Parthenon: its History, Architecture and Sculptures

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The Parthenon is one of the best known architectural symbols of any civilization. Built in the 15 year period between 447-432 B.C. this ancient Greek temple was designed as a replacement for a temple destroyed by the Persians in 480 B.C. . Made of Pentelic marble, it was designed by the architect Iktinos to hold the monumental gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statue of Athena designed by the sculptor-architect Pheidias. The name, "Parthenon", refers to the room where the virgin goddess Athena (Athena Parthenos), had her statue. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

The Parthenon (on the top of the Acropolis in Athens) is one of the world's most famous monuments. Dedicated to Athena Parthhenos, the Virgin, patron of Athens, and originally painted with bright colors, it was the first temple built on the Acropolis after a Persian invasion that nearly destroyed Athens, goddess of Athens.

Athenian citizen used to line the promenade of the Stoa of Attalos in the Agora to watch the Panatheenaic procession in which a huge dress was hauled up to the Acropolis as an offering to Athena. Near the Parthenon was a 30-foot-high bronze statue of Athena Promachos, the Warrior, whose metal glistened so brightly it was said it could be seen by ships approaching Athens.

The Parthenon is 228 feet long, 101 feet wide and 60 feet high. It has 17 outer columns on the north and south sides and eight columns at each end. It covers an area about half the size of a football field. The 46 outer columns are 11 meters high The main structure is built of limestone and marble. A 170 meter frieze once wrapped around the top of the exterior wall. The roof is missing and there are several stories as to how this happened.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Parthenon on the Acropolis

The Acropolis is the name of the huge rock on which the Parthenon stands. Anchored by huge walls and surrounded by a forest of unassembled ruins the Acropolis rises out of Athens like a miniature Mt. Olympus. An important secular and sacred site, it was home to he city's treasury as well as temples for religious rites and sacrifices.

Caves near a natural spring on the steep north side of the Acropolis have been inhabited since Neolithic times and the fortress-like walls around the Acropolis were built by the Mycenaeans to protect a palace they had erected at the top. This was superseded by a Greek temple dedicated to Poseidon and Athena that was destroyed in 480 B.C. when the entire city of Athens was burned to ground by the Persian army of Xeres. In the Golden Age of Greece the caves contained a shrine to Pan and other Gods.

From the Acropolis , it is easy to see why this abrupt steep-sided rock was chosen as the first citadel of ancient Athens: it is a superb natural defensive site. Once fortified, it was virtually impregnable, although defenders were hampered by the lack of water on the Acropolis . Still, the Acropolis was a fitting home for the virgin warrior goddess, Athena. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

Many of the temples built on the Acropolis were shrines to Athena, as is the Parthenon which remains today. Its predecessor, the massive Hekatompedon of Peisistratus, was located slightly to the north of the Parthenon, beside the present Erechtheion. The Hekatompedon (also known as the "Old Temple of Athena"), was burnt in the Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C. Its foundations remain on the Acropolis , and are the only remnants of the buildings which were on the Acropolis before the Persians sacked the city. Parts of the temple were built into the north wall of the Acropolis , where some of the massive column drums may still be seen.

However grand the buildings with which Peisistratos adorned the Acropolis , they did not survive the Persian onslaught. Fortunately, many of the buildings erected by Pericles a half century later have survived, and it is the Periclean Acropolis which we visit today. Of these buildings, the most famous is the Parthenon (447-32 B.C.), flanked by the temple of Athena Nike (427-24 B.C.) and the Erechtheion (421-06 B.C.). In addition, Pericles was responsible for the building of the Propylaia (437-32 B.C.), the monumental entrance way to the Acropolis .

