The Parthenon Marbles
The Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens, Greece between 447 and 432 B.C. as a testament to the glory and pride of the Athenian state. The Parthenon stands on the Acropolis of Athens which in ancient times, as it does today, dominates the city of Athens. The Acropolis is an extremely rocky outcrop above the city of Athens. The word acropolis comes from the Greek, Akron meaning “highest point” and polis meaning “city”. The Acropolis is a flat-topped rock that rises high over Athens, with a large flat area which has been used as a fortress and a religious centre from time immemorial.
Use the interactive Google Map below to gain 360 degree views of the Acropolis of Athens.
In ancient times, the Acropolis was used as a fortress and a religious centre dedicated to the cult of the city’s patron goddess, Athena. During the 5th century B.C. peace had been made with Persia and Athens had reached the highpoint in her wealth and power. Athens was the leader of the majority of the Greek city-states, who paid tribute to Athens for protection from Persia. Under the democratically elected leadership of Pericles, Athens decided to use its wealth to build a great new temple to Athena.
“Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian” – a Roman copy of a Greek original from ca. 430 BC.
Pericles (495-429 BC) was the most prominent and influential Athenian statesman, and in 461, he became the leader of Athens, a role he occupied until his death. Under his leadership was built the Parthenon, during the Golden Age of Athens.
“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Pericles
The Temple of Athena was erected using Doric style columns from white marble quarried from Mount Pentelikon which is about sixteen kilometres from the Acropolis. The building was architected in perfect proportions and decorated with a plethora of sculptures.
The temple survived Roman occupation, and in the 5th Century AD, it was converted into a Christian Church. The worst damage occurred in 1687 when a Turkish gunpowder magazine located within the Temple exploded after a direct hit by the Venetian besieging army.
Parthenon Marbles are also known as The Elgin Marbles, which refers to the controversial history of how and why the Parthenon Marbles from Athens ended up in the British Museum. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine (1766 – 1841) was a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, known primarily for the removal and shipment to England of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens.
When the marbles arrived in England, they were an instant success among many who admired the sculptures. However, both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors.
Lord Byron strongly objected to the removal of the marbles from the temple, denouncing Elgin as a vandal. His view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is reflected in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:
“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!”
The Greek government claim that Elgin stole the marbles and are demanding their return to Greece. They have built a museum at the base of the Acropolis to house the Marbles from the Parthenon.
The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum consist of three different types of marble sculptures which originally adorned the Parthenon Temple in Athens:
- The Parthenon Frieze
- Metopes of the Parthenon
- Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon
The Parthenon Frieze
The Ionic frieze running around the exterior walls of the inside structure of the Parthenon is a bas-relief frieze was carved in situ. It depicts the Panathenaic procession of the citizens of Athens to the Acropolis.
In this annual procession at which Athenians and foreigners would participate to honour Athena by offering sacrifices and a new peplos, a dress woven by selected noble Athenian girls.
Metopes of the Parthenon
The Metopes were part of the relief sculptures that were integral to the architecture of the Parthenon. They are square marble blocks that were placed high on the exterior of the temple walls.
They were a series of marble panels, originally 92 in number, on the outside walls of the Parthenon forming part of the Doric frieze. The East Metopes were situated above the main entrance of the temple. They depict the cosmogonic battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants. The South Metopes represent the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, as can be seen below.
The West Metopes depict the legendary invasion of Athens by the Amazons. The North Metopes show scenes from the Trojan War.
The Metopes in total, illustrate scenes from Athenian mythology and history. For Athenians, they also symbolised the triumph of Athenian reason and order over chaos.
Pedimental Sculptures of the Parthenon
The pediment is a classical architectural element consisting of the triangular section in front and behind the temple located above the horizontal sections supported by columns. The pediment was not an ideal space for sculptures and demanded imagination and skill to create sculptures that worked in the narrowing area at either end of the sloping Pediment.
The East Pediment above the entrance to the temple displayed the story of the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena’s birth.
The West Pediment depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon during their competition for the honour of becoming the city’s patron.
Copies of the Parthenon Temple
The Parthenon was remarkably innovative when it was built and influenced many temples that followed in the Greek and Roman world. Even in modern times much of Western Architecture is based on the Parthenon model. Examples include the front of the British Museum and many Government buildings in the United States.
There are many modern copies of the Parthenon around the world. Examples include:
- The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. Built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It also a copy of the long-lost statue of Athena Parthenos within is a reconstruction.
- The Walhalla is located above the Danube River, east of Regensburg in Bavaria. Built between 1830 and 1842.
The Parthenon Marbles, despite the controversy of how they were acquired, are the greatest masterpieces in the British Museum, because they influenced first the Roman world and subsequently Western views of beauty in sculpture and architectural design across many cultures.
Other Ancient Greek masterpieces featured in “Joy of Museums” include:
- Mask of Agamemnon – 1550–1500 B.C.
- Statue of a Kouros – 580 BC
- Peplos Kore – 530 BC
- Artemision Bronze – 460BC
- The Parthenon Marbles – 440 BC
- Caryatids of Erechtheum – 420 BC
- Boy with Thorn – Original Greek ~ 3rd century BC
- Dying Gaul – Original Greek ~ 230 BC
- The Winged Victory of Samothrace – 200 BC
- Laocoön and His Sons – 200 BC (Greek Original)
The Parthenon Marbles
- Artist: Phidias
- Type: Marble
- Built: 447–438 BC:
- Original Location: Athens, Greece
- Museum: The British Museum
- Key Dates:
- 438 BC Year building completed
- 1400s: Converted into a Christian Church
- 1460s: Turned into a Mosque
- 1687: Venetian bombardment destroying large sections of the Parthenon
- 1801: Start of the removal of the Marbles by Lord Elgin’s ream
- 1805: Marbles arrived in England
- 1816: The British Government purchased the Marbles from Elgin:
- The collection at the British Museum includes the following material from the Parthenon:
- 247 ft (75 m) of the original 524 ft (160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze:
- 15 of the 92 Parthenon metopes
- 17 Parthenon pedimental figures
- Variety of pieces of architecture from the Parthenon
- The collection at the British Museum includes the following material from the Acropolis:
- 4 slabs of the frieze and architectural members from the Temple of Athena Nike.
- A Caryatid, a column and other architectural members from the Erechtheion:
- Architectural members from the Propylaia
- Other museums also hold sculpture from the Parthenon:
- Musée du Louvre, Paris
- Vatican Museums
- National Museum, Copenhagen
- Glyptothek, Munich
- Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna
- University Museum, Würzburg
“Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Latium” Horace
Photo Credits: 1) By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons 4)Phidias [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 5) © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons 6) By Copy of Kresilas (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 7) By Steve Swayne [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 8) By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 8) By No machine-readable author provided. Thermos assumed (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 9) By MICHAEL BROWN (ParthenonUploaded by Kaldari) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 9) By Michael J. Zirbes (Mijozi) (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 10) By Archibald Archer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons