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The Glory That Was Greece

The Parthenon
Begun in 447 B.C. - Completed 432 B.C.
photo by
B. Wilson

Southwest Corner of The Parthenon
photo by
G. Wilson

The Parthenon, the apogee of Hellenic architecture, is the best known of all Greek temples. Standing atop the Acropolis, it is by far the most stunning sight to be seen in Athens, , especially when it is lit up at dusk. The interior of the temple was reserved for the god and his ministers and worship was outside, Originally called the Great Temple, it was brightly painted and shimmering with gold, The temple’s main function was to shelter the monumental statue of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, to which the Parthenon was dedicated. It took the name Parthenon [Chamber of the Virgin] a hundred years after its completion. This ancient temple still awes the onlooker after 2.5 millenia, an amazing tribute to its builders.

The building itself is a work of art and is regarded by some as the most perfect ever constructed. It epitomizes the glory of ancient Greece. The Doric temple, apart from its wooden roof, was constructed of an estimated 13,400 blocks of Pentelic white marble, each cut to precise mathematical calculation, the largest weighing 10 tons. No mortar was used, the blocks being so accurately squared and so finely finished that each stone hugged the next, as if the two were one.

The temple and the statue were dedicated in 438 B.C., although work on the sculptures of its pediment continued until completion in 432 B. C.

Athena by Pheidias
One of the wonders of the Ancient World.
Royal Ontario Museum

This gold and ivory statue of Athena was designed by Pheidias and was completed in 432 BC. It was gold-plated over an inner wood frame. This restored model in the Royal Ontario Museum displays her holding the Nike in her extended right hand, the spear on her left shoulder and the shield resting below by her left foot. Her helmet was adonred with a plume. She was intended to display her two aspects: the polemic and the pacific. It is thought Pheidias's masterpiece was removed to Constantinople in the 5th century where it was destroyed by fire.

Excavation by a German archeological institute at the workshop site of Pheidias, disclosed proof of his work including clay moulds, various tools for carving gold and ivory and ivory fragments. The excavation also revealled an "unbelievable surprise." Among the shards were a few that had comprised a very, small, plain wine-jug. After these had been cleaned and mended, an inscription was seen engraved on the surface of the bottom of the vessel. Written in beautiful lettering were two Greek words which translated into: "I belong to Pheidias". After 2400 years, archeologists held the very jug this superb artist used to quench his thirst. They exclaimed rapturously:

"Our fingers touched his own touch."


Reconstruction of the statue of Athena by Pheidias which was in the cella of the Parthenon.

Plan of the Parthenon

The megaron [a rectangular hall, fronted by an open, two-columned porch] form of the Parthenon is partly concealed by a surrounding colonnade or peristyle [ a columned porch or open colonnade in a building that surrounds a court that may contain an internal garden]. Behind the sanctuary containing the statue is a second chamber used as a treasury. By the middle of the 5th century, Greek masonry had achieved a finesse, hitherto unparalleled even in Egypt. No mortar was used and blocks were fitted together with extraordinary precision.

The Parthenon, the best-known of all the Greek temples, was a pitched-roof building surrounded by a colonnaded verandah, which was intended originally to shelter brick walls from sun and rain. The purpose of a Greek temple was usually to accommodate a cult-statue or emblem or more rarely an oracle. The temple and the statue were dedicated in 438, although work on the sculptures of its pediment continued until completed in 432 B. C.. The statue was usually placed facing towards the rising sun through a main doorway. The great altar, at which both sacrifices and offerings were made, stood outside the building on the east side, usually connected by a stone causeway. A second use for the temple was to contain valuable offerings. The sanctuary in which the statue stood, occupied the greater part of the cella [a room at the centre of the building, usually containing a cult image or statue ].

Sectional diagram of Parthenon

Sculptured decoration covered every available surface. Pheidias was the coordinator of the decorations, but delegated the carving to the best artists he could find. The metopes were worked on first between 447 and 442 B.C.

The frieze, which was made in about 440 B.C., was also inspired by Pheidias. It depicts the procession of the Great Panathenaia. The greater part of the frieze, apart for that which was destroyed in the explosion of 1687, is in the British Museum. Some is in the Acropolis and other museums and the whole west side is still in place. The ephebes (young men) wait in line to mount their steeds and gallop away to catch up with the rest of the procession.

