The Acropolis of Athens is still dominated by the Parthenon, the great temple dedicated to Athena in the age of Pericles. While much of the interior was destroyed in an explosion, it remains the finest surviving example of ancient Greek temple construction. Of all surviving structures, the Parthenon best exemplifies the various components of Greek architecture.
The temple rises from the ground on a three-tiered platform. This platform is 228 feet long and just over 101 feet wide, and bulges slightly in the center. A perfectly straight platform of such length would seem to dip in the middle, so it was built to ascend instead, by just over four inches on the longer side, creating the impression that it was perfectly level.
The Parthenon is peristyle, which means that the perimeter is lined with columns on all sides. Eight of them line each end, with 17 columns from front to back. Each end features a second row of six columns between the outer face and the inner structure. The columns were made in the Doric order, which means that they had a simple round capital, and stood 34 feet. Each is comprised of eleven marble blocks, known as drums, stacked one upon another. As with the stylobate, the columns were made thicker in the middle to compensate for the visual effect of foreshortening.
The inner structure contained the sanctuary itself. The cella was a rectangular building made of ashlar blocks. It comprised two rooms that shared a back wall, with their entrances at opposite sides. The eastern side was the larger of the two, featuring the great statue of Athena flanked on three sides by a row of columns. The western room was smaller, and supported by four Ionian columns; known as the Hall of the Virgins, it served as a treasury. The architrave of the cella, or the facing just above the capitals of its columns, was carved to depict the Panathenaic festival, which was held yearly in celebration of Athena.
By far, the roof was the most complicated part of the Parthenon, featuring the most variety in structural forms and the most decoration. These structures will be addressed in ascending order.
Just above the capitals of the columns is a layer of marble with a flat and unpainted outer facing. The only decoration is found at the top of this layer, with a once-painted outer lip.
Triglyphs and Metopes
A second layer just above the architrave, this layer was once brightly colored. It is comprised of alternating blocks of triglyphs, which appear as three vertical bars, and metopes, or reliefs depicting one scene in a series reflecting a common theme. In keeping with Athena’s nature as a martial goddess, these scenes reflected mythological warfare.
The platform on which the roof proper rested stood atop the layer of the triglyphs and metopes, but extended out somewhat beyond that layer. The revealed lower surface was decorated and painted.
The eastern and western ends featured a triangular panel above the cornice, enclosing the space just beneath the roof. The pediments had once been painted, and served as a backdrop to free-standing sculptures. The theme of the eastern side was Athena’s miraculous birth from the head of Zeus, while that of the western side was her rivalry with Poseidon, which resulted in her selection as the patroness of Athens.
The roof itself was made of marble tiles quarried from Mount Pentelicon. This included not only the flat tiles of the roof itself, but also an extensive gutter around the perimeter. In a stone temple, this gutter was included solely for the sake of tradition, although it had served an important purpose in the age of wooden temples.
Now lost, sculptures representing flowers and/or Nike, the goddess of victory, stood at the apex of the roof at either side, and on all four corners. The precise composition of the acroteria remain a matter of conjecture, although small pieces believed to be part of the Parthenon have been found.
The Parthenon was constructed with a passion for symmetry, especially for the classic ratio of 4 to 9. Rectangular features were measured in proportions that allowed them to be divided equally into a series of Pythagorean triangles, that is, triangles with ratios of 3 on the vertical, 4 on the horizontal, and 5 on the diagonal. In the final analysis, however, the appearance of symmetry was more important than the reality, resulting in variations like the aforementioned thickening of the stylobate and of the columns. The Parthenon was built to seem perfect to the eye, rather than being perfect in fact. So successful was this effort that the Parthenon remains, even in damaged form, the finest symbol of ancient Greek architecture.
Connolly, Peter and Hazel Dodge. The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens & Rome. Oxford, 1998.
Stierlin, Henri. Greece: From Mycenae to the Parthenon. Taschen, 2001.
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