The Parthenon at Acropolis is a temple of Athena the Virgin (Athena Parthenos), built between 447 and 338 (the figures in the pediments being completed in 432). It is the masterpiece of the architect Iktinos and the great sculptor Phidias, who was entrusted by Pericles with the general direction of the building operations on the Acropolis. The new Parthenon they built, however, was based on an earlier building on the same site.
On the basis of research by Hill, Dinsmoor and Carpenter the history of the building of the Parthenon can be summarized as follows: 490 B.C. (or soon afterwards): The foundations of the first Parthenon, consisting of 22 courses of masonry standing up to 10.75m/35ft high, were constructed, with 6 columns at the ends and 16 along the sides. At the time of the Persian attack in 480 it was still unfinished. The column drums were damaged in the burning of the Acropolis and were built into the Themistoclean north wall. 468 B.C. Kimon continued the construction of the temple, the "Pre-Parthenon", the architect being Kallikrates. On Kimon's death (450 B.C.) work was suspended.
447 B.C.: Under Pericles, the new leader of Athens, the erection of the Parthenon proper began. Kallikrates was replaced by Iktinos, who used the building materials already available. The foundations were now adjusted to the new and wider ground plan. (On the south side of the Parthenon can be seen the older foundations, projecting farther at the east end; the widening can also be observed in the northern part of the foundations at the west end.) The substructure (crepidoma) of the new temple consisted of three steps each 52cm/20in high. There were now eight columns at the ends and 17 along the sides, compared with the previous six and 16. The Doric columns are 10.43m/34ft high, with a diameter of 1.90m/6ft 3in at the foot and 1.48m/4ft 10in at the top, and have 20 flutings.
Note the entasis (swelling) of the columns and the curvature of the crepidoma, rising towards the middle (best seen on the top step, the stylobate). These optical refinements, like the slight inward inclination of the columns, with the corner columns leaning diagonally inward, were designed to relieve the rigidity and solidity of the building and create an effect of organic structure. The roof was covered with marble tiles.
The lions' heads at the eaves were solid and cannot therefore have been designed as water-spouts, in accordance with the usual practice; there were run-offs for rainwater at the four corners of the roof.
The holes on the architrave of the east end mark the position of the pegs on which were hung the shields captured by Alexander the Great in the battle of the Granikos (334 B.C.) and dedicated by him to Athena.
The interior of the Parthenon - now closed to visitors - is in two parts. At the west end is a rear chamber (opisthodomos), with traces of painting dating from the use of the Parthenon as a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin, leading into the temple proper, the roof of which was borne on four Ionic columns. This probably served as the state treasury.
At the east end is the pronaos, giving access to the chamber which contained the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena, a cult image known to us only from the descriptions and later copies. It was supported by a massive post, the hole for which can be seen in the floor of the cella. The statue, completed in 438 B.C., was one of Phidias' most renowned works, ranking with the figure of Athena Promachos on the Acropolis and that of Zeus in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. It stood 12m/39ft high, and the gold used in the dress and ornaments is said to have weighed about a ton; the gold was detachable, and could thus be removed to check the weight. The face and hands were of ivory. Like the Athena Promachos, the statue was carried off to Constantinople and was destroyed there in 1203. Marks on the floor indicate that there was a two-story colonnade on both sides and to the rear of the statue. Iktinos thus achieved a wholly new conception of the interior of a temple, which was no longer merely designed as a chamber to house the cult image.
It has been supposed that the widening of the ground plan of the temple from six to eight columns was made necessary by this new conception, so that here, for the first time in a Greek temple, the interior chamber with the cult statue determined the whole plan of the structure.
No less celebrated than the cult statue was the sculpture on the exterior of the Parthenon - the two pediments, the Doric metopes and the lonic frieze around the upper part of the cella wall. It is characteristic of the Parthenon that an Ionic feature of this kind was used in a Doric temple, reflecting a firm intention to link the two orders together: Periclean Athens was to be the point of crystallisation of Doric as well as Ionic Hellenism. Some of the sculpture is still in situ, and there is some in the Acropolis Museum. There is also some in the Louvre in Paris, but most of it is in the British Museum, having been transported to London by Lord Elgin in 1801.
The pediments, completed in 432 B.C., depict the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus (east end) and the conflict between Athena and Poseidon for the land of Attica (west end). The east pediment now contains copies of Dionysos (on left) and the heads of the sun god's horses and the moon goddess (at both corners). The west pediment has the figure of king Kekrops with one of his daughters (original).
The 92 metopes of the Doric frieze depicted a fight with giants (east), a fight with centaurs (south the best preserved), a fight with Persians or with Amazons (west) and the Trojan War (north).
The Ionic frieze on the outer wall of the cella, 1.05m/3ft 5in high and 160m/525ft long, is not devoted to mythical or historical subjects like the pediments and metopes but reflects the life of Athens in the Classical period. It depicts the Panathenaic festival, held every four years, when a great procession made its way from the Gymnasion at the Dipylon, by way of the Agora, to the Acropolis. The procession begins at the southwest corner, runs to the left along the west end, where the slabs bearing the reliefs are still in situ (with a recently erected protective roof), and then continues along the north side to the east end, where it meets the other half of the procession running along the south side. The object of the procession was to present a new peplos to the goddess Athena, who was depicted on the east end.
The frieze is a masterly representation of the people of Athens playing their part in this great national religious occasion, with men, women, riders, sacrificial animals and officials, subtly organized in rhythmic groups, all moving towards their goal at a stately pace or in rapid advance.
The Parthenon suffered considerable damage when in the fifth century, after serving as a temple for some 900 years, it was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin. Among the changes then made was the construction of an apse, involving the destruction of the central group on the east pediment. The disfigurement of many of the metopes, on the basis of their "pagan" character, is no doubt also to be dated to the Christian period.
The Parthenon remained in use as a church for some 950 years before becoming a Turkish mosque in 1456. The only changes made by the Turks were the removal of the Christian additions and the construction of a minaret at the southwest corner - 231 years later a Venetian grenade blew up the powder magazine which the Turks had installed in the Parthenon, and the building which had stood for more than 2,100 years was destroyed. A small mosque was later built in the ruins. In the 19th century this was removed, as were all the other Turkish and Crusader structures on the Acropolis, leaving the Parthenon a ruin but a purely Greek one.