Detailed History of the Parthenon

Detailed history of the Parthenon is continually being added to. Please check back for a completed history.



Of the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who visit modern Greece each year, a majority spend at least some time in the capital, Athens. And of these, nearly all inevitably make the pilgrimage up the stone steps that rise along the west side of the city's central hill, the Acropolis, the world's most famous and most often photographed archaeological site. Their goal is to see firsthand what pictures can only partly convey - the silent, timeless majesty of the ancient ruins crowning the hill's summit. Most of all they want to see the remains of the Parthenon, the ancient temple that countless people through the ages have called the most beautiful building ever erected.

The Parthenon's cracked and chipped stone columns are among the surviving remnants of a magnificent complex of temples and other structures built atop the Acropolis during the "golden age" of ancient Athens. In this short period, spanning the mid- to late-fifth century B.C., the Athenian city-state, the largest and most influential of many in Greece at the time, reached its political and cultural zenith. Later generations came to call it the Periclean Age. This was in recognition of Pericles, the brilliant and forceful statesman/general who dominated Athens in those years. "Great as Athens had been when Pericles became her leader," the later Greek historian Plutarch wrote, "he made her the greatest and richest of all cities" Under Pericles' guidance, a single gifted generation of Athenian artists, architects, playwrights, and democratic reformers created an unprecedented cultural legacy. Their achievements have awed, inspired, and helped to shape the ideas of nearly every succeeding generation of Western or European-based lands and peoples.

As the artistic culmination and chief symbol of that brief but brilliant moment in the history of Western civilization, the Acropolis complex never fails to impress and move those who visit it. As they ascend the hill, they first encounter the imposing ruins of the massive entrance gateway - The Propylaea. Along the way they pass a tiny temple perched on a stone platform projecting from the Propylaea's front right side. This elegant little shrine, the Temple of Wingless Victory, which, like the Parthenon, was dedicated to ancient Athens's patron goddess, Athena, gives but a foretaste of the wonders to come.

Once through the Propylaea's upper reaches, the visitors find themselves on the hill's roughly flat summit. To the left, in the distance, they see the remains of the Erechtheum, a temple whose south-facing porch features pillars shaped like young maidens. Dominating the view on the summit, however, is the Parthenon's immense and stately colonnade (group or row of columns). On first catching sight of the famous structure, its honey-colored stones forming a heroic outline against a deep blue Mediterranean sky, many experience the same rush of exhilaration felt by visitors of bygone ages. "Oh! What a superb monument!" the Venezuelan statesman Francisco de Miranda wrote during his 1786 visit. "Nothing I have seen so far deserves to be compared with it!" England's earl of Sandwich, another eighteenth-century tourist, exclaimed, "Nothing in all Greece, nor even the whole world, was equal to the magnificence of this temple." In 1809, an English traveler wrote, "The portion of the Parthenon yet standing, cannot fail to fill the mind of the most indifferent spectator with… astonishment and awe." A more recent visitor, historian John Crow, expressed similar sentiments in 1970: "The spectator is never disappointed, the imagination is never deceived, the anticipation is never dismayed. Every person deserves to look at least once upon this sight before he dies."

Lifting the Human Spirit

How does a mere building, especially one in an advanced state of ruin, manage to evoke such feelings of awe? First, the Parthenon is the romantic symbol of a cultural age viewed with great fondness and nostalgia in Western civilization's collective memory. To the generations that have inherited the rich legacy of that age, all of the admirable artistic skills and political and philosophical thought produced by the ancient Greeks seem, in a sense, to have been captured and forever frozen in the building.

The Parthenon is also widely seen as the embodiment of architectural perfection, both in concept and execution. Stating a view held by many other experts, scholar Thomas Craven calls it "the only perfect building erected by man." Architects, engineers, and mathematicians, he adds, continue to "hold conventions to discuss the scheme of proportions in the Parthenon, and to try to discover the secrets of its perfection."

Perhaps the Parthenon's most appealing quality is its timelessness. Although it captured and still personifies the hopes, aspirations, and genius of the society that created it, it seems also to transcend any single people, place, or time. The building was already over five centuries old when Plutarch described this quality, one he felt it shared with the Erectheum and other monuments on the Acropolis. "It is this, above all," he wrote,

Which makes Pericles' works an object of wonder to us - the fact that they were created in so short a span, and yet for all time. Each one possessed a beauty which seemed venerable [impressive in old age] the moment it was born, and at the same time a youthful vigor which makes them appear to this day as if they were newly built. A bloom of eternal freshness hovers over these works of his and preserves them from the touch of time

When the Parthenon is viewed in person, all of these qualities - historical romance, artistic perfection, and timelessness - seem to merge into one powerful feeling that lifts the human spirit. "It is not directed to the mind so much as to the eye and the soul," Greek historian John Miliadis declares. "It means to move the spirit and to ennoble it. It is more like a living organism than a mechanical creation." Indeed, the Parthenon is a unique blend of calculation and inspiration, as revealed in the story of how it came to be built, subsequently fell into ruin, and, in the fullness of time, achieved immortality.


