Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, The Collection Online.

The Parthenon, Athena, and the Ideal Greek

Allison Lee

The Ancient Greek temple known as the Parthenon has long since been considered a great illustration of the ideal, Classical architectural construction. This could simply be attributed to the fact that during the Classical period of Greek art, symmetry and balance were essential, which can easily be seen in the structure of this temple. Most likely, however, there is a more complex, multi-faceted reasoning behind the nature of the Parthenon becoming a part of the ideal form. Therefore, if one wants to better understand why this architectural structure is given such a title, one must understand just how important power and status, in conjunction with art, were in Greek culture. Greek society was quite focused on what it meant to be Greek, as well as being heavily considered a man’s world. This can be seen in a quote by Socrates wherein he says that one is very lucky if they are born human, not a beast, a man, not a woman, and a Greek, not a barbarian. That said, it should not seem surprising that one’s “self” was defined by where one stood in the hierarchical system within Greek society. In addition to this, the gods were central to Greek culture. Generally in art, the gods were shown in temples and cult-like areas to be used for sacrifices and religious reasons, such as Athena at the Parthenon. In terms of style, they were depicted as perfect, highly dominant forms, which set the stage for the average Greek citizen. There was a constant pursuit of that god-like appearance because they considered perfection to be the ideal form, as well as one being an integral member of society. All of that said, one can certainly see that desire to achieve perfection in Greek art and architecture, such as with the Parthenon. The Parthenon embodied that highly sought-after ideal representation of perfection and power, due in part to its classical style and functionality, as well as through statuettes such as Athena with her owl, which stood as a physical testament to Greek power and form.

 

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The Parthenon is located in Athens, Greece, at the Acropolis of Athens. In short, an acropolis is a settlement built upon an elevated ground, generally on a hillside, for defense purposes as well as for status. Therefore, because the Parthenon was to be dedicated to the goddess Athena, it is not surprising that is located in such a position. Construction of the Parthenon began around 447 B.C.E. and was envisioned to be the centerpiece of this acropolis complex. A generation prior, the Athenians – as part of an alliance the Greek city-states formed – had led victories against Persian invaders during the Greco-Persian wars. This alliance led to a de facto empire under Athenian rule, where in numerous cities across the Aegean paid Athens huge sums of what amounted to protection money, of sorts. Basking in this new glory, the Athenians planned this new temple complex to be of an unprecedented scale (Hadingham Smithsonian). Despite its size, it only took around fifteen years to fully complete the Parthenon.

Just to get an idea of its size and scale at the time of completion, it seems necessary to address some of the technicalities of this construction. The Parthenon is a Doric peripteral temple, which essentially means that it is a rectangular floor plan with a series of steps on every side, and a colonnade of Doric order columns extending around the perimeter of the structure (Silverman Paragraph 3). The colonnade consists of eight columns at the façade and seventeen columns at the flanks (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 3). The architects that have been accredited to constructing this temple were Iktinos and Kallikrates, and as previously stated, it was dedicated to the goddess Athena. The Parthenon’s main function was to house and shelter the monumental figure of Athena that was constructed by Pheidias, and made of gold and ivory (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 1). This statue would be kept in the cella, the innermost room of the temple. Because of both the room and the statue’s unusually large scales, the front and back porches of the temple were smaller and more confined that previous temples. Therefore, a line of six columns supported the porches, and a colonnade of twenty-three columns encompassed Athena’s statue in a two-storied arrangement. Again, this was an unusual arrangement for a Doric temple, which normally only had columns surrounding the flanks, but this new design allowed for a more dramatic backdrop of columns instead of a wall (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 4). In concurrence with this dramatic atmosphere, the functionality of multiple rows of columns created an almost supernatural effect. The alternating rows would immerse the viewer in continual transition between darkness and light as they walked, creating the illusion that the columns formed a solid wall at times, then shifted to open space again. What is also important to note about temples such as the Parthenon is that common people were only allowed to see the exterior porticos and porches. The inner chambers where the statues were housed were for specific members of society. Therefore, because the exterior was seen by all members of society, there was a great amount of precedence placed on idealized forms and shapes.

