Building of the Parthenon Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Parthenon was built using a revolutionary combination of Doric and Ionic orders to create a high standard of architectural excellence while giving rise to new forms in Greek art.

Summary of Event

The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena the Maiden, is the most famous of Greek temples, the crowning monument of the Athenian Acropolis. It was built on the remains of an older temple begun in 490 b.c.e. to celebrate the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. This temple was destroyed when the Persians returned and invaded Athens in 480. With the help of Sparta, Athens was able to defeat the Persians in 479 near Plataea. There, on the battlefield, the Greeks took an oath not to rebuild the ruined temples as a reminder of the devastation caused by the Persian invasion. By 449, Athens had made peace with Persia and this oath was no longer binding. Pericles Ictinus Callicrates (fl. fifth century) Phidias

In 447 b.c.e., Athens began to build a new Parthenon. Of the Doric order but with Ionic architectural features such as the continuous frieze, the new Parthenon was built under Pericles in 447-438 b.c.e. by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates. The sculptor Phidias was responsible for the design and composition of its decorative reliefs and statuary, which continued to be added to the structure through 432 b.c.e.

The Parthenon.

(PhotoDisc)

Constructed entirely of Pentelic marble on a limestone foundation, it is peripteral octastyle in plan, being encompassed by a single row of columns, with eight at each end and, in this instance, seventeen on each side. At the top step of the stylobate, or substructure, the building measures 228 by 101 feet (69 by 31 meters), so that it is exceptionally wide in proportion to its length. Within the peristyle of columns stood the enclosed cella, or main room, and a back chamber, each fronted by a porch with six columns. At both ends, metal grilles between these columns completely enclosed the two chambers. The cella, with its door facing east, had interior columns in two levels at the sides and rear. Within this main gallery, visitors could view the colossal cult statue, the gold and ivory Athena of Phidias, set at the far end of the room. The foundation of the pedestal, all that remains of this great work, measures 26 by 13 feet (8 by 4 meters). The back chamber, or opistodomos, with its door opening to the west and with four interior columns, may have served as a treasury for gifts dedicated to the goddess. It was this chamber, officially known as the Parthenon, that gave rise to the name of the building as a whole. The chamber of the virgin, or the Parthenon, was that room set aside in Athenian homes for the use of the virgin daughter before her marriage.

Chief among the sculptural decorations of the Parthenon were the metopes in high relief on the entablature, the continuous frieze in low relief above the wall of the two chambers, and the fully sculptured groups in the pediments at each end of the temple. The themes of this art glorify the goddess and the city of which she was patron; the metopes depicted notable combats—Lapiths against Centaurs, Olympians against giants, and Greeks against Amazons—to symbolize the victory of civilization over barbarism, which was how the Athenians viewed their victory over the Persians. The frieze was remarkable in that it showed the Athenian citizenry involved in the contemporary event of the great Panathenaic procession in honor of the goddess. This procession took place every four years. Until this time, Greeks had been ambivalent about depicting current historical events. Although the procession was in honor of Athena, the goddess, many of the human beings portrayed embody godlike qualities.

The western pediment portrayed the contest between Athena and Poseidon for dominion over the city, and the eastern one depicted the birth of Athena. The gods portrayed on the pediments exhibited humanlike qualities. Of the purely architectural features, the columns stand 34.5 feet (11 meters) high, the equal of about five and a half lower diameters of the columns. From the stylobate to the peak of the gabled roof, the structure stood more than 61 feet (19 meters) in height. Rectangular coffered blocks of marble supported by a sequence of pillars, beams, and walls made up the ceiling, above which was a network of timbers to sustain the low-pitched roof. Even the roof tiles were cut from marble.

The earliest Greek temples were constructed of sun-dried brick and wood, but hard limestone, conglomerate, and marble became the chief materials after the seventh century b.c.e. Athens was well endowed with marble from Mount Pentelicus to the northeast of the city. After being roughly cut in the quarries there, the blocks were brought to the Acropolis in wagons. Hoisting was accomplished by means of pulleys and tongs, the lewis, or iron tenon, fitting into a dove-tailed mortise in the stone. To bond the stones set vertically, such as the individual drums of the columns, iron or bronze dowels set in molten lead connected the top of one drum to the bottom of the one above it. Horizontal bonding of stone beams was achieved by the double-T- or H-type of clamp. The Greeks never used mortar or nails in this kind of construction, and great care was taken to assure perfect contacts along the surface joints of the marble. Even in the twentieth century, many of these joints were so tight that a razor blade could not be inserted between the blocks.

Many elements in the Hellenic temple came from other Mediterranean cultures—the floor plan from Crete, the columnar structure from Egypt, and the capitals from Assyria—but the genius of the evolving Doric form was typically Greek in its simplicity, its balance of proportions, and its complementary use of Ionic sculpture and decoration. As the perfection of this type, the Parthenon also includes a number of unique refinements that make it a dynamic creation and a moving visual experience. Among these are the drooping or horizontal curvature of the stylobate toward all four corners, so that, for example, on the long sides, the rise from the ends to the center of the structure is about 4 inches (10 centimeters). The columns have both diminution or tapering of the shaft from the bottom up and also entasis, or a slight convex swelling, in the shaft. Furthermore, all the outside columns incline slightly toward the cella walls; the four angle columns are thicker than the others and by virtue of their position have a double inclination. Last, the chief vertical surfaces such as the cella wall have a backward slope, but the entablature above the columns has a slightly forward tilt. These and other refinements were probably incorporated to correct optical illusions that would otherwise make the stylobate appear to sag, the entablature to recede, and the angle columns to appear thin against the sky.

Significance

The architectural refinements combined with other features of the Parthenon, such as the Ionic frieze and the tendency of the overall sculpture in the building to deify the humans and to humanize the gods, to make it a nearly perfect building. At the same time it revolutionized conceptions of what was human and divine and brought into question what would be the future basis of architectural forms in Greek society.

The Parthenon survived in fairly whole condition until 1687, when it was badly damaged by an explosion during a war between the Turks and the Venetians. More than a century later, Lord Elgin brought most of the surviving sculptures to London to save them from piecemeal destruction. Consequently, a full appreciation of the Parthenon requires a visit to the British Museum in London, where the Elgin Marbles are on display, and to Athens, to view the partially restored temple.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beard, Mary. The Parthenon. London: Profile, 2002. Contains a history of the building of the Parthenon and background on Athens as well as a list of sculptures and numerous illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bruno, Vincent J., ed. The Parthenon. 1974. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. Collection of essays and illustrations on the history and construction of the Parthenon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, B. F. The Elgin Marbles. 2d ed. London: British Museum Press, 1997. A closer look at the sculptures from the Parthenon, most of which have been collected at the British Museum. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Korres, M. Stones of the Parthenon. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000. A study of the marble used in the Parthenon: where it came from and how it was quarried, transported, and shaped.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neils, Jenifer. The Parthenon Frieze. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. An examination of the frieze of the Parthenon. Contains folded leaf of illustrations in a pocket, bibliography, index, and CD-ROM with virtual films of the relief.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhodes, Robin Francis. Architecture and Meaning on the Athenian Acropolis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Rhodes stresses the importance of the combination of the Doric and Ionic orders and the tendency to deify the human and humanize the divine in the building of the Parthenon.
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