Ancient ‘Secrets’ of Greece’s Parthenon

The name ‘Parthenon’ immediately conjures up iconic images of a Greek temple like the most famous one on the acropolis in Athens. In ancient Greek however, one use of the word ‘parthenon’ referred to ‘a room for virgins or unwed maidens’. Some archaeologists think this grew from the use of many of the temples and religious sanctuaries on the acropolis as storerooms for precious objects, trophies and treasures. This building was actually the Great Temple of Athena. Some experts think that the smaller temple, the ‘Erechtheion’with its larger female figures called ‘caryatids’ was the original parthenon, because of the mythological reference of ‘parthenoi’, meaning maidens, that serve as columns supporting the roof.

Ian at the Parthenon from Author Ian Kent
Ian at the Parthenon

First, let me explain ‘Acropolis’. This word comes from two Greek words άκρον (akron – meaning high point), and πόλις (polis – city). This is a generic term and is used in many locations to refer to a high point in the city or area. Today’s Parthenon is generally accepted as a 2500 year old temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess and patron deity of ancient Athens. The Parthenon’s architects were Ictinus and Callierates, and its chief sculptural artist was Phidias.

The temple is about 101 x 228 feet, and was built in about 10 to 15 years between 447 and 432 BC, a very short time considering the size and quality of the project. Experts today are trying to restore and in some case repair and re-assemble the jigsaw puzzle of parts to their original state, and estimate it could take up to one hundred years to do so – and that is with modern technology and equipment. The original cost, according to public accounts carved in stone amount to 469 silver talents. They still are not sure what that translates to in today’s currency, but estimates on restoring the temple are already in many millions of Euros.

The beautiful white marble has slight yellow tinge, which glows golden in the sunlight. The marble came from the quarries on Mount Pentelikon, about 16 km away from Athens. The huge Doric columns would have to be hacked out of the mountain (by hand, hammer and chisel), then hauled by oxcart to Athens, and then up to the top of the acropolis. Then, the real craftsmanship began: Phidias and his team of experts wove into the marble columns and beams of this temple many hidden tricks and optical illusions that fool the eye of the beholder.

The first trick they incorporated was: There are no straight lines or right angles in the entire temple. Think about that! Their idea was to copy nature as much as possible, where you rarely find a straight line or a right angle, everything is slightly curved. For instance, if the floor was built absolutely level and straight, and the columns were perfectly straight and vertical, the building would look like it was bulging and sagging from a distance. So they built the foundation floor slightly bulged in the middle, sagging slightly in all four corners. The first time I visited the Parthenon, I had read about this fact, so I knelt down and peered along the edge of the floor on one side, just to check. Wow, even though I knew what to expect, I was surprised by how much the floor curved.

The curvature of the floor from Author Ian Kent
The curvature of the floor

Because of these minor modifications in the design, it fools the eyes, so that from a distance, the temple appears perfect, in proportion, and standing straight and proud. Up close, you can’t help but be impressed with the tall, elegantly carved Doric columns of white Pentelic marble. These columns actually lean inward a little, and the corner columns are slightly larger in diameter. The columns also are located with a larger space between the corner ones and the next one in line. There are forty-six columns, 8 along the narrow side and 17 on the long sides. Another weird trick was the columns are not straight along vertical axis, but bulge slightly in their middles. These features made the job of the builders a challenge indeed, as they had to sculpt each column from a large block of marble, with just the exact amount of slight curvature throughout its length. then assemble over 70,000 architectural pieces into a masterpiece of Greek science and technology. It also has makes the job of repairing and restoration extremely difficult, as modern masons and architects have to re-learn all of the knowledge and skills of the old masters.

Another view from Author Ian Kent
Another view

During a trip to the island of Naxos in the Cyclades, we visited the site of the ruins of a temple dedicated to the goddess Demeter.

Temple of Demeter – Naxos from Author Ian Kent
Temple of Demeter – Naxos

It is in the middle of the island, huge blocks and columns of Naxos marble were scattered around in a field, many pieces sorted out in specific piles, indicating that a lot of work had been done to collect and organize what pieces they could find. Some had been reassembled to form partial walls.

Rebuilding the Temple of Demeter from Author Ian Kent
Rebuilding the Temple of Demeter

Many sites around the world are like this, where much of the marble has been stolen or salvaged and used for other purposes, sometimes just a shelter for a man’s goats. Quite often we see walls of various buildings made out of obviously ‘recycled’ marble blocks or specific shaped pieces.

‘Recycled ‘wall from Author Ian Kent
‘Recycled ‘wall

Some experts say that the sanctuary of Demeter and the temple of Hera are earlier examples of the techniques used on the parthenon.

Ancient optical tricks (courtesy 'Greece-is' newsletter) from author ian kent
Ancient optical tricks (courtesy ‘Greece-is’ newsletter)

For those who might be lucky enough to see one of these building up close, think about some of these optical tricks and see if you can spot them.

Marble Quarry on Naxos from author ian kent
Marble Quarry on Naxos
Restoring the Temple from Author Ian Kent
Restoring the Temple

In 430 BC, Pericles made a speech expressing his pride in the city of Athens, and no doubt the Parthenon, which still rings true today: “Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments we have left. Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today.”

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