Parthenon

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Introduction

Reconstruction of the Parthenon by Kronoskaf - Snapshot of the real time rendering of the prototype
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Reconstruction of the Parthenon by Kronoskaf - Snapshot of the real time rendering of the prototype

The Parthenon was the largest building ever constructed in continental Greece. It was built on the Akropolis between 447 and 438 BC by Iktinos, Kallikrates and Karpion. This Doric peripteral amphiprostyle temple was almost entirely made of Pentelic marble and adorned with some Ionic refinements. Most of its proportions followed a ratio of 9:4. Its height, from the level of the stylobate to the top of the pediments was 13.72 m.

The construction of the Parthenon, excluding the statue of Athena Parthenos, cost around 750 talents.

Surprisingly enough, during our period of reference, the temple was not known as the Parthenon. In fact, we do not know exactly how it was called during this period. Supposedly, its architects Mnesikles and Kallicrates called it the Hekatompedos (hundred footer). The term "Parthenon" became common well after 400 BC.

Another noticeable peculiarity is that there is no evidence of any altar dedicated to Athena Parthenos. Nor is there a known priestess of this specific avatar of Athena.

Predecessor of the Parthenon

Soon after the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C, the Athenians initiated the construction of a temple on the site of the actual Parthenon. This predecessor to the Parthenon is known to us as the "Older Parthenon" or "Ur-Parthenon". The crepidoma of this temple was completed and the erection of its marble columns had reached a height of three column-drums when the Persians captured the Akropolis in 480 BC. They burnt the scaffoldings and dismembered the partly assembled columns as well as the initial rows of blocks of the naos. After 470 BC, some of its unfluted column-drums were incorporated into the new north wall across the Altar of Athena. When the building of the Parthenon started, its stereobate' rested for the most part atop the foundations of the Ur-Parthenon. Furthermore, hundreds of column-drums and blocks were recycled into the newer temple.

Precinct

The Parthenon precinct was delimited by a wall along the Processionnal Way on the north, the citadel wall on the south and on the east, and the Great Steps on the west. The terrace itself was flat and consisted mostly of packed earth possibly covered with gravel. It reached the level immediately below the euthynteria (leveling course) of the temple. The southeast corner of the Akropolis was considerably raised during the building of this terrace. As the Great Steps, the terrace most probably served as a gallery of votive steles and statues. The south side of the terrace being particularly exposed to sunshine, it was probably planted with low trees or shrubs. On the south side, an intermediate retaining wall made of poros ran between the temple and the Citadel Wall, it was 1.7 m thick at the bottom and 1.2 m at the top.

Great Steps

The Parthenon precinct was bounded by Great Steps on the west. This stairway consisted of 16 steps mostly cut into the bedrock. It was 33 m wide and 3.5 m high. At its south end, 9 steps out of 16 were cut into the native rock while only two out of sixteen were cut into the bedrock at its north end. Thus there were a gradual transition between these rock cut steps and those made of poros limestone blocks. This stairway shows an upward curvature. It served as a gallery of votive steles and statues.

Crepidoma

The marble crepidoma (platform) rested on a foundation of poros blocks.

The three platforms were 0.55 m high so intermediate steps were added at the center of the east and west sides. The stylobate (top step) measured 30.86 m wide x 69.51 m long. Thus the stylobate had the usual proportion of 9 (length) to 4 (width). It also had a slight upward curvature: 0.0625 m on the east and west sides and 0.11 m on the north and south sides. Furthermore, the west end was 0.44 m higher than the east one and the northwest corner 0.17 m higher that the southwest one.

Plan of the Parthenon (top view)
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Plan of the Parthenon (top view)


Peristyle

The temple was surrounded by 46 Doric columns: 8 on the east and west facades and 17 (including the corner columns) on the north and south sides. All these columns and the entablature followed the curvature of the stylobate. All were fluted with 20 grooves and consisted of 10 to 11 column-drums, the abacus, echinus and top section were carved in a single piece. The columns measured 1.905 m in diameter and 10.433 m in height (9.56 m for the column shaft), and had an entasis (bulge) of 0.0175 m at 2/5th of their height. The corner columns were slightly thicker with a diameter of 1.953 m and an entasis of 2.45 cm. Each column was slightly inclined inward (about 0.07 m), angles of the flank columns would converged at 2,000 m and those of the columns of the facades at 4,800 m above the floor.

