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The Glorious Parthenon

We can only imagine how glorious the Parthenon must have appeared in the middle of the fifth century B.C., with worshippers gathered in its towering central sanctuary paying tribute to a 40-foot, gold-and-ivory statue of the goddess Athena. But classical scholar Jeffrey Hurwit, a professor of art history at the University of Oregon and expert on the architecture of the Acropolis, can at least help fuel our visions. In the following interview, he also dispels some long-held notions about ancient Greece's most legendary building.


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When the Parthenon was completed in 432 B.C., the gleaming marble temple atop the Acropolis would have been visible from almost anywhere in the ancient city.
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© Emmanouil Michelakis/iStockphoto

NOVA: What is the Parthenon's legacy for western civilization?

Jeffrey Hurwit: The Parthenon was the greatest monument in the greatest sanctuary of the greatest city of classical Greece. It was the central repository of the Athenians' very lofty conceptions of themselves. It was the physical, marble embodiment of their values, of their beliefs, of their myths, of their ideologies. And it was thus as much a temple to Athens and the Athenians as it was to their patron goddess, Athena herself. Because it played such a crucial role in the Athenians' construction of themselves, it remains one of the principal legacies of Greek civilization to western civilization and our own.

How does it represent classical Greece to us today?

We in the modern period are still under the thrall of the Romantic idea of Greece's golden age. We tend to assume that the Athenians were perfectly beautiful people who built perfectly beautiful buildings and executed their designs with perfection. Things, of course, are not quite that simple. But the Parthenon nonetheless remains for us a powerful statement of what human beings are capable of.

Were the builders of the Parthenon trying to achieve some sense of perfection?

I think the artists and the architects of any culture strive for what they consider the perfect expression of their ideas of beauty or their beliefs. Clearly the Athenians, and the Greeks in general, had notions of perfection; they had notions of what they called symmetria, the harmonious relationship of part to part and of the part to the whole. And the Parthenon, like certain statues created in the fifth century, is an expression of these ideas. Yet we do often tend to try to reinvent the Athenians, perhaps in our own image, believing that they strove for perfection in ways that we wish they had.

Statue, Athena Parthenos
A full-scale, 12-ton replica of the Athena Parthenos looms large at a Parthenon recreation in Nashville. The replica is gilded in gold leaf, but the fifth-century statue was plated in some 2,400 pounds of solid gold.
© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation

Testament of wealth and glory

What did the Parthenon symbolize for the Athenians themselves?

The Parthenon was an expression and embodiment of Athenian wealth, and it was a symbol of Athenian political and cultural preeminence in Greece in the middle of the fifth century. It was larger and more opulent than any temple that had been constructed on the Greek mainland before. It clearly was also a calculated response to the new Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the home of the Olympic Games, which was finished less than 10 years before the Parthenon was begun, and which was also loaded with sculpture with transcendent themes. So the Parthenon was an attempt on the part of Pericles and Athens to assert the city's cultural, political, and military dominance over the rest of Greece and the Aegean. Pericles called Athens "the school of Hellas," an education unto Greece, and the Parthenon was intended to be the main text in the curriculum.

How did the temple relate to the rest of the ancient city?

"Acropolis" means the high point of the city. And since the buildings of classical Athens rarely reached higher than a storey or two, the Parthenon, which stands atop the Acropolis like a muscular statue upon a pedestal, would have dominated the skyline of ancient Athens from almost any angle. It would have been hard to live your daily life in Athens and not at some point see the Parthenon looming above the city as an expression of the city's greatness.

If you visited and saw the temple up close, what aspects of the building conveyed this message of wealth and dominance?

The Parthenon was built completely of marble from the base of the temple to its roof tiles. It had two large-scale pediments, each filled with over 20, larger-than-life-sized marble figures in compositions that extolled Athena and her power. It was adorned with 92 exterior sculptured metopes [decorated rectangular panels near the top of the temple]. It also had an Ionic frieze running around the top of the cella walls [the interior walls of the building] representing an idealized and pious Athenian citizenry. It had great roof ornaments, acroteria, in the form of victory figures, Nikai, alighting as if descending from heaven.

And the great statue of Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon, made of gold and ivory, held in the palm of her hand another image of Nike, some six feet tall, offering it to the Athenians as if to confirm their military predominance over the rest of Greece.

