop massive half-columns, 38 Atlases, each 25 feet tall and carved from limestone, seemingly held up the architrave — the main beam that rests on the capitals of columns — with their bent arms.

The Doric temple — the world’s largest — was built to commemorate the victory over Carthage at the battle of Himera in 480 B.C.; it survives today as a heap of tumbled pillars and blocks of stone at the Valley of the Temples archaeological park. Only one of its Atlases, or telamones, remains even semi-intact. It stands on display in the Regional Archaeological Museum, badly weathered and footless but upright.

ImageThe Atlas statues depicted in a model of the Temple of Zeus at the Archeological Museum in Agrigento, Italy.
Credit…José Luiz Ribeiro

This past summer the park’s director, Roberto Sciarratta, announced he had commissioned a colossal statue, a sort of Franken-Atlas, to mark the founding of Akragas 2,600 years ago. Reassembled fragments from eight of the telamones are to be arranged on shelves within a steel-ribbed contemporary sculpture in the shape of the damned Titan. Over the last 15 years archaeologists have recovered and cataloged some 90 artifacts from the ruins of the temple. “The goal is to recompose piece-by-piece the beams of the Temple of Zeus to restore a portion of its original splendor,” Dr. Sciarratta said. “The new statue of Atlas will serve as a guardian of the temple dedicated to the father of the gods.”

The story of Akragas is not nearly as uplifting as the story of Atlas. The city was settled mainly by colonists from Crete and Rhodes in an area the Romans called Magna Graecia, or “Greater Greece.” Akragas came to prominence under the tyrant Phalaris (circa 570-549 B.C.), notorious in legend for his gruesome approach to executions. The condemned were roasted inside a hollow bronze bull, their screams, according to the first-century B.C. historian Diodorus Siculus, channeled into small sounding pipes to mimic the bellowing of an enraged beast.

It was under the rule of another tyrant, Theron (circa 488-473 B.C.), that the community and the arts prospered. The lyric poet Pindar described Akragas as the most beautiful city “inhabited by mortals,” and the philosopher Empedocles, a native son, is said to have remarked that the citizens ate as if they would die the next day, and built as if they would live forever.

Credit…L. Romano/DeAgostini, via Getty Images

During Theron’s reign Akragas’ enormous wealth was poured into ambitious public works — aqueducts, underground water systems and a series of sacred buildings erected on a rocky scarp overlooking the Mediterranean. Temples were dedicated to Hera, Concordia, Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Demeter, Hephaestos and, further down, on the bank of the river Akragas, Asclepius, the god of medicine.

The Temple of the Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, was built using Carthaginian slave labor — presumably prisoners of war captured in the Battle of Himera. The dimensions were roughly the same as an American football field and its end zones: 340 feet long and 160 feet wide, and rose to a height of 120 feet, not including the foundation.

Evidently, the work was never completed. When Carthage conquered Akragas in 405 B.C. after an eight-month siege, the temple was still open to the sky, perhaps owing to the difficulty of building a roof to span the distance.

In detailing the enormity of the Olympieion’s scale, Diodorus wrote that the fluting of the outer columns was big enough for a man to stand inside. Unlike most pillars of the period, the temple’s were not free-standing but demi-columns, 23 by 46 feet, engaged in a continuous curtain wall to support the weight of horizontal architectural detailing that composes the entablature. If the scale model in the museum is to be believed, the Atlases stood on a recessed ledge in the upper portions of the bays, hands stretched above their heads.

The Olympieion’s unstately pile is the result of two millenniums of earthquakes and pilfering. During the mid-1700s, stonework was quarried and hauled away for use in breakwaters and jetties at the nearby town of Porto Empedocle.

The concept of the project has been criticized for violating professional standards and, perhaps, good taste. “No archaeologist would endorse the use of ancient sculpture, no matter how fragmentary, to create a modern sculpture, even if the purpose is to highlight the site’s antiquity,” said C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Nowadays, a copy of the museum’s Atlas, cobbled together in the 1970s, lounges near the rubble, roped off from the public. “Many visitors believe the Atlas on the ground is authentic,” said Leonardo Guarnieri, a park spokesman, with a shrug worthy of Ayn Rand. “It is not authentic.”

He added that the hands of the new golem Atlas would be unencumbered. That ought to take a load off his shoulders.