The Parthenon and its sister temples were not the first structures erected atop the Athenian Acropolis. That central hill, whose name means "high place of the city," had been continuously inhabited for at least two thousand years before the advent of the fifth-century B.C. Periclean Age. During these long centuries, the site witnessed repeated building, demolition, and rebuilding, a process that destroyed most pre-fifth-century structures and artifacts; therefore, the fact surrounding its early inhabitants and their works were long shrouded in myth and fable.

Only in the past century or so have archaeologists and historians managed to piece together a tentative picture of what the Acropolis was like before its glory years under Pericles. First, they confirmed that the hill had been used as a fortress since prehistoric times. They also discovered that religious temples and shrines similar in purpose to the Parthenon and Erechtheum had graced the hill's summit long before the fifth century. These studies revealed that the religious traditions surrounding those early structures, as well as their design and execution, had a direct and major influence on the conception and construction of the Periclean Acropolis complex.

Thus, the basic architectural features of the Greek temple, which reached their highest level of perfection in the Parthenon, did not appear suddenly in Greece's Classic Age (the historical period encompassing the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., when Greek civilization reached its height). These now familiar features include four walls forming a rectangular inner shell; a row of columns supporting a front porch, and often a back porch; colonnades running down the shell's sides; and a low-pitched roof forming a triangular gable, or pediment, on each end. Early Greek temples employed most or all of these simple elements. But these structures were usually much smaller and composed of less durable materials than the imposing stone versions that dotted the Greek countryside in the Classic Age. An examination of how Greek temple architecture developed reveals the religious traditions and architectural ideas that influenced the Parthenon's builders. It also shows, by way of comparison, to what degree these extraordinarily gifted architects and sculptors outdid all of predecessors.

City-States and Patron Deities

The introduction of temples in Greece accompanied fundamental changes in religious views and worship. In Greece's Bronze Age (ca. 3000 - 1150 B.C., in which people used artifacts and weapons made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin) there were no separate buildings used solely for religious purposes. Certain mountaintops and caves were considered sacred spots, as were shrines set up in tombs or special rooms in royal palaces. Worship, consisting of prayer and the sacrifice of plants and animals, most often occurred in these places.

This situation began to change during what historians refer to as Greece's Dark Age (ca. 1150 - 800 B.C.). In this period, initiated by invasions, political chaos, and population dislocations, and characterized by widespread poverty and illiteracy, Greek civilization reached its lowest ebb. A new Greek culture began to evolve, one centered on small communities, each occupying an individual, isolated valley or island. These so-called city-states, most of which consisted of a rocky acropolis surrounded by a central town and some outlying villages and farmland, came to see themselves as tiny separate nations.

Yet while they were politically distinct, the city-states shared a more of less common culture. They all spoke Greek, for instance. And they all worshipped the same gods, who they believed dwelled atop Mt. Olympus (located in the north-central region of Thessaly), the tallest peak in Greece. Among the most important of these deities were Zeus, ruler of the gods, his symbols the thunderbolt and the eagle; Poseidon, Zeus's brother and ruler of the seas, his symbols the trident, the dolphin, and the horse; and Athena, Zeus's daughter, goddess of wisdom and war, who symbols were the owl and the olive tree. Although most Greeks recognized these and several other gods, individual city-states had their local favorites. "Every city," writes noted historian C.M. Bowra,

Was protected by its own special deity who had his or her own… religious festivals. At these festivals, which… combined the worship of gods with the gaiety of men, a whole people might feel that it was protected by watchful presences and united in its admiration for them and its sense of belonging to them.

One way to ensure that a god remained close to the community, the better to watch over and protect the inhabitants, was to provide that deity with its own house or shelter. Thus, during the late Dark Age and early Archaic Age (ca. 800 - 500 B.C., during which Greece regained prosperity and literacy) the Greeks began building temples, each dedicated to a certain god. Because the god was thought actually to reside, at least occasionally, within the temple, such a structure was seen as a sacred place. So were the surrounding grounds, which typically featured outdoor sacrificial altars and areas for individual or group prayer. (To respect the god's privacy, no worship took place inside the building, as it does in modern churches.) The temples and grounds together made up the god's sacred sanctuary or precinct.

Developments in Temple Design

At first, these temples were small, simple, hut like structures made mostly of perishable materials. The bases of the walls sometimes consisted of piled irregular fieldstones. But the upper sections of the walls were of sun-dried mud-brick, the columns and door frames of wood, and the roofs of timber and thatch, all of which deteriorate rapidly. So none of these early temples have survived. Fortunately, portions of a few pottery models of these structures have survived, including one that experts believe represents an eighth-century B.C. temple of Hera (Zeus's wife and protector of women and marriage) in Argos, in southeastern Greece. A reconstructed version of the model features a front porch with a triangular pediment, supported by two thin wooden columns. As temples steadily developed into larger, more complex structures made of stone, the Greeks retained this simple form - a small rectangular hut with two or four columns in front - for buildings called treasuries, where the stored valuables. This is why surviving treasuries, like the famous one at Delphi, in central Greece, look like simplified, miniature temples.

