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The Temple of Athena Nike

Despite its decisive defeat of the Persian foe at Salamis in 479 B.C., Athens remained in a state of war with Persia for another three decades. In the years preceding the peace treaty with Persia known as the Peace of Callias (448 or 447 B.C.) the Athenians were giving support to Egyptian revolts which aimed at overthrowing Persian rule and establishing a national dynasty. In 459 B.C. the Athenians sent an expeditionary force of some two hundred warships to support the revolt of the Libyan prince Inaros. They took possession of the capital Memphis, and for a few exhilarating months were the masters of Egypt, as Thucydides reports (I. 109).

In order to establish his legitimacy Inaros tried to link himself as closely as possible to the last native dynasty of Egypt and hence placed himself under the protection of that dynasty’s guiding divinity, Nit. This goddess, native to Sais in the Nile Delta, acquired major importance in Egypt when in about 663 B.C. the princes of Sais established themselves as kings of Egypt, initiating the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Nit was primarily a war goddess who stood by the king of Egypt in the battlefield. The Greeks identified her with Athena: Plutarch speaks of ”Athena of Sais.”1 Since Nit is supposed to give victory to the Egyptian army, the notion of ”Nit is triumphant” was rendered into Greek as Athena Nikephoros, ”Athena who brings victory.”2

It is in the context of Athens’s involvement in Egypt that we must view the decision of the Athenian assembly, the text of which was discovered in the course of excavations in 1897, to establish on the Acropolis the cult of Athena Nike, to endow it with a priestess and to house it in a temple to be designed by Callicrates, one of the architects of the Parthenon. The decision to bring Athena Nike to Athens and to provide her with a fitting abode was an expression of Athens’ ambitions as a world power in opposition to Persia. This temple was also the very first construction on the ruined Acropolis following the Persian invasion, and the first to be built entirely of Pentelic marble. Its small size was compensated by the prominence of its location: it was placed atop a terrace of poros blocks, resting on a rocky outcrop just to the south of the Propylaia.

The temple of Athena Nike is unusual in several respects. Not only is it the first temple on the Acropolis to be built in the Ionic style, and one of the few exemplars of an amphiprostyle temple in all of Greece: what made it truly unique was the unit by which it was planned, which turns out to be the Egyptian foot of 300 mm. To establish this standard, two niches were carved in the western wall of the poros substructure in full view of the visitors arriving at the Propylaia. Their dimensions are reported as follows:

northern niche

southern niche

height

2.70 m.

9 Eg. feet (6 cubits)

2.70 m.

9 Eg. feet ( 6 cubits)
depth

1.80 m.

6 Eg. feet (4 cubits)

1.35 m.

4.5 Eg. feet (3 cubits)

 

The dimensions of its cella are reported as 3.78 m x 4.19 m. This indicates that Callicrates designed it to be 12 feet 10 fingers by 14 feet (3.7875 x 4.2000 m.). The height of the columns was 13 feet 5 fingers (3.994 m.; the reported height is 4 meters). The height of the moulding above the architrave was 1 feet, or 450 mm. (the figure reported is 448 mm.) Finally a balustrade in Pentelic marble was added around the temple to a height of 3 Egyptian feet, or 1050 mm.

References

  1. Isis and Osiris, 354 D.
  2. Pseudo-Eratosthenes states that in the VI Dynasty “there reigned instead of a man, a woman, Nitokris, which means Athena Nikephoros.”

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