Modern Greek History

The Sculpting of the Parthenon

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The Parthenon has stood atop the Acropolis of Athens for 2,500 years as the crowning achievement and legacy of the Golden Age of the ancient city-state of Athens. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron deity of the city of Athens, no expense was spared in making it one of the most amazing temples the ancient Greek world had ever seen. The building is amazing today, so one is only left to wonder what it looked like in its original glory.

One of the greatest treasures it held was the massive statue of Athena Parthenos (Parthenos meaning Athena the Virgin). It is said that the statue was almost 40 feet tall, and featured the goddess holding a statue of Nike [or victory]. In her other hand she held a spear with a shield lying at her feet. Her skin was made of ivory, while her robes, armor and helmet were made of pure gold. The statue unfortunately no longer exists, however there are several replicas of it—some from the 2nd Century BC, and even one in a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville Tennessee from 1990.

The master sculptor Phidias was in charge of all of the structural decoration of the Parthenon, the massive cult statue as well as the decorative sculptures in the pediment [triangular shape on the ends of the building], metopes and the frieze running along the inside of the naos of the temple. The frieze tells a variety of stories; one of them was a representation of the Panathenaic procession. This was a massive procession to the Parthenon during the Panathenaic Games, similar to the Olympic games, but held only in Athens. The frieze also featured the citizens of Athens, particularly the women taking the peplos, or a specially woven robe to be put on a statue of Athena during the games.

The pediments were decorated with larger than life statues of the gods, on one side was the birth of Athena, and on the other was the competition between Athena and Poseidon for the naming of Athens [which Athena won].

Perhaps most controversial has been the status of the Parthenon Frieze today. When the Ottoman Turks were occupying Athens in the 19th Century, the British Ambassador to Constantinople, the Earl of Elgin, obtained permission from the Ottoman Sultan to make drawings and casts of the antiquities on the Acropolis and remove sculptures from them. When all was said and done, Elgin removed more than half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon, pieces from the Propylaea and Erectheion and even one of the famed Caryatids from the Porch of the Maidens on the Erectheion.

As fate would have it, the British Government purchased the Marbles from Elgin, and installed them at the British Museum where they remain today. ‘The Parthenon Marbles’ or (Elgin Marbles as the Brits call them) have become a controversial issue between Greece and England. Once Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Turks, they began campaigning for the Marbles’ return. The argument continues to this day, with Britain claiming they are protecting the marbles from the pollution. However, in 2009 the state-of-the-art New Acropolis Museum opened to the public providing a permanent, and safe home to any and all of the artifacts found on the Parthenon and the Acropolis. And best of all, the museum is quite literally in the shadow of the Parthenon.

With the internationally recognized museum housing the remaining marbles and sculptures, it remains to be seen how this will impact the hopeful reunification of all of the sculptures under one roof, in the city they were made for. If one thing can be certain, whether viewing them in London, or Athens, they are spectacular testaments to the ancient Greeks’ artistic capabilities.

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