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The Parthenon
The Parthenon: Modern technology helps archaeologists piece together the puzzle of the Parthenon's original structure.
The Parthenon: Modern technology helps archaeologists piece together the puzzle of the Parthenon's original structure.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

The Parthenon is one of the best known architectural symbols of any civilization. Built in the 15 year period between 447-432 BC this ancient Greek temple was designed as a replacement for a temple destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. To build a temple of this size (101 x 228 ft.; 30.9m x 69.5m) in that short a timeframe was considered amazing but what was even more amazing was the quality of construction and finishing, which was superb. The leading politician of the day and the man behind the construction project was Pericles. According to Plutarch, the great Greek biographer writing centuries after the building was completed; one of the main reasons for the construction of the Parthenon and the other temples which surrounded it was the need to deal with growing unemployment. By embarking on a major public works program for the acropolis (the towering hill in Athens where the Parthenon and other temples dedicated to the gods were located) Pericles hoped to provide jobs for ordinary Athenians- carpenters, stonemasons, ivory-workers, painters, enamellers, pattern-makers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, weavers, engravers, merchants, coppersmiths, potters, shoemakers, tanners, laborers, etc.

At the same time and more importantly, he envisioned the Parthenon as an architectural masterpiece that would make a statement to the world about the superiority of Athenian values, their system of governance and their way of life. Because of this, only the best building materials were good enough- the finest stone, bronze, gold, ivory, ebony, cypress-wood- and the best artists and craftsmen. It was to be a building for the ages. In a funeral oration delivered in 430 BC Pericles expressed his pride in the city of Athens and there seems no doubt he was thinking of the Parthenon when he noted that “Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments we have left. Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today.”

 The new construction project was not welcomed by everyone. There were some who were outraged that so much money was being spent on the construction “gilding and beautifying our city as if it were some vain woman decking herself out with costly stones and thousand talent temples”. Many were also upset that the monies to build the Parthenon were being supplied, reluctantly, by Athenian allies who had originally handed over this money for use in any future conflict against the Persians. Pericles argued that as long as the Athenians honored their commitment to defend these allies against Persian aggression, then the allies had nothing to complain about. And the majority of people supported Pericles. In fact his most vocal opponent was ostracized (banished for ten years) by a popular vote leaving the way clear to proceed with construction.

The Parthenon building program was carried out under the general direction of Pericles himself. He chose three men at the top of their professions to collaborate on the design and execution of the project. Although we don't know everything that each did, it seems that Ictinuswas the chief architect, Callicratus acted as the project contractor and technical coordinator while Phideas was responsible for overseeing and integrating all artistic elements. He also personally created the enormous gold and ivory sculpture of the city goddess and produced some of the various sculptural groupings while supervising the production efforts of a small army of artists and craftsmen. Phideas was recognized at the time as being the greatest sculptor of his era but is acknowledged now as the greatest Greek sculptor of all time. The collaboration of the threesome was an enduring success.

There is no denying that the Parthenon construction project was expensive. (The cost, according to public accounts engraved in stone, was 469 silver talents. Attempts to translate that into a modern equivalent aren't entirely satisfactory.) The main building material was Pentelic marble quarried from the flanks of Mt. Pentelikon, located about 10 mi/ 16 km from Athens. (The old Parthenon, the one destroyed by the Persians while it was partway through construction was the first temple to use this kind of marble.) The huge pieces of stone had to be hauled to the building site by oxcart. This structure was, by no means, the largest but what distinguishes the Parthenon from most other temples is the quality and extent of the sculptures. Many of the sculptures were made of the more expensive Parian marble, from the island of Paros, which most sculptors proclaimed the best kind of marble for their work. As a collection that shows Greek art at its zenith the Parthenon marbles (sculptures) are simply without peer.

