Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Rebuilding of Athens



The Parthenon today
A great deal of this post is indebted to Mary Beard's excellent The Parthenon (Profile Books, 2007), a book that explodes many myths and romantic stories. I have also used the British Museum's booklet The Elgin Marbles and the Short Guide to the Acropolis Museum.


Before the Persians came

The Acropolis 

The Acropolis is a limestone rock 156 metres above sea level. All sides of the hill are precipitous and the only feasible approach is from the west.  This confined space has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and by the end of the Mycenaean period it housed a palace and an ‘Old Temple’ dedicated to Poseidon and Athena. The tyrant Peisistratos reconstructed the ‘Old Temple’ and adorned it with marble sculptures. In 490 BC following the victory at Marathon the construction of a new marble temple to Athena began. This was the Older Parthenon, and its only mortal residents were the privileged few who served the goddess, the priestess of Athena, and the Arrephoroi, a group of girls whose duties included the setting up of the loom for the peplos, the goddess’s robe.   By the fifth century, therefore the Acropolis was a holy place dedicated to the cult of Athena and other divine patrons of Athens.  

Athens was a city of narrow streets and modest houses, but increasingly impressive public buildings. The tyrant Peisistratos had commissioned monumental public buildings and works. He and his sons enlarged the open space that became known as the agora and provided fountain houses and aqueducts. 



The agora


The Pnyx, as it is today
Athens was a city of narrow streets and modest houses, but increasingly impressive public buildings. Peisistratos and his sons enlarged the open space that became known as the agora and provided fountain houses and aqueducts. The democrat Cleisthenes made further additions. He set out boundary stones that staked out the public area as a religious precinct and made it closed to a certain type of criminal.  


The Persian sack

In 480 the Athenians evacuated their city, taking with them their holiest possession, the ancient olive-wood statue of Athena.  The Persians sacked both the town and the Acropolis, including the Older Parthenon so that not a single temple remained. After Salamis the Athenians are said to have sworn an oath not to rebuild the desecrated shrines but to leave them as a monument to Persian impiety. However some modern authorities, notably Mary Beard, are sceptical about this story. The Athenians gathered together all the fragments of the despoiled statues and architectural sculptures and buried them in the Acropolis in pits discovered by archaeologists from 1885-91.

The beginnings of reconstruction

The immediate need was to secure the defences of Athens. Themistocles, ordered the swift rebuilding of the city walls to protect the city and link it to the sea, in spite of protests from Sparta. The circuit of the walls was roughly 6.5km in length and was furnished with thirteen gates and an unknown number of towers and posterns. The wall ran right through the old Potters' Quarter (the Kerameikos) and divided the great cemetery area into an inner and an outer. In the 460s and 450s the Long Walls were constructed to link Athens and Piraeus.  

Within the new circuit wall, the Athenians reconstructed their city. First of all, the agora was rebuilt. 

The main buildings in this market area were the Council Chamber, the Court House, and the Royal Stoa for the officer of state (the king archon, whose primary function was justice). It was here that the officers of state stood on a block of stone (lithos) to take their oath to abide by the laws of the state and it was here that the laws of Solon, carved on stone, were made accessible to the people.  The Stoa Poikile was a colonnaded building that housed paintings. Temples to Hephaistos and Athena were also built. The statues of the would-be tyrannicides, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, were given pride of place. 

However, a good deal of social and political life was moving away from the agora. Meetings of the Assembly were now held on the Pnyx, an immense new meeting-place hewn out of the rock.  Dramatic competitions took place in the sanctuary of Dionysus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis.

The Parthenon

Late in 449 the Assembly, at the instigation of Pericles, voted to reconstruct the burned temples on the Acropolis in a vast programme of public works probably supervised by the surveyor and sculptor Pheidias. Writing five hundred years later, the historian Plutarch commented on the remarkable speed in which the building took place. In 447 BC work started on a temple that was designed to be the most extravagant and beautiful ever build. It would later be called the Parthenon, the shrine of the virgin goddess, Athena and would be the most visible symbol possible of the greatness of Athens.  Because so much of the Parthenon is in ruins, we are greatly reliant on the description of the Greek traveller Pausanias,  who visited it in the second century AD. 

