The Parthenon

On the hilltop of the Acropolis, there looms the great Parthenon of Athens. This is the most famous and important symbol of the city during the ancient era. It is a Doric temple dedicated to the most valuable divinity for Athenians:  goddess Athena.

Hello, traveler! I am a tour guide in Athens and welcome to this special blog. Are you interested in the Parthenon of Athens? Here you will find EVERYTHING you need to know about it. 

Note: This article is part of the virtual tour of the Acropolis of Athens that we offer free of charge on our website. If you do not know what this is about and want to find out EVERYTHING about this sacred enclosure (including the Erechtheion, the Temple of Athena Nike, the theater of Dionysus, etc.), then you should visit the homepage.

Parthenon – The most important temple in Greece

When we think of Greece, the first thing that comes to our mind is that of the Parthenon -NO WONDER WHY- This temple is dedicated to the goddess of wisdom and military strategy, who also became the protector of the city.

The Parthenon was part of the ambitious construction plan of the famous Athenian politician Pericles, which was carried out during the peak of ancient Greece (5th century BC). The result, the work of the architects Callicrates and Ictinus (both supervised by Phidias), was a worldwide reference in architecture but also a system of government. 

In short, so as to make the most out of your visit to the Parthenon of Athens, here you can find out more about its ancient history, fascinating mythology, and challenging architecture. LET’S START!

History

It is necessary to know the historical context in which the Parthenon of Athens and its neighboring temples were built. It was during the classical period of ancient Greece, which begins after the medical wars:

These wars occurred between the ancient Helenians and the Persians. Although they eventually ended in Greek victory, the truth is that the latter had a pretty bad time. Here it is vital to mention the significant participation of Athenians, especially in the second war.

Have you watched the film “300”? Does the name “Themistocles” ring a bell?

Let me tell you quickly: – SPOILER ALERT – At some point, EVERYTHING seemed lost to the Athenians as the Persians had invaded Athens after defeating 300 Spartans (and the league of which they were part). Then the Athenian politician and general Themistocles decides to take a decisive step and play with fire…

The Battle of Salamis: The future of Greece would be decided in this strait located between Attica’s peninsula and the island of Salamis, where Themistocles mobilized the entire remaining naval fleet (the famous triremes). This strategy gave the Greeks the advantage they needed since Persians could NOT maneuver well their large boats in this narrow place.

What about the result? (Short version) 

  • Victory for the Greeks, but more specifically for Athens, since this Polis (city of ancient Greece) earned the recognition and trust of (almost) all others. 
  • In order to be protected against another possible future invasion, the League of Delos would be created. This was a coalition of many Greek cities (especially those closest to the Persian Empire) in which it was established that each would pay an annual fee. This money would be used to build a powerful naval fleet.
  • Later the headquarters were moved from Delos to Athens.  Through this, the future Greek capital obtained great notoriety and power, which would gradually bring it closer to a war with Sparta and its subsequent defeat, but this is another matter. But let’s guess where they kept the money contributed by the other cities. 

Inside the Parthenon of Athens

That is something many people do not know, but besides being a temple devoted to the worship of goddess Athena, the Parthenon of Athens was also used to house this great treasure. Although, it hurts to admit that part of this money (whose purpose was the protection of the league) was also used to build the Acropolis of Athens.

It is in this part of history that we place the first democracy in the world, brought by the famous Athenian legislator Pericles. – We have to pay attention to the importance of this fact. After the reforms of Solon, Clisthenes, Ephialtes and finally Pericles, the city of Athens was the first in the world where its citizens could decide on their laws and future.

In addition to being the most famous symbol of the economic and military power of this Greek policy, the Parthenon of Athens also represented the success of its democracy. This was the intention of Pericles, who commissioned the architects Callicrates and Ictinus to build them, which in turn were supervised by the well-known sculptor Phidias.

But did you know that there was another Parthenon before the one we all know?

Indeed, at the same place where the Parthenon of Athens is now located before there was another temple called Pre-Parthenon or Hecatompedon. In fact, this was the first shrine of Athena Parthenos (it will be explained why it is so-called). However, it was destroyed by the Persians in their aforementioned invasion of this Greek Polis.

Since the subject of Athena is brought up, you are going to find out more about the mythology surrounding this goddess:  

Significance of Parthenon in Greek Mythology

(View of the Parthenon of Athens from the entrance to the Acropolis).

