Why build the Parthenon?

What motivated the building of the Parthenon?

The Parthenon has long been an object of observation and admiration but also one of indifference and even contempt. It has been described as “so large… so strong… so triumphant” by Virginia Woolf, and yet Pausanias, on his many travels, writes that on his trip to Athens he just went to visit “the temple they call the Parthenon”, a statement devoid of superlatives, admiration or any discernible emotion. Therefore, this temple has had very mixed reactions throughout the centuries and has been used for many different purposes such as a church, a mosque, a munitions store and the prolific tourist attraction that we know today. However, there has been real debate as to the reasons for the construction of the Parthenon of which we can currently see the remains of.  The first possible motivation is that of religion; after all, the Parthenon housed a huge chryselephantine of Athena and the frieze (although there is some debate) is meant to depict the Great Pananthenaia. However, the building project can be seen as being socially motivated. The Parthenon and the whole building project cannot be disassociated with the elected general who supervised and commissioned them: Pericles. A greater social statement is not to be found in the Greek world. Finally, there is a certain historical and military motivation for the construction of the Parthenon. The funding of it cannot be separated from the fact that Athens was governing at the time a sizeable Aegean Empire.

The seemingly most obvious reason for the building of the Parthenon is for religious purposes and reasons. This is because the temple was traditionally a place of worship, with the cult statue inside being the actual object of worship and the figure to whom the citizens would have conducted sacrifices, votive offerings and prayers. The particular nature of the cult statue was of it grand stature, at an estimated 11.54m, and the fact that it was built in gold and ivory (left), would suggest that this was the ultimate votive offering and place of worship that a person in Ancient Athens could possibly visit. However, this view of a unique place of worship is one that can be quickly dismissed. Firstly, the chryselephantine statue of Olympian Zeus at Olympia was of comparable size and quality, and in fact had the same sculptor: Pheidias. This means that in religious terms, the Parthenon and its cult statue were not as unique as people may have thought. Furthermore, Herington mentions that the cult statue in the Parthenon was only one of many that could be found around the Aegean[1]. This would suggest that the motivation of the building of the Parthenon was much less than a mainly religious one, it could have been down to pride and in order to demonstrate their power over the other Greek city states. Another reason for arguing that the Parthenon was built for religious reasons was due to the theme of the Ionic frieze that forms a ribbon around the outside of the naos within the peristyle of the temple. It is said to depict the Great Panathenia, which is a festival celebrated every four years at Athens, which all Athenians could attend. This would suggest that the Parthenon was part of that festival and therefore very much built for religious reasons, especially considering the nature of the two previous temples which had stood on more or less the same ground, both of which dedicated to Athena, both part of ritual sacrifices and festivals. However, there is one problem with this view, that is the fact that the frieze depicts the GREAT Panatheneia, which was dedicated to Athena Polias not Parthenos. This was when a peplos was weaved by the women of the city and placed on the wooden xoanon of Polias near the Erechtheum (4). The festival had little if anything to do with the Parthenon as the altar was on the other side of it, near Polias. Furthermore, the frieze Northern procession walks towards Polias, rather than Parthenos. These pieces of evidence seem to point to the fact that it was not Parthenos who was the main goddess, but as Herington says “the Athenians only recognised one goddess on the Acropolis- Athnea Polias, or she who dwells in the polis”[2]. This would mean that the motivation behind the building of the Parthenon lies somewhere among the historical military reasons and the social ones.