Monuments of the Acropolis

According to UNESCO: “The Acropolis of Athens and its monuments are universal symbols of the classical spirit and civilization and form the greatest architectural and artistic complex bequeathed by Greek Antiquity to the world. In the second half of the fifth century B.C. Athens, following the victory against the Persians and the establishment of democracy, took a leading position amongst the other city-states of the ancient world. In the age that followed, as thought and art flourished, an exceptional group of artists put into effect the ambitious plans of Athenian statesman Pericles and, under the inspired guidance of the sculptor Pheidias, transformed the rocky hill into a unique monument of thought and the arts. The most important monuments were built during that time: the Parthenon, built by Ictinus, the Erechtheon, the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, designed by Mnesicles and the small temple Athena Nike. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The Acropolis of Athens is the most striking and complete ancient Greek monumental complex still existing in our times. It is situated on a hill of average height (156m) that rises in the basin of Athens. Its overall dimensions are approximately 170 by 350m. The hill is rocky and steep on all sides except for the western side, and has an extensive, nearly flat top. Strong fortification walls have surrounded the summit of the Acropolis for more than 3,300 years. The first fortification wall was built during the 13th century B.C. and surrounded the residence of the local Mycenaean ruler. In the 8th century B.C. the Acropolis gradually acquired a religious character with the establishment of the cult of Athena, the city’s patron goddess. The sanctuary reached its peak in the archaic period (mid-6th century to early 5th century B.C.). In the 5th century B.C. the Athenians, empowered from their victory over the Persians, carried out an ambitious building programme under the leadership of the great statesman Perikles, comprising a large number of monuments including the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the Propylaia and the temple of Athena Nike.


The monuments were developed by an exceptional group of architects (such as Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles) and sculptors (such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, Agorakritos), who transformed the rocky hill into a unique complex, which heralded the emergence of classical Greek thought and art. On this hill were born Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Freedom of Expression and Speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values. The Acropolis’ monuments, having survived for almost twenty-five centuries through wars, explosions, bombardments, fires, earthquakes, sackings, interventions and alterations, have adapted to different uses and the civilizations, myths and religions that flourished in Greece through time.”

Why the Acropolis Is So Special

According to UNESCO: “The Athenian Acropolis is the supreme expression of the adaptation of architecture to a natural site. This grand composition of perfectly balanced massive structures creates a monumental landscape of unique beauty, consisting of a complete series of architectural masterpieces of the 5th century B.C.: the Parthenon by Iktinos and Kallikrates with the collaboration of the sculptor Pheidias (447-432); the Propylaia by Mnesikles (437-432); the Temple of Athena Nike by Mnesikles and Kallikrates (427-424); and Erechtheion (421-406). [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]

“The monuments of the Athenian Acropolis have exerted an exceptional influence, not only in Greco-Roman antiquity, during which they were considered exemplary models, but also in contemporary times. Throughout the world, Neo-Classical monuments have been inspired by all the Acropolis monuments. =

“From myth to institutionalized cult, the Athenian Acropolis, by its precision and diversity, bears a unique testimony to the religions of ancient Greece. It is the sacred temple from which sprung fundamental legends about the city. Beginning in the 6th century B.C. myths and beliefs gave rise to temples, altars and votives corresponding to an extreme diversity of cults, which have brought us the Athenian religion in all its richness and complexity. Athena was venerated as the goddess of the city (Athena Polias); as the goddess of war (Athena Promachos); as the goddess of victory (Athena Nike); as the protective goddess of crafts (Athena Ergane), etc. Most of her identities are glorified at the main temple dedicated to her, the Parthenon, the temple of the patron-goddess. =

“The Athenian Acropolis is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble illustrating significant historical phases since the 16th century B.C. . Firstly, it was the Mycenaean Acropolis (Late Helladic civilization, 1600-1100 B.C.) which included the royal residence and was protected by the characteristic Mycenaean fortification. The monuments of the Acropolis are distinctly unique structures that evoke the ideals of the Classical 5th century B.C. and represent the apex of ancient Greek architectural development. =

“The Acropolis is directly and tangibly associated with events and ideas that have never faded over the course of history. Its monuments are still living testimonies of the achievements of Classical Greek politicians (e.g. Themistokles, Perikles) who lead the city to the establishment of Democracy; the thought of Athenian philosophers (e.g. Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes);and the works of architects (e.g. Iktinos, Kallikrates, Mnesikles) and artists (e.g. Pheidias, Agorakritus, Alkamenes). These monuments are the testimony of a precious part of the cultural heritage of humanity. =

Acropolis reconstructed

History of the Parthenon

Built between 447 and 438 B.C., the Parthenon was the centerpiece of a building campaign on the Acropolis launched in the mid 5th century B.C. when Athens was rich from tribute money paid to it by 150 to 200 city states. It was commissioned by Pericles — who said, "We have forced every sea and land to be the highway of daring, and everywhere...have left imperishable monuments behind us” — and supported by the citizens of Athens who voted in favor of funding it.