The normal intercolumnar spacing was 4.3 m. The distance between the axis of the last normal column and the axis of a corner column was 3.693 m and 1.023 m between this axis and the edge of the stylobate. This reduction of the intercolumnar spacing allowed the Doric frieze to terminate with a triglyph without modification of the size of the adjacent metope.

The ambulatory enclosed between the columns of the peristyle and the cella was 4.26 m wide on the east and west faces and 4.26 m wide on the north and south sides.

The width of the stylobate compared to the total height of the columns (including the entablature) followed the usual proportion of 9 to 4. The same applied to the intercolumnar spacings (center to center) compared to the lowest diameter of a column.

The ceiling over the corridor between the peristyle and the cella consisted of brightly painted marble coffers.

The west facade is 3 to 5 cm higher than the east one.

In 427 and 426 BC, earthquakes displaced some of the columns of both facades 2 cm.

Architraves

The decoration band at the top of the architrave was painted with a pattern.

Metopes and Triglyphs

The metopes are of various artistic qualities. They were probably among the first sculptures of the Parthenon to be made since they had to be inserted in the entablature during its construction. The metopes tilt outward and the triglyphs inward. The metopes measure 1.2 m high by an average of 1.25 m wide. There was a slight diminution of the width of the metopes from the center to the edges. Overall, the variations between the widest and narrowest metopes never exceded 0.105 m.

The north metopes depicted scenes of the Trojan War.

NumberIllustrationDescription
North 1 Helios in a four-horse chariot rising on the horizon
North 24 Menelaos running towards Helen (in the next metope)
North 25 Helen taking refuge near the Trojan Palladion while Aphrodite and Eros try to calm down Menelaos (in the previous metope)
North 29 Selene on horseback setting down on the horizon
North 30 gods and goddesses
North 31 gods and goddesses
North 32 a standing and a seated goddesses


The south metopes depicted a Centauromachy. However metopes 13 to 21 seem out of topic. They might have been initially conceived for placement in the entablature of the pronaos or opisthodomos before the decision of decorating these entablatures with an Ionic frieze rather than a Doric one. It is possible that the background of these central metopes was left unpainted to distinguish them from the Centauromachy surrounding them on the other metopes of the south side.

NumberIllustrationDescription
South 1 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 2 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 3 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 4 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 5Reconstruction of the Parthenon South Metope No. 5 by Kronoskafa Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 6 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 7 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 8 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 9 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 10 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
(considered of a very poor artistic quality)
South 11 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 12 a Centaur abducting a Greek woman
South 15 possibly the arrival of the Trojan Palladion in Athens
South 16 possibly the arrival of the Trojan Palladion in Athens
South 19 possibly the spinning of a peplos for the Trojan Palladion
South 20 possibly the removal from the loom of the peplos destined to the Trojan Palladion
South 21 two Greek women removing the old peplos of the Trojan Palladion
South 22 a Centaur abducting a Greek woman
South 23 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 24 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 25 a Centaur abducting a Greek woman
South 26 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 27 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
(considered of a high artistic quality)
South 28 a Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 29 a Centaur abducting a Greek woman
South 30Reconstruction of the Parthenon South Metope No. 30 by Kronoskafa Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
(considered of a poor artistic quality)
South 31Reconstruction of the Parthenon South Metope No. 31 by Kronoskafa Greek Lapith fighting a Centaur
South 32 a Greek, possibly Theseus, fighting a Centaur


The east metopes depicted a Gigantomachy, a battle between Giants trying to storm the Olympos and the Gods defending it.

NumberIllustrationDescription
East 4 Athena crowned by Nike
East 8 Zeus in the center
East 11 probably depicting Herakles
East 14 Helios in a four-horse chariot


The west metopes depicted an Amazonomachy, more precisely the Amazons try to storm the Akropolis defended by Greek warriors.