One of the first major new developments in temple design was the continuation of the two or four front columns into a full colonnade, or pteron, stretching around the whole building. The first known such peripteral temple was that built for Hera on the Aegean island of Samos in the early 700s B.C. The structure was about 106 feet long, 21 feet wide, and had 43 wooden columns in its pteron. Another innovation, the replacement of thatched roofs with courses or pottery roofing tiles, in turn stimulated roofs with courses of pottery roofing tiles, in turn stimulated many other changes. As architectural historian A.W. Lawrence explains, the use of tiles

Caused a preference for ridged roofs, of lower pitch than thatch required, and for buildings of strictly rectangular plan. Above all it stimulated an improvement in the structure of walls, and a changeover from wooden to stone columns, because the tiles were several times as thick as those manufactured today, and correspondingly heavy, necessitating, in turn, more massive roof timbers to support them. Few temples of the Dark Age can have been solid enough to receive a tiled roof… [as shown by] the fact that nearly all of them had to be replaced during the hundred years which followed the introduction of tiles.

The first decades of the seventh century B.C. saw the construction of a number of what might be called transitional temples. These had heavy tiled roofs and sturdy stone walls but still employed wooden columns, although said columns were about two feet thick and therefore very strong. Outstanding examples were the Temple of Poseidon at Corinth, southwest of Athens, and the Temple of Apollo (god of the sun, music and healing) at Thermon, in west-central Greece. Both of these structures also still retained a wooden entablature (the structural layer resting on the column tops, or capitals, and supporting the roof). By the end of the 600s, the Thermon temple's wooden columns had been replaced by stone ones; by the middle of the following century, the changeover to all-stone temples was complete nearly everywhere in Greece.

The Doric Order

During this century or so of transition, the order, or architectural style, known as Doric became the most common across most of mainland Greece. The Doric order was distinguished by certain standard structural elements and decorative features that builders repeated, with minor variations, in temple after temple. The most distinctive aspect of the Doric style was the shape of its columns. They almost always stood directly on the temple floor (the stylobate), without any sort of decorative base, the capital consisted of two simple parts, a rounded cushion, the echinus, topped by an overlying flat slab, the abacus (on which the entablature rested). As a rule, the height of Doric columns ranged between five and seven times their width. And while all Greek architectural styles featured fluting, narrow concave grooves running vertically along a column's shaft, Doric columns typically had twenty flutes each.

Another common characteristic of the Doric order was that its frieze, the decorative painted or sculpted band running horizontally along the entablature, was no continuous. Instead, it was divided into separate rectangular elements know as triglyphs and metopes. One triglyph, a block containing three vertical bars, usually rested directly above each column. The metopes, the flat panels bearing the paintings or sculptures, were positioned between the triglyphs. The front and back triangular pediments of Doric temples usually bore decorative sculpted figures, although it was not uncommon for these areas to be blank.

At the same time that the Doric order emerged in mainland Greece, another order, the Ionic, developed in the Aegean Islands and in western Asia Minor (what is now Turkey), then a Greek region known as Ionia. Ionic columns also had decorative bases, and their capitals featured elegant spiral scrolls, called volutes. In addition, the Ionic frieze was usually a continuous band, without triglyphs, running along the entablature above the colonnade. When constructing Doric buildings, mainland architects (including those who designed the Parthenon) sometimes incorporated a few Ionic features in an attempt to inject a feeling of "lightness," thereby reducing what was generally seen as the "severity" and "solemnity" of the more spare Doric style.

Both the Doric and Ionic styles were concerned mainly with aesthetic effect, that is, making a building look well proportioned and beautiful. As these styles matured, architects came to realize that a temple that was too long or too wide did not please the eye. The eighth-century Temple of Hera at Samos, for example, was five times as long as it was wide; by the sixth-century such proportions had come to be seen as ungainly and unattractive. Eventually, builders settled on what all agreed was the most aesthetic ratio of length to width - roughly two to one. With few exceptions, that ratio called for six columns on each end and thirteen columns on each side (counting the corner columns twice).

Dark-Age Myths and the Acropolis

In the mid- to late-sixth century B.C., several all-stone temples in a mature Doric style that employed this two-to-one ratio were erected in mainland Greece. Perhaps the most outstanding example was the Temple of Athena Plias (Athena "of the City") on the Athenian Acropolis. Because it measured about 100 Attic (Athenian) feet long, people also frequently called it the Hecatompedon, or "hundred-footer." (An Attic foot measured .328 meters, compared to .305 meters for a modern English foot, so the building's length was roughly 110 feet by today's standards.) Entrance to the cella, the main room, in which a statue of the goddess stood, was from the east. The temple's front pediment featured an elaborate group of sculptures depicting the "Gigantomachy," or war with the giants. In this popular myth, a frequent theme of Greek art and poetry, the Olympian gods, including Athena, defeated a race of monstrous giants, a battle that came to symbolize the triumph of civilization over savagery.

