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History of the Parthenons

The construction of the Parthenon was a key political issue not only for Athens, but for all Greece. Among others, Thucydides deals extensively with this issue in explaining the causes of the Peloponnesian War, the catastrophe that brought Greek classical civilization to a tragic end. The beginning of the construction in 447 B.C. is related to a decisive turning point in Greek politicis: In 448 B.C. occurred the death of Cimon, the leader of the oligarchic party in Athens, which stood for an understanding with Sparta and for a sacred union of all the Greeks in a national war against Persia. Cimon’s death gave a chance to Pericles, the leader of the democratic party, to proceed to a total reversal of Athenian policy. Pericles’ aim was to transform the Delian league, which had been created for the purpose of opposing Persian expansion, into an instrument of Athenian imperialism. The key point of this imperialistic policy was to force the other Greek cities to pay tribute to Athens. Money had been originally collected by Athens on the ground of providing for the transport of the Athenian fleet which defended all the Greeks against Persia. However, by developing the Athenian fleet, the policy of Cimon built the power of the democratic party. According to Greek political conceptions and practices, only those who served their country militarily had the right to participate in political decisions. The lower classes could not serve in the land army, which was open to those able to provide their own armor and, even more important, those who had received the gymnastic education that only the relatively well-to-do could afford. The poor an uneducated could serve as oarsmen in the fleet and receive pay for it. Hence, the development of the fleet permitted the formation of a democratic party whose program was political power and state subsidies for the poor and uneducated. The policy of Pericles aimed at collecting tribute from other Greek cities for the purpose of establishing various forms of financial subsidies for the poor and the democrats. This was the reason why democracy and imperialism came to be identified.

In the pursuit of this policy Pericles, immediately after the death of his political opponent, Cimon, signed a peace treaty with Persia (448 B.C.). This peace treaty should have meant the dissolution of the Delian League, created by Cimon, and the end of the collection of money by Athens. Pericles, instead, used the old slogans of the patriotic war against Persia to justify the continuation of the Delian League as a naked instrument of Athenian exploitation. An appeal was launched to all Greek cities for the convocation of a Panhellenic Congress which should discuss the restoration of the temples destroyed by the Persians in their invasion of the Greek mainland in 480-479 B.C. and the repayment of the votive offerings due to the gods for their assistance in the successful repulsion of the Persians on that occasion. The appeal for the Panhellenic Congress fell on deaf ears, but Pericles proceeded to enforce the policy which he would have liked to see sanctioned by the Congress. The construction of the Parthenon was started as a symbol of the right of Athens to collect tribute from other Greek cities. The historian J. B. Bury, who was a follower and friend of John Stuart Mill, understood quite well the working of Athenian democracy, and explained the matter in these terms:

We shall miss the meaning of the architectural monuments which now began to rise under the direction and influence of Pericles, if we do not clearly grasp their historical motive, and recognize their immediate connexion with the Persian war. It devolved upon the city, as a religious duty, to make good the injuries which the barbarians had inflicted upon the habitation of her gods, and fully pay her debt of gratitude to heaven for the defeat of the Mede.

It is in the light of these historical facts that one must consider the archaeological remains. The Temple of Athena that had been desecrated and destroyed by the Persians was not rebuilt; instead, there was initiated the construction next to it of a temple intended to replace it. Since the Parthenon was intended to be a replacement for the Old Temple, it had to reproduce its main features. But, since the Goddess Athena was entitled not only to a new home, but also to thanks for the deliverance from the Persians, the new temple had to be larger. Hence, the question of the dimensions became important. The main and original body of the Old Temple had a width of 50 trimmed lesser feet and a length of 105 such feet, which comes to a fraction of a foot less than 100 Roman feet.1 Hence, it was decided that the new temple should have principle dimensions of 100 feet, that is, to be hekatompedon.

In order to find an explanation for the shifts in plan, the first step should be to compare in detail the dimensios of the several plans. It is only from the dimensions that one can arrive at establishing the characteristics of each of the three plans; only after these characteristics have been established is it possible to formulate hypotheses as to why one plan was abandoned for another.