NumberIllustrationDescription


Ionic Frieze

A continuous Ionic frieze, made of 115 1.015 m high blocks, extended for some 160 m over the architraves of the pronaos, opisthodomos and cella. It was tilted slightly outward. The frieze was painted with bright colors over a blue background and contained some bronze accessories. It probably depicted a Panathenaic procession converging on the east face or excerpts of various Athenian festivals. A painted decorative band was plced above this frieze.

The north frieze depicted 60 horsemen, 11 four-horse chariots with their apobates (charioteers), a few grooms and marshalls and 16 elders, four kitharists, four diaulos double flute players, four youngsters carrying water jars and three metoikoi carrying honeycomb and cakes in trays, grooms leading three sacrificial sheeps and four cows. Most figures were moving to the left.

The south frieze depicted 60 horsemen, ten four-horse chariots, ten elders, musicians and grooms leading ten sacrificial cows.

The east frieze depicted two converging groups with gods in the center. On the left side a marshall follows 16 women preceded by five elders. On the right side there are three marshalls and 13 women carrying libation bowls and an incense burner and following a group of five elders. Some authors think that the elders were in fact the eponymous heroes of the new Athenian tribes.

The west frieze depicted 26 horsemen with 2 grooms and 2 marshalls.

Pronaos

The pronaos had a porch of six Doric columns. They were strictly vertical without any inclination. From left to right, intercolumnar spacings in meters were as follows:

0.8993.6674.2074.1714.187??

N.B. first and last measurements represent the distance between the axis of the column and the edge of the stylobate of the cella.

N.B.: the north end of the colonnade is too severely damaged to permit a measurement.

Wooden grilles sealed the spaces between the columns of the east porch and between the corner columns and the antae of the cella. Quite uncommonly, there are regulae and guttae under the Ionic frieze of the entablature of the pronaos. This indicates that the original plan was probably for a Doric entablature.

A second Ionic frieze distinct from the large Ionic frieze decorated the inner faces of the pronaos. It may have depicted the myth of Pandora.

The ceiling over the pronaos consisted of brightly painted marble coffers.

Opisthodomos

The opisthodomos had a porch of 6 Doric columns. They were strictly vertical without any inclination. From left to right, intercolumnar spacings in meters were as follows:

0.8993.6614.1974.1854.1853.6850.899


N.B.: first and last measurements represent the distance between the axis of the column and the edge of the stylobate of the cella.

N.B.: the measurements of the colonnade leave a difference of 0.022 m with the measured width of the cella.

Wooden grilles sealed the spaces between the columns of the west porch and between the corner columns and the antae of the cella. Quite uncommonly, there are regulae and guttae under the Ionic frieze of the entablature of the opisthodomos. This indicates that the original plan was probably for a Doric entablature.

The ceiling over the opisthodomos consisted of brightly painted marble coffers.

Cella

The cella was an amphiprostyle temple. It rested on two steps: the stylobate (top level) and the euthynteria (levelling course) and was 0.7 m higher than that of the peristyle. The interval between the stylobate of the cella and the stylobate of the peripteros averages 4.578 m on the north side and 4.584 m on the south side.

The cella had a width of 21.727 m on the east side and 22.733 m on the west side, and a length of 59.02 m on the north side, and 59.83 m on the south side. It was composed of two unconnected rooms: to the east, the naos proper where stood the statue of Athena Parthenos, and to the west, a treasury room.

The walls consisted of ashlar blocks measuring 1.22 m by 0.52 m laid in header and stretcher style.

The north and south walls were inclined inward and had an imperceptible entasis of 0.27 cm at mid height, while the east and west walls were strictly vertical without any inclination. The separating wall between the naos and the treasury room had no door and was strictly vertical without any inclination.

The Ionic frieze tilted outward.

Naos

The naos was 29.89 m long by 19.2 m wide.

Three two-storied Doric colonnades surrounded the cult statue on the north, south and west sides. There were 21 columns and two piers in each level. The columns supported the roof timbers. Contrarily to what has been sometimes said, there was no gallery above the first row of columns.