Within the portico, the frieze ran around the wall of the colonnade, this most famous of all reliefs measuring 160 metres in length and 99 centimetres in height. Using just 2.25 inches of relief, the talented sculptors carved a great variety of figures, all shown in the procession representing the Great Fesival which took place every four years celebrating Athena's birthday. Because there are differences between the Frieze and ancient descriptions of the Panathenaic procession, some scholars believe that the Frieze shows heroes of the Battle of Marathon being presented to the gods. The riders would then represent Athenians who died to save the city's freedom in 490 BC. The figures shown in the procession included, cavalry, chariots, animals for sacrifce, musicians, elders, maidens and horsemen, riding alone or in groups of two or three.

The pity is that because the frieze were so high, it could not be seen and savoured as deserved. It is hinted humorously - with a wink - that Pheidies placed them high so that the gods would have the best view of them

These four friezes were purchased from the British Museum store at the Heathrow airport in London and lugged and I do mean lugged, home.

Frieze 1

Frieze 2

Frieze 3

N"Section of the W frieze of the Parthenon, the only one 'in situ' on the building.

This section of the W frieze was copied from the book, The Acropolis and Its Museum by George Dontas, Director of the Acropolis. While our four friezes are copies made from those taken by Lord Elgin, which are now in the British Museum, it is interesting to note the surprising similarity betweem Frieze 3 and the frieze on the extreme right indicated directly above, that is still on the Parthenon.

Frieze 4

There were 92 metopes in high relief on the exterior of the Parthenon. Most had two carves figures, but some had more, thus requiring a considerable number of sculptors. The subjects were common in Greek art in the fifth century - Greeks against Amazons; gods against giants; centaurs against Lapiths. All had a common theme: the conflict of order and chaos between civilization and savagery.

A Metope
Fight between a Centaur and a Lapith
Lapiths were a legendary people, whose home was in Thessaly,
British Museum


Last were the pediments (438- 432) B.C.. Only first rate artists worked on them and they produced "wonderful sculptures which take one's breath away and blow one's mind." These figures are not in relief, but in the round, independent of their background "in a world of their own."

Two seated goddesses, Demetre and Persdphone, from the south end of the pediment
British Museum

Acropolis, the fortified heights

Usually the temple stood on top of a high rock or acropolis. The Acropolis,on which the Parthenon is located, was originally a Stone Age site, its significance due to the presence on the high plateau of fresh-water springs. It later became a fortress-citadel. It exhibits traces of every phase of Greek architecture before its final state just prior to the fall of Athens. Many Greek cities grew up around such natural citadels. The Acropolis in Athens is a sheer, limestone rock standing a proud 300 feet over the city and visible for miles around.

Parthenon atop the Acropolis
photo by

The Parthenon is built in classic Doric order with Ionic elements. It is speculated that the reason for the mixing of these two styles is because the Doric order was a more popular architectural style on the mainland of Greece, where Athens is located, and the Ionic order was more popular on the islands and in Asia Minor (then part of Greece). The Parthenon contained 8 fluted Doric columns at either end and 17 on each side.

Greek Orders
Left: Ionic; Top right:Doric; Bottom Right: Corinthian

The Greek orders of architecture were developed in Greece: the Doric, the Ionic and in the fourth century, the Corinthian.
photo by
G. Wilson

All three orders devoted themselves to making the exterior impressively beautiful. The Doric order is the simplest of the Greek architectural orders. Greek orders can best be identified by the type of capitals on the columns. A Doric capital is extremely simple and the column has no base. The Ionic order is best recognized by its capital with volutes. The column has a base. The Corinthian is the last of the three classical orders. Its characteristics include a high base, sometimes a pedestal. It has a slender, fluted shaft with fillets with an ornate capital using stylized scanthus leaves.

Greek architecture distinguished itself by developing the column into an element of beauty as well as structural support. The essential function of the external colonnade was to uphold the eaves and to relieve the walls of the inner temple from the outward thrust of the gabled roof. The entablature is all of the architectural order above the columns. The drums of each column were bored to permit a small cylinder of olivewood to connect them and permit each drum to be turned around and around upon the one below it until their surfaces were ground so smooth, the space between them was almost invisible.


