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date: 23 April 2024



  • Richard Allan Tomlinson


  • Greek Material Culture
  • Greek Myth and Religion

The Parthenon was the temple of Athena built on the highest part of the Acropolis at Athens south of the Archaic temple. The name is properly that of the west room, but is generally extended to the entire building. The title Parthenos (virgin) is descriptive; her status is Polias, protector of the city. It was begun in 447 bce in the time of Pericles (1); the temple and cult statue were dedicated in 438, but work continued, notably on the pedimental sculptures, until 432. A temple had been begun on the site after Marathon (490) (see marathon, battle of) (possibly to replace an earlier structure), but work was abandoned on the approach of the second Persian War (480–79). What had been built was destroyed by the Persians when they captured the city.

The Periclean building adapts the foundations and platform of this earlier structure, and, possibly, some of the marble elements prepared for it. It was built to house the gold and ivory statue by Phidias, who must have been responsible for at least the design of its sculptural decoration; it is unlikely that he also directed the architectural design, which was determined more by the existing foundations than the statue it was to house.

The architect was Ictinus together with Callicrates (1). In the Parthenon the Doric order is seen at its most perfect in proportions and in refined details, though there are some unusual features. The material is fine marble readily available from the quarries of Pentelicon a few miles north-east of Athens and generally used in the important Athenian buildings of the Periclean period. The temple measures about 69.5×30.8 m. (228×101 ft.) on the top step. It has eight columns at the ends, and seventeen on the sides. The inner structure has a porch of six columns at each end. The larger eastern room had a two-tiered inner colonnade running not only along the sides but round the western end, behind the great cult statue; recent study has shown that there were windows high to the sides of the east door. The smaller western room opened off the back porch, and had its roof supported by four Ionic columns; it served as a ‘treasury’.

The sculpture was more elaborate, more unified in theme, and more relevant to the cult than in most temples. It was also more extensive: every metope is carved, while the porch colonnades have instead a continuous frieze, extended abnormally the entire length of the cella outer walls. The metopes must have been made first, and then the frieze. The pediments were the latest addition. They showed, in the east, Athena newly sprung from the head of Zeus, and in the west, the contest of Poseidon and Athena for the land of Attica. The metopes, in high relief, showed mythical combats, on the south side, best preserved, Lapiths and Centaurs, on the east, Gods and Giants, on the west, Greeks and Amazons, on the north—less certainly, since this side is very badly preserved—Trojan scenes (see homer; troy). Some of these themes were echoed in the minor decoration of the cult statue. The frieze, in low relief, comprises a Panathenaic procession (see panathenaea). It has been suggested this depicts or honours the young Athenian citizens who died at the battle of Marathon. A general allusion on these lines is certain. The whole temple, like its predecessor, is best interpreted as a thank-offering (after a false start) for the final, successful outcome of the wars with Persia, and it is clear that the reliefs allude to this, to the glorification of the Greek, and specifically Athenian, contribution to the victory.

The temple was subsequently converted into a church, dedicated to the Virgin, and then a mosque. It remained almost intact, though reroofed, until 1687, when a Turkish powder-magazine in it was exploded by the besieging Venetians. Earlier reconstruction work has been dismantled, and a thorough programme of conservation is being carried out, which has led to the identification of many of the fallen fragments. See also nationalism.


  • G. P. Stevens, The Setting of the Periclean Parthenon, Hesperia Suppl. 3 (1940).
  • W. B. Dinsmoor, Architecture of Ancient Greece, 2nd edn. (1950), 149 f., 159 ff., 358 bibliog.
  • C. J. Herrington, Athena Parthenos and Athena Polias (1955), for the cults.
  • F. Brommer, Die Skulpturen der Parthenon-Giebel (1963).
  • F. Brommer, Die Metopen des Parthenon (1967).
  • F. Brommer, Der Parthenon Fries (1977).
  • A. K. OrlandosHe Architektonike tou Parthenonos (1977).
  • J. Boardman in Festschrift für Frank Brommer (1977).
  • R. Osborne, Journal of Hellenic Studies 1987, 98 ff.
  • M. Korres, Die Explosion des Parthenon (1990).
  • E. Berger (ed.), Parthenon-Kongress (1984).
  • M. Beard, The Parthenon (2002).
  • I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (1994).
  • M. Korres, From Pentelicon to Parthenon (1995).
  • J. Niels (ed.), The Parthenon (2005) (with full bibliog.).