The Athena Polias temple (which occupied nearly the same site as the fifth-century B.C. Erechtheum) was not the first shrine erected for Athena on Athens's central hill. In the Bronze Age, before the advent of formal temples, the city's kings had built a palace on the Acropolis. Because such palaces contained one or more rooms set aside for religious worship, and also because these early kings were the state's chief priests as well as its civil leaders, palace sites came to be seen as sacred ground. The principal shrine in the Athenian palace was likely dedicated to Atana, an early manifestation of Athena.

As the ages passed and Greece entered its Dark Age, dim memories of one of these early kings, Erectheus, became distorted into legend. Myths pictured him as a sort of partner to Athena or as custodian of her temple on the Acropolis, and painters and sculptors often portrayed him as a serpent guarding the goddess. The term Erechtheum came to describe a temple dedicated jointly to Athena and Erectheus; several structures bearing that name were built and rebuilt on the Acropolis before the Classic Age.

A number of popular myths about Athena herself developed during the Dark Age. By establishing Athena as Athens's special patron and protector, these traditional stories profoundly influenced the evolution of temple building and the nature of worship on the Acropolis. The seventh-century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod told about the goddess's miraculous birth from Zeus's head:

Zeus first took the goddess Metis as his wife, but later deceived her and swallowed her, for fate had decreed that Metis would conceive children filled with wisdom. And the first of these would be the bright-eyed maiden Athena, who would have strength and wisdom equal to her father's. Metis remained concealed inside of Zeus and eventually conceived Athena, who received from her father the aegis [his majestic and invincible breastplate], with which she surpassed in strength all her brother and sister gods. And Zeus brought her into the world, bearing the aegis and clad in battle armor, from out of his head.

Another myth described how Athena and Poseidon had a contest to decide which of them would preside over and protect Attica, the territory ruled by Athens. Poseidon touched the Acropolis with his trident, producing a miraculous saltwater spring. Athena then countered him by causing the first olive tree to sprout from the hill's summit; seeing this, Zeus and the other gods judging the contest declared her the winner. Still another tradition held that Athena had sent an olive-wood statue of herself hurtling out of the sky. The spot on which is supposedly landed, near the Acropolis's northern edge, became the site for a succession of temples, the cellas of which housed the sacred statue.

Athens's Darkest Hour

The sixth-century B.C. Temple of Athena Polias was the last such temple to hold the olive-wood statue before the construction of the Periclean Acropolis complex. Archaeological evidence shows that, besides this large Doric structure, the direct predecessor of the fifth-century Erechtheum and Parthenon, there were other temples on the hill's summit. Some, like the Temple of Athena Polias, were dedicated to this warrior goddess. That her shrines dominated the Acropolis is only natural, since she was the city's patron and protector. However, sanctuaries for several other gods existed there as well. The most important, next to those honoring Athena, was the sanctuary of Zeus Polias, an open-air precinct with a large altar located on the hill's highest point (to the east of the Temple of Athena Polias). By the early 400s B.C., the Acropolis was covered by a complex network of walled courtyards, terraces, stone walkways, altars, and temples, all decorated with statues, bas-reliefs, and other artistic touches.

Then, in 480 B.C., nearly all of these religious and artistic monuments were suddenly violated, ransacked, and burned. Ten years before, Darius I, king of the mighty Persian Empire, which then controlled most of what are now Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, had sent an army to subdue Athens and some of its neighbors. The Athenians had soundly defeated the invaders at Marathon, on the seacoast about twenty-five miles northeast of Athens. Seeking revenge for this affront, Darius's son Xerxes returned in 480 with over 200,000 troops and a thousand ships, the largest invasion force the world has ever seen up to that time. Persia's goal was now nothing less than the conquest of all of Greece, a foothold from which it might later launch expeditions into other parts of Europe.

As the huge Persian host approached Athens, the inhabitants fled to nearby islands, taking the precious olive-wood statue of their divine patron with them for safekeeping. On approximately September 17, Xerxes led his troops into the deserted city. He ordered them to destroy everything atop the Acropolis; confident that he was dealing Athens a blow from which is could never recover. But he was dead wrong. The Athenians would prevail and a new, more splendid Acropolis complex would rise from the ashes of the old. In a twist of fate that no one at the time could have foreseen, the horrors of Athens's darkest hour would prove but a prelude to the grandeur of the Parthenon and Greece's golden age.


The embers of the Persian fires that had swept Athens's Acropolis were still glowing when the Greeks, fighting for their homes and way of life, launched a desperate and valiant counteroffensive. On September 20, 480 B.C., three days after the army had entered Athens; King Xerxes mounted a hill overlooking the narrow Salamis Strait, a few miles southwest of the city. There, he watched in horror as a Greek fleet made up of warships from man city-states delivered his much larger naval forces a crushing defeat. The Greeks followed up this win with others the following year, including the almost total annihilation of the Persian land army at Plataea, north of Athens. The Greek victory was so complete and decisive that no other Persian army ever entered Europe again.