The double door of the naos could be locked and consisted of grilles. It had a slightly raised threshold, measured 4.92 m wide x 10 m high and opened inward.

There were two large windows high into the east wall to light the naos. The inner frieze of the naos probably illustrated the Panathenaia.

The ceiling of the naos was entirely made of cypress wood.

Treasury Room

As soon as the room was functional, the Athenians used it to store precious metal vases, coins, carved gemstones, jewelry, furniture, lamps, weapons... This treasury room measured 19.19 m by 13.37 m and had two pairs of Ionic columns.

The bronze double door of the treasury room could be locked and was richly decorated with lion heads, rams, gorgons, and poppies. It had a slightly raised threshold, measured 4.92 m wide x 9.81 m high and opened inward.

Statue of Athena Parthenos

A drawing of a winged Nike similar to the one held by Athena Parthenos in her right hand - Source: Sophie Maheux
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A drawing of a winged Nike similar to the one held by Athena Parthenos in her right hand - Source: Sophie Maheux
A drawing of the statue of Athena Parthenos - Source: Sophie Maheux
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A drawing of the statue of Athena Parthenos - Source: Sophie Maheux

The statue of Athena Parthenos, created by Pheidias, was begun in 447 BC and probably dedicated in 438 BC. The statue, some 12 m high, cost approximately 850 talents. Her flesh was made of plaques of ivory, her eyes of precious stones and ivory and her peplos and equipment (helmet, aigis, spear and shield) were covered with removable gold plates (44 talents). She held a winged Nike (1.85 m high) in the palm of her right hand. Initially, her right hand probably had no support. Her shield rested at her feet while her spear rested between this shield and her body.

Her helmet wore 3 crests: 1 depicting a sphinx and 2 representing winged horses. The cheekpieces were decorated with griffins wrought in relief.

In its centre, her golden aigis wore the head of the Gorgon Medusa made of ivory.

Her shield had a diameter of some 5 m. Its outer face was decorated with an Amazonomachy arranged around the head of a Gorgon, while its inner face was painted with a Gigantomachy.

The edge of her sandals depicted a Centauromachy.

The base of the statue, made of dark Eleusinian marble, measured 8.04 m wide by 4.09 m deep. Its height (including the upper and lower mouldings) was somewhere between 1.22 and 1.437 m. On the frieze of this base (some 0.88 to 0.937 m high), gilt bronze figures depicted the creation of Pandora.

A large oikouros ophis (sacred snake) stood on Athena's left between her and her shield. Some authors argue that it was initially on her right side and was later transfered on her left side to make room for a column supporting her right hand.

Roof

Great marble Nikai probably stood at each corner of the roof as akroteria while the top akroteria were probably of in the form of acanthus flowers.

The roof was made of Pentelic marble tiles. On the long sides, it ended with antefixes, on the short sides in a sima. Each sima terminated with decorative lion's heads. There were no water-spouts, rain water simply ran off between the antefixes.

Under the sima, the cornice had mutuli were painted blue and the gutters between them red.

Pediments

The pediments were completed between 438 and 432 BC.

Each pediment was 28.8 m wide and 3.4 m high (at its center) and contained more than 25 colored and partly gilded statues on a blue background. These figures were sculptured by Pheidias, Agorakritos and Alkamenes among others. The skin of the statues was painted dark ruddy brown for men and left white for women. Some authors suggest that the background of each pediment was red or left natural marble. The pedimental walls were strictly vertical without any inclination.

The east pediment depicted the birth of Athena. In the left angle, Helios in his chariot emerging from the Ocean. Then came Dionysos in a reclining position with a wine cup in in his raised right hand. The center of the composition presented Zeus, Athena, Hera and Hephaistos. In the right angle, Aphrodite lay in the laps of her mother Dione. Rightmost, Selene set below the horizon with her chariot.