As it has been said before, the Parthenon of Athens was dedicated to the protective goddess of the city (Athena). – But then, where does the name “Parthenon” originate? – It turns out that this goddess had many titles, each referring to a different quality of the goddess. What’s more, many of them even had a place of worship of their own. Among the well-known epithets we have:

  • Athena Nike: This means “Athena the victorious” in Greek. The goddess earned this nickname when the Helenians won at the battle of Salamis during the Medical Wars (ancient Greece against Persia). In fact, it is for this reason the Greeks built the temple of Athena Nike, also on the Acropolis of Athens.
  • Athena Promachos: This means in Greek, the person who fights on the front line of the battle”. It is worth noting that there was a giant statue of the goddess at the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens.
  • Athena Polis, or in Greek, “Athena of the city.” It could also be interpreted as the one who protects the city (Athens, of course). Towards the beginning of that era, an altar dedicated to this goddess was built in the so-called “ancient temple of Athena.” Although this temple is not currently standing, we can still see its remains between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion.

Finally, we come to the point that interests us, as it is understood that Athena was very multifaceted. 

  • Athena Parthenos (Παρθένος in Greek), which means “Athena the virgin”. This was considered another quality of the goddess, to whom the Parthenon of Athens is dedicated. It is worth noting that there was also a statue of the goddess, with this name, inside the temple.  

Architecture & Elements of the Parthenon

Let’s analyze the innovative architecture that was brought to the world by the Parthenon of Athens. This temple has some features never seen before until today and it has been studied by ALL the architects on Gea (planet Earth in Greek).

First of all, its construction was almost entirely made of Pentelic marble, by the so-called mountain, out of which they extracted this white material. However, contrary to popular belief, the original building was painted. -indeed- Greeks also used bright colors such as red, yellow, and blue.

The Parthenon of Athens is the only temple in Greece with eight columns on its short sides, a feature called “octastyle” when usually the monuments dedicated to other gods had only six. While on its long sides, the Parthenon had no less than 17, making a total of 46 columns (all of them of Doric style).

These columns reached a height of 10.4 meters; the rest of the Parthenon’s measurements were equally impressive: 30.8 meters wide and 69.5 meters long. – There’s a reason behind sharing the accurate measurements. It turns out that for Greek architects, these numbers were significant and NOT at all random… Does the famous golden ratio ring a bell?

By looking at the rectangular plan of the Parthenon: the long side is to the short side the same as the sum of the two sides is to the long side. If you are more into science than letters, you will understand this formula better: b/a=(a+b)/b

The ratio between the two sides results in the famous golden number: φ=1,618033988749894….

We could stretch this number to infinity since it is irrational, although, for Greeks, this meant the maximum reason. Let me share with you a similar reflection:

Indeed, you will be the only one who knows certain combinations of important numbers and that (of course) you keep them secret. Well, so you should know that this magic number, discovered by the Greeks, DOES know your secrets. This includes the number of your ID or passport, the social security number, the pin of your cell phone, and your credit cards… We could extend this list to infinity too.

This property of the golden number is because its decimal places are infinite, and NO pattern is EVER repeated, resulting in ALL combinations of numbers existing in the world (before or after) along with those decimal places.     

(Here you can see the two lines of columns to access the interior of the Parthenon)

Anyway, another feature of the Parthenon of Athens is that it is a “peripheral” building; a row of aligned columns surrounds it. To finish with the usage of weird names, although these are widely used in architecture – The Parthenon of Athens is an “amphiprostyle” temple, which means that it has a portico with columns on the front and back facade.

This means that after traversing the first row of columns mentioned in the previous paragraph, there is another portico or entrance with a new row (with four more columns) before being able to access through the door into the Parthenon interior.

Concerning the interior, it turns out that in the case of the Parthenon, there were two separate rooms (not connected internally): one dedicated to safeguarding the treasure from the league of Delos, and the other one is where the famous (and very expensive) chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos was.

Chryselephantine means that the statue was composed of gold and ivory, and the truth is that they spared NO penny:

The Athena of the Parthenon was an imposing sculpture approximately 12 meters high. On the one hand, she held her characteristic spear, and on the other, she had a much smaller statue of Athena Nike (For more information, look at the article dedicated to the Temple of Athena Nike).

It is estimated that the gold on Athena’s sculpture weighed about 1140 kgs, whose price was about 700 talents of the time. That is what it cost to build 230 trireme ships (a very considerable fleet).

Without further ado about Parthenon’s architecture, this is the result of the magnificent work of the architects Callicrates and Ictinus, and thanks to the sculptor Phidias for his supervision.

Congratulations, traveler, on reading this far! You’re definitely getting ready to make the most of your visit to the Acropolis of Athens. Now you can jump to the next monument and continue with our virtual tour.

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