The next possible motivation for the building Parthenon is to do with history and the military, in fact Castriota outright claims that the “Parthenon is a victory monument”[3].  This claims does stand up very well under careful scrutiny if one examines various elements of the building, its history and its surroundings. The point to start at is the cult statue of Athena. This statue is one fully armed, with her spear and shield set down, holding a four metre tall Nike in her right hand; symbolism can only be described as victorious. Only when one has finished fighting can they set aside their arms and boast of having grasped victory, as the statue is literally doing.  This may represent the ceasing of hostilities of the Persians which had occurred thirty years previously. Mary Beard asks “why wait 30 years?”[4], and the answer is quite simple: the Oath of Plataia was pledged saying that none of the damage caused by the Persians is not to be rebuilt to be a lasting monument to sacrifice. Therefore, the rebuilding of the Parthenon cannot be removed from the reason for its predecessors destruction when not yet finished. Thus, it is possible to see the Parthenon as being a huge commemoration of not only the present prosperity but also of the past sacrifice, without which there would have not such a present. In addition, the less violently armed cult statue would have contrasted with the Athena Promachos  (3)that welcomed visitors and pilgrims as they came through the Propyleia, which neatly framed the huge bronze statue. Once again, this shows how the motivation of the Parthenon is an historical one, as the contrast between war and peace is demonstrated. In addition, it is said that the statue in the earliest Parthenon, the one dating to the 6th Century BCE, was not only armed, but striding into battle. Therefore, it is likely that the commissioners of the works at the time wanted to recall that very first and ancient monument in their ‘modern’ version of it.  However, the motivation is not only historical but military. The fortunes and tributes of the Delian league were stored here and the tributes were almost definitely used to fund the huge building project across the whole Acropolis.  As a statement in itself, the whole Parthenon is a symbol of Athenian military success both against the Persians  and other Greeks. This links in with the decoration. The number of human figures on the metopes numbers one hundred and ninety two, which is the reported number of casualties that the  battle of Marathon. This would link with the previous temple destroyed by the Persians. This could signify that out of sacrifice and defeat, Athens cannot be overcome and will rise again regardless. Furthermore, the figures are mainly naked, showing the heroic status that the soldiers gained in their sacrifice. As a result, the idea that the Parthenon was constructed for reasons which have strong links with the historical and military is one that is very strong due to the specific features of the Parthenon.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that such a prominent and visible monument would have some social motivations behind its constructions. Rhodes states that the Parthenon would have “inspired awe  and dread of the irrational”[5]. This claim is very likely as it is very doubtful that anyone living at that time would have seen or would ever see such a large temple as the one that had been constructed on the Acropolis. This would have encouraged public participation in festivals and would have been a sobering thought if one were to act wrongly, that the seated, libation holding, unarmed xoanon of Athena Polias, could turn into a huge, glinting and threatening goddess. The social statement here is that while Athena Nike in her sanctuary on the edge of the Acropolis, Promachos near the Propyleia and Polias were important, it was this one that had brought peace and prosperity to Athens, and it is the one that needs remembering, if not necessarily worshipping in the same manner. The Parthenon also celebrates the diversity of the empire that Athens had put together in an ever-present and everyday manner. This firstly done through the mixing of styles. While from a distance, the Doric features of the Parthenon stand out more than everything else, as one approaches the temple, the Ionic features (mainly the columns and the frieze) start to come out. This is a distinctly eastern and Egyptian influence which can also be seen in the Propyleia, in which Mnesikles includes Ionic columns. This is a sign to everyday Athenians of the extent of the influence that Athens has, all the way to Asia Minor and Egypt, which links to history because they are places which had been previously held by the Persians.  Furthermore, the Caryatids on the Erechtheum relate to the “subject women”[6] Caryae, peoples who were subdued by Athens. The relationship between the two buildings is very strong as they show the people the power of their own city, and by associating it with the temple itself, it shows that Athena is Athens, and therefore cannot be stopped by any ‘mortal’ city. This idea would explain the Gigantomachy on the metopes which represents the defence of themis and law against the hubris represented by the giants. The Acropolis is turned into Olympus, with Athena at its centre, reminding the people of the lengths and reasons for Athens possessing such a large empire. A certain amount of pride is visible in this building as the metopes also represent an Amazonomachy, which tells the story of the Amazon invasion of Attica. The Athenians were born from the ground and had a strong sense of autochthony, therefore had to show a fierce desire to defend their homeland, as was depicted in these metopes (right). There is also a much more pragmatic reason for the Parthenon: that is the full employment and the aggrandisement of the city. In a time of such prosperity, it would have been unthinkable in a democracy not to  spread the wealth around in some way and show off the city to any visitors at the same time.

Overall, it is possible to see that a basic explanation for the motivation behind the construction of the Parthenon as a religious building cannot be accepted in the slightest. It is clear that Athena Polias and the Erechtheum played a much more important role in the religious festivals and proceedings of the Athenians than the Parthenon ever did. As a result, one must look elsewhere to explain the construction of this enormous building. The historical and military reasoning behind it is a very strong one. Much, if not all of the Parthenon relates in some way in remembering past and current victories in wars as well as Athens’ supreme position at the time of construction. Its links and contrast with the rest of the Periclean building project simply serve to emphasise this argument. Equally important are the social motivations, this is because this would have been an everyday sight for thousands of Athenians, either from afar or up close which means that there had to be some social significance to it to justify the expense.  The social messages of reminders of pride and provenance of the Athenian people are prominent on this building. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the main motivations for the building of the Parthenon are social and historically and militarily commemorative.


Boardman- The Parthenon and its Sculptures

Herington-  Athena Polias and Athena Parthenos

Castriota-Myth, Ethos and Actuality

Simon- Festivals of Attica

Rhodes- Architecture and the Meaning on the Athenian Akropolis

Davison- Pheidias

Beard- The Parthenon

[1] Herington-  Athena Polias and Athena Parthenos

[2] Herington-  Athena Polias and Athena Parthenos

[3] Castriota-Myth, Ethos and Actuality

[4] Beard- The Parthenon

[5] Rhodes- Architecture and the Meaning on the Athenian Akropolis

[6] Rhodes- Architecture and the Meaning on the Athenian Akropolis

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