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The Greek Parthenon: Facts, History & Construction

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  • 0:00 History and Context
  • 1:38 Optical Illusion
  • 2:42 A Christian Parthenon
  • 3:44 An Ottoman Parthenon
  • 4:30 The Elgin Marbles
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Brazinski
Have you ever marveled at the Parthenon, the gem of Athens, and wondered who built it and why it is in its current state? This lecture will discuss the facts, history, and construction of the Parthenon.

History and Context

You've probably heard of the famous structure called the Parthenon in Greece. But do you know the story?

In Ancient Greece, citizens built ornate temples to honor and worship their pantheon, or collective group, of gods, such as Ares the god of war and Hermes the god of travel. The gods had legendary tales of glory, romance, and adventure.

Athens' patron deity was Athena, the Goddess of just war and learning. According to Greek mythology, Athena was born from Zeus' head. Shortly after her birth, Poseidon and Athena fought over the patronage of Athens. Athena won the battle, and thus, the patronage of the glorious city.

The citizens built a temple called the Parthenon to honor Athena. The Parthenon was built on the Acropolis, the fortified and highest part of Athens.

The Athenians built the first Parthenon, often called the Older Parthenon, on the Acropolis starting around 490 BC. The Older Parthenon was built with a limestone foundation in the vicinity of the current Parthenon.

However, King Xerxes of the Persians destroyed this Older Parthenon when he sacked Athens in 480 BC during the Second Persian War. The worst part is that the Athenians were still building the Parthenon when Xerxes sacked it, so all their work was for nothing! After the Athenians won the war, they built the Parthenon that we see today.

Optical Illusion

King Pericles of Athens started the new Parthenon's building program in 477 BC, when Athens was near its height of power in the Classical Greek era. The columns were constructed to be slightly wider in the middle area and slightly thinner at the top, near the capital. The ancient Greeks did this as an optical illusion to make the columns appear as though the heavy roof was putting too much stress on the columns. Neat, huh?

The architects also slightly curved the highest stair-landing, which also makes it appear as though the temple looks bigger than it really is, flowing into the far horizon. And finally, the Athenians topped off the Parthenon with a wooden roof.

They used the wood from the defeated Persian boats from their naval victory at Salamis as the building material. What a great trophy, right? Take that, Xerxes! The classical phase of the Parthenon remained for quite some time. However, Christians would later alter the Parthenon's architecture and use.

A Christian Parthenon

The first devastating thing that happened to the Parthenon was a third-century AD fire, which burnt the roof down. The roof would be repaired in the following century, but more doom and gloom awaited the Athenian Temple.

In 435 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius the Second decreed that all pagan temples be closed. As a result, several temples, including the Parthenon, were not only closed, but also looted and defaced. At this point in the Parthenon's history, some of its original sculptures were taken or destroyed.

By the sixth century, the Parthenon was converted to a Church of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. A small church structure was built in the temples' central area, called the inner naos, and Christian liturgical ornamentations were added, such as an altar. The Parthenon would remain a Christian church until 1456, when the Ottoman Turks arrived. Notice how the Parthenon changed with each new occupation.

An Ottoman Parthenon

In June 1458, Athens surrendered to the Ottoman Empire, at which point, the small church that the Christians built was removed, and a mosque was built. The next catastrophe that happened to the Parthenon occurred in 1687, when Venetian forces attacked Athens. Before the battle, the Ottomans stored their gun-powder in the Parthenon, which was a huge mistake.

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