Moreover, the victory instilled in the Greeks a feeling of immense accomplishment. They had demonstrated to the world - and also to themselves - that they, like their ancestors at Troy, were capable of glorious deeds. And the defeat of the world's greatest empire seemed only the first step toward other, equally noteworthy achievements. In this way, historian W.G. Hardy remarks, the victory over Persia became, "the torch to set fire the brilliance of the great age of the Greeks. There was a tremendous up swelling of confidence… [and now] the Greeks felt that there was nothing they could not attempt."

As the wealthiest and most populous Greek city-state, Athens felt and demonstrated this amazing new confidence more than any of its neighbors. With amazing energy and boldness in the decades following the great patriotic war, the Athenians produced an outburst of political and cultural creativity the likes of which the world had never seen and would never see again. Having emerged from the conflict as one of the two most powerful and prestigious Greek cities (the other being Sparta, in Southern Greece), Athens soon began expanding its democracy, the world's first, which it had established in the last years of the preceding century. As the new century progressed, Athenian playwrights turned out some of the greatest plays ever written. And in these same years the Athenians acquired immense wealth, much of it spent rebuilding their city. The high-light of this urban renewal program was Pericles' new temple atop the Acropolis, with its crowning jewel - the Parthenon.

The Marvel of Greece

At first, no one anticipated the construction of ANY new buildings on the Acropolis, much less edifices as splendid as those that were eventually erected. Shortly before the battle at Plataea in 479 B.C., all Athenian citizens had taken a solemn oath. "I will not rebuild any of the temples that have been burned and destroyed by the barbarians," they swore, "but I will let them be left as a memorial to those who come after, of the sacrilege of the barbarians." This oath remained binding for some thirty years. In 449, however, after years of periodic hostilities (in which the Greeks carried the war onto Persian soil), the two powers signed a peace treaty. The new generation of leaders then in charge in Athens felt that the advent of peace absolved them from the oath their fathers had sworn.

More important, in the thirty years since the battles at Salamis and Plataea, Athens had become a changed city. It had built a huge maritime empire, from which wealth, gained from commerce and the dues paid over a hundred subservient city-states, flowed into Athenian coffers. Pericles, one of the architects of this empire, had come to power in 461 as the city's most influential politician and general, a position he would retain for some thirty years. A dynamic, ambitious leader and powerful orator, he told his countrymen that it was time for Athens to realize its enormous potential; it must show the world that it was invincible and eternal, that the gods had chosen it above all other states. "You must yourselves realize the power of Athens," he said,

And feast your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.

What better way to demonstrate that Athens was the marvel of Greece, Pericles asked, than by celebrating and honoring the goddess whose divine patronage was instrumental in the city's rise to greatness? Building new, grand, and beautiful temples to Athena would ensure her continued protection, he proposed. At the same time, a new and magnificent Acropolis complex would be the ultimate symbol of Athenian imperial greatness. As Plutarch would later write, this ambitious project was seen, both at the time and by posterity, as Pericles' greatest achievement.

There was one measure above all which at once gave the greatest pleasure to the Athenians, adorned their city and created amazement among the rest of mankind, and which is today the sole testimony that the tales of the ancient power and glory of Greece are no mere fables. By this I mean his construction of temples and public buildings.

Yet while Pericles provided the inspiration for the grand new project, it was the combined effort of hundreds of talented builders, sculptors, and artists who made it a reality. Encouraged and lavishly funded by the state, their latent energies and creativity suddenly received an outlet of unprecedented scope, and they took full advantage of the opportunity. John Miliadis writes:

It was merely the passion for building … nor was it merely an exhibition of power. It was something deeper than all this. It was the irrepressible need of a whole generation which took the highest intellectual view of life, to find a creative self-expression

Themes and Images as Propaganda

As proposed by Pericles and his associates in the early 440s B.C., the major buildings and monuments in the new Acropolis complex would be tied together by theme and form an integrated visual composition. The most obvious and important theme would be Athena herself. Gracing the western approach to the hill, the small Temple of Athena Nike (Athena "The Victor"; also called the Temple of Wingless Victory) would celebrate her help in securing the great victory over Persia. On the summit, in the appropriate spot on the north side, would be a new Erechtheum temple to house her olive-wood statue. And a bit more than a hundred feet south of this structure would rise a much larger and imposing temple, the Parthenon, in which a completely new and more resplendent statue of the goddess would reside.

The name Parthenon reflected a relatively new image of the goddess. In Greek houses, a Parthenon was a room in which a young woman, ideally a virgin, dwelled before her marriage. Therefore, Athena Parthenos, the name of the statue that would stand in the Parthenon, meant "Athena the virgin." Emphasizing this aspect of her character stressed her feminine beauty and the purity of her power and wisdom, balancing and complimenting her existing images as "victor" and "warrior" (a huge bronze statue of Athena Promachos, "the warrior champion," already stood in Athens).