One reason why Greece was so vulnerable to Spartan attack during the Peloponnesian War was that the money that would have gone to pay an army was used instead to pay for the building of the Parthenon. Pericles was accused by Thucydides of adorning the city "like a harlot with precious stones, statues and temples costing a thousand talents." Many of the pieces of temple destroyed by the Persians was used as fill and centuries later priceless pieces of Greek statuary was pulled from the rubble.

Parthenon served as both a temple and a treasury for the Delian League (an alliance of city-states that paid tribute to Athens). A heavily-guarded iron cage kept the treasury safe. The cost of the Parthenon without the Athena statue was more than the entire revenue of the city for one year. Money from the common treasury from all the city states on the Delos League was also used without the consent of the other states.

One of the main architects of the Parthenon, Phidias, was thrown in jail for creating "a likeness of himself as a bald old man holding up a great stone with both hands, and had put in a very fine representation of Pericles fighting an Amazon." Pericles was the statesman who ruled Athens the time the Parthenon was being built and his offense was "impiety" for placing himself in the same arena as the gods. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Pericles and the Parthenon


The Parthenon was built in the 15 year period between 447-432 B.C. under the stewardship of great Athenian statesman Perciles. According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“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 B.C. 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. |

“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 B.C. but only three years later Pericles and many of his fellow citizens succumbed to a horrific plague that devastated Athens.” |

Architecture of the Parthenon

Designed by the Greek architects Ictinus and Callicrates, the Parthenon is impressive not so much for it its overall size; but the sense of spaciousness and height created by architecture that is otherwise massive and foreboding. Arches weren't perfected until the Roman times and Greek architecture depended on large numbers of thick columns to support a structure. The Doric columns in the Parthenon are indeed monolithic but the are spaced in such a way that the building doesn't seem as heavy as they could have been.

The columns are slightly curved and they bulge at the top to create the optical illusion of straight and perfect symmetry. Straight columns look as if they are thin, and thus weak. The fact they slant slightly inward and the floor is slight bowed (about 10 centimeters on the sides and six centimeters on the front and back with a slight bulge in the middle) not only helped to relieve some of the stress of the roof but it also gave the structure the illusion that it was reaching towards a pinnacle. The sense of spaciousness is heightened ever more by the fact there is no roof and many of the columns have fallen down (yuk, yuk, yuk).

The Parthenon has an exterior colonnade of eight Doric columns at each end, and seventeen Doric columns along each side. Each of these columns bulges slightly in the middle, a device which pre vents the massive columns from seeing lifeless and overly regular. In addition, this swelling (known in Creek as "entasis") corrected the optical illusion whereby perfectly straight columns appear to be slightly concave. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“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.” |

Hekatompedon: Part of the Parthenon with the Statue of Athena

replica of Phidias's giant Athena statue in the Parthenon

Within the temple itself were two chambers, one in which the statue of Athena Parthenos stood, and one which housed the temple treasury. Visitors to the Parthenon today, disappointed not to be allowed inside, should take some comfort from the fact that most Athenians in antiquity never were permitted inside the temple. Only priests ever entered the treasury, and the statue itself was viewed only rarely. One of those who saw the statue was Pausanias, who describe the Athena as standing "upright in an ankle length tunic with a head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast. She has a Victory about eight feet high, and a spear in her hand and a shield at her feet, and a snake beside the shield; this snake might be Erichthonios."

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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.) [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“The chryselephantine statue of Athena 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.” |

Building the Parthenon

The Parthenon is made almost exclusively of marble found at a site about 18 kilometers away from the Acropolis. About 100,000 tons or marble was used. The marble was shaped at the quarry and transported to Athens and finally hauled up the steep slopes of the Acropolis. It was fortunate that marble was used. Many building made by the ancient Greeks were constructed of limestone, which dissolved over time in the rain and humidity.

Most of the monumental part of the Parthenon were built with 10-ton marble blocks. The craftsmanship is extraordinary. The joints between the blocks are all but invisible even with a magnifying glass. The blocks were fitted together with iron clamps placed into carefully-carved grooves, lead was then poured in the joints to cushion them from seismic shocks and protect them from corrosion.

what the Parthenon looked like in its time

As hard as quarrying, shaping, transporting and fitting these stone blocks is it was not as time-consuming and labor intensive as some of the detail work such as making the flutes (vertical grooves) that run up and down the columns. Manolis Korres, a professor of architecture at the National Technical University of Greece, and coordinator of the Parthenon’s restoration until 2005, estimated that making the flutes in each column was as costly as all the quarrying, hauling and assembly combined.

