The Parthenon


The Parthenon Essay, Research Paper

Building the Parthenon was a greater feat than they ever would have known. Work on the Parthenon began in 477 BC. A much smaller shrine already stood on this site, one to which we can attribute various pieces of surviving decorative material–lions and snakes, a cornice incised with flying birds, and a blue-bearded trinity that may conceivably represent Cecrops, Erechtheus, and Poseidon. If such an edifice in fact existed, it was torn down to make way for a huge limestone platform, roughly 252 by 103 feet in size, that was built as a base for the new temple. The slope of the Acropolis was such that while on the north side the foundations rested directly on bedrocks, the southeast corner needed to be built up with no less than twenty-two courses, in order to correct a vertical drop of thirty-five feet. This was only the beginning of the temple. The actual base of the new temple was smaller than the platform, as can be still be clearly seen. The temple itself was Doric, with a peristyle of six columns at each end and sixteen along the sides. Except for the lowest course of the base, the structure was to be built entirely of Pentelic marble.

The first year of construction was consumed almost entirely with quarrying and transporting marble from Mount Pentelicus-that pure white, finely grained stone that, because of its slight iron content, weathers to the pale honey gold so characteristic of the Parthenon itself. This part of the work, too often ignored or taken for granted, presented formidable obstacles that were overcome only with extraordinary ingenuity. One can still see the chisel marks where rectangular blocks were first cut and then split away from the rest of the excavation by means of water–soaked–and consequently expanding–wooden wedges. More hazardous still was the business of transportation, especially during the first stages, when the quarried blocks had to be brought down a steep and rocky mountainside from heights of between two and three thousand feet. The blocks had to be maneuvered on sleds down a paved quarry road (parts of which still survive), and only the smaller ones could be eased along on rollers. At intervals, there were stout posts, carrying rope and tackle, which were used to help brake the sleds downward momentum. Accidents were not unknown, and one rough dresses column drum, probably destined for the Parthenon lies in a nearby ravine to this day.

Even when the plain was safely reached, difficulties still abounded. Shifting a total of 22,000 tons of marble across ten miles of level plain to the Acropolis proved a major operation itself. These drums, blocks, and architraves were so enormously heavy that special methods of transport had to be devised for them, and the existing road had to be rebuilt so that it was strong enough to support their weight. Traffic was restricted to the dry summer months for fear that the blocks would bog down in the mud, and the largest blocks of all seem to have baffled the wagonmakers. Axles had to be inserted directly into their end sockets, and these were then equipped with wheels no less than twelve feet in diameter. The whole was fitted to a frame of four-inch timbers and drawn by up to thirty teams of oxen. Shifting a block of marble from the quarry to the Acropolis took at least two days and cost up to 300 drachmas-at a time when one drachma was the average laborers daily wage. Then, at the foot of the Acropolis itself there was more sweating with the sleds and rollers, pulleys and tackle before the blocks could finally be maneuvered into position atop the citadel for the stonemasons to dress.

Although the price of the wages for the workers was relatively small, the Parthenon was reasonably inexpensive compared to the things kept inside the temple. Understandably, no single item in the entire building program aroused as much hostile criticism as Phidia’s (Athena) statue. If the concept bespoke megalomania, the cost suggested pure spendthrift lunacy. Over 2,500 pounds of gold-worth more than 3,500,000 drachmas-had gone into it, and another 1,386,000 drachmas had been expended on ivory, wood, sculptors’ fees, and miscellaneous expenses. By any estimate the total bill far outstripped the cost of the Parthenon itself.

The building project of the Old Parthenon never reached completion, for when the columns were still half erected and no more than a few courses of the inner chambers, or cella, had been laid, all buildings on the Acropolis abruptly ceased. Modern visitors to the Acropolis can still see dark pinkish marks, indelibly seared into the stone that indicate where the Older Parthenon’s scaffolding went up in flames.

The Parthenon is a Doric peripheral temple, which means that it consists of a rectangular floor plan with a series of low steps on every side, and a colonnade (8 x 17) of Doric columns extending around the periphery of the entire structure. Each entrance has an additional six columns in front of it. The larger of the two interior rooms, the Naos, housed the cult statue. The smaller room was used as a treasury.

The Naos is probably the most picturesquely interesting part of the temple because it was the room, which contained the Phidian statue of Athena. Everything above the floor of this room at the east end has disappeared except a few of the first wall course stones. The eastern room was 29.8 m long by 19.2 m wide (98 ft x 63 ft), with internal Doric colonnades in two tiers, structurally necessary to support the roof timbers.

The three main types of columns used in Greek temples and other public buildings are Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The truest and most basic difference among the orders has to do with proportions. Doric is not only a type of column, but an “order”; this means that temples of the Doric order not only have this type of column, but also have a certain structure at the upper levels. The Parthenon had a severe Doric fa?ade and a low pediment reminiscent of the Athenian Parthenon.

On the exterior, the Doric columns measured 1.9 m (6 ft 2 in) in diameter and are 10.4 m (34 ft 3 in) high, approximately 5 ? times the diameter. The corner columns are slightly larger in diameter, with their spacing reduced to make it possible for the frieze to conform to the rule that it must terminate with a triglyphs.

The Doric order is characterized by the series of triglyphs and metopes on the on the entablature. Each metope was occupied by a panel of relief sculpture. The Parthenon combines elements of the Doric and Ionic orders. The metopes of the Parthenon all represented various instances of the struggle between forces of order and justice, on the one hand, and criminal chaos on the other.

Relief sculptures, larger than those of the metopes, occupied the triangular space above the triglyphs and metopes. Those at the west end of the temple depicted the contest between Poseidon and Athena for the right to be the patron deity of Athens. The eastern pediment group showed the birth of Athena from Zeus’ head. The pediment sculpture suffered badly when a Venetian shell hit the Parthenon in 1687 and the powder magazine inside exploded.

One particularly important but problematic section of the frieze is the group of seated figures above the pronaos at the east end of the Parthenon, now unanimously identifies as twelve Olympian deities with two attendants. These, the only seated figures on the frieze, are configured into two groups of six and represent the earliest extent depiction of what later became the canonical Twelve Gods of Greek and Roman art.

The Parthenon frieze runs around the upper edge of the temple wall. Its relatively small size (3 feet 5 inches tall) and placement (inside from the triglyphs and metopes) made it fairly hard to see from the ground. The entire Ionic frieze measures 524 English feet in length and just over 3 feet in height. This portion with the gods appears on three exceptionally long slabs of the 114 that make up the frieze, and their appearance in the central section of the east or major temple fa?ade gives them special prominance, as does their large size in relation to the humans on the frieze. The frieze is isocephalic for both riding , standing, and seated figures; hence, if the gods rose from their seats they would be approximately 35 percent taller than the humans standing near them.

In my conclusions I have found that not only were there one Parthenon but there were many. The Parthenon had been rebuilt several times in its existence. The information on the temple was very complete, but I found that there are many discrepancies in all of the writings on the Parthenon. There was much confusion on exactly how many columns there were; this being the only great confusion that I found.


Green, Peter. The Parthenon. New York: Newsweek, 1973.

Hambidge, Jay. The Parthenon. New Haven: Yale University, 1924.

MacDonald, William L. The Pantheon. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1976.

Neils, Jenifer. “Reconfiguring the Gods on the Parthenon Frieze.” The Art Bulletin 81.1 (Mar. 1999): 6-20.

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