The Ancient Greece of the Classical period is a period characterized by close link between religion and politics. Unlike in the present days, there was no division between church and state during their time. As a matter of fact, the first temples were constructed to accommodate religious cults. It is not surprising then that the foundations of the first Greek city-states, the political unit in the Greek world were also established around the time. City-states promoted the local cult practices because they were used to define the community. Religious festivals and sacrifices enable citizens to confirm their affiliation in the community.
The location of the temple in a city was their way of linking the building to their distant past.
The Parthenon is a perfect example of this. The Parthenon is found on a hill called the Acropolis, or “High City.” In second millennium, the Acropolis was believed to be where a Mycenaean citadel could be located. Athenian myths believed Acropolis to be the site of the competition between Athena and Poseidon for control over Athens. Acropolis is also associated with the founding city. It used to house the Temples during the Archaic Period. The political background is vital to the understanding of the Parthenon, the centerpiece of the Periclean building movement.
The Parthenon is the most important monument of the ancient Greek civilization. Today, its prestige never faded being an international symbol. It was built in honor of Athena Parthenos, the patron goddess of Athens. It was constructed between 447 and 438 B.C. Its extensive sculptural decoration was completed some time later in 432 B.C.
The construction of the monument was started by Perikles. Pheidias, the famous Athenian sculptor overlook the entire project. Iktinos and Kallikrates were the commissioned architects of the building. The temple observes the Doric order in its construction. It was comprised mostly of Pentelic marble. Its shape is peripteral – with eight columns on each of the narrow sides and seventeen columns on each of the long ones. The center of the temple was called the cella where the centerpiece of the sculptural programme, the famous colossal chryselephantine cult statue of Athena built by Pheidias, was found. Ancient copies and literary descriptions depicted the statue as a chryselephantine statue made of gold and ivory, and approximately 38 feet tall.
Sculpture was vital part of the architecture of Greek temples. The Parthenon stands out in this area due to the immense number of sculptural decoration found in the place. Harmony comes into play in the various elements towards a consistent sculptural program. For instance, the extensive collection with coherent theme all 92 metopes in the Doric frieze course demonstrate sculptured reliefs.
The sculptural decoration of the Parthenon presents a rare mixture of the Doric metopes and triglyphs on the entablature, and the Ionic frieze which can be found on the walls of the cella. The metopes portray the Gigantomachy on the east side, the Amazonomachy on the west, the Centauromachy on the south, and scenes from the Trojan War on the north.
The relief frieze portrays the Procession of the Panathenaea which was considered the most ceremonial religious festival of ancient Athens. The depiction can be seen on all the four sides of the building. It consists of the figures of gods, beasts and around 360 humans.
The two pediments of the temple were adorned mythological scenes. In the east which is located above the building’s main entrance, depicted the birth of Athena. In the west, one could see the depiction of the battle between Athena and Poseidon to decide who will get the name of the city of Athens.
The Parthenon preserved its religious character long after it was built. In the succeeding, Parthenon was converted into a Byzantine church, a Latin church and a Muslim mosque.
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Pomeroy, Sarah B., Burstein, Stanley M., Donlan, Walter, Roberts, Jennifer Tolbert. “Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History.” Oxford University Press. 1999.
Hellenic Ministry of Culture. “The Acropolis of Athens.” 1995-2001. Accessed January 11, 2007 from http://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21101a/e211aa01.html
SUNY- Oneonta. “The Parthenon: Religion, Arts and Politics”. 2007. Accessed January 11, 2007 http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/parthenon.html