The building itself is a work of art incorporating a number of aesthetic refinements calculated to make it appear as visually perfect as possible. Knowing that long horizontal lines appear to sag, even though they are absolutely straight, horizontal elements were deliberately curved and the vertical columns “fattened” in the middle to compensate for the vagaries of the human eye. This thickening in the middle made it look as though the columns were straining a bit under the weight of the roof, thus making the temple less static, more dynamic. Although the lines and distances in the Parthenon appear to be straight and equal, the geometry has been altered to achieve that illusion. It has been said about this building that “nothing is as it appears”.

The Parthenon is a Doric temple, which artfully incorporated selected Ionic features to produce a building that many, including some of the world's top architects, have called perfect. The Doric style uses thicker columns and has a more massive appearance (sometimes called masculine) than the Ionic (feminine) style. This may have been a politically inspired choice by Pericles, symbolically uniting Greeks of Dorian and Ionian backgrounds in one transcendent building.

The Parthenon is classified as a peripteral temple, that is, the perimeter of the structure is defined by columns, in this case by eight on the narrow ends and seventeen on the long sides, for a total of 46 columns. Sitting inside the exterior columns is a raised stone platform. This supports the floor-to-ceiling walls of a shoebox-like room called the Cella or Naos. In traditional temples this is a single room but in the case of the Parthenon, the Cella has been divided into two rooms. In the larger one, a huge standing statue of Athena was located, resting on a support slab. In front of the statute…a reflecting pool. In the smaller room, with the four interior columns, was kept the state treasury, including cash gifts to the deity. The collection of interior columns was necessary to support the roof that, like the rest of the building, was made of marble.

The portion of the Cella where the magnificent statue of Athena was kept was called the Hekatompedon (heka = 100) which was a hundred Athenian (Attic) feet in length, as the Greek room name indicates. The reflecting pool was filled with water to add humidity to the air and prevent splitting of the ivory elements of the huge chryselephantine (composite gold and ivory) statue. It is worth noting that the statue cost more than the building built to house it and the sculptor Phideas made it so that it's gold panels could be removed, weighed and sold should the need arise. (That proved to be a wise decision because when he was later accused of pilfering some of the gold, he was able to quickly establish his innocence.)

None deny that the Parthenon building is a work of art in its own right but it was also embellished with a dazzling array of quality sculptures.

  • The goddess Artemis adjusts her chiton. Detail from Parthenon frieze, slab XIXX.
    The goddess Artemis adjusts her chiton. Detail from Parthenon frieze, slab XIXX.
    Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
    Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006
    The famous Parthenon frieze. This was a 160 meter (524 ft.) long mural, carved in high relief, a continuous band of sculpture. It encircled the Cella at the ceiling. It would have been very difficult to see and appreciate from the temple floor, the usual place from where it could be seen. The height of the frieze was just in excess of one meter (about 41” tall) and the depth of the relief was about the width of a dollar bill. (Phideas had the top portion of the frieze cut to that depth and the bottom portion incised somewhat less so as to make the scenes more apparent from the distant floor.) Despite the fact that it would have been difficult to discern details of the artwork from that viewpoint, especially given the dim, shadowy light of the temple, no less care was lavished on these images than on the other groupings. If only the gods could see and appreciate them, then that was sufficient.
Seated gods wait to receive the new peplos, detail from Parthenon frieze, Slab IV.
Seated gods wait to receive the new peplos, detail from Parthenon frieze, Slab IV.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

The frieze tells the story of the Great Panatheniac procession- a major parade, festival and games that took place in Athens every four years. (Each year a smaller event called the Lesser Panathenaea also celebrated the birthday of the goddess.) On each occasion, a new peplos (robe), woven by selected maidens would be presented to the goddess, who was also the patroness of weaving. The frieze tells the story of the marshalling of the parade, depicted on the western end, the parade participants (musicians, horsemen, priests, maidens with offerings, sacrificial animals, etc.) winding around both sides of the building, heading east. On the eastern side, seated gods and goddesses and standing civic and religious leaders gather to receive the new garment and, naturally, to make speeches.