While the Parthenon was the most impressive temple on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion was built to accommodate the religious rituals that the old temple housed. Construction of the Erechtheion began in 420 while the Peloponnesian war was interrupted by the Peace of Nikias and continued through some of the most difficult times for the Athenians at war. The temple is unusual in that it incorporates two porches (prostaseis); one at the northwest corner which is supported by tall Ionic columns, and one at the south-west corner which is supported by six massive female statues, the famous Caryatids, never again so effectively employed, The Caryatids have become the temple’s signature feature as they stand and casually support the weight of the porch’s roof on their heads.

The Erechtheion Temple
It was part of Pheidias plan, but its construction was postponed because of the outbreak of Peloponnesian War.
photo by
B. Wilson

One of the original six figures was removed by Lord Elgin and is in the British Museum in London. The other five figures have been replaced onsite by replicas. The original five, which are damaged by erosion, are now housed in the new, climate-controlled Acropolis Museum.

The original Five Caryatids in the climate-controlled New Acropolis Museum

[Literally "maiden of Karyae"]
A caryatid is a drapped female figure supporting an entablature.

Marble Statues of Young Women

These show contrasts in style and function. The Caryatid [2.5 m high] stands firm with her drapery lying close to her breast and left thigh, revealing form, while over her straight right leg, deep folds recall the fluting columns that she replaces. The personified Breeze [1.4 m high] stood with others between the columns of the Nereid Monument at Xanthos. She skims over the waves and her wet clothing appears almost transparent where it clings to her body. [British Museum]

Caryatid Porch

Cleaning the Caryatids

Using technology developed 2500 years later, a restorer cleans decorations on the wall of the porch of the Caryatids of the Erectheion temple at the Acropolis after laser beams were used to remove a film of black crust caused by pollution. A team of Greek engineers and restorers are using the innovative laser technology system to clean the surface of the ancient monuments in the Greek capital.

Ancient Greece originated much of what we value in our civilization today, not the least of which was the Olympics. The year 776 B.C. was the date of the first Olympiad when only free Greeks were permitted to participate. The games gave birth to their whole attitude toward life - "the attitude of a freeman competing with his peers, naked, unfettered by any element foreign to his own body, conforming only to the rules of the game. The sole aim was the winning for himself an olive crown - in other words, a purely moral victory - and the praise of his fellow men. According to our guide and a sign bearing a Greek word, the entrance to the field on which the athletes displayed their strength, agility and speed, was accessed through a small, stone arch. Beyond it was a wide open field, said to have been the place where 30 different athletic activities took place. The athletes performed in the nude and all spectators but one were males. The one exception was a princess or queen of some sort, who presided over the event and viewed their prowess with a critical eye!. So said our guide.

Entrance to Olympic Site.
photo by
G. Wilson

Lighting Olympic Flame
Outside the Temple of Hera, a high priestess lights the torch in a concave mirror which used the rays of the sun to generate the flame.

Olympic Site
photo by
B. Wilson

Olympic Athlete - Discuss Thrower

Alexander The Great.
photo by
B. Wilson

Alexander The Great.
photo by
G. Wilson

Salonika, a strategically important Greek port on the Aegean coast.

Within a short period after the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the image and reputation of the Great One resulted in a scramble by several countries to claim him for their own. Both Greece and Macedonia boast of that honour. Fueled by ambition and a brilliant military mind, Alexander conquered most of the known world. He succeeded in taking the Persion empire and occupying its old provinces of Egypt and Babylonia, his victories extending as far as India. His father, Philip II made his Macedonian realm into a military power and succeeded in uniting it with Greece in a federal union under his leadership. Alexander inherited both this kingdom and his dream of defeating its arch-enemy, Persia.

When Philip's tomb was discovered in 1977 at Verginje, west of Salonika, Athens rejoiced and proclaimed this proved Alexander was Greek. The recent creation of the new republic of Macedonia, a part of the former Yugoslavia, has re-opened the debate. Greece says it has no objection to the new republic birth, but it should choose a new name which does not imply a territorial claim to the region of northern Greece. By so doing, they insult all Greek Macedonians by usurping their heritage. One historian decries all the fuss, saying, "I object to anyone claiming exclusive rights to Alexander. He doesn't belong to anyone: he's his own man and that's that."