After the columns were smoothed and polished, a stripling pattern was added to dull the shine and mask the flaws. Ths job required making orderly, precise rows in not only the columns but also the base, floors, columns ad most other surfaces, Korres told Smithsonian magazine, “This was surely one of the most demanding tasks. It must have taken as much as quarter of the total construction expended on the monument.” Athenians were able to devote such attention to detail and still finish the thing in under ten years (based on dates determined from inscribed financial records) it has been surmised using ropes, pulleys and wooden cranes like those used to build their great navy. Some scholars also believe the Athenians possessed chisels, axes and other tools that were stronger and more durable that their modern counterparts and this, combined with superior temple building skills honed over a century and a half, enabled them carve blocks at twice the speed of modern restorers.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“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”.” |

Parthenon Adornments

The temple itself was adorned with sculpture, of a quality never before, and never since, equaled. The metopes (rectangular panels above the columns) were sculptured with scenes from the Trojan War, and from the Battles of the Athenians and Amazons, the Lapiths and Centaurs, and t he Gods and Giants. In addition, a sculptured frieze above the temple walls depicted the great Panathenaic procession. In this annual celebration, Athenian youths and maidens accompanied the new robe for Athena's statue from Eleusis to the Acropolis itself. The young men on horseback, the maidens, the sacrificial oxeri, and the gods themselves all were depicted, and may be seen today - but not in Athens. [Source: Internet Archive, from]

20120222-Elgin Marbles Pediments_of_the_Parthenon-British_Museum-2.jpg
Elgin Marbles, Pediments of the Parthenon

The sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, are on view in . London at the British Museum. A few carvings remain in place on the Parthenon, and some fragments are on view in the Acropolis Museum.In addition, the Parthenon had monumental sculpture in both pediments. As Pausanias concisely put it, "As you go into the temple called the Parthenon, everything on the pediment has to do with the birth of Athena; the far side shows Poseidon quarrelling with Athena over the country." As we know, Athena won this contest by producing the first olive tree, and the Athenians did not stint in honoring her with Greece's finest temple. However, the Athenians were always practical: the gold regalia which clad the great statue was designed so that it could be removed for safekeeping. The Athenians had learned what could happen to their sacred sites in the Persian sack of the Acropolis of 480 B.C.

North of the Parthenon is one of the loveliest of all ancient monuments, the delicate Erechtheion, thought to have been built on the very spot where Athena and Poseidon had their contest for possession of Athens. Indeed, some said that the marks of Poseidon's trident were clearly visible in the rock; be that as it may, for some years it has been traditional for an olive tree to grow near the Erechtheion. Alas, visitors today will see the exquisite temple through a screen of scaffolding. Like many of the monuments on the Acropolis , the Erechtheion is feeling the effects of time and urban pollution, and its elegant columns the Caryatid Maidens, have had to be removed (and replaced with copies) for safekeeping.

Like the monumental Propylaea, the Erechtheum had to overcome irregularities of terrain, and its south and east walls stand some 9 feet above its north and west walls. Although the Porch of the Caryatids is the more famous, the North Porch, with its elegant carved architectural ornament, is perhaps the more deserving of praise. Within the temple was both an ancient wooden idol (a "xoanon") and an olive wood statue of Athena Polias (Athena of the City). Like the great statue of Athena in the Parthenon, this statue also received a new robe in the Panathenaic festival.

Today's visitor to the Acropolis gains but a fragmentary impression of its original splendor. One should keep in mind that the temples were brightly painted, and adorned with great bronze rosettes. The honey-hue of the Parthenon was hidden in antiquity; each visitor will have to decide whether he is disappointed, or relieved, not to have seen the Parthenon and its neighboring temples bedecked with color.

Beyond the Parthenon is the Belvedere of Queen Amalia, Otho's young bride, who loved to stand here and look out over the new capital of the Kingdom of Greece. One can see why: especially at dawn, when the sounds of the city are stilled, the view of the tile roofs of the Plaka is magical. Beyond sprawls Athens, framed by its mountain ranges, which gave so much marble to the monuments of the Acropolis .