  • The West Pediment. There are two triangular pediments, one on each narrow end of the structure, and these were commonly used on temples as a place within which to display sculptures appropriate to the nature of the building. The theme of the west pediment is the mythological competition between Athena and Poseidon to determine who should be patron of the city. Each offered a gift, a saltwater spring from Poseidon symbolizing sea power, and an olive tree from Athena. The people deemed the latter to be more practical. (Olives were a favorite food item and the oil was used in lamps, for cooking and in cosmetics as well as being a prime trading staple.) In this sculptural grouping, the key figures are Athena and her uncle, Poseidon. They occupy the central, high point of the triangle and various other participants are assembled on each side- Cecrops, half-man, half-serpent founder and first king of Athens, Erechtheus, the second king, various water divinities, Hermes, Iris, etc.
  • The East Pediment. This grouping of sculptures was in the most advantageous location to be seen and appreciated by anyone approaching the temple via the usual route. Appropriately, the theme dealt with the birth of Athena, which took place in the presence of the other gods and goddesses. The story is well-known. Zeus had developed a splitting headache and great pressure in his head, for which he could find no relief. He ordered his son, Hephaistos, to strike him across the head with his axe, to relieve his symptoms. From that opening sprang a fully-grown Athena, dressed in complete battle regalia. Instead of the wail of a new-born baby observers heard the sound of a battle cry. The sculptural setting commemorates the event in stone. A seated Zeus fittingly occupies center stage with central players Athena and Hephaistos, while other deities take in the miraculous occasion.
  • The Metopes. The Parthenon actually had two friezes. One, already described, ran around the exterior of the Cella. The second, which encircled the exterior of the building, just underneath the roof overhang, is a typical Doric frieze with alternating triglyphs and metopes. (The triglyph is a projecting block featuring two vertical, parallel glyphs or grooves. It is about 2/3rds the width of a metope and it alternates with the metopes for the length of the frieze. On the Parthenon there are 92 metopes (32 on each side and 14 on each end), each roughly 1.20 meters (48” square).

The metopes on the Parthenon substantially exceed the usual temple standard for such embellishment. Each metope on the Parthenon is decorated, carved in high relief to the point that in some examples it is akin to sculpture in the round. Each side of the building had its own story to tell:

  • On the West. (Amazonomachy). This end depicts a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were a bellicose tribe of women descended from Ares, the god of war. Heracles came into conflict with the tribe in the course of doing his twelve labours. Symbolically this battle, and the others shown, symbolized the defeat of the barbarians (the Persians) by civilization ( the Greeks)
  • On the East. (Gigantomachy). This end portrays the mythical battle between the Giants and the gods for the control of Mount Olympus.
  • On the North. (Trojan War). The subject on this side is the Trojan War, a favorite topic for illustrations for temples as well as vase paintings.
  • On the South (Centauromachy). Unlike the sculptural groupings on the other three sides that were all badly defaced and disfigured by early Christians, for some unknown reason, the South escaped that fate. Depicted is the mythical battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs where the drunken Centaurs, who had been invited to the Lapith wedding party, tried to make off with the Lapith women.
Athena: Forty feet tall, this tower of ivory and gold cost even more than the building which housed it.
Athena: Forty feet tall, this tower of ivory and gold cost even more than the building which housed it.
Courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

The chryselephantine statue of Athena. This was a huge work of art by any standard, at least 40 feet (12 meters) in height, a formidable figure in gold and ivory with gems for eyes and outfitted with her full panoply of weapons and symbols. (Chryselephantine comes from the word chryso (gold) and elephantine (ivory). It was a standard technique of the Greek Classical period whereby beaten gold for clothing and ivory for flesh was attached to a wooden armature or core. It is estimated that the gold on the statue alone was worth many millions of dollars. According to early Greek writers, the tyrant Lachares later stripped the goddess of her gold and used it to pay his army. It was said that the statue was later supplied with a coat of gilt by way of replacement.