Theatre at Delphi
photo by
G. Wilson

Navel of the earth
Sacred City of Delphi, the Haunt of gods
photo by
G. Wilson

After the Acropolis, Delphi is the most popular archaeological site in Greece. As far back as Greek tradition reaches, worshipers gathered at this place to seek the winds among the gorges. Here at the centre of Greece, they built their altars to Mother Earth and later to her bright conqueror, Apollo. Earthquakes rumbled here, frightening away the plundering Persians, Phocians and Gauls. It was, they said, god protecting his shrine.


The Greeks took advantage of a natural hillside site, terracing and excavating where necessary. Banked seats were arranged around the stadium-theatre. The remains of the temple of Apollo are directly in front of the theatre. The theatre had four parts: a segmental arrangement of tiered seats, a circular orchestra, and proscenium in front of the skene, below which the actors dressed and waited.

The Charioteer of Delphi in the Delphi Museum
photo by
G. Wilson

This statue is one of the many treasures stored in a major museum in Athens.

Nike (Victory) Flight of a winged goddess.

Overlooking Athens
photo by
B. Wilson

Athens from Hotel Window
photo by
G. Wilson

Mark Anthony

Mark Anthony's First Wife's Chapel
photo by
G. Wilson

St. Paul by El Greco

Rock from which St. Paul Preached
photo by
G. Wilson

Paul was convinced that God had commissioned him to take the gospel to the gentiles. In his many travels, he took advantage of the fine Roman roads and in the course of three extended tours, he visited most of the centres in Greece, one of which was Corinth. In Athens under the shadow of the towering Acropolis, St. Paul preached and lived for a period of time.

Theatre of Dionysos
photo by
G. Wilson

The god Dionysos was temperamental and a cross-dresser. Better known by the name Bacchus, god of wine and theatre, he was popular everywhere.

South of Mt.Olympus & Pinios River
photo by
G. Wilson

Achilles's Home
photo by
G. Wilson

Lord Elgin

Between 1801 and 1812, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to Greece, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire, asked the Turkish military governor if he would allow Elgin's artist to erect a scaffold to sketch the Parthenon frieze. When he refused, Elgin immediately saw the Sultan and requested a firman or authority to carry out the work. The Sultan, grateful that the British had driven the French out of Egypt, granted Elgin permission to "take away any sculptures or inscriptions which do not interfere with the works or walls of the Citadel." An ecstatic Elgin considered this carte blanche, and sent a long list of "samples" to be shipped to England. It included twelve statues, fifteen metopes and fifty-six friezes. Elgin rationalized their removal of 40 per cent of the Parthenon friezes by claiming they would be safer in England than in Athens. The Greeks, he said, "Have looked upon the superb works of Pheidias with ingratitude and indifference. They do not deserve them."

In 1816, Lord Elgin, in order to pay off his extensive debts, petitioned the House of Commons to purchase the large collection of marbles - sculptures, architectural fragments and inscriptions - he had assembled while serving as British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court. The British museum paid him $175,000 for them, which was less than half what he had spent securing and shipping them. They are now known as the Elgin Marbles. Greece maintains the marbles were stolen. Britain argues that they were bought legally from Lord Elgin who was given permission from the Turks to take them.

Recently, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano presented Greek authorities with a small piece of sculpture from the Parthenon kept in a museum in Palermo, Sicily for the past 200 years. The 2500-year-old marble fragment was one of the works Lord Elgin removed from the Acropolis in the 19th century. The fad of fleecing art from other countries was widespread in the 19th century and even leaders like Napoleon, raided ruins for relics, blithely pillaging and plundering Italy and Egypt to fill his newly created Louvre Museum. Elgin knew he had treasures beyond measure that even the Romans never thought of taking home. He bragged about his good fortune in 1801 when he wrote from Constantiople, "Bonaparte has not got such a thing from all his thefts in Italy."

In light of Giorgio's generosity, Greece may hope the Italian tiny trickle will become a British flood and finally the Elgin Marbles will be retunred to their rightful home on the hill in Athens. In 1941, several MPs proposed returning the mables to reward Greecee's heroic resistance to the Nazis. Polls indicate the British public supports their return, but that number does not include the director of the British Museum or the prime minister. So far Britain has refused to relinquish its treasure trove of marble pieces from the Parthenon.

