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Parthenon Frieze

Parthenon Frieze

Parthenon Frieze

The Parthenon frieze is the high-relief marble sculpture created to adorn the upper part of the Parthenon’s inner chamber of the temple. It was sculpted about 440 BC, and of the 160 m (524 ft) of the original frieze, about 80 per cent survives today.  The rest is known only from the drawings made in 1674 before the Venetian bombardment ruined the temple.

The frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession of the citizens of Athens to the Acropolis. In this annual procession at which Athenians and foreigners participated to honour Athena by offering sacrifices and a new peplos, a dress woven by selected noble Athenian girls. The grand parade shows a thanksgiving sacrifice of cattle and sheep, honey and water, followed by the victorious army celebrating their victories.

The Parthenon Frieze was created to run around the high exterior walls of the inside structure of the Parthenon. It was carved in marble in situ on the Parthenon. The marble for the frieze is called Pentelic marble as it was quarried from Mount Pentelicus and transported 19 km to the Acropolis of Athens.

The Panathenaia procession depicted on the frieze eventually became part of a larger festival that also included sporting, poetic and musical competitions. Prizes were awarded for the rhapsodic recitation of Homeric poetry, for instrumental music and singing. Also, the Panathenaia Games included a reading of both the Odyssey and the Iliad.

The immediate artistic influence of the frieze can be found in vase painting and grave stelae where there are echoes of the friezes motifs, themes and poses. The impact of the frieze can also be seen in the Hellenistic art of the Roman era in the sculptured sarcophagus and public building reliefs.

The Panathenaia Ceremony

During the Great Panathenaia, a special robe called the peplos was made by the women of Athens for the statue of Athena. It was then carried to the Parthenon as part of the procession. There was also the sacrifice of a hundred oxen. Then the meat from the sacrificed animals was used in an enormous banquet on the last night of the festival.

The Panathenaia also included poetic and musical competitions. Prizes were awarded for the rhapsodic recitation of Homeric poetry, for instrumental music and singing. Also, the Games included a reading of both the Odyssey and the Iliad. Award ceremonies included the presentation of amphorae, which were the large ceramic vessels that contained the oil. The winner of the chariot race received as a prize one-hundred and forty Panathenaic amphorae full of olive oil.

The competitions were the most prestigious games for the citizens of Athens, but not as important as the Olympic Games or the other Panhellenic Games which included other Greek city-states.

The Parthenon Frieze: Did you know?

  • What is the main difference between what we see today and the original?
    • In ancient times all sculptures were vividly painted and were complemented with metal attachments in the form of spears, swords, horse reins and other accessories.
  • What colour were Greek statues?
    •  Most were painted in bright shades of blue, red, yellow, brown and other hues.
  • Why was sculpture important in ancient Greece?
    • The Greeks, through their temples, sculpture and pottery art, incorporated a driving principle of their culture: the importance of excellence or virtue in all human endeavour.
  • Who and what is depicted on the Parthenon Frieze?
    • Members of the Athenian cavalry with horses and chariots.
    • Groups of Important elders
    • Musicians
    • People escorting sacrificial animals
    • Men and women are carrying ceremonial vessels and offerings.
    • Priestesses carrying the sacrificial instruments
    • The “peplos scene” is at the centre with gods, and heroes and women flank it on both sides.
    •  Twelve seated Olympian Gods, making them larger compared to the figures who are standing or riding.
  • What is the central theme of the Parthenon Frieze?
    • The celebration of the Panathenaea was the folding and presentation of the peplos to the goddess Athena. It was woven during the year by selected virgins exclusively for use during the procession.
  • What was the Panathenaia?
    • The Great Panathenaia, was the largest festival of the city of Athens to honour the Goddess Athena with a new peplos? The celebration took place every four years, lasted 12 days and included sacrifices, as well as athletic and musical contests. The Panathenaic Games lasted from 566 BC to the 3rd century AD.
  • What made the Frieze different from any other temple depiction?
    • The inclusion and depiction of the ordinary Athenian people in a temple sculpture along with the gods was a statement on the reputation of Athenian citizens.
  • When did the Venetian bombardment that ruined the temple?
    • 1687

The Parthenon Marbles

  • Title:               The Parthenon Marbles
  • Builder:           Phidias
  • Built:               442 BC – 438 BC
  • Material:         Marble
  • Origins:          Athens, Greece
  • Dimensions:   H: 1 m; L: 247 ft (75 m) of the original 524 ft (160 m) Frieze
  • Museum:        The British Museum


  • At the time that the Parthenon Frieze was created, it was an artistic period when the Athenian artists were discovering the expressive possibilities of the human body.  Athenian democracy and in the spirit of competition of ideas, there is greater freedom to experiment with poses and gestures, and increased attention to anatomical realism. How do these Greek sculpture compare to Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian sculptures?
  • An important innovation with the Parthenon Frieze was the use of drapery as an expression of motion and the body forms beneath. In early classical sculpture, clothing fell over the body as a way of obscuring the form below and not enhancing movement. In these sculptures, there are the billowing mantles worn by the horsemen and the multi-pleated peploi of the women. Can you see surface movement and tension in this style of sculpture?
  • Did you know that in ancient times these sculptures were vividly painted?

A Tour of the Acropolis of Athens

A Tour of the Ancient Greece and Rome Collection at the British Library


“There is the sun and daylight in her literature and art.
Homer does not allow us to forget that the sun shone,–nor Phidias,
nor the Parthenon.”
– Henry David Thoreau


Photo Credits: 1) JOM