The city of Athens was home to some of the
most aesthetically sophisticated architecture of the ancient world. In
particular, the Acropolis, a sanctuary of religious structures, has been
extensively excavated to reveal the superior place its wonders occupy
in classical architectural history. Located on a hill in the center of
Athens, these buildings celebrate the origins of Athenian culture
through the veneration of the goddess Athena. After the first Acropolis
complex was destroyed by Persian troops in 480 BC, a new complex
was commissioned by the Athenian ruler Pericles and directed
by the architectural sculptor Pheidias. This new complex was much
criticized by surrounding communities because their payments to the
Delian League’s treasury, kept in Athens to provide military support
across the region, was instead used for Pericles’s reconstruction of
the Acropolis. In Athens, however, the Acropolis became a symbol of
Athenian supremacy across the region, demonstrative of Athenian
pride and cultural values.
Marble was brought from quarries outside the city to construct a
complex of seven major buildings, including the Propylaia, or grand
portico entrance into the walled complex accessible by the “Sacred
Way”; the Pinakotheke, or picture gallery on the left of the Propylaia;
the little Temple of Athena Nike on the edge of the hill to the right of
the entrance; the courtyard sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia (protector
of animals); and the armory, called the Chalkotheke, which finally directs
the visitor to the Erechtheion on the left, and on its right, to the
famous Parthenon, located on the most elevated site of the Acropolis.
Many votive statues, such as the colossal bronze of Athena the De-
fender located just through the Propylaia, filled the rooms, courtyards,
and open areas.
The Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, to whom votive offerings
were brought, housed a monumental statue of Athena made of
ivory and gold. Construction began in 480 BC by the architect
Kallikrates but was halted for about 30 years and then expanded upon
by the architect Iktinos. This white marble rectangular temple is elevated
by several marble steps, called the stereobate, that surround the
entire building and lead up to a continuous portico lined in a peristyle
on all four sides with a single row of columns. Additionally, because
the temple has a single peristyle rather than double columns, it is
called a peripteral temple. At the Parthenon, a pronaos, or smaller
porch, provides an entrance from the eastern platform, or stylobate,
into the internal sanctuary, called the cella. A separate, unconnected
portico then faces west, providing symmetry to the building. The
columns that surround the building are of the most austere order, the
Doric. Above the Doric capitals is a smooth architrave, and above
this begins the frieze of triglyphs, or three-part glyph patterns, and
metopes, or square panels carved with relief sculptures of various
battle scenes. Rising above this frieze is a triangular pediment surrounded
by a cornice filled with sculptures of gods and goddesses.
Triangular pediments occupy the west and east fa├žades of the slightly
gabled roof, which is made of marble and not the usual wood or terracotta.
Although most of the building remains today, the roof was
destroyed and most of the architectural sculpture was placed in the
British Museum in London.
Greek architects are best known for their graceful columns, and
here the Doric columns are fluted, or carved with vertical lines, and
calculated mathematically to rise to an increasingly more slender
width from the drum, through the shaft, and to the necking right beneath
the capital. It is this attention to mathematical detail, focused
on symmetry, harmony, and proportionality, that provides the
Parthenon with an enduring beauty called the “classical” aesthetic.
Many Renaissance and later Neo-Classical buildings found across
the western world have been modeled on the Parthenon, not only for
its aesthetics, but also because its architecture came to symbolize
general prosperity, democratic principles, and honest leadership.

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