Greece's New Acropolis Museum,which is designed with special glass and climate-control measures, is due to open in Athens in March, Free tours of the ground floor are offered daily until the official opening. The cavernous, glass-and-concrete edifice will eventually display more than 4000 ancient works.

Its spectacular, glassed-walled top floor, the Parthenon Gallery, is a glass chamber sitting at a bizarre angle to the rest of the structure. Its intention is to face the Parthenon 244 metres away. The gallery is intended to be the home for the Parthenon Marbles, if they are returned from their exile in the British museum. Visitors will be able to view them and the frieze, then look out the window to see the 2500-year-old Parthenon.

Acropolis Museum - Parthenon Gallery

Acropolis Museum

Recently the British Museum offered to loan some of the marbles back to Greece, providing the Greek government acknowledged permanent British sovereignty over "Lord Elgin's loot." Greece said no to such nonsense, confident that one day the marbles will make their way back to where they belong, housed in their new home fit for the friezes from of the Parthenon Marbles.

The final word on the Elgin Marbles has not been written yet, for a new development pertaining to them has come to light. [*]

[*] Evidence of fraud found in case of Elgin Marbles. [Reuters]

A New York law professor, David Rudenstine, thinks he may have the key to solving the dispute between Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles - sculptures taken from the Parthenon in 1801 and now in the British Museum. Greece maintains the marbles were stolen. Britain argues that they were bought legally from Lord Elgin, who got them from the Turks when he was Britain's ambassador to Istanbul. Only an Italian translation of the Turkish firman, the legal authority Elgin got from the Ottomans, has survived. On July 10, 1801, Elgin wrote to his Athens work team informing them of the firman, which gave him permission to copy, print, mould and dig around temple of Athens. When in late July, the work team told him the first sculpture had been removed from the temple, he praised them "for succeeding beyond our most ardent hopes." Seemingly, Elgin had not expected them to saw sculptures off the Parthenon. Rudenstine believes the English translation of the firman that was provided to Parliament in 1816 had been tampered with. A signet and signature were added that do not appear on the Italian copy. The English copy was supplied by Elgin's clergyman, the Rev. Philip Hunt, when Elgin was selling the marbles to the government so he could pay down his large debts.< Rudenstine says Hunt inserted a passage in the English document, saying that the Ottoman authoriies had authorized him to bring the firman to their understandings in Athens. In the Italian document, only the letters "nn" appear at that point and no one knows what they really stand for.

Thucydides, Greek Historian

In 431 B.C., ancient Greece was not a nation. It was a large collection of rival city-states surrounded by city walls, located on the Greek mainland on the west coast of Asia Minor, and on the many islands of the Aegean Sea. Since human conflict was inevitable and uncontrollable,

Sparta feared the growth of the power of Athens. According to Thucydidess, since conflict among humans was inevitable and uncontrollable, it was just a matter of time before these two most dominant cities, clashed. This resulted in most of city-states becoming allied with one or the other of these leading military powers. In 431 B.C. Sparta and Athens with their alliances went to war against each other in a conflict known as the Peloponnesian War, so-called because it is named for the Peloponnesus, the peninsula on which Sparta is located. The magnificent navy of Athens contested with the invincible hoplites of Sparta. Eventually, it became clear that the Spartans must man ships and the Atheneans must fight on land. Their conflict lasted for 27 years.

Thucydides, the great Greek historian, fought in and filed the facts of this long-lasting war, the first in history to be recorded by an eyewitness historian of the highest calibre. Thucydides' history is a classic, which for generations was considered a foundation of a proper education. The war has come down through history as the archetypal struggle between a commercial democracy and an agricultural aristocracy, a war between a maritime superpower and a continental military machine. The war began on 4 April 431 B.C. with a Theban attempt to surprise Plataea, Athens' ally and outpost on the northern base of Cithaeron. It ended on 25 April 404 B.C. when Athens capitulated.

Thucydides' Introduction to His History of the Pelopnnesian War
[ He always referred to himself in the third person.]

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Pelponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war, and more worthy of relating than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed, this was the greatest movement yet known to history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world - I had almost said of mankind. "


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