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The magnificent temple on the Acropolis of Athens, known as the Parthenon, was built between 447 and

432 BCE in the Age of Pericles, and it was dedicated to the citys patron deity Athena. The temple was
constructed to house the new cult statue of the goddess by Pheidias and to proclaim to the world the
success of Athens as leader of the coalition of Greek forces which had defeated the invading Persian
armies of Darius and Xerxes. The temple would remain in use for more than a thousand years, and
despite the ravages of time, explosions, looting, and pollution damage, it still dominates the modern city
of Athens, a magnificent testimony to the glory and renown the city enjoyed throughout antiquity.

The project to build a new temple to replace the damaged buildings of the acropolis following the
Persian attack on the city in 480 BCE and restart the aborted temple project begun in 490 BCE was
instigated by Pericles and funded by surplus from the war treasury of the Delian League, a political
alliance of Greek city-states that had formed together to repel the threat of Persian invasion. Over time
the confederation transformed into the Athenian Empire, and Pericles therefore had no qualms in using
the Leagues funds to embark on a massive building project to glorify Athens.

The acropolis itself measures some 300 by 150 metres and is 70 metres high at its maximum. The
temple, which would sit on the highest part of the acropolis, was designed by the architects Iktinos and
Kallikratis, and the project was overseen by the sculptor Pheidias. Pentelic marble from the nearby Mt.
Pentelicus was used for the building, and never before had so much marble (22,000 tons) been used in
a Greek temple. Pentelic marble was known for its pure white appearance and fine grain. It also contains
traces of iron which over time has oxidised, giving the marble a soft honey colour, a quality particularly
evident at sunrise and sunset.

The name Parthenon derives from one of Athenas many epithets: Athena Parthenos, meaning Virgin.
Parthenon means house of Parthenos which was the name given in the 5th century BCE to the
chamber inside the temple which housed the cult statue. The temple itself was known as the mega neos
or large temple or alternatively as Hekatompedos neos, which referred to the length of the inner cella:
100 ancient feet. From the 4th century BCE the whole building acquired the name Parthenon.



The Parthenon would become the largest Doric Greek temple, although it was innovative in that it mixed
the two architectural styles of Doric and the newer Ionic. The temple measured 30.88 m by 69.5 m and
was constructed using a 4:9 ratio in several aspects. The diameter of the columns in relation to the
space between columns, the height of the building in relation to its width, and the width of the inner
cella in relation to its length are all 4:9. Other sophisticated architectural techniques were used to
combat the problem that anything on that scale of size when perfectly straight seems from a distance to
be curved. To give the illusion of true straight lines, the columns lean ever so slightly inwards, a feature
which also gives a lifting effect to the building making it appear lighter than its construction material
would suggest. Also, the stylobate or floor of the temple is not exactly flat but rises slightly in the centre.
The columns also have entasis, that is, a slight fattening in their middle, and the four corner columns are
imperceptibly fatter than the other columns. The combination of these refinements makes the temple
seem perfectly straight, symmetrically in harmony, and gives the entire building a certain vibrancy.
Architectural Elements of the Parthenon

The outer columns of the temple were Doric with eight seen from the front and back and 17 seen from
the sides. This was in contrast to the normal 6x13 Doric arrangement, and they were also slimmer and
closer together than usual. Within, the inner cella (or opisthodomos) was fronted by six columns at the
back and front. It was entered through large wooden doors embellished with decorations in bronze,
ivory, and gold. The cella consisted of two separated rooms. The smaller room contained four Ionic
columns to support the roof section and was used as the citys treasury. The larger room housed the cult
statue and was surrounded by a Doric colonnade on three sides. The roof was constructed using cedar
wood beams and marble tiles and would have been decorated with akroteria (of palms or figures) at the
corners and central apexes. The roof corners also carried lion-headed spouts to drain away water.


The temple was unprecedented in both the quantity and quality of architectural sculpture used to
decorate it. No previous Greek temple was so richly decorated. The Parthenon had 92 metopes carved
in high relief (each was on average 1.2 m x 1.25 m square with relief of 25 cm in depth), a frieze running
around all four sides of the building, and both pediments filled with monumental sculpture.

The subjects of the sculpture reflected the turbulent times that Athens had and still faced. Defeating the
Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, at Salamis in 480 BCE, and at Plataea in 479 BCE, the Parthenon was
symbolic of the superiority of Greek culture against barbarian foreign forces. This conflict between
order and chaos was symbolised in particular by the sculptures on the metopes running around the
exterior of the temple, 32 along the long sides and 14 on each of the short. These depicted the Olympian
gods fighting the giants (East metopes - the most important, as this was the side where the principal
temple entrance was), Greeks, probably including Theseus, fighting Amazons (West metopes), the Fall of
Troy (North metopes), and Greeks fighting Centaurs, possibly at the wedding of the king of the Lapiths
Perithous (South metopes).