The result of these calculations throws new light on the history of the several Parthenons. Parthenon I doubled the dimensions of the Old Temple in its amphiprostyle form and was planned as 100 x 250 Greek feet. The arrangement of the columns according to the pattern 8 x 17 resulted in a crowding of the columns on the fronts. Parthenon II was assigned a dimension of 84 x 240 feet, so that it would double the surface of the Old Temple in its peripteral form. The number of columns was kept at 17 on the flanks, but was reduced to 6 on the fronts. This solution was far from being ideal, since the temple was long and narrow, with the columns too widely spaced on the fronts. Parthenon III returned to the plan of Parthenon I, with dimensions of 100 x 250 feet and a pattern of 8 x 17 columns, but the width was reckoned in geographic feet, so that in actual length it came to 111.11 of the feet used on the flanks; this permitted giving the columns on the fronts the same spacing as that given to the columns on the flanks.

Parthenon I had an excellent spacing of the columns on the flanks, consisting of normal intercolumnia of 15½ feet and corner spaces of 17, but the spacing was made narrower on the fronts. Parthenon II tried to even the spacing of the columns on the fronts and flanks; on the fronts 15 and 17 feet, on the flanks 14¾ and 16¾ feet. Parthenon III finally adopted the spacing of 15½ and 17 feet on both flanks and fronts.

Having established the probable rationale for the shifts in the several plans of the Parthenon, it is possible to solve on firmer grounds the problem of their relative chronology.

Syriopoulos argued that Parthenon I was initiated by Pericles one year before the conclusion of peace with Persia (late 449 or early 448 B.C.). he tried to follow the argument of Dörpfeld who, against Kolbe’s contention that Parthenon I was initiated in 478 B.C. had objected that no major construction could have been started in Athens as long as there was the possibility of a new Persian invasion, that is, before the Peace of Callias (late 449 or early 448 B.C.). Then Syriopoulos juggled the figure to 450 B.C. in order to allow sufficient time for two shifts in plan before 444 B.C. But both Dörpfeld and Syriopoulos overlooked the historical datum that, after the crushing victory scored by Cimon at the battle of Eurymedon (about 468 B.C.), there was a period of time in which the Athenians could believe that the Persian danger had been eliminated forever, even without a formal peace treaty. There is wide agreement among historians on this point. J.B. Bury states: ”The victory on the Pamphylian river freed Greece from all danger on the side of the Persian Empire.” N.G.L. Hammond is equally emphatic: ”The danger of invasion by Persia was dispelled by victory at the Eurymedon river and by troubles which followed the assassination of Xerxes in 465.” G.B. Grundy observers: ”The Eurymedon had been a decisive action. More had been accomplished on that one day than in the whole decade of warfare that preceded it. All men must thereafter have believed that the fear of Persia in the Aegean had become remote: many must have believed that it had been banished forever.” Grundy continues by underscoring that the demobilization of most of the military forces caused acute unemployment among the poor of Athens, and suggests: ”Cimon may have realized to a certain extent the economic necessities of the time—the tale of his large liberality in support of the poor suggests that such may have been the case.”

Plutarch reports that with the money supplied by Cimon there was built not only the south wall of the Acropolis, but there was also initiated the construction of the Long Walls linking Athens with Peiraeus. Plutarch lists other projects in the Agora and the Academy and adds: ”It was he, likewise, who first embellished the Acropolis with those fine and ornamental places of exercise and resort, which they afterwards so much frequented and delighted in.” In this policy of providing employment to the poor through public works, Cimon may have started the construction of the Parthenon; Pericles completed it for exactly the same reasons. The archaeological data support what is suggested by the historical information, since the building of the south wall, or Cimonian Wall, is related to the erection of the substructure of the Parthenon. Hence, it is safe to conclude that Parthenon I began to be built in the period of Cimon’s political leadership, when it appeared that Athens was finally at peace and when the unemployment caused by the peace provided one further justification for starting to replace the temple destroyed by the Persians.