The west pediment depicted the legendary contest between Athena and Poseidon for the control over Athens. The statues of Athena (left) and Poseidon (right) occupied the center of the composition. To Athena's left, Nike drove her chariot with Hermes in the background. To the left of the chariot, the two women on each side of a young boy were probably Herse and Aglauros while the boy himself could have been Erichthonios or Kekrops' son Erysichton. Further left, the semi-reclining statue, with a snake at his feet, probably depicted Kekrops. The young woman with an arm on Keprops' shoulder was probably his daughter Pandrosos. Statues in the left angle represented Athenians. To Poseidon's right, his wife Amphitrite drove his chariot whose team was supported by a triton. Iris stood behind the chariot. Other statues might have represented the family of Erechtheus or Eumolpos, Poseidon's son, and his followers. Statues in the right angle probably represented the Ilissos and Kephissos river deities.

Shrine of Athena Ergane

A naiskos (small shrine), containing a wooden Archaic Athena, and a circular altar, both probably built around 550 BC and dedicated to Athena Ergane, were located in the North colonnade. The epithet Ergane meant the "work woman". Athena Ergane was the goddess of work and craft (weavers, potters, sculptors, metalworkers). The altar was located some 8 m to the east of the shrine.

Statues

Drawing representing the statue of Anakreon probably made by Pheidias. Source: Sophie Maheux
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Drawing representing the statue of Anakreon probably made by Pheidias. Source: Sophie Maheux
Drawing representing the bronze statue of Apollo Parnopios made by Pheidias. Source: Sophie Maheux
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Drawing representing the bronze statue of Apollo Parnopios made by Pheidias. Source: Sophie Maheux

The east side of the Great Steps was probably adorned with a bronze statue of Apollo Parnopios made by Pheidias and with the statues of Anakreon, probably made by Pheidias too, and Xanthippos (Pericles' father).

Drawing representing the group Athena striking Marsyas made by Myron. Source: Sophie Maheux
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Drawing representing the group Athena striking Marsyas made by Myron. Source: Sophie Maheux

The group Athena striking Marsyas and the group Theseus and the Minotaur, both made by Myron before 450 BC, stood to the west of the Parthenon.

A bronze group depicting Prokne and Itys, made by Alkamenes and located about 3.2 m from the northwest corner of the temple, was dedicated by Alkamenes around 425 BC, probably to commemorate the victory of a trilogy of Sophokles. Prokne was the daughter of Pandion whose sanctuary stood only a few meters from there in the southeast corner of the Akropolis.

Later Features

Within the naos, the rectangular pool of water was probably not yet set in front of the statue by 421 BC. This pool was added to enlighten the statue of Athena Parthenos by reflecting the sunlight over it.

At the north end of the Great Steps, a small precinct, probably a shrine, occupied an area some 8 by 7 m. The time of its construction is uncertain and its latest form seem to be Roman.

The statues of Io and Kallisto by Deinomenes were added around 400 BC.

The statues of Konon and his son Timotheos were made between 394 and 340 BC.

The statue of General Iphikrates was added near the east entrance of the Parthenon in 372 or 371 BC.

The 14 gilded shields fixed to the east architrave were added around 334 BC to commemorate the victory of Alexander the Great over the Persians at Granikos.

References

Artifice Inc., Great Buildings of the World

Brouskari, Maria; The Monuments of the Acropolis, Athens: Archaeological Receipts Fund, 2001

Camp, John M.; The Archaeology of Athens, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 75-82

Connolly, Peter and Hazel Dodge; The Ancient City - Life in Classical Athens & Rome, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998

Gouvoussis, N., Akropolis of Athens, Athens, 2005

Hill, Ida Thallon; The Ancient City of Athens – Its Topography and Monuments, London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1953

Hurwit, Jeffrey M.; The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004

Martin, Jacques; Les voyages d'Alix - Athènes, Casterman, 2001

Martin, Roland, Monde grec, Fribourg: Office du livre, 1980

Neils, Jenifer, The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 16-18

Panaiotou, Niki D., Athènes autrefois et aujourd’hui, Roma: Vision S.R.L., 1990

Stecchini, Livio S., The Athenian Acropolis

Travlos, John, Pictorial dictionary of Ancient Athens, Books that matter, New York, 1971, p. 444

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