Artist's rendering
An artist's rendering of the central sanctuary offers a glimpse of how the statue would have dwarfed visitors to the temple.
© Bettmann/Corbis

A monumental Athena

The statue must have been astounding. Tell us a little more about this Athena.

Athena was known in many guises, and there were many Athenas worshipped on the Acropolis. The most sacred was not the Athena of the Parthenon. It was, rather, an old olivewood statue of Athena called Athena Polias, referring to Athena as the guardian of the city. This little olivewood statue eventually inhabited the Erechtheum, the classical temple of Athena Polias across from the Parthenon.

But the most glorious image of Athena, the one that expressed the power and wealth of Athens itself, was the Athena Parthenos, a colossal gold-and-ivory statue that Pheidias, supposedly the general overseer of the entire Periclean building program, created for the main room of the Parthenon. We call the Parthenon the Parthenon because of that statue, the Athena Parthenos—Athena the virgin, the maiden.

The statue seems to have been over 12 meters tall, nearly 40 feet tall. The parts of her flesh that were visible were made of ivory, and her dress, her armor, and her jewelry were made of gold—some 40 to 44 talents of gold. A talent is approximately 57 to 58 pounds, and so the Athena wore on her body a tremendous sum and was the single greatest financial asset of the city.

"The Athenians' self-conception as idealized mortals seems to be the message."

The statue had all kinds of sculptural decorations. She not only held in her hand a statue of victory, but the shield on which she leaned with her left hand was adorned on the outside with a battle of the Greeks against the Amazons. And on the inside, there was a representation of the gods fighting the giants. And on the sandals of the statue there was a representation of the Greeks fighting the centaurs. All of these mythological battles represent the struggle between the forces of justice and injustice, of civilization against barbarity, of order versus chaos.

These three battles (as well as episodes from the Trojan War) were also represented on the outside of the Parthenon, on the metopes of the building. So there is a thematic unity from the exterior to the interior of the Parthenon. This theme of victory, of order over chaos, would have been drilled into any visitor to the Parthenon. These mythological battles between gods and giants, Greeks and centaurs, Greeks and Amazons were regarded as mythical allusions to historical victory, the recent victory of the Athenians over the Persians.

horsemen frieze
The Athenians' lofty conception of themselves is manifest in the idealized horsemen and other figures of the Panathenaic frieze.
© Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, The William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts

One interesting thing about the Athena Parthenos, however, is that this glorious expression of Athens' patron goddess stood on a base decorated with a representation of the birth of Pandora. Pandora is best known through Hesiod, the epic poet, as responsible for letting loose evils from her famous box. It's curious that Pandora, whom Hesiod calls a beautiful evil, should adorn the base of a statue that otherwise expresses Athenian might, wealth, and power.

I think an intellectual member of Athenian society might have wondered whether Pheidias wasn't attempting to perhaps slightly undercut the glorification of Athens, that this great statue hinted that Athens might have to deal with circumstances not of its own choosing.

A sculptor's building

Why are there no straight lines or right angles on the Parthenon, and how do we know that this simply wasn't a mistake?

Since the early 19th century scholars have studied and measured the Parthenon and demonstrated that the so-called optical refinements of the Parthenon, the deviations from the perfectly horizontal or the perfectly vertical, deviations from the straight and perpendicular, were in fact intentional. They are not the result of the settling of the building over time. There is a slight beveling or a slight angle in the blocks that was intended to create, for example, the curvature of the steps.

Why did the builders do that?

There has been considerable debate. Vitruvius, who was an architect of the Roman period, believed that refinements like the upward curvature of the steps were made to compensate for optical illusion. Vitruvius believed that a perfectly straight line carried over a long distance would appear to sag, and he suggested the upward curvature of the long steps of the Parthenon would counteract that optical illusion, making the line look straight. Vitruvius would seem to be assuming that the architects of the Parthenon wanted the Parthenon to look perfectly straight, wanted its lines to look perfectly horizontal and perfectly vertical. I think there are good grounds to question that.

I believe that the refinements were made to give the Parthenon an impression of being a living mass that responded to its own weight. For example, each column has a slight swelling at its center called entasis—it's a bulge of only a couple of centimeters, but it's measurable and it's visible. The slight swelling makes the columns seem to be tense; they seem to swell up to respond to the weight that they carry. In fact, entasis is the Greek word for tension or swelling.

Unlike straight cylinders, the Parthenon's columns swell slightly at the center, like an arm tensing under the weight of a heavy load.
© Marco Testa/iStockphoto

The kinds of optical refinements that we detect in the architecture of the Parthenon were far older than the fifth century. In the sixth century, in what we call the Archaic period, entasis can be far more exaggerated than it is on the Parthenon. But the Parthenon brings all these various refinements together in a particularly harmonious and integrated way. The steps curve upward, the columns tilt inward, the metopes tilt outward, the columns swell, the corner columns of the building are slightly thicker than the other columns of the building. All of these refinements are combined masterfully.

"If the Parthenon is the ultimate expression, the marble embodiment of the Athenian golden age, that golden age was brief."

Then is the Parthenon, the building itself, almost akin to a sculpture?

Yes. The Parthenon is a sculptor's building in many ways. We are told that Pheidias was the general overseer of the Periclean building program—that a sculptor was actually the overseer of an architectural project. We think that the Parthenon's extraordinary width was to accommodate the placement of the huge statue of Athena Parthenos within it. But it's also a sculptor's temple in another way: These deviations from the straight, from the perpendicular, from the perfectly vertical, from the perfectly horizontal are analogous to the curvatures and the swellings and the irregularities of the human body. And in that sense, the Parthenon strikes me as being a sculptural as well as an architectural achievement.

Gods and humans

Do you see a general connection between Greek architecture and the human body?

There is no question that the Greeks conceived of their architecture in anthropomorphic terms. The most obvious expression of this is found on the Acropolis itself, where in the south porch of the Erechtheum, columns take the form of six maidens, or caryatids. Vitruvius, the Roman architect, talks about how the Doric order is masculine and the more elaborate, thinner Ionic order is feminine. There is no question that in the Greek mind, there was an analogy between the architectural form and the human form.

The ancient Greeks saw an analogy between architecture and the human form, as evident in the six caryatids, sculpted female figures, which serve as columns of the Erechtheum's south porch.
© Javier Garcí­a Blanco/iStockphoto

The sculptures within the Parthenon also seem to clearly pay tribute to the human form.

Yes, and to the Athenians in particular. I think this is best expressed in the frieze that decorated the top of the cella walls, where there is a long procession of idealized youths and idealized maidens and idealized elders and idealized horsemen who parade down the walls, heading toward the east side.

The Parthenon procession is generally considered a representation of the Panathenaic procession that was held every year, in mid-summer, to celebrate the birthday of the goddess Athena. [The procession was part of the Panathenaic, or "all-Athenian," festival, the city's most important annual celebration.] In this procession, the finest, the best, and the brightest of Athens marched to bring Athena a woven robe known as a Peplos, which seems to be represented on the east frieze of the building.

What the Athenians do in the Panathenaic frieze is represent themselves in a lofty, exalted, idealized way, claiming a status that brings them almost to the level of the gods, who themselves sit on the east frieze. And while the Athenians are represented as nearly divine, the gods on the east frieze are represented as nearly human—they sit, they recline, they kibitz with one another, they lean on each other's laps, awaiting quite informally the culmination of this procession. So the difference between gods and mortals, between Athenians and Olympians, is not one so much of kind as of degree. This is an extremely humanistic and perhaps even hubristic way of representing themselves. The Athenians' self-conception as idealized mortals seems to be the message of the frieze.

Gods awaiting frieze
The gods who await the arrival of the Panathenaic procession appear little different than the Athenian mortals marching toward them.
© 2000 Grisel Gonzalez and Jeff Prosise/Acropolis Museum

A formula for beauty

Did the ancient Greek architects have a mathematical formula for beauty?

Well, the idea of symmetria, the harmonious relationship of one part of a body or of a structure to another part of a body or a structure, seems to have been of paramount importance to the Greeks, not just architects but sculptors as well.

In the middle of the fifth century, while the Parthenon was under construction, Polykleitos of Argos, a great sculptor, actually created a statue, which we call the Doryphoros, or Spear Bearer, to be the embodiment of a geometrical or mathematical system of proportion. It is likely that Greek architects also strove for an architectural symmetria—for some formula, some geometrical or mathematical proportional system that would enable them to achieve a perfect harmony of part to part and of parts to the whole.

Is it fair to say that the Parthenon's beauty comes from such a formula?

The Parthenon, like a statue, exemplifies a certain symmetria. Its symmetria largely depends upon the 9:4 ratio, which is present in various dimensions of the building—the length of the stylobate [the platform that forms the base of the building] to the width of the stylobate, the width of the stylobate to the height of the column and entablature [the top section between the columns and roof] together. There's no question that the harmony of the building, which is clearly one of its most visible characteristics, is dependent on a certain mathematical system of proportions.

Because we assume that the Parthenon was perfectly designed, we almost have a compulsion to focus on the basic mathematical ratio that governs the design. But I think it is the irregularities and variations that are the most interesting things about the Parthenon and that give it an organic quality intuitively intriguing to the eye.

Born of military victory

How, in broad strokes, was the Parthenon project launched?

Thirty years before Pericles began his great building program, the Acropolis was destroyed by Persians in 480 and again in 479 B.C. after a great invasion led by the king of Persia, Xerxes. Archaic temples were destroyed, including an embryonic building then under construction called the Older Parthenon. In some ways, the classical Parthenon is the reincarnation of this Older Parthenon.

For about 30 years, the Athenians pursued a policy of aggression against the Persians. Great generals like the Athenian Kimon defeated the Persians at battles such as Eurymedon around 466 B.C. The Athenians seized from the Persians tremendous spoils. Around 449, we are told that Pericles negotiated a peace treaty with the Persians and began the building program that would transform the Acropolis into the jewel of classical Greece.

Was Pericles fully responsible for the Parthenon?

Pericles was clearly the motivating force behind the building program named after him, but Athens was a democracy, largely through the politics and policies of democrats like Pericles himself. And in order to construct the buildings that he proposed, he needed the approval of the Ekklesia, the assembly of the citizens of Athens (that is, the free adult male citizens of Athens). Every monument, every element of the Periclean building program had to be voted upon by the Ekklesia, so that these buildings would be monuments of the democracy and not of one man.

The Athenians were inveterate record keepers. They believed in freedom of information, and they published information in the form of inscribed marble stelae or slabs atop the Acropolis. The Parthenon accounts are now fragmentary, but the funding of the project seems to have been quite complex. Clearly tribute moneys paid to Athens in this protection racket we call the Athenian Empire were used, but there were many other sources of revenue—public moneys, tax revenues, harbor fees, and so on. We are told that boards of commissioners and judges contributed to the expenses. We're told that private individuals could offer moneys to help pay for certain projects, such as the Athena Parthenos, as well as parts of the building proper.

So it wasn't a clear-cut political statement like "we are going to use the spoils of war to build this great cultural monument."

It was important for the Athenians to fund the Parthenon as Athenians, to express the breadth of democratic support for the building.

A short-lived golden age

Soon after the building's completion, what trauma hit the city of Athens?

In 431 B.C., just a year after the Parthenon was completed, its last pedimental sculptures put in place, the Peloponnesian War began—a tremendous conflict pitting Athens and its allies against Sparta and its allies, a war that would, with some interruptions, last down to the year 404 B.C. In 404, a Spartan army seized Athens, and flute-girls played as the Spartans dismantled the fortifications of the city.

Just two years after the Peloponnesian War began, just three years after the Parthenon was completed, Pericles lay dead, the victim of a plague that decimated the Athenian population far more than any Spartan army could have done.

While Pericles died just three years after the Parthenon's completion, the temple has lived on for 25 centuries as the pinnacle of Greek architecture that he intended.
© Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Remarkably, in the years of the Peloponnesian War, Athens continued to build atop the Acropolis. The Erechtheum, the classical temple of Athena Polias, was completed, and the temple of Athena Nike was built at the entrance of the Acropolis.

Still, the Acropolis and the Parthenon in particular had a checkered history. In 427 or 426, an earthquake apparently struck Athens, and struck hard, displacing some of the columns a few centimeters on the Parthenon. Around 295 a tyrant of Athens named Lachares actually stripped the gold off the Athena Parthenos to pay his troops. Later on in the history of the Acropolis, the Parthenon suffered greatly in other ways. [See The Parthenon's Many Lives for more details.]

So the Parthenon didn't have long to serve as the crowning glory of Athens.

Let me put it this way: If the Parthenon is the ultimate expression, the marble embodiment, of the Athenian golden age, that golden age was brief. The Athenian world fell into disorder, chaos, just a year or two after the Parthenon was completed, when the Peloponnesian War began. And the Parthenon—this monumental statement of Athenian power and wealth, and of Athenian victory over the Persians—no longer meant to the Athenians at the end of the Peloponnesian War what it had meant at the beginning. The cosmic victories that the Parthenon represents were not Athens' victories any longer. Athens in 404 was a city in defeat.