The figure of Winged Victory- “Nike”- held in the right hand of Athena was six feet tall. In her left hand she supports both a spear and her shield. Entwined inside the shield is a serpent representing Erechtheus, an early king of Athens, son of the earth goddess Gaia but who was raised by Athena.

After the Parthenon project was completed Phideas went on to build an even larger and more renowned sculpture, that of the god Zeus, at Olympia. That became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the model for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. What happened to the Athena sculpture? It was taken to Constantinople by the Byzantines by the fifth Century AD. Then, no one is sure when, it disappeared.

The dream of Pericles, that the Parthenon would be an imperishable symbol of the greatness of Athens and of the inevitable triumph of civilization over the forces of barbarism, was short-lived. The last of the sculptural ornaments was completed in 432 BC but only three years later Pericles and many of his fellow citizens succumbed to a horrific plague that devastated Athens.

The Parthenon served as a temple to Athena for almost a millennium. Then, in the 6thh Century AD, Christian monks from the Greek Orthodox Church took over the building which became known as the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). The zealous Christians smashed or defaced a number of the sculptures that they felt were pagan or secular and they made minor alterations to the architecture. 700 years passed.

In 1204 the French (Franks) invaded Athens and took over control of the Parthenon, renaming it Notre Dame d'Athenes (Our Lady of Athens). It was now a Catholic church. By 1458 Athens was overrun by the Turks who promptly converted the ancient Greek temple into an Islamic mosque, complete with minaret. The Turkish governor took over the adjacent Erechtheum (the temple which features caryatids, draped female figures, in lieu of columns), in which to accommodate his harem. In 1687 the Venetians, who were warring against the Turks, bombarded the Parthenon with mortar and cannon fire. The Turks had felt so confident that the Venetians would not attack this venerable religious building that their women and children were sheltered inside- along with their stores of gunpowder. 300 people and 28 of the Parthenon's columns were destroyed in a massive explosion.

The next person to have a major impact on the Parthenon was Lord Elgin, a British statesman and ambassador to Constantinople in 1801, who had obtained permission from Turkish authorities to make drawings and plaster casts of the marvelous sculptures and to “take away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures”. (Many pieces of sculpture shattered by the explosion still lay buried or half-buried on the Parthenon grounds.) Lord Elgin's agents were not content for long in picking up broken pieces of sculpture. Soon they were prying pieces off the building and, later, using saws to remove the artwork in sizable chunks. In their defense, they would have been familiar with other destructive practices of the era. The Turks had used some of the Parthenon sculptures for target practice and had lopped the heads off a few figures within reach (likely Pericles among them). In addition, the Turks used whitewash to paint their buildings, which had sprung up all around the Parthenon. Marble, when burned, produces lime and lime mixed with water makes whitewash. It was a recipe that would result in the destruction of both broken and complete marble statuary in Athens and elsewhere.

Horsemen in the Panatheniac procession, Parthenon frieze, Slab XIXX detail.
Horsemen in the Panatheniac procession, Parthenon frieze, Slab XIXX detail.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

Today the remains of the Parthenon, the bleached bones of what was once an architectural masterpiece for the ages, provide mute testimony to the glory that was ancient Greece. The artworks that once adorned the marble walls can be found, in bits and pieces still clinging to the remnants of the ancient temple or scattered amongst the world's leading museums in Athens, London, Paris, Munich, Rome, Copenhagen, Vienna, etc. In at least one case a marble sculpture taken from the temple was broken apart and pieces of it can be found in three major cities. Greece has petitioned Britain numerous times seeking the return of the Parthenon marbles from London (which has almost 50% of the sculptures), maintaining that the Turks had no right to distribute them to anyone. Britain has refused, saying the collection was legally acquired from the Government then in power and they have no intention of returning anything. And there the matter rests.