Pericles' plan for the Acropolis not only involved abandoning the policy never to rebuild the ruined temples, it also required massive amounts of public money. To supervise the project, Pericles, whose friends included the foremost philosophers, scientists, and writers of his day, engaged an all-star team of sculptors and architects. Their names were Phidias, Mnesikles, Itctinus, and Callicrates. And the last two of them are said even to have written a book about their architectural theory of the Parthenon.
It was around 448 that the expenses began. And like so many public transactions in Athens, the details were carved into marble inscriptions, some of which still survive today in the Center for Ancient Inscriptions called the Epigraphical Museum. Here, we can read the names of individual workmen, their wages, and the jobs they were required to complete. There must have been hundreds of skilled laborers both foreign and local working on this project full time.
The most ambitious work and the first to be undertaken was the Temple of the Virgin goddess Athena, which they called "The Maidens Quarters" in Greek Parthenon. In form, the Parthenon is based on the traditional Greek temple. It has to interior rooms for the goddess and her priests surrounded by a row of massive Doric columns with sculptured panels called metopes separating the marble beams around the top and two more sculptured scenes in the triangular areas underneath the roof peak on each side, which are called pediments.
But the Parthenon is a Greek temple super sized. It's much larger than any other structure built in mainland Greece-- a total of 46 exterior columns with an area of more than 27,000 square feet. Although they kept with tradition, the architects of the Parthenon nonetheless offered some subtle but important refinements. If we look closely at the columns, we can see that they're not straight and not uniform. They taper at the top to avoid a squat appearance that some other Doric temples have. But they also have a very slight bulge in the middle, which creates an effective natural tension, as if the strain of supporting the roof we're pushing them outward.
The foundation base of the temple is not straight either. It too bulges slightly in the center and curves downward toward the ends. The architects seem to have decided that in such a large building adherence to strict geometry would paradoxically have made it appear irregular when viewed from the ground or from the side. To create the appearance of symmetry actually required an optical deception. But since one offset led to another counterbalancing one, carrying out this plan through the whole building must've required an extremely complex sequence of adjustments.
The result is a building that when viewed from a distance has the grace and delicacy of a jewel box. But from up close, it seems as vast as an airplane hangar. The combination of grand scale and fine detail was continued in the sculptures of the Parthenon. In addition to the traditional metopes sculptures, the most of these depicted pairs of figures from mythology and fierce combat and the other traditional element, the pedimental sculptures, which are mostly lost but showed scenes from the career of Athena. Inside the Parthenon contain two absolutely unique sculptural additions.
First of all, all around the building but underneath the roof on the outside wall behind the columns ran a continuous sculptured strip called "a freeze" that showed the people of Athens on their way to a sacrifice and festival-- hundreds of figures, both young and old, mothers and daughters, young men on horseback were driving cattle for the sacrifice. For the first time, a Greek temple portrays not only gods and heroes of myth but the happy and prosperous citizens themselves at worship. A freeze like this was not even usually found in the Doric-style building, and that's for very good reason because scholars have noticed that its beautiful detail must have been almost impossible to notice since it stuck at such a height and such an awkward viewing angle.
Another notable feature of this freeze's history came in 1801 when Athens was under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and Lord Elgin of Great Britain stripped much of it off the temple and had it shipped back to England where it later became one of the treasures of the British Museum. That's why they're called the Elgin Marbles still today. And perhaps no work of ancient art is as controversial.
The first question people ask is why was it added to the temple and for whom to see? The second, among scholars in particular, is what religious procession is pictured? And who are the mysterious figures at the procession's end point? Finally, the political question today-- when is the British Museum going to return these sculptures to Athens? The Elgin marbles could be the subject of a whole course in themselves, and the debate shows no signs of ending soon.
The final sculptural innovation of the Parthenon has completely vanished today. But in the ancient world, it was renowned. Phidias decided to make a colossal statue of Athena in full battle gear, but not of marble, rather with his new technique using ivory to represent the goddess' skin and gold for her clothing and armor. The materials alone made this statue the most valuable piece of art in the ancient world, and Phidias designed it so that the gold could be removed in times of emergency, meltdown, and spent on the city's welfare, and then replaced once the crisis had passed.
We know something from illustrations and descriptions of the statue's appearance. And even though it's not preserved today, we can see it must've been huge and fierce to look at, but it was not religious. The statue of the goddess that is military and that clearly aims to impress us with its size and extravagant expense helps us to understand the true purpose of the whole building of the Parthenon. It's not primarily a place of worship at all.
As we'll see, the true cult of Athena continued in a more modest building close by. The Parthenon was rather a showplace for the wealth and power of Athens, itself. Alongside the gold and ivory of the statue was stored, as we know from inscriptions and lists, the revenues and precious objects sent to Athens by her allies and subjects.
As a result, the interior rooms of the Parthenon were not accessible to the public probably, and they were covered with iron grills and locked. So this grand building, even though it was so visible and so dominated the whole Acropolis, was in some sense the Athenian equivalent of Fort Knox. Even before the Parthenon, the Athenians had possessed great wealth. But until now, had been owned and displayed by individual aristocrats and their families.
What Pericles accomplished in the Parthenon was a display of wealth on behalf of the citizens as a whole-- an achievement of which even the poorest Athenian could feel proud. We'll see that the cornerstone of Pericles new vision for the city was the eclipse of individual ambitions into a group identification as parts of a great common enterprise-- in the arts, in politics, and even in the sphere of religion and cult of the dead.
Before we leave the Parthenon, I want to share with you It's Close connection in one small point with Cornell. In 1895, a Cornell graduate student named Eugene Andrews spending a year studying in Athens became fascinated as many tourists do with the pattern of holes in the east pediment of the Parthenon. Unlike most tourists, he thought he had the answer. He was convinced they were the remains of a much later Roman inscription. And to test his theory, he spent weeks dangling precariously in a dangerous harness over the pediment to trace the holes. To the pleasure of his professors, he actually succeeded in deciphering the inscription, which was placed there in the first century AD to honor a visit to Athens by the Roman emperor Nero. Andrews went on, by the way, to become the first professor of classical archeology at Cornell.
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2500 years ago, the city of Athens experienced a century of brilliant philosophy, drama, politics, and art that still resonates today. Athens was the first democracy, a great military and economic power, and left behind a richly documented history and culture. Professor Jeffrey Rusten leads a tour through the ancient city as reconstructed by archaeologists and historians.
This video is part 3 of 6 in the Ancient Athens series.