The frieze ran around all four sides of the building (an Ionic feature). Beginning at the southwest corner,
the narrative follows around the two sides, meeting again at the far end. It presents a total of 160 m of
sculpture with 380 figures and 220 animals, principally horses. This was more usual for a treasury
building and perhaps reflects the Parthenons double function as a religious temple and a treasury. The
frieze was different from all previous temples in that all sides depicted a single subject, in this case, the
Panathenaic procession which was held in Athens every four years and which delivered a new, specially
woven robe (peplos) to the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena housed in the Erechtheion. The
subject itself was a unique choice, as usually scenes from Greek mythology were chosen to decorate
buildings. Depicted in the procession are dignitaries, musicians, horsemen, charioteers, and the
Olympian Gods with Athena centre stage. To mitigate the difficulty in viewing the frieze at such a steep
angle from the narrow space between cella and outer columns, the background was painted blue and
the relief varied so that the carving was always deeper at the top. Also, all of the sculptures were
brightly painted, mostly using blue red and gold. Details such as weapons and horses reigns were added
in bronze and coloured glass was used for eyes.


The pediments of the temple measured 28.55 m in length with a maximum height of 3.45 m at their
centre. They were filled with around 50 figures sculpted in the round, an unprecedented quantity of
sculpture. Only eleven figures survive and their condition is so poor that many are difficult to identify
with certainty. With the aid of descriptions by Pausanias of the 2nd century CE, it is, however, possible
to identify the general subjects. The east pediment as a whole depicts the birth of Athena and the west
side the competition between Athena and Poseidon to become patron of the great city. One of the
problems of pediments for the sculptor is the diminished space at the corners of the triangle. Once
again, the Parthenon presented a unique solution by dissolving the figures into an imaginary sea (e.g.
the figure of Okeanus) or having the sculpture overlap the lower edge of the pediment (e.g. the horse


The most important sculpture of the Parthenon though was not outside but inside. There is evidence
that the temple was built to measure in order to accommodate the chryselephantine statue of Athena
by Pheidias. This was a gigantic statue over 12 m high and made of carved ivory for flesh parts and gold
(1140 kilos or 44 talents of it) for everything else, all wrapped around a wooden core. The gold parts
could also be easily removed if necessary in times of financial necessity. The statue stood on a pedestal
measuring 4.09 by 8.04 metres. The statue has been lost (it may have been removed in the 5th century
CE and taken to Constantinople), but smaller Roman copies survive, and they show Athena standing
majestic, fully armed, wearing an aegis with the head of Medusa prominent, holding Nike in her right
hand and with a shield in her left hand depicting scenes from the Battles of the Amazons and the Giants.
A large coiled snake resided behind the shield. On her helmet stood a sphinx and two griffins. In front of
the statue was a large shallow basin of water, which not only added the humidity necessary for the
preservation of the ivory, but also acted as a reflector of light coming through the doorway. The statue
must have been nothing less than awe-inspiring and the richness of it - both artistically and literally -
must have sent a very clear message of the wealth and power of the city that could produce such a
tribute to their patron god.

The Parthenon serenely fulfilled its function as the religious centre of Athens for over a thousand years.
However, in the 5th century CE the pagan temple was converted into a church by the early Christians.
An apse was added to the east end which required the removal of part of the east frieze. Many of the
metopes on the other sides of the building were deliberately damaged and figures in the central part of
the east pediment were removed. Windows were set into the walls, destroying more parts of the frieze,
and a bell tower was added to the west end.

In its new form the building survived for another thousand years. Then in 1458 CE the occupying Turks
converted the building into a mosque and so added a minaret in the southwest corner. In 1674 CE a
visiting Flemish artist (possibly one Jacques Carey) took drawings of much of the sculpture, an extremely
fortuitous action considering the disaster that was about to strike.

In 1687 CE the Venetian army under General Francesco Morosini besieged the acropolis which had been
occupied by Turkish forces who used the Parthenon as a powder magazine. On the 26th of September a
direct hit from a Venetian shell ignited the magazine and the massive explosion ripped apart the
Parthenon. All the interior walls except the east side were blown out, columns collapsed on the north
and south sides, carrying with them half of the metopes. If that wasnt enough, Morosini further
damaged the central figures of the west pediment in an unsuccessful attempt to loot them and smashed
to pieces the horses from the west pediment when his lifting tackle collapsed. From the rubble, the
Turks cleared a space and built a smaller mosque, but no attempt was made to gather together the
fallen ruins or protect them from any casual artefact robber. Frequently, in the 18th century CE, foreign
tourists helped themselves to a souvenir from the celebrated ruin.

It was in this context of neglect that Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, paid the indifferent Turkish
authorities for the right to take away a large collection of sculpture, inscriptions, and architectural
pieces from the Acropolis. In 1816 CE the British Government bought the collection, now known as the
Elgin Marbles, which now resides in the British Museum of London. Elgin took away 14 metopes (mostly
from the south side), a large number of the best preserved slabs from the frieze (and casts of the rest),
and some figures from the pediments (notably the torso sections of Athena, Poseidon, and Hermes, a
reasonably well preserved Dionysos, and a horse head). The other pieces of sculpture left at the site
suffered the fate of exposure to weather, and particularly in the late 20th century CE, the ruinous effects
of chronic air pollution. Indeed, it was not until 1993 CE that the remaining frieze slabs were removed
from the exposed ruin for safer keeping. However, the most important pieces now reside in the
Acropolis Museum, a purpose built state-of-the-art exhibition space which opened in 2011 CE and
stands in full view of the ruined temple just 300m away, still majestically dominating the skyline of
Athens. Pericles had made no idle boast then when he emphatically stated that ...we shall be the
marvel of the present day and of ages yet to come.