The Parthenon

At the heart of Athens lies the Parthenon, the Temple that is one of the greatest works of architecture in the world. It is stunningly situated on the Acropolis the rocky ridge – fortunately with a flat top – that was the ritual centre of Athens.  Originally in the Mycenaean period, it had been the site of the Palace,  but in the new world of the city-state it became the ritual centre.  And it was here that a magnificent Temple was erected to the virgin goddess Athene: the word Parthenos means virgin.

But how was the Parthenon built, and how indeed did public life work in the new democratic market economy of the fifth century?  Here attention tends to focus on the figure of Pericles (c495 – 429 BC) who dominated politics in Athens from the 460s down to his death in the plague in 429 BC. Pericles began his political career in the 460s as something of a left-wing radical, clashing with the elderly conservative statesman Cimon, and eventually succeeded in getting him ostracised. He also began the payment of citizens for jury service – a slippery slope. But then he moved into the centre ground and for 30 years dominated Athenian politics, being elected as general year after year. As Thucydides said, ‘Athens was in name a democracy, but in practice ruled by its first man’. At the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war he delivered a funeral oration over the dead which, as reported by Thucydides, is one of the finest defences of democracy and of the glories of Athens.

His greatest achievement was his work on the Acropolis, the rocky eminence at the heart of Athens, on which he rebuilt the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, which is one of the highlights of art and architecture in the world. The Acropolis has always been the ritual centre of Athens. It was presumably the site of the Mycenaean palace, though nothing definite remains of the palace. Then, as the Greek civilisation emerged, it housed a temple to the goddess Athene accompanied by a wonderful collection of carved statues. But when the Persians invaded, the Athenians abandoned their city and went to the island of Salamis and the Persians destroyed everything, including the temple on the Acropolis. Little remained of these earlier temples, but fortunately for us, many of the statues became buried and today form a superb collection of early Greek sculpture.


The Parthenon of Athens photographed in 1960 before the recent reconstruction.

Just before the final battle of Platea in 479 BC, the Greeks (apparently) swore an oath that whatever the Persians destroyed would not be rebuilt, but would be left as a symbol of Persian barbarism. Whether the oath really existed is a matter for debate but certainly the Acropolis was left bare for the next thirty years. However in 449 BC the Peace of Callias was signed which apparently released the Athenians from their oath and over the next twenty years the Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon. Indeed it was not just the Parthenon, but also other buildings on the Acropolis: the entrance, or Propylaeum, and later the Erechtheum as well as buildings outside Athens, including the Hall of the Mysteries at Eleusis, and the magnificent temple to Poseidon at Sounion at the tip of the Acropolis – the last sight of the mainland to be seen as one sails out of Athens to the Cyclades. They also strengthened the defences of Athens by adding a middle wall to the Long Walls that connected Athens to the sea.

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One of the fine carvings from the Metopes of the Parthenon now brilliantly displayed at the British Museum.

How was all this financed? The Roman historian Plutarch (AD 45 – 120) reported that the main source of finance was funds Pericles had taken (stolen?) from the treasury of the Delian League. The accusation appears to have been made at the time by his political rivals, and it remains as controversial now as it was then. A sixtieth of the income of the Delian League was indeed set aside for the goddess Athena – it is the accounts of this sixtieth that have been preserved and are known as the ATL – the Athenian Tribute Lists – and yes, this was used for the building of the goddess’ temple. But the main sources of funds appear to have been the accumulating funds of the city and the income they gained from their import and export taxes, and the money that came from their silver mines at Laurion. The building accounts were inscribed on stones and parts of the inscriptions have survived and provide considerable guidance, though mostly of expenditure rather than income.

The main surprise about the building of the Parthenon is the speed at which it was built, mainly in the ten years between 447 BC and the dedication of the statue in 438, though building was still in progress at the outbreak of war in 432 BC.

Full-scale replica of the statue of Athena, erected in the reconstruction of the Parthenon at Nashville, Tennessee

The main feature of the Parthenon was the great statue of Athena, the masterwork of the great sculptor Phidias, the most popular sculptor of the golden age of Greek sculpture who also sculpted the equally famous statue of Zeus at Olympia. Both statues were chryselephantine, that is they were made of gold and ivory, the flesh being rendered in ivory and the clothes and armour in gold. Huge amounts of gold were involved but they were all designed to be removable, so when he was accused of short selling, he could remove the gold pieces to be weighed to show that all the gold could be accounted for.

But the great glory of the Parthenon today are the other sculptures set high up at roof level, the pediments at the front in the eves of the roof, the metopes, the carvings that were set high up between the top of the columns and the roof; and also the great friezes that ran along continuously along the top of the wall of the inner rooms. These would have been difficult to see at the time, but they survived until the Parthenon was blown up in AD 1678, when used by the Turkish rulers as a powder store and a shell from the Venetian invaders set off a disastrous explosion. Thereafter the temple was in rack and ruins until the sculptures were rescued by Lord Elgin and brought back to London where they have remained in the British Museum ever since, where they are far more visible than they would ever have been originally, set high up on the building.

The question is who was responsible for the overall design of the sculptures? The architects of the Parthenon are named as being Ictinos and Callicrates, but it appears that the sculptor Phidias was in overall charge, designing the temple, carving the great statue and sketching out the design for the metopes and the friezes. He was at the same time also carving the great statue at Olympia as well as many other commissions – and half way through his work at Athens he was accused of malfeasance and made himself scarce, so if he was in overall charge he could only have been so in producing an outline sketch. Ictinos and Callicrates must have been in day-to-day charge.

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The Erechtheum, the rather strange building erected over the former Mycenaean palace. The most famous feature is the annex at the corner with the pillars carved in the form of  maidens, called Caryatides.

It appears that the statue cost almost as much as the whole of the rest of the building, but in addition there was also the elaborate entrance way, the Propylaea (which involved considerable engineering work, underpinning the corner of the building) as well as the Erechtheum, the rather strange building probably built over the ruins of the Mycenaean palace, which has an extending porch surrounded by pillars in the form of sturdy maidens known as the Caryatides which are the best known, but least understood of all the sculptures on the Acropolis.

The Parthenon is a building that somehow comes out right. It is the first great building of a market economy, using money received from dubious sources to pay workmen working for cash: and it was a huge success.

 On to: How the Greeks invented Drama 

Or, How a temple was built: The Epidaurus inscriptions

20th January 2016