The Parthenon is probably the best-known and one of the most beautiful temples of ancient Greece. It stands on the highest part of the Acropolis in Athens and was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of war and the protector of Athens. The name of this magnificent structure comes from the word parthenos, meaning “virgin”—a reference to the goddess.
History and Construction. The Parthenon was begun in 447 B.C., during the time of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. It was one of many impressive public buildings constructed during this period. The location of the Parthenon was the site of an earlier temple that had been started in 490 B.C., shortly after the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Construction on the earlier structure was abandoned at the beginning of the second Persian War in 480 B.C. The work that had been completed was destroyed by the Persians when they captured the city. The new temple, begun by Pericles, used the foundation and platform that remained from the earlier structure and possibly some of the marble elements that had been prepared for it as well.
Like all Greek temples, the Parthenon was intended as a place of worship. As such, it was designed to house a statue of Athena that worshipers could honor. The Parthenon also served as treasury for the Delian League, a political alliance of Greek city-states that was led by Athens.
Architectural Design. The Parthenon was designed by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates and is considered the most perfect example of the Doric style of Greek architecture. Its floor measures 228 feet by 101 feet. The structure has 8 columns at each end and 17 columns on each side. The interior room, or cella, is divided into two parts. The larger eastern portion housed the statue of Athena, and the smaller western portion served as the treasury. Two double rows of Doric columns supported the roof of the eastern section, a design that some have suggested was intended to provide support for a second-story gallery from which visitors could view the statue. The western section featured four narrower but taller columns that were designed in the more elaborate Ionic style.
Standing on the Acropolis—the highest point in Athens—to honor the goddess Athena, the Parthenon remains a strong testimony to the architectural skill of the Greeks. The temple was built during the reign of Pericles, a time known as the Golden Age of Greece.
Because Doric architecture is known for its plain straight lines and very regular patterns, it is surprising to find so few straight structural elements in the Parthenon. The steps are slightly curved to match the curve of the terrain, as is the entablature—the horizontal beam that rests on top of the outside columns. The columns themselves are not completely vertical; they tilt slightly inward and are not evenly spaced, with the columns at the corners being slightly closer together. Many theories have been proposed to explain these deviations from the true vertical and horizontal. One theory maintains that they resulted from the purely functional consideration that a slightly curved structure would help deal with problems of drainage and settling. Another theory suggests that the deviations were used to correct optical illusions that distort perfectly vertical profiles. Others have suggested that such refinements were intended to place the building in greater harmony with its surroundings. Whatever the true reason, the effect is the same—a building of extraordinary beauty and grace.
Sculpture and Decoration. The Parthenon was seen by its designers not merely as an impressive building but also as a great work of art. The famous Greek sculptor Phidias designed all the sculpture and statuary in the temple, including the gold and ivory statue of Athena that stood 40 feet high. The statue no longer survives, although it seems to have remained intact as late as the A.D. 100s. The only description of it comes from the Greek writer and traveler Pausanias and a few small replicas of the statue that differ somewhat in detail. The Parthenon’s outside frieze—the decorated band of marble just below the roof—contained carvings of combat between mythical figures, gods, giants, and Amazons. The frieze of battle scenes ran along all four sides of the building, but the variety of poses and attitudes of the figures added interest to this single subject.
An ingenious interior frieze around the cella shows a procession of Athenian citizens and is designed to create the impression of the passage of time. The figures in the procession are posed in such a way that, depending on the portion of the frieze being viewed, time and motion seem to speed up or slow down. The frieze was seen from below in a light that was reflected from a colored surface, and that made the plain walls more attractive by emphasizing the contrast of light and shadow in the carved figures on the frieze. The subject of the procession seems to be the procession that took place every four years during the All-Athenian Festival. The citizens of Athens gathered in the agora, or marketplace, and carried a robe for the statue of Athena to the Acropolis.
The most impressive of the statues from the Parthenon are the great marble sculptures in the pediments—the triangular spaces at each end of the temple that were hollowed out to hold carved figures. The sculpture on the east pediment told the story of Athena’s birth, as she sprang fully grown from the head of Zeus. The west pediment depicted the battle
between Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, for control over Attica, the region in which Athens is located. The greatness of the sculptures lies in their naturalness, a quality that reflects Phidias’s profound knowledge of the human form. Greek sculpture before Phidias generally showed the ideal form and did not reflect the natural movement and expression of the subject. Phidias’s sculptures are enlivened by the way he captured the tension in the muscles, the sense of movement, and the emotions of the figures. The larger-than-life sculptures were removed from the Parthenon in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Athens at that time. The sculptures, now known as the Elgin Marbles, are on display at the British Museum in London.
Later History. Throughout its history, the Parthenon served many functions in addition to its original use as a temple. It was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and later into a Turkish mosque. Until A.D. 1687, the original building was still largely intact, although the roof had been replaced. In that year, it was being used by the Turks as an ammunition dump in their war against Italy. A direct hit from an Italian rocket caused an explosion that destroyed the center of the building. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, some of the columns were reconstructed, but that work has recently been dismantled, and current preservation efforts concentrate on restoring and protecting those original portions of the building that still stand.
Although much of the original temple is gone, the Parthenon is probably the most carefully studied and measured building in the world. Archaeological* research has revealed much about the artistry and craftsmanship that went into the creation of this remarkable structure. Moreover, some 2,500 years later, the world still acknowledges the Parthenon as a masterpiece of classical* Greek art. (See also Architecture, Greek; Art, Greek; Columns; Construction Materials and Techniques; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Festivals and Feasts, Greek; Persian Wars; Sculpture, Greek.)
* archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
PAINTING THE TOWN
Many ancient buildings, including the Parthenon, were originally not white but painted—often in very bright colors. In the Parthenon, the colors provided a background against which the sculptures could be seen more easily and served to make the form of the building stand out against the bright Mediterranean sky. The colors also ensured that the different parts of the Parthenon were clearly distinguished from one another. As with so many ancient buildings that were once brightly colored, nothing remains of this aspect of the original temple.