Imagine flying into Athens on a clear morning.  The plane banks to the Right on its final approach, and out on your side of the aircraft is a magnificent view of the remnants of the Athenian Acropolis of classical times.


Image taken from the Parthenon page of William Stockton and James Jackson.


The Parthenon, the temple sacred to Athena, the patron goddess of the Athenian’s and Athens itself as well, sits apparently flat to the naked eye atop the Athenian acropolis.  The Parthenon was constructed by Phidias under Pericles’s instruction from 447 B.C. till its completion in 432 B.C.  After its completion it was considered to be “the most perfect Doric temple ever built.” (John Julius Norwich, Great Architecture of the World, p.63)  The building is peripteral; that is, colonnades surround it.  On either side end of the temple stand eight Doric columns and there are seventeen on each side for a total of forty-six columns in all.  Behind the main sanctuary, or cella as the classical Greeks would had referred, lied an inner chamber which was the “Parthenon Proper”.  In Greek the word Parthenon means “virgin’s place.”  It is this inner chamber, which gives the Parthenon its name.  The front and rear of the building, inside the colonnade, contained two porches or porticos.  The front of the building was referred to as the pronaoss and the back of the building was called the opisthodomos.  Typically, a colonnade would enclose the pronaos and a brass grill would enclose the opisthodomos.  However on the Parthenon both were enclosed by six columns.


Images taken from the Parthenon page of William Stockton and James Jackson.


Within the sanctuary a row of Doric columns supported the roof and on the west end of the central nave stood the statue of Athena Pathenos, a colossal Statue of the Goddess Athena crafted entirely  of Ivory and adored with gold in the forms of its clotheing and in other objects such as the items in her hands and on her head.  The statue was sculpted by the great sculptor Phidias who also crafted another statue of Ivory of the God Zeus which stood in a temple in Olympia which was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Unfortunately both of these incredible statues were lost in antiquity and are unable to be seen today.

Image taken from the Parthenon page of William Stockton and James Jackson.


However a replica of the statue of Athena can be seen today in Nashville, Tennessee in the United States of America at the Parthenon Museum. 

          The Parthenon of classical Athens was not however the original temple atop the acropolis.  As briefly stated earlier the foundation of the temple only appears to be flat which is caused due to a sort of optical illusion which done by design to allow the temple to stand strongly.  According to Jens Andreas Bundgaard in his book, The Parthenon and the Mycenaean City on the Heights, the foundation “does not culminate in a flat surface, but in a ridge, and the temple extends so far out over this ridge to the south and the west that only its northeast corner lies on rock.”(p.9) He concludes that “the foundation was not built for the temple it now bears but for a more narrow building.”  The ancient writer Hesychios wrote that the Temple to the Pahtenos built by the Athenians on the acropolis, 50 feet larger than the one burnt down by the Persians.” 

          The original acropolis was destroyed in 480 B.C. by the Persians in their second invasion of mainland Greece.  The leader of Athens Themistocles, was convinced that the protection of the Greeks lay in its navy and in the Wooden Walls of Athens which the Oracle of Delphi had prophesied earlier.  He evacuated the population of Athens and allowed the undefended city to be burnt by the Persians.  And true to form the Persians burnt the city to the ground thus destroying anything, which would have been on the Acropolis.  But victory was to be for the Greeks, for at Salamis in a major naval battle the Athenians defeated the mighty Persian forces of Xerxes.  Finally the Persian aggressors were pushed back out of mainland Greece thus allowing the Athenians to return to what was left of their burnt and ravaged city. 

          Ancient writers and archeological evidence support the claim of the complete destruction at the hands of the Persians.  “There is a thick brick layer of ash proving that the lower city of 479 B.C. must have consisted of both ash and rubble, thus further testifying to the complete destruction of the city and the acropolis of Athens.”(Russell Meiggs, The Political Implications of the Parthenon.)  Herodutus further supports claim by stating that the “Entire acropolis was set on fire when it was captured.” 

          Interestingly the Parthenon that we know today was almost not built at all.  For twenty years the temples destroyed by the Persians set in ruins, undisturbed as part of an oath taken by all Athenians which swore to :  “I will not set lif e before freedom, nor will I desert my leaders dead or alive, but I will give burial to all the allies who die in the battle.  And having Conquered the barbarians in the war, I will not raze to the ground any city that has fought in defense of Greece, But all those who have chosen the barbarian’s side, I will tithe.  And I will not rebuild any of the temples that have been burnt and destroyed by the barbarians but I will let them be left as a memorial to those who come after the sacrilege of the barbarian’s.” 

          So what changed their mind you might ask?  Well seeing the ruined temples was a way of keeping alive the hatred of the Persians.  But with the Peace of Callias the Athenians must have believed that the treaty nullified the oath.  Much of the displeasure of Sparta, Athens began a rebuilding program, most of which focused its funding on the funds which were being collected through the Taxing of the Delian League.  Although the Delian League had formed by free states to protect Greece from further Persian invasions, in 454 B.C., the treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens.  An ancient source, a papyrus found in Egypt stated that Pericles carried out around 450 B.C. a decree in the assembly that the accumulated reserve of the Delian League, which had been transferred in 454 B.C., should be used for the rebuilding of Athens’s destroyed temples.  Historians agree that with the transfer of funds from Delos to Athens, there now existed an Athenian Empire.  In 447 B.C. work began on the Parthenon under Phidias.  Pericles employed this sculptor because he was seen as the best sculptor of not his time but maybe of all time as well. 

          The Parthenon itself was an innovative design from top to bottom.  Plutarch infers that it had no equal at the time building commenced.  However it is also unique in one other aspect as well such as during the time of its construction, the wealthy were compelled to give gifts to the city, ranging from not only plays and festivals but also the building of ships for war such as triremes.  This was not only good for the city, but also served as good public relations for city as well as being a sort of attraction for all to come see from around Greece.  These public services were called liturgies.  What is truly unique about the Parthenon is that although it tis Periclean, Pericles name does not appear anywhere on the building itself.  The Parthenon is truly an example of a democratic institution not only at work but also at it’s finest.  The leader of the people built it for the people.  The archeological evidence is further proof of Thucydides statement summarizing Pericles when he states “Athens was in name a democracy, but in fact it was a government by its first man.”                 








Links to other C101 project pages:

·        This Website has good images of sculptures and statues which may have adorned the Temple of Athena in Athens.  These sculptures display the beauty with which Athenians would decorate their most sacred temples. 

·        This website has images of Greek art and sculptures which may have adorned the Athenian acropolis during the times prior to the building of the Parthenon. 

·        This website provides links and information about some of the more famous Athenians who may have visited the acropolis during the times of the Parthenon.


Web page composed By Adrienne Dewitt and Andrew Slone