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Pheidias is considered, both now and in his time (5th century BC), to be the greatest sculptor of ancient Greece. He is most renowned for his sculptures on the Athenian Acropolis--the Athena Parthenos of the Parthenon, the Lemnian Athena, and the Athena Promachos--and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the most wondrous of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in the eyes of the Greeks.

Pheidias was born in Athens around 495 BC. In his early adulthood Pheidias lived through the destruction of Athens and the eventual Greek victory in the Persian Wars. If not for the Persian Wars, it is unlikely that Pheidias would have accomplished nearly as much. His first great works were bronze statues of Persian War heroes, both real and mythical. The wars were more subtly responsible for his great works on the Acropolis.

When Pericles was elected leader of Athens in 449 he implemented an aggressive plan to rebuild the Acropolis, still in ruins from the Persian attack. Pericles paid for his building projects with funds demanded from lesser cities of the Athenian Empire, money which in theory was to be used to protect the Greeks against future Persian attacks. Pericles choose Pheidias as the principal artist behind the projects. Pheidias's first work on the Acropolis was the Athena Promachos, a 9-meter high bronze statue that dominated the view of the Acropolis from the sea. More important were his Parthenon masterpieces. Pheidias oversaw the creation of the frieze along the inner wall of the Parthenon. The magnificent frieze contained a continuous scene of the Panathenaea, the Greek festival celebrating Athena. Remnants of the frieze, removed from the Acropolis by one Lord Elgin, are known as the Elgin Marbles and are now showcased in the British Museum. At the heart of the Parthenon was the Athena Parthenos, a 12-meter high chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena holding a Nike (goddess of victory) and a spear. The huge statue of the goddess in the human-sized Parthenon overwhelmed its viewers.

Enemies of Pheidias, perhaps artists jealous of his accomplishments or political rivals of Pericles, brought legal charges against him in the 430s BC. They accused Pheidias of stealing gold to decorate the Athena Parthenos and of impiety for placing the likenesses of himself and Pericles on a statue of Athena. The jury (made up of every Athenian citizen in those days) convicted Pheidias of the second charge and he was exiled.

Pheidias was soon commissioned by the city of Elis to create a statue of Zeus in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, site of the Olympic Games. Pheidias constructed the 13-meter-high statue with gold robes and ivory flesh overlaying a wooden framework. The statue consisted of Zeus seated on a throne holding a Nike and a sceptre. Many viewers noted that if Zeus stood up he would destroy his temple. Like the Athena Parthenos the massive Statue of Zeus humbled mortal gazers. The statue was so impressive that it appeared on all lists of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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