The Parthenon and the Acropolis

By: Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr

Suppose a postage stamp were issued to commemorate the birthplace of democracy and western culture. What picture would be chosen for it? Very likely it would be a view of the Acropolis, the hill where the graceful, white Parthenon rises against the blue sky of Greece. This temple dates to the fifth century B.C., and even today, with the smog of modern Athens around it, the Parthenon radiates purity and perfection -- qualities that define the Greek classical age.

Ancient Greece Image Gallery

The Parthenon embodies the principles that raised Greek architecture to perfection -- harmony, proportion, elegance, grace. See more pictures of ancient Greece.

Made up of limestone and red schist, the Acropolis and its slopes were inhabited as many as 5,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age. In Mycenaean times the Acropolis was built up with fortifications, a palace, and temples. Eventually the 300-foot-high rock became the hub of the ascendant city-state of Athens.

The sanctuaries of the Acropolis were demolished when the Persians sacked Athens, but a few years later Pericles undertook a vast public works program, with the Parthenon as his first major project. He intended the Parthenon to be an awe-inspiring landmark, and it would soon be renowned all over the ancient world. For its construction, Pericles hired the sculptor Phidias, who supervised a team of architects and artists that started work in 447 B.C.

The resulting temple honored the virgin goddess Athena, and in the dim light of her cult chamber stood a wooden-frame statue at least 35 feet tall, adorned with ivory and gold plate. The figure was draped with bracelets, charms, and other decorations, her eyes were precious gems, and on her breast was an ivory gorgon's head. Athena's priestesses were given a special room in the temple; in fact, the word Parthenon means "virgin's chamber."

If the goddess Athena represented virgin purity, so too did her white marble temple radiate a perfection never before achieved in human works. The Parthenon was designed by architects Ictinus and Callicrates according to the dictates of the Doric order -- familiar to college students everywhere as employing fluted columns with a round molding and a thick square slab at the top.

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Within this style, the Parthenon attains a harmony that nearly surpasses understanding. The structure's pleasing proportions derive from the ratio 9:4, a mathematical ideal that informs the relationships of length to width, width to height, and the space between columns as compared to their diameters.

All the apparently straight lines of the Parthenon are, in truth, slightly curved -- but the architects knew these lines would give the impression of being correctly linear. To compensate for the eye's tendency to see a column as thinner in the middle, the designers bowed each column. The columns were also slanted inward slightly. In a final refinement, the columns at the temple's corners were made thicker, since they catch more sunlight than other columns and so would appear thinner unless the architects compensated.

Plutarch said of the temple project: "The monuments were imposing in their unrivaled grandeur, beauty, and grace; the artists vied with one another in the technical perfection of their work, but the most admirable thing was the speed of execution." Building the Parthenon took only nine years, a remarkable achievement.

Considered even more sacred than the Parthenon, the nearby Erechtheion was the last of Pericles' great projects on the Acropolis, and it reconciled the worship of Athena with that of the city's early patron, Poseidon-Erectheus.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon struck the ground here with his trident and created a saltwater spring, whereas Athena caused an olive tree to spring up from a rock. A serpent-king appointed by Zeus as judge determined that Athena had made the earlier claim, and that in any case olives were more valuable than salt water. Thus, Poseidon had to go halves on the shrine, accepting the role of Athena.

Parthenon Image Gallery

erechtheion statues
All the female statues that serve as columns in the porch of the Erechtheion are replicas. Five of the originals were removed for display in the Acropolis Museum to protect them from the air pollution of Athens; the sixth was looted by Elgin. See more pictures of the Parthenon.

Built about 420 B.C., the Erechtheion is an Ionic temple divided into two sections -- one for Athena, one for Poseidon -- beautified with garland, palm, and lotus ornamentations. The most celebrated element, though, is the Porch of the Caryatids, in which columns were replaced by statues of maidens in tunics.

Another building, the Propylaea, served as the formal entrance to the Acropolis. The architect Mnesicles ingeniously designed it with commanding stone columns on the outside to impress and inspire people as they arrived at the hill. Visitors today can still see a bit of the original coffered ceiling, which was painted and gilded.

The Parthenon itself was also originally painted, almost gaudily, in red, blue, and gold. What a postage stamp picture that would make!

Here are links to dozens of other world-famous landmarks:

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    Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.