The period of peace initiated by the victory of Eurymedon did not last long. In 465 B.C. Athens had to initiate a major military campaign against Thasos, a campaign that marked the beginning of the rupture of the alliance between Athens and Sparta. By 461 B.C. the supporters of a warlike foreign policy, the party of Pericles, had imposed their way and Cimon was ostracized. As a result of this policy Athens found herself at war with both Sparta and Persia. The end of the period of peace could explain why the construction of Parthenon I did not proceed beyond the platform.

Whereas Syriopoulos ascribes Parthenon I to the period immediately preceding the peace with Persia, I would ascribe the resumption of the work in the form of Parthenon II to the period following the peace. Syriopoulos has erroneously considered the plan of Parthenon II to be more economical than that of Parthenon I, for the reason that Parthenon II is a smaller temple, but he has not taken into account the fact that while Parthenon I was bigger in size it was intended to be of poros limestone and, hence, less expensive. Hill had remarked that the ”second project” was ”a more costly... marble temple.” Syriopoulos, in the mistaken assumption that Parthenon II was a more modest project, ascribes it to Thucydides, son of Melesias.

It is true that from Plutarch’s Life of Pericles we learn that Thucydides denounced Pericles as a reckless waster of the public wealth and opposed his building projects, but we also learn that Thucydides had lost on this issue even before being ostracized. Hence, there is no need to conclude that Parthenon III was initiated only after the ostracism of Thucydides (443 B.C., or possibly one or two years earlier).

The text of the inscription indicates that after the conclusion of the peace with Persia (end of the legal year 449/8 B.C.) it was decided to proceed with the construction of the Parthenon. The appropriate legislation was voted in the course of the year 448/7 B.C. and the board that was to supervise the finances of the project began to function in the year 447/6 B.C.

Since it was decided that the new temple should be of Pentelic marble, this created an engineering problem, since the substructure had been planned to support a temple of poros, which is a much lighter material. In order to reduce the pressure on the parts of the substructure that were weaker, on account of being higher in relation to the natural ground, the new temple was made smaller all around in relation to the substructure. The new temple (Parthenon II) was still centered on the substructure, leaving unutilized a part of the substructure which was equal on each of the two fronts and on each of the two sides. Since the temple had to be hekatompedos and had to be double of the Old Temple, a new formula based on the surface was adopted in order to respect the two concepts of hekatompedos and of double. However, after the platform of the new temple was erected, it was realized that the plan of a long and narrow temple with only 6 columns on the fronts was esthetically unsatisfactory. Hence, the number of columns on the fronts was increased to 8. This was made possible by abandoning the idea that the temple should rest on the substructure: the new platform was made to extend to the north of the substructure. In order to avoid putting weight on the weakest part of the substructure, the southeast corner, the addition of 10 trimmed lesser feet to the length of the temple was all applied to the western side. Parthenon III had the same number of columns as Parthenon I, but the width was computed by geographic feet so that the temple could be hekatompedos and at the same time wider than Parthenon I.s

Because the steps of Parthenon III do not fit the outline of the substructure, it became necessary to raise the level of the terrace around the Parthenon in order to conceal the substructure completely, including the four top layers which had been intended to be exposed. Syriopoulos and other writers before him have suggested that this was achieved by raising the height of the Cimonian Wall. But Gorham Phillip Stevens has argued, in my opinion conclusively, that this was achieved by constructing a new wall halfway between the substructure and the Cimonian Wall. This wall runs parallel to the souh side of the substructure and extends to the east of it. As a result the terrace to the south of the Parthenon came to be at two levels: the southern half, just to the north of the Cimonian Wall, remained at the old level, whereas the northern half, to the north of the new wall, was raised higher in order to cover the top layers of the substructure. The new retaining wall (called S2 by archeologists) had foundations that did not reach the rock, but were supported by the earth filling piled up behind the Cimonian Wall. Since the new wall rests on loose earth, one tried to improve its foundations by placing at the very bottom of them column drums similar to those imbedded in the north wall. This is one more piece of evidence that these drums came from the workshop of Parthenon III.


  1. The foot that I call Roman and which is often called Attic by metrologists, was the basis of the Athenian system of volumes and weights established by Solon.

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