Other important themes that would dominate the new complex would be the triumph of civilization over barbarism and the greatness of Athens, the second to be seen as the inevitable result of the first. To emphasize these themes, pediment sculptures, metope bas-reliefs, and numerous statues and paintings would depict the Gigantomachy and other similar myths paralleling and symbolizing the defeat of Persia by Athena and the Athenians. As the noted scholar Peter Green puts it in his book The Parthenon, the "soaring splendor and architectural subtleties" of the new Parthenon and Acropolis would

Testify with eloquence to Athenian wealth, intellect, and artistic imagination… [and] decorative sculptures would emphasize Athenian… respect for moral law… [These works] were calculated to remind a visitor of what Athena, and in an even greater sense Athens, stood for in moral terms - civilization, order, self-restraint, and creativity… The sculptures of the Parthenon were to provide visual propaganda, in the broadest sense of the term.

The Overseer and Architects

To make the impact of that visual statement as strong as possible, Athenian leaders decided to erect the new Acropolis's largest and most ambitious and splendid building - the Parthenon - first, chose Phidias, the greatest sculptor of the day (now considered the greatest of ancient times). Phidias had already produced several highly regarded works, among them the large bronze Athena Promachos statue, honoring the Athenian victory at Marathon, and a group of statues of gods and human heroes on display in a religious sanctuary at Delphi, in central Greece. Besides acting as general supervisor of the Parthenon's construction, Phidias was to design the hundreds of sculpture for the pediments and metopes, as well as the large Athena Parthenos statue for the cella.

To execute the design and construction of the building itself, Phidias appointed the noted architects Ictinus and Callicrates. These men like most (If not all) ancient architects, did not draw up detailed blueprints. Their assistants, foremans, masons, and craftsmen were well acquainted with the basic design elements and proportions of the Doric order; so usually all that was needed were specific instructions about the sizes of the blocks and columns, the thickness of the walls, and so forth. For moldings and other ornamentation, the architects made pottery models that the workers copied on a larger scale. Ictinus and Callicrates, in collaboration with Phidias, also chose and approved the quality of the marble, wood, and other materials used.

Materials, Money, and Workers

Since most of the building's features, including the roofing tiles, were to be of marble, this stone had to be of the highest possible quality. The builders chose Pentelic marble, a variety with a fine, uniform grain, quarried from Mt. Pentelicon, located about ten miles northeast of Athens. A great deal of marble would be needed (some thirty thousand tons in all, as it turned out) because the Parthenon, befitting its role as the centerpiece of the new complex, was to be larger than the standard Doric temple. Instead of the usual hexa-style pteron, featuring six columns on an end and thirteen on a side, the Parthenon's colonnade would be octa-style, with eighty-by-seventeen columns (still maintaining the ideal ratio of about two to one).

Because Mt. Pentelicon lay within the territory of Attica, the marble itself was free. But as everyone involved knew, quarrying and transporting so much marble, as well as purchasing high-quality wood, gold, and the other materials needed, was a very expensive proposition. What is more, the hundreds, and at the time, thousands, of workers who would actually erect the temple would need to be paid day after day, week after week, for several years. State officials placed a stela, or stone marker on the Acropolis to provide the citizens with an accounting of how their money was being spent. "The tight, regimented script cut in tiny letters on the smooth marble slab was never easy reading," comments archaeologist and art historian John Boardman,

But the important thing was that it was there, for reference and checking, a safeguard both for those who were spending Athens' accumulated wealth, and for the many who were ready to suspect the motives and honestly of officials and their agents.

The fragments of the stela that have survived give a rough idea of the huge costs involved. "Those who quarried stones in Pentelicon and loaded them on the wheeled vehicles" were paid some 20,000 drachmas in just one of the many seasons of major construction. The sculptors working on the pedimental figures in that same season received a total of 16,392 drachmas; those hired by the month earned 1,800 drachmas. Modern historians estimate that the entire cost of the building (excluding Phidias's statue inside) was approximately 30 million drachmas. It is difficult to calculate modern equivalents for ancient Greek money. But the following values, common in the mid-fifth century B.C. are helpful: An average worker earned 1 drachma per day; a highly skilled artisan about 2 to 3 drachmas per day; and a bushel of corn cost roughly 3 drachmas. Considering these facts, spending 30 million drachmas in the span of only a few years was clearly an immense and unheard-of undertaking for a community of only 100,000 or so citizens.

Yet the majority of Athenians readily went along with the grandiose plan. The Assembly, the body of citizens that met regularly to vote on state laws, policies, and spending, discussed Pericles' proposals at length. And the consensus was that the project, though enormously costly, would almost eliminate unemployment and thereby stimulate prosperity. The wide range of jobs created is well illustrated by Plutarch's famous description of the materials and workers:

The materials to be used were stone, bronze, ivory, gold, ebony, and cypress-wood, while the arts or trades which wrought or fashioned them were those of carpenter, modeler, coppersmith, stone-mason, dyer, worker in gold and ivory, painter, embroiderer, and engraver, and besides these the carriers and suppliers of the materials, such as merchants, sailor, and pilots for the sear-borne traffic, and wagon-makers, trainers of draft-animals, and drivers for everything that came by land. There were also rope-makers, weaver, leatherworkers, road builders, and miners. Each individual craft, like a general with an army under his separate command, had its own corps of under skilled laborers at its disposal… [and consequently] the city's prosperity was extended as far and wide and shared among every age and condition in Athens.