Parthenon frieze

Parthenon Frieze

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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 famous Parthenon frieze 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. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

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.” |

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Metopes of the Parthenon

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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). [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“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.” |

Statues at the Parthenon

Elgin marbles Centaur and Lapith

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The chryselephantine statue of Athena 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. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“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.” |

Other Acropolis Structures

Other Acropolis Structures include the Chalkotheke ("a place to store bronze" off the west end of the Parthenon. It's original purpose is unknown but at one time it held armor, weapons, possibly left as votive offerings. The Sanctuary Brauron (next to the Chalkotheke) once contained a huge representation of the Trojan Horse.

The Temple of Nike (on one side of the Propylaea) is a small and relatively intact temple honoring the God of Victory. It was built on the Acropolis in the 6th century B.C. It was destroyed by the Persians and rebuilt between 427 and 424 B.C. to celebrate Greece's victory in war.

The Theater of Herodes Atticus (161 A.D.) is a huge well preserved amphitheater on the southern flank of the Acropolis that is the site of the Athens Festival which runs from the middle of June to the middle of September. Programs include theater, ballet, opera, chamber music and opera.

The Stoa of Eumenes (168-159 B.C.) is an old arcade that looks sort of like an aqueduct that runs from the amphitheater along the eastern base of the acropolis. At the end of this wall is the Theater of Dionysus (circa 330 B.C.), another amphitheater than is not in as good a shape as Herodes Atticus.



The Erechtheion (421-407 B.C) (on the side of the Acropolis opposite the Acropolis Museum) is an odd shaped structure built to honor the legendary Athenian king Erechtheus as well as Poseidon and Athena. It housed a rare cult statue of Athena that been around for centuries before the temple was built. Nearby was a sacred olive tree that is said to have miraculously sprouted new growth overnight after the sacking by Persia.

The temple stands on the site of the original Poseidon and Athena temple that existed before the Persian invasion. It was built around the same time as the Parthenon as were the other buildings on top of the Acropolis. The founders creators of classical Athens, Erechtheus and Kekrops, were buried here and during the Turkish occupation it was the home of the Turkish commander's harem.

The Erechtheum is a large and complex temple that consists of two porches: a large one facing the north and a small one facing the Parthenon . The latter is supported by six female-shaped columns known as the “caryatids” . It is no wonder the Turkish governor chose this building to house his harem a thousand years later.


The Propylaea (437-432 B.C.) (at the western end of the Acropolis) is an elaborate structure that is half gate and half temple, forming the monumental entrance to the Acropolis. The Propylaea was commissioned by Pericles immediately after the Parthenon was finished in 437 B.C. It took five years to build and was left unfinished, probably because of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

The Propylaea is a splendid example of architecture blending in with the terrain. It consists of two massive stone edifices with a wide stairway in between. At the top of the stairway is a set of large Doric columns. The north wing of building houses the Pinakotheke, a large room that was used to display paintings, the first known example of an art gallery.

Propylaea (entrance to the Parthenon)

Entering through this gate allows one to best appreciate the Acropolis. First you walk up a short switch-backed trail. Then you walk through a huge opening in the walls. Inside the Propylaea you walk between a corridor of massive columns into a huge vault-like structure which in turn leads to the top of the Acropolis. Ancient processions used to travel this same route.

As one toils up the slopes of the Acropolis, one is aware of the mighty presence of the Propylaia, designed by the famous architect Mnesicles. The Propylaia sits on uneven terrain, on a wedge-shaped bit of the rock, whose anomalies governed the irregularities of the building itself. The terrain may have defeated the project, which was never completed. In essence, the Propylaia has a central hall flanked by two wings, one of which contained the famous Pinakotheke (Picture Gallery), with many pictures by the legendary Polygnotos. As we knew from Pausanias, the pictures were both of legendary figures such as Perseus and of historical personages Alcibiades. "Among the paintings is Alcibiades; there are symbols in the painting of his victory in the horse-race at Nemea. Perseus is on his way to Seriphos, bringing Medusa's head..." [Source: Internet Archive, from]

To the right of the entrance is the little Ionic temple of Athena Nike (Victorious Athena). In Mycenaean times, there was evidently a small shrine here, and Peisistratos constructed a more substantial altar, destroyed in the Persian conflagration of 480 B.C. The Periclean temple stood until it was destroyed by the Turks in 1686; happily, it was reconstructed and restored first in the 19th, and then again in the 20th centuries. The sculptural frieze of the temple, in a departure from tradition, showed not the contests of the gods, but scenes from the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.), in which the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians.