What seems important to note in relation to the Parthenon and Athenian culture would be the prominent statesman, orator, and general of Athens at the time, Pericles. His influence on Athenian society was so great that a contemporary, Thucydides, named him “the first citizen of Athens” (Mark Paragraph 2). Pericles helped to form the Athenian empire and lead his countrymen during the first two years of the Peloponnesian Wars. He promoted the arts, literature, and philosophy, and as a result of this, saw the building of the acropolis and the Parthenon (Mark Paragraph 3). All of that stated, the last speech Pericles ever made in front of the Athenians seemed a noteworthy one to mention. While the citizens were in a trying time of war, Pericles’ words echoed that life-long desire for power and perfection, such as when he says, “My own opinion is that when the whole State is on the right course it is a better thing for each separate individual than when private interests are satisfied but the State as a whole is going downhill” (Adams, CSUN). Until his last days, Pericles was a strong advocate of unity among the city-states, or the polis, as it was known, which was essential to Classical Greek society.

However, what is generally regarded as one of the more remarkable sculptural features of the entire temple would be the Ionic frieze. Spanning some 525 feet, this frieze is a continuous relief that represents one of the most important and central events in Athenian social and religious life: the Panathenaic Procession (oneonta.edu Paragraph 16). The Panathenaic Festival, or “All Athens Festival” was celebrated annually, as a celebration for the mythical birth of Athena. While this festival occurred each year, every four years saw a grander celebration of which is depicted on the frieze. The Panathenaic Procession began outside the walls of the city and wound wind its way through the city, passing numerous civic spots, finally mounting the acropolis (oneonta.edu Paragraph 17). Due to the massive size of the frieze, it represents a variety of phases of the popular procession. It begins in the southwest corner where riders are depicted mounting their horses, ready to participate in the procession, and gradually moves along to the east end of the temple where it culminates with an image of a young woman offering cloth to a priest (oneonta.edu Paragraph 17 and 18). When one looks closely at the figures featured in the frieze, it becomes apparent that no two look identical. Yet, they also lack a sense of any individual identity. For example, one might observe numerous young, beardless males as opposed to older, bearded ones, and even fewer females. Therefore, it seems apparent that the artist was utilizing types rather than focusing on specific individuality (oneonta.edu Paragraph 18). This, however, fits in well with Greek logic at the time, when they felt that perfection and god-like imagery was something to aspire to so as to become a more integral part of society. All of that said, the procession is meant to be a representation of all Athenian citizens, not particular ones (oneonta.edu Paragraph 22). As Evan Hadingham says in his article for the Smithsonian’s website, “By incorporating this scene of civic celebration, the scholars suggest, the Parthenon served not merely as an imperial propaganda statement but also as an expression of Athens’ burgeoning democracy – the will of the citizens who had voted to fund this exceptional monument” (Hadingham Smithsonian). The Parthenon, as well as the frieze, were physical symbols of perfection and the ideal for the Greeks at the time, proving that when one achieved true perfection, they would attain power and status.

With all of this in mind, what seems most important to point out is how the Parthenon is viewed as an archetypal form of Classical architecture. The Parthenon is a post and lintel temple, which is a system in which two upright members, the posts, support a third member, the lintel, which is laid horizontally across the posts (Encyclopedia Britannica Paragraph 1). Therefore, it presents no engineering breakthrough, at least in terms of building construction. Instead, it is the temple’s stylistic conventions that have become the paradigm of architecture for many centuries (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 9). Its aesthetic appeal does not come from its size, but from the refinement of established norms of Greek architecture as well as the quality of the sculptural elements. As it is stated on ancient-greece.org’s article, “The Parthenon epitomizes all the ideals of Greek thought during the apogee of the Classical era through artistic means. The idealism of the Greek way of living, the attention to detail, as well as the understanding of a mathematically explained harmony in the natural world, were concepts that in every Athenian’s eyes set them apart from the barbarians. These ideals are represented in the perfect proportions of the building, in its intricate architectural elements, and in the anthropomorphic statues that adorned it” (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 10). This excerpt basically says that those ideals that Greeks focused on so heavily – perfection, the state, civic duties – are neatly and adequately expressed in the Parthenon’s stylistic elements, such as the symmetrical colonnades, or the fact that the Panathenaic frieze features everyday citizens of Greece. This was a revolutionary decision by the architects and artists to include common people in a monumental piece of architecture such as the Parthenon, and was most likely due to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city was recognized as an integral member and moving force in the polis, as well as the observable universe (ancient-greece.org Paragraph 18).

Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, The Collection Online.   Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright and Proprietary Rights. The text, images, trademarks, data, audio files, video files and clips, software, documentation or other information contained in these files, and other content on the Websites (collectively, the “Materials”) are proprietary to the Museum or its licensors. The Museum retains all rights, including copyright, in the Materials. Copyright and other proprietary rights may be held by individuals or entities other than, or in addition to, the Museum.
Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, The Collection Online.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright and Proprietary Rights. The text, images, trademarks, data, audio files, video files and clips, software, documentation or other information contained in these files, and other content on the Websites (collectively, the “Materials”) are proprietary to the Museum or its licensors. The Museum retains all rights, including copyright, in the Materials. Copyright and other proprietary rights may be held by individuals or entities other than, or in addition to, the Museum.