Quarrying and Transporting the Stones

The Parthenon's first stone was laid on July 28, 447 B.C. To be more precise, this was the building's first new stone, for the architects had decided to take advantage of a temple foundation that already existed on the Acropolis. In 488, two years after Athens's defeat of the Persians at Marathon, an Athenian leader named Aristides had begun work on a Doric structure meant to commemorate the battle. His workers had laid a solid masonry base, topped by a finished stylobate (the temple's floor), and had just begun erecting the columns when the project was abandoned. (Dark pinkish marks seared into the stone when the Persians burned the structure's wooden scaffolding in 480 can still be seen today.) Although Ictinus and Callicrates had to expand this stone base since the Parthenon was to be both longer and wider than the earlier structure, using the existing foundation saved a great deal of time.

While teams of workers redid the foundation atop the Acropolis, many others labored at Mt. Pentelicon, diligently quarrying the thousands of marble blocks needed for the walls and columns. To separate the stones from the mountainside, the quarrymen first used mallets and chisels to cut grooves in the marble. Next they drove wooden wedges into the grooves and saturated them with water. As the wedges absorbed the water, they expanded, forcing the stone to crack, after which the workers used crowbars and other tools to finish freeing the stones.

The task of transporting these extremely heavy blocks down the mountainside and across the plain to Athens was daunting to say the least. Gangs of men used levers, ropes, and pulleys to nudge the stones onto wooden sleds and then, using more ropes, painstakingly maneuvered the sleds down the slopes. To help brake the downward momentum of the heaviest stones, the workers set up posts at intervals, each post bearing a block and tackle out of which ran a rope that was tied to a sled. Despite such safeguards, accidents did happen. On occasion, for instance, the posts or ropes gave way, sending a sled plummeting down the hillside. (A stone intended for one of the Parthenon's columns still rests at the bottom of a nearby ravine.)

Once onto the plain, the stones moved along a road that had been heavily reinforced to support them. The largest blocks required specially made wagons, each with wheels twelve feet in diameter and drawn by up to sixty oxen. When these loads finally reached the Acropolis, getting them up the side of the hill required more work gangs equipped with sleds, pulleys, and ropes. To move a single stone from the quarry to the Acropolis took at least two days and cost some 300 drachmas, a year's salary for the average worker!

Erecting the Walls and Columns

Atop the hill's summit, teams of masons waited to receive the still rough and unfinished marble blocks. Among the first they prepared were those for the lower courses of the walls enclosing the cella and other interior spaces. Using mallets and flat chisels, they cut each stone to fit in a spot already pre-measured by one of the foremen, work that had to be extremely precise, since as a rule, Greek builders did not use mortar in temples and other large structures. Instead, they trimmed the stones to fit together snugly and then joined one to another with I-shaped iron clamps. First they chiseled rectangular slots in the top surfaces of the two blocks to be joined; then they inserted the clamps and poured molten (melted) lead into the spaces that remained, making sure that, when the lead dried, its surface was even with those of the stones. When the next course was laid on top, its stones conveniently covered and hid the clamps in the course below. (The Parthenon and many other ancient buildings still bear unsightly pockmarks where scavengers in later ages chiseled out the clamps to sell the metal.)

Meanwhile, another group of masons prepared the stones for the temple's columns. These rounded pieces were called drums. Each of the Parthenon's columns consisted of about eleven separate drums, one stacked on top of another, with a Doric capital placed on top of the uppermost drum. To cut a drum to the desired diameter, a mason placed one of the still rough and somewhat irregular stone disks on top of a circular stone pattern already prepared on the ground. Using a mallet and a pointed metal tool, appropriately called a "point," he carefully chipped away pieces of the disk until its diameter matched that of the pattern below it. The diameter of the pattern was about one-and-a-half inches wider than the proposed final column diameter. This was to allow for the carving of the flutes, a step that was postponed until the main body of the temple was completed in order to keep the edges of the delicate vertical grooves from being chipped accidentally during the construction stages.

Like the wall blocks, the column drums were joined by fasteners. In the center of the top and bottom surface of each drum, the masons cut a rectangular notch measuring about four to six inches square and three to four inches deep. Carpenters then inserted wooden plugs into the notches. Next, they used augers (hand-turned drills) or other similar tools to bore holes in the centers of the plugs. Finally they inserted circular wooden pins in a vertical position inside the holes, so that when the drums were stacked the pins kept them accurately centered above one another. As in the case of the clamps in the wall blocks, the fasteners in each drum, were hidden by the drum stacked above it.

Lifting the Stones

Modern engineers estimate that each of the Parthenon's column drums weighed between 5 and 10 tons; the columns capitals averaged about 8 to 9 tons each. That means that a single column weighed between 63 and 119 tons. And since there were 48 outer columns in all, the total weight of the temple's pteron was somewhere between 3,024 and 5,712 tons. Lifting such enormously heavy stones, especially those for the upper sections of the columns, which stood over 30 feet high, was a tremendous challenge. The builders met this challenge by employing simple but effective mechanical hoists.

The most common type of hoist used by the ancient Greeks consisted of a derrick, a wooden framework with ropes and pulleys attached to one of its horizontal beams, which was firmly planted on the ground. One rope led away from the derrick and over a wooden scaffolding beam placed directly above the spot where the builders wanted the stone to sit. They attached the stone to the hoist in one of the several ways. The method most often used was to tie the end of the rope to the top part of a metal S-hook, fasten two shorter ropes to the bottom of the hook, and then loop these around knobs, called bosses, that had been left protruding from the stone for this very purpose. After hoisting the stone and setting it in place, workers used crowbars to adjust its position more accurately. Masons later removed the bosses. Another common method employed a set of metal lifting claws, called the grapple, or tongs, that hung from the end of the main rope. The curved points of the tongs inserted into pre-cut grooves in the stone, tightly gripping it during the listing process.

As the workers used such devices to lift the blocks and drums into place, the Parthenon's walls and columns slowly but steadily began to rise from the flat surface of its foundation. The ambitious project that Pericles had proposed no longer consisted merely of pretty dreams and promises; it was actually becoming a reality, in a sense springing to life before the people's eyes. This made many of them more anxious than ever to see the finished product. Yet it was necessary to temper this initial excitement with patience, for there was still a great deal more to be done before this monument to Athenian greatness was complete. And Phidias, Ictinus, and the others were determined to take their time and do it right. As Plutarch later so aptly put it, "Certainly mere dexterity and speed of execution seldom give a lasting value to a work of art… it is the time laid out in laborious creation which repays us later through the enduring strength it confers."


After they began work on the Parthenon in 447 B.C., the builders kept no systematic record indicating the exact months and years in which they completed its various features. But based on clues in stela inscriptions and modern estimates of the amount of materials, number or worker, and other factors, it is fairly certain that the inner walls and outer colonnade were in place by the end of 443. At this point, the surfaces of the walls and columns remained rough; it was customary to save the task of finishing them until the final building stages, to avoid nicks and scratches caused by dropped tools and other accidents common on construction sites.

In the most likely scenario of the last decade of work on the structure, the builders completed the remainder of the major structural elements between 443 and 438. these elements included the stone blocks, beams, and other parts of the massive entablature and, directly above it, the roof (including interior columns and beams to hold it up). Meanwhile, Phidias and a team of assistants worked on the monumental statue of Athena, completing it by 438 or 437. In 438, work began on the crowning artistic touches - the pediment sculptures and frieze - and with their completion in 432, the temple, the greatest single cultural achievement produced by ancient Greece, was finished at last.

The Lower Entablature and Doric Frieze

The last pieces added to the Parthenon's pteron, probably sometime in 443 B.C., were the Doric capitals at the tops of the columns. Their installation brought the total height of the columns to about thirty-four-and-a-half feet. In keeping with accepted Doric proportions, this was approximately five-and-a-half times the diameter of a single column.

In order to reach the pteron's upper sections, as well as the building's entablature, roof, and many other elevated features, the workers required scaffolding. Usually, such scaffolding was made of sturdy wooden poles lashed together by ropes, forming an elaborate framework. The workers stood on wooden planks laid on various parts of the framework. In the early stages of construction, the framework was only ten or so feet high; but as the building continued to rise, new sections of scaffolding were added, so that eventually the framework encased almost the entire structure.

Once the column capitals were in place, the next features requiring scaffolding to reach were those making up the entablature. By the mid-fifth century B.C., the Doric order had attained its most visually satisfying ratio of entablature height to column height - namely one-third (so conversely, a temple's columns were ideally three times taller than its entablature). The entablature's bottommost component was called the epistyle (or architrave). Functioning as a beam to hold up the building's upper sections, the epistyle was composed of large stone blocks laid horizontally atop the column capitals, with the junction of two such blocks centered above a column. To rig the hoists required to maneuver these blocks into place, it was, of course, necessary to extend the scaffolding well above the completed pteron.

Directly above the epistyle, and roughly equal to it in thickness, rested another key element of the Parthenon's entablature - the Doric frieze, made up of alternating triglyphs and metopes. The architects ordered that the triglyphs, each with its cluster of three vertical bars, be regularly spaced so that one rested directly above each junction of epistyle blocks, which meant that a triglyph was centered above each column. The workers placed another triglyph above the center point of each epistyle block. This spacing allowed for fourteen metopes on each end of the building and thirty-two on each side, for a total of ninety-two metopes.

How does a mere building, especially one in an advanced state of ruin, manage to evoke such feelings of awe? First, the Parthenon is the romantic symbol of a cultural age viewed with great fondness and nostalgia in Western civilization's collective memory. To the generations that have inherited the rich legacy of that age, all of the admirable artistic skills and political and philosophical thought produced by the ancient Greeks seem, in a sense, to have been captured and forever frozen in the building.


Supporting Articles

The above detailed history is merely an introduction to the amazing story of the Parthenon's legacy. You can find several more in-depth articles and accounts here at this web site. All are available in web, print and download format.