Some say that it was from this spot that Aegeus kept watch for his son Perseus, when he returned from Crete, after slaying the Minotaur. Others, however, believe that Aegeus kept watch from Cape Sounion, and threw himself into the sea from that cliff. Be that as it may, if the nefos is not too enveloping, one has a spectacular view across the Bay of Phaleron and the Saronic Gulf toward the mountains of the Peloponnese.

Parthenon in the A.D. 2nd Century

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx — the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia — and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief.[1.24.6] These griffins, Aristeas1 of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates,1 who accomplished many remarkable achievements.

“Opposite the temple is a bronze Apollo, said to be the work of Pheidias. They call it the Locust God, because once when locusts were devastating the land the god said that he would drive them from Attica. That he did drive them away they know, but they do not say how. I myself know that locusts have been destroyed three times in the past on Mount Sipylus, and not in the same way. Once a gale arose and swept them away; on another occasion violent heat came on after rain and destroyed them; the third time sudden cold caught them and they died. Such were the fates I saw befall the locusts.

Parthenon reconstruction

“By the south wall are represented the legendary war with the giants, who once dwelt about Thrace and on the isthmus of Pallene, the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, the engagement with the Persians at Marathon and the destruction of the Gauls in Mysia. Each is about two cubits, and all were dedicated by Attalus. There stands too Olympiodorus, who won fame for the greatness of his achievements, especially in the crisis when he displayed a brave confidence among men who had met with continuous reverses, and were therefore in despair of winning a single success in the days to come.

“Near the statue of Olympiodorus stands a bronze image of Artemis surnamed Leucophryne, dedicated by the sons of Themistocles; for the Magnesians, whose city the King had given him to rule, hold Artemis Leucophryne in honor.But my narrative must not loiter, as my task is a general description of all Greece. Endoeus1 was an Athenian by birth and a pupil of Daedalus, who also, when Daedalus was in exile because of the death of Calos, followed him to Crete. Made by him is a statue of Athena seated, with an inscription that Callias dedicated the image, but Endoeus made it. There is also a building called the Erechtheum. Before the entrance is an altar of Zeus the Most High, on which they never sacrifice a living creature but offer cakes, not being wont to use any wine either. Inside the entrance are altars, one to Poseidon, on which in obedience to an oracle they sacrifice also to Erechtheus, the second to the hero Butes, and the third to Hephaestus. On the walls are paintings representing members of the clan Butadae; there is also inside — the building is double — sea-water in a cistern. This is no great marvel, for other inland regions have similar wells, in particular Aphrodisias in Caria. But this cistern is remarkable for the noise of waves it sends forth when a south wind blows. On the rock is the outline of a trident. Legend says that these appeared as evidence in support of Poseidon's claim to the land.

“Both the city and the whole of the land are alike sacred to Athena; for even those who in their parishes have an established worship of other gods nevertheless hold Athena in honor. But the most holy symbol, that was so considered by all many years before the unification of the parishes, is the image of Athena which is on what is now called the Acropolis, but in early days the Polis (City). A legend concerning it says that it fell from heaven; whether this is true or not I shall not discuss. A golden lamp for the goddess was made by Callimachus. Having filled the lamp with oil, they wait until the same day next year, and the oil is sufficient for the lamp during the interval, although it is alight both day and night. The wick in it is of Carpasian flax,1 the only kind of flax which is fire-proof, and a bronze palm above the lamp reaches to the roof and draws off the smoke. The Callimachus who made the lamp, although not of the first rank of artists, was yet of unparalleled cleverness, so that he was the first to drill holes through stones, and gave himself the title of Refiner of Art, or perhaps others gave the title and he adopted it as his.

