More than any other monument, the Parthenon epitomises the glory of Ancient Greece. Meaning ‘virgin’s apartment’, it’s dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the goddess embodying the power and prestige of the city. The largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and the only one built completely of white Pentelic marble (apart from its wooden roof), it took 15 years to complete. It was designed by Iktinos and Kallicrates and completed in time for the Great Panathenaic Festival of 438 BC.
Designed to be the pre-eminent monument of the Acropolis and built on its highest ground, the Parthenon had a dual purpose: to house the great statue of Athena commissioned by Pericles and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least four earlier temples dedicated to Athena.
The temple consisted of eight fluted Doric columns at either end and 17 on each side. To achieve perfect form, its lines were ingeniously curved to create an optical illusion – the foundations are slightly concave and the columns are slightly convex to make both look straight. Supervised by Pheidias, the sculptors Agoracritos and Alcamenes worked on the architectural sculptures of the Parthenon, including the pediments and friezes, which were brightly coloured and gilded.
The metopes (the decorative panels on the frieze) on the eastern side depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants; on the western side they showed Theseus leading the Athenian youths into battle against the Amazons. The southern metopes illustrated the contest of the Lapiths and Centaurs at a marriage feast, while the northern ones depicted the sacking of Troy.
Much of the frieze depicting the Panathenaic Procession was either damaged in the Turkish gunpowder explosion of 1687 or later defaced by the Christians, but the greatest existing part (over 75m long) consists of the controversial Parthenon Marbles, taken by Lord Elgin and now in the British Museum in London. The British government continues to ignore campaigns for their return.
The ceiling of the Parthenon, like that of the Propylaia, was painted blue and gilded with stars. At the eastern end was the holy cella (inner room of a temple), into which only a few privileged initiates could enter. Here stood the statue for which the temple was built: the Athena Polias (Athena of the City), considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Designed by Pheidias and completed in 432 BC, it was gold-plated over an inner wooden frame and stood almost 12m high on its pedestal. The face, hands and feet were made of ivory, and the eyes were fashioned from jewels. Clad in a long gold dress with the head of Medusa carved in ivory on her breast, the goddess held a statuette of Nike (the goddess of victory) in her right hand; in her left, a spear with a serpent at its base. On top of her helmet was a sphinx, with griffins in relief at either side.
In AD 426 the statue was taken to Constantinople, where it disappeared. There’s a Roman copy (the Athena Varvakeion) in the National Archaeological Museum.