In terms of physically embodying Greece’s striving for perfection, one can look to statues such as this one of Athena. She was known as the virgin goddess of wisdom, intelligent activity, arts, and literature. What made her unusual even for gods was that she was speculated to have been born without a mother, but instead sprang from her father Zeus’ head, fully grown and clad in armor. Possible due to this story, she was always depicted as fierce and brave in battle, something of which would have greatly appealed to Greek citizens. Further relating to that logic, she only took part in wars that defended the state from outside forces, allowing for celebration of that ever-strengthening polis within in Greek culture. She was the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity, as well as the patron of the city, handicraft, and agriculture (greekmythology.com Paragraph 1 and 2). That last fact is important to this depiction of Athena because an owl rests on her arm. It was said that her holy tree was the olive tree, and she was often symbolized as an owl (greekmythology.com Paragraph 2). In this statuette, she is depicted in an armored helmet and holding an owl, which was the emblem of her wisdom. While it is not certain, because she lacks armor anywhere else, this statuette could have been created during a time of peace for Athens. Regardless, this statuette symbols that desire for power and perfection that all Greeks were engrained to strive for all of their lives. Athena was known for her strength and bravery, so it should not come as a surprise that Athens, at the time of wartime victory, would choose to dedicate a prodigious temple to one such as her.

The Parthenon embodied that highly sought-after ideal representation of perfection and power, due in part to its classical style and functionality, as well as through statuettes such as Athena with her owl, which stood as a physical testament to Greek power and form. The Parthenon has long since been considered a prime example of that ideal, Classical architecture that one identifies with Greek society. That said, as stated in the beginning of this essay, it would appear that there is a specific reasoning and logic behind the nature of the Parthenon, from its construction, to its locale choice, and particularly to its deity choice. After completing this essay, it should seem quite clear that numerous outside forces did in fact contribute to the forming of such a complex architectural structure. As it is so adequately said on the academic.reed page, “When work began on the Parthenon in 447 BC, the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power; the Parthenon, then, represents the tangible and visible efflorescence of Athenian imperial power, unencumbered by the depredation of the Peloponnesian War. Likewise, it symbolizes the power and influence of the Athenian politician, Pericles, who championed its construction” (academic.reed.edu Paragraph 1). Essentially, that passage states that the Athenians had achieved imperial power and success from the lengthy battles, and because of that, they chose to dedicate monuments in honor of their successes. Power and perfection – the ideal form – were absolutely essential to Greek culture, particularly during the Classical period, and the Parthenon certainly encompasses that. However, the fact that it was dedicated to the goddess Athena further hammers that notion home. While the original monument of Athena may no longer exist after centuries of degradation and destruction to the area, one can still get a glimpse of her importance through other statues of her within Greece. She, much like the Parthenon, symbolized power and perfect form, something of which all Greeks were expected to embody.

 

Allison Lee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Adams, John Paul. “Pericles: Last Speech (Thucydides Book II, 59-64).” Csun.edu. April 23, 2011. Accessed April 13, 2015. http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/thuc-sp.html.

Mark, Joshua J. “Pericles,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 02, 2009. http://www.ancient.eu/Pericles/.

“The Parthenon.” Ancient-greece.org. Accessed April 13, 2015. http://ancient-greece.org/architecture/parthenon.html.

“The Parthenon.” Academic.reed.edu. Accessed April 13, 2015. http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110Tech/Parthenon.html.

Hadingham, Evan. “Unlocking Mysteries of the Parthenon.” Smithsonian.com. February 1, 2008. Accessed April 13, 2015. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/unlocking-mysteries-of-the-parthenon-16621015/?no-ist.

“The Parthenon: Religion, Art, and Politics.” Oneonta.edu. Accessed April 13, 2015. https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/parthenon.html.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “post-and-lintel system”, accessed April 15, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/472032/post-and-lintel-system.

“The Parthenon.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/10482?rpp=30&pg=1&ao=on&ft=parthenon&pos=1

“Bronze statuette of Athena flying her owl.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed April 12, 2015. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/254648?rpp=30&pg=1&ft=athena&pos=4

Greek Mythology.com. “Athena.” Accessed April 16, 2015. http://www.greekmythology.com/Olympians/Athena/athena.html