Pausanias Project
   Athens - Parthenon
Parthenon. In 450 B.C. the Athenian politician Pericles proposed to the assembly to rebuild the temples and other monuments on the Acropolis which had been destroyed by the Persians 30 years earlier. Pericles wanted to make Athens the “cultural capital” of the whole Greek world. He started this enormous project by rebuilding the temple for the city’s protectress Athena Parthenos. When the assembly supported his plan, he hired the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates to draw the plans for the temple, and his friend Pheidias to have the overall supervision and to make the great gold-with-ivory statue which was te live inside the temple. In 447/446 work on the temple started. After 10 years the main work had been completed and in 433/32 the decorative project was also finished. Probably most of Athens its population had been working in some capacity on the project, either for hire or for free. The Parthenon thus quickly became a monument to the liberty the Athenians enjoyed under their democracy, an enthousiastic populace, a period of great wealth and the finest artists Greece had known to that time.
The sculptures of the eastern timpanon depict the birth of Athena. The most important figures are Zeus in the middle, Athena (to the left of Zeus), who is being born from his head, and Hephaistos who split Zeus’s head to get Athena out. The other figures are the other Olympian gods looking in wonder towards the scene in the middle, like Artemis (G) and Aphrodite.
The western timpanon depicts the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the guardianship of the newly founded city of Athens. To the left you may see the supporters of Athena, with from right to left Athena herself (L), Hermes (H) and Nikè (G). Behind Nikè sits Athens’ mythical king Kekrops (B), with his three daughters (C, D, F) and his son (E). To the right stand the supporters of Poseidon.  Next to Poseidon (M) stand from left to right Iris (N), his chariotdriver and Amphitrite (O). In the centre is probably the olivetree as a sign that Athena won the contest; possibly the centre is occupied by a lightning flash, as a warning to Poseidon who had threatened to flood the city.
The statue of Athena in the Parthenon had been made by the famous sculptor Pheidias around 432 B.C. It had a colossal size, only just fitting under the roof. Its exact size is unknown, however, as it has been lost. The statue shows the goddess Athena, armed and standing. It was made of gold and ivory. Athena’s helmet carried a sfinx in the centre flanked by griffins. On her outstretched hand she held a 1.5 m. high statue of Nikè, a spear leaning against her other elbow. With her other hand she supported a shield. Here was also a large snake, probably the mythical king Erichtheus. On the basis of the statue was depicted the “birth” of Pandora, the first woman made by all the gods together. She carries the aegis, a mantle of goatskin with snakes along the rim as tassels and the head of Medusa in the centre. The best copy of this statue is that in the NAM in Athens, which constitutes with the description by Pausanias and a few lesser copies our main source on the statue’s appearance. A fine reconstruction of the statue of Athena is to be seen in Nashville USA, where a lifesize replica of the Parthenon was built, as well as a lifesize replica of the statue. For the reconstruction of the scenes on the shield of Athena (mentioned by Pausanias) other replica’s have been used, for instance the one in Patras. It shows the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons.

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Dionysos, god of wine and intoxication (D). As such he was drunk by profession and failed to witness the wonder of the birth of Athena. Instead, he watches the rising of the sun, brought in a chariot to the Olympus (and earth).


The Panathenaeic procession and the great frieze: All around the cella runs a continuous Ionic frieze of some 160 m. long and 1 m. high. This feature, a Doric temple wearing in addition to the Doric frieze of metopes and triglyphs as Ionic frieze, was also used by the same architect Iktinos in the temple of Bassae. The great frieze shows in bas-relief the Panathenaeic procession, an old yearly festival in honour of the goddess Athena. The procession, which started at Eleusis, wound through the city along the Holy Way and ended on the Acropolis itself, where the old statue of the goddess was presented with a new dress, the making of which (by specially selected aristocratic maidens) had taken a whole year. Unfortunately, almost the whole frieze was robbed by Lord Elgin, and the frieze still rests in London in the British Museum, instead of in Athens.

The (much damaged) goddesses K, L, M  are reconstructed here with their original coloration, based on the remains of paint on 6th century statues. Picture from “Stad in de Oudheid, P. Conolly and H. Dodge, Keulen 1998.” Originally the whole timpanon was painted, as were the metopes and the great frieze.

The composition of the great frieze is shown by the scheme to the right: starting at the back of the temple, where riders are seen preparing themselves for the procession, we see from the back to the front first riders, then chariots, elders, musicians, people carrying sacrifices, and the victims, ending in front of the temple with the most important scene.  First we see several girls or women (who made the peplos), the city’s magistrates, the eponymous heroes of the 10 tribes of Athens, the gods of the Olympus and in the centre the offering of the peplos itself. In the procession, a symbol for the deference of the Athenians for the gods, all constituent members of the populace were represented, although (naturally) the elite is seen to be most important: all riders and chariot drivers were members of the highest classes of society.


A fantastic 3D reconstruction of the gods on Mount Olympus may be found in the British Museum, which unfortunately also houses most of the statues, frieze and the metopes.

The metopes: at first sight the temple seems a fine example of the Doric order, having both Doric columns and a regular alternation of triglyphs and metopes, the so-called Doric frieze. The 92 metopes measured about 1.2 m. (height) x 1.25 m. (width). They depict a.o. the mythical fight between the Lapiths (a northern Greek tribe) and Centaurs, with a central role for the Athenian king Theseus. At the front you may see the mythical battle of the gods against the titans (with an important role for the goddess Athena), at the western side you have the battle between the Greeks and Amazons (again with Theseus) and at the back scenes from the Trojan war. As a whole the metopes depict the fight between the Greeks (order, virtue) against the barbarians (disorder, dishonesty), a symbol for the Persians.  Usually only two figures are depicted, sometimes more. The metopes were depicted in high relief, and the figures almost seem to stand out from the background.