An Introduction to the Parthenon

The Temple of Athena Parthenos, commonly known as the Parthenon, is the most recognizable edifice of Classical Greece, and possibly of classical antiquity as a whole.  Its name means “Temple of Athena the Virgin,” and because Athena was the patroness of Athens, it was the grandest and most important building in the city.  Athena was not only the goddess of wisdom, but also an enthusiastic war goddess; with that in mind, it is strangely appropriate that wars have played such a part in its history, and that it should have survived as well as it has.


The Persian Wars had devastated Athens.  Its Acropolis, including an earlier Parthenon, had been destroyed, and for more than thirty years after the defeat of the Persians, no work had been undertaken to replace it.  It took the rise of Pericles, and his efforts to make an Empire out of Athens, to change this.

Athens was the leading city in an alliance system known as the Delian League, which had been created in the wake of the Persian Wars.  Treaties with Persia and Athens’ Greek rival, Sparta, granted Athens extensive rights over its allies, and Pericles proceeded to use the money generated by his allies as part of a common fund as, instead, Athenian income that could be used in the reconstruction of its Acropolis.  In this way, he could afford the level of perfection that was achieved in the Parthenon.

Work began in 447 B.C. and lasted about ten years, with five more to complete the sculptures.  A master sculptor, Phidias, and two great architects, Ictinus and Callicrates, collaborated in its construction.  In most respects, it maintained the same plan as the earlier temple, but larger, which resulted in additional columns: eight instead of six.  A row of columns was also added behind the statue of Athena in the sanctuary, or cella.

The Parthenon remained an important temple through the Roman period, until after the advent of Christianity.  During the sixth century it became a Christian church (and in 1208, it was shifted from Orthodox to Catholic worship), and then in 1460 after the Turkish conquest it was turned into a mosque.  Each of these changes precipitated some internal alterations, but fundamentally, they kept the temple intact after the latest seizure.

The Parthenon fared less well in 1687.  The Turks were at war with Venice, and the Acropolis itself was used as a fortification.  They stored ammunition in the Parthenon, and a cannon strike ignited the stores, blowing up much of the interior, although the outer structure was largely intact.

In a famous incident in 1802, Lord Elgin made off with many of the sculptures that had adorned the temple.  After the Greeks won their independence from the Turks, they began to clear out the later Christian and Muslim constructions in and around the Parthenon, and between the World Wars, they made some significant strides toward restoration.  A 1981 earthquake necessitated a new round of restorations, and major work has continued through the first decade of the 21st century.  The Greeks continue to apply diplomatic pressure to regain control of sculptures taken to England by Lord Elgin, known as the Elgin Marbles.


The Parthenon was built as a traditional peristyle temple in the Doric order: that is, a rectangular temple surrounded by columns on all four sides, in this case using Doric columns.  These columns surround the inner building, which houses the temple itself.  This inner building is a long rectangle comprising two rooms that share a solid wall.   The entrances to both rooms are at the forward and rear ends of the building, and each entrance is adorned with a row of six columns.  The larger room facing the front of the temple is the cella, where the massive statue of Athena stood near the back end of the room, flanked by a row of columns to each side and to her back.  The smaller room, with an entrance at the rear, is the Hall of the Virgins, with four Ionic columns.

It was constructed of marble quarried some eight miles away, at Mount Pentelicon.  Blocks were carved with handles, or ancones, to ease movement and lifting; the ancones would later be chiseled away.  Much effort was undertaken to maintain perfect dimensions of each piece, and proportions favored the repetitive use of four and nine, the squares of prime numbers two and three.  For example, the roof facing is actually a pair of Pythagorean triangles back to back, with height to length ratios of four to nine.  Accuracy in calculation was important not only because the builders wished perfection, but also because they built without the use of mortar; each piece rests on that below it by gravity alone.

Construction began from the interior and extended outwards; blocks were lowered into place by some form of crane that is attested in the literature, but no example has yet been found.  Various tricks of perspective were employed to ensure that the temple looked perfect when seen from a distance.  For example, the columns grew slightly thicker in the middle, and the west side is 17 inches higher than the east.  Optically, these variations from true dimensions actually served to make the dimensions seem perfectly true.

After the building itself was completed, sculptures were carved to decorate the outer facings of the roof.  The facings of the external roof represented vignettes from mythology, while the facings of the inner building represented the Panathenaic celebration, a festival dedicated to Athena.  These sculptures, and the walls of the facings behind them, were painted, while the body of the temple was kept white.

In 437 B.C., after construction had been completed but before all of the additional sculptures were added, the temple was dedicated and the great statue of Athena was put in its place inside.  This statue has not survived, but models have been found, giving a rough impression of the statue’s appearance.  Athena was depicted clad in gold, with ivory for her skin.  She wore a helmet with three crests, and she held her gorgon-faced shield at her left side.  In her right hand was a diminutive Nike, the goddess of victory.

The Parthenon continues to serve as the quintessential symbol of Greek civilization at the beginning of the 21st century.  It enjoyed pride of place in the celebrations surrounding the Athens Olympics, and in the first decade of the millennium, the Greeks worked hard to shore up the ruins and to give them a presentation worthy of their importance.  The Parthenon is likely to retain its importance for generations to come.

Connolly, Peter and Hazel Dodge.  The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens & Rome.  Oxford, 1998.
Rodgers, Nigel.  Everyday Life in Ancient Greece: People and Places.  Hermes House, 2010.
Stierlin, Henri.  Greece: From Mycenae to the Parthenon.  Taschen, 2001.


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