The Parthenon was built of 22,000 tons of marble quarried from Mount Pentelicus. The details were picked out in paint. 



The kernel of the Parthenon was an oblong building with a porch of six columns at each end leading into two rooms of unequal size. The Parthenon (‘room of the maidens’) in the west of the building was the smaller of the two and may have been intended as a store-chamber for the goddess. The larger room was the Hecatompedos, the ‘hundred-foot chamber’ that housed the massive thirty-five foot high statue of Athena Parthenos. Around the outside of the central building ran a peristyle or colonnade of forty-six columns (eight across each end and seventeen along the side, counting the angle-columns twice). The temple stood on a base of three steps and there are two more steps up into the porches.

The temple is built in the Doric order
The outer columns support a marble beam (architrave) on which rests a frieze consisting of ninety-two sculptured panels (metopes), alternating with vertically grooved blocks (triglyphs). The metopes seem to have shown mythical battles and perhaps symbolise the defeat of the Persians, whose captured shields and daggers were to be found amongst the war booty in the storeroom below. The overhanging cornice runs the length of the building. At the ends are two pediments filled with groups of marble sculptures. Inside the building is a frieze that forms a continuous sculptured band around the central structure.  This has survived reasonably intact in London or Athens.  

However, there is little consensus over what the frieze was trying to show. In 1789 James Stuart argued in his Antiquities of Athens that it depicted the Panathenaic festival but, though this is often stated uncritically in books on the Parthenon, there are many problems with this interpretation. We cannot be sure what the frieze was meant to depict. There was originally a full roof of marble tiles supported by wooden rafters. This was blown up by the Venetians in 1686.

The statue


The statue of Athena Parthenos was fashioned by Pheidias and dedicated in 439 or 438.  It was made of gold and ivory over a timber frame: ivory for the flesh, gold for the drapery and accoutrements and was probably more expensive than the Parthenon itself. Athena stands holding a Nike (victory) on her right hand. With her left hand she supports her shield, which shelters the snake, the symbol of Erichthonios, the legendary king of Athens, as it rests on the ground.  She is wearing the 'peplos'. Her 'aegis' (breastplate) is adorned with snakes and the head of Medusa. Her helmet has a sphinx at the centre and griffins on either side.

The Parthenon was completed in 438 and formally dedicated to the goddess at the Panathenaic Festival of that year (see a subsequent post for more details about this festival). It is now clear that it was not a place of worship but a statement of civic strength. The treasury of Athens was kept there under the protection of Athena and one archaeologist has described the Parthenon, rather unromantically, as a strong box.

Other buildings

Nike adjusting her sandal
from the parapet of the
Temple of Nike
The Parthenon was not the only temple on the Acropolis. Two smaller temples,  the Erechtheion, dedicated to Erechthonios and the temple of Athena Nike (Victory) were completed after Pericles’ death in 429. The Erechtheion was built during the Peloponnesian War in order to replace the earlier temple of Athena Polias that was destroyed by the Persians. At the south porch the roof was supported by six statues of maidens, known as the caryatids. It was to the Erechtheion that every four years, the people of Athens brought a new robe, the peplos, for Athena's wooden statue. 


The Caryatid porch, the Erechtheion


The Acropolis was approached by new entrance gates, the Propylaea, a massive structure built of white Pentelic marble and grey Eleusinian marble that took five years to complete. The historian Thucydides singled it out as the flagship building of the site. The Odeion or ‘Music Hall’ was built on the hill slope. It was here that the dramatists gave previews of their plays. There was a new sanctuary for Artemis Brauronia, the goddess of childbirth, between the temple of Athene Nike and the Propylaea.

When the buildings on the Acropolis were completed, attention turned once more to the agora. A mint, a law court and a temple to Zeus were added at this time. 

Who paid?

The money came from the tribute money paid by Athens’ allies. The transfer of the funds of the Delian League (which will be discussed in a future post) from Delos to Athens in 454 had left the Athenians in sole control of vast war funds. 
‘The building and funding of the Parthenon are inseparable from the Athenian empire, its profits, its debates and discontents.’ Mary Beard, The Parthenon, p. 39.