“In the temple of Athena Polias (Of the City) is a wooden Hermes, said to have been dedicated by Cecrops, but not visible because of myrtle boughs. The votive offerings worth noting are, of the old ones, a folding chair made by Daedalus, Persian spoils, namely the breastplate of Masistius, who commanded the cavalry at Plataea1, and a scimitar said to have belonged to Mardonius. Now Masistius I know was killed by the Athenian cavalry. But Mardonius was opposed by the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and was killed by a Spartan; so the Athenians could not have taken the scimitar to begin with, and furthermore the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) would scarcely have suffered them to carry it off. About the olive they have nothing to say except that it was testimony the goddess produced when she contended for their land. Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.Adjoining the temple of Athena is the temple of Pandrosus, the only one of the sisters to be faithful to the trust. I was much amazed at something which is not generally known, and so I will describe the circumstances. Two maidens dwell not far from the temple of Athena Polias, called by the Athenians Bearers of the Sacred Offerings. For a time they live with the goddess, but when the festival comes round they perform at night the following rites. Having placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry — neither she who gives nor they who carry have any knowledge what it is — the maidens descend by the natural underground passage that goes across the adjacent precincts, within the city, of Aphrodite in the Gardens. They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up. These maidens they henceforth let go free, and take up to the Acropolis others in their place. By the temple of Athena is .... an old woman about a cubit high, the inscription calling her a handmaid of Lysimache, and large bronze figures of men facing each other for a fight, one of whom they call Erechtheus, the other Eumolpus; and yet those Athenians who are acquainted with antiquity must surely know that this victim of Erechtheus was Immaradus, the son of Eumolpus. On the pedestal are also statues of Theaenetus, who was seer to Tolmides, and of Tolmides himself, who when in command of the Athenian fleet inflicted severe damage upon the enemy, especially upon the Peloponnesians.”

model of the Acropolis

History of the Parthenon After it Was Completed

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “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 B.C. but only three years later Pericles and many of his fellow citizens succumbed to a horrific plague that devastated Athens. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“The Parthenon served as a temple to Athena for almost a millennium. Then, in the 6th 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.

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 percent 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.”

Parthenon in 1800

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “When Elgin's men removed the sculpture from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state. From the fifth century B.C. to the 17th century AD, it had been in continuous use. It was built as a Greek temple, was later converted into a Christian church, and finally (with the coming of Turkish rule over Greece in the 15th century) it was turned into a mosque. Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid-17th century, 'the finest mosque in the world'. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“All that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the Parthenon mosque - temporarily in use as a gunpowder store. Some 300 women and children were amongst those killed, and the building itself was ruined. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins. |::|

Acropolis: 1 Parthenon 2 Old Temple of Athena 3 Erechtheum 4 Statue of Athena Promachus 5 Propylaea 6 Temple of Athena Nike 8 Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia 9 Chalkotheke. 10 Pandroseion 11 Arrephorion 12 Altar of Athena 13 Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus 14 Sanctuary of Pandion 15 Odeon of Herodes Atticus 16 Stoa of Eumenes 17 Sanctuary of Asclepius 18 Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus 19 Odeum of Pericles 20 Temenos of Dionysus Eleuthereus 21 Aglaureion 22 Peripatos 23 Clepshydra 24 Caves of Apollo Hypocraisus, Olympian Zeus and Pan 25 Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros 26 Peripatos inscription 27 Cave of Aglauros 28 Panathenaic way

“On the one hand, the local population was using it as a convenient quarry. A good deal of the original sculpture, as well as the plain building blocks, were reused in local housing or ground down for cement. On the other hand, increasing numbers of travellers and antiquarians from northern Europe were busily helping themselves to anything they could pocket (hence the scattering of pieces of Parthenon sculpture around European museums from Copenhagen to Strasbourg) - and among these collectors was Lord Elgin.” |::|

“The Acropolis hill today is a bare rock, on which are perched the famous monuments of the fifth century B.C. - including the Parthenon. There is the tiny temple of Victory, which stands by the propylaia, or main gateway, to the hilltop, and also the so-called Erechtheum, another shrine of Athena, with its famous line-up of caryatids (columns in the form of female figures). One of the caryatids is now, thanks to Elgin, in the British Museum. |::|

“In Elgin's day it was quite different. The Parthenon stood in the middle of the small village-cum-garrison base that then occupied the hill. It was encroached upon by houses and gardens, and by all kinds of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance remains. It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site - it was more of a seedy shanty town. |::|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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