X-Files – The Secrets of the Parthenon

For 25 centuries, the Parthenon has been shot at, set on fire, rocked by earthquakes, looted for its sculptures, and disfigured by misguided restorations. Now, a team of architects and engineers is investigating the many mysteries of this icon of Western Civilization: Today the X-Files opens the file on the secrets of the Parthenon and asks how did the ancient Greeks construct this glorious masterpiece, what is its origin and how much did it cost Athenians.?

As a post and lintel temple, the Parthenon presents no engineering breakthrough in building construction. 
However its stylistic conventions have become the paradigm of Classical architecture and its style has influenced architecture for many centuries after it was built.

DOCUMENTARY: Secrets of the Parthenon

The Parthenon is a large temple, but it is by no means the largest one in Greece. Its aesthetic appeal emanates from the refinement of many established norms of Greek architecture, and from the quality of its sculptural decoration. The Parthenon epitomizes all the ideals of Greek thought during the apogee of the Classical era through artistic means.
The idealism of the Greek way of living, the attention to detail, as well as the understanding of a mathematically explained harmony in the natural world, were concepts that in every Athenian’s eyes set them apart from the barbarians. These ideals are represented in the perfect proportions of the building, in its intricate architectural elements, and in the anthropomorphic statues that adorned it.
Some of these details were found in other Greek temples while some were unique to the Parthenon. The temple owes its refined appeal to the subtle details that were built into the architectural elements to accommodate practical needs or to enhance the building’s visual appeal.
The fact that there are no absolute straight lines on the Parthenon bestows a subtle organic character to an obvious geometric structure. The columns of the peristyle taper on a slight arc as they reach the top of the building giving the impression that they are swollen from entasis (tension) – as if they were burdened by the weight of the roof; a subtle feature that allots anthropomorphic metaphors to other wise inanimate objects.
The peristyle columns are over ten meters tall, and incline slightly towards the center of the building at the top (about 7 cm), while the platform upon which they rest bows on a gentle arc which brings the corners about 12 cm closer to the ground that the middle.
The architects of the Parthenon appear to be excellent scholars of visual illusion, an attribute undoubtedly sharpened by years of architectural refinement and observation of the natural world. They designed the columns that appear at the corners of the temple to be 1/40th (about 6 cm) larger in diameter than all the other columns, while they made the space around them smaller than the rest of the columns by about 25 cm. The reason for this slight adaptation of the corner columns is due to the fact that they are set against the bright sky, which would make them appear a little thinner and a little further apart than the columns set against the darker background of the building wall. The increase in size and decrease of space thus compensates for the illusion that the bright background would normally cause.
These subtle features set the Parthenon apart from all other Greek temples because the overall effect is a departure from the static Doric structures of the past, towards a more dynamic form of architectural expression. Moreover, the intricate refinements of the forms required unprecedented precision that would be challenging to achieve even in our time. But it was not mere grandeur through subtlety that the Athenians desired. It is evident that they sought to out-shine all other temples of the time through the lavish sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, and its imposing dimensions.  The doors that lead to the cella were abundantly decorated with relief sculptures of gorgons, lion heads and other bronze relief ornaments.

The Athenian citizens were proud of their cultural identity, and conscious of the historical magnitude of their ideas. They believed that they were civilized among barbarians, and that their cultural and political achievements were bound to alter the history of all civilized people. The catalyst for all their accomplishments was the development of a system of governance the likes of which the world had never seen: Democracy.
Democracy, arguably the epitome of the Athenian way of thinking, was at center stage while the Parthenon was built. This was a direct democracy where every citizen had a voice in the common issues through the Assembly that met on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis forty times per year to decide on all matters of policy, domestic or foreign.
The fact that common people are depicted as individuals for the first time at the Parthenon frieze was owed to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city was recognized as a significant entity and a considerable moving force in the polis and the observable universe.

Parthenon Facts

  • Year Built: 447-432 BCE
  • Precise Dimensions:
    • Width East: 30.875 m
    • Width West: 30.8835 m
    • Length North: 69.5151 m
    • Length South: 69.5115 m
  • Width to Ratio: 9:4
    • Width to height Ratio (without the Pediments): 9:4
  • Number of stones used to built the Parthenon: Approximated at 13400 stones.
  • Architects: Iktinos and Kallikrates
  • Parthenon Cost: 469 talents
  • Coordinates (of Plaka area just below the Acropolis): 37° 58’N, 23° 43’E
  • The origins of the sacred use of the great limestone rock rising from the Attic plain are unknown. They were forgotten long before the writing of the first recorded histories of Athens.
  • Neolithic remains discovered on the slopes of the Acropolis indicate a continuous settlement on the hill from at least 2800 BCE, well before the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures that later gave birth to the archaic Greek.
  • In the Mycenaean period (1600-1100 BCE) the summit was surrounded by a massive fortification wall, which protected the palace-temple of the Mycenaean priest-kings.
  • The earliest known Hellenistic structures, dating from the 6th century BCE, were two large temples dedicated to the goddess Athena, on hill top positions that had probably contained older shrines before them.
  • In 480 BCE the Persians destroyed these temples and in 447 BCE the Athenian leader Pericles initiated construction of the presently standing temple of Athena.
  • Built by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias, the temple is generally considered to be the culmination of the development of the Doric order, the simplest of the three classical Greek architectural styles.
  • While much of the structure remains intact, the Parthenon has suffered considerable damage over the centuries. In 296 BCE the tyrant Lachares removed the gold from the statue of Athena in order to pay his army.
  • In the 5th century CE the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church.
  • In 1460 the Parthenon held a Turkish mosque.
  • In 1687 gunpowder stored by the Turks inside the temple exploded and destroyed the central area
  • In 1801 – 1803 parts of the temple’s remaining sculptures were sold by the Turks (who controlled Greece at the time) to the Englishman Lord Elgin. These sculptures were forcibly removed, sold to the British Museum and called the Elgin Marbles.
  • Greece has asked the British Museum to return the sculptures but it has refused to do so.


  • Long before the construction of the Parthenon the site had been a sacred place of other cultures. The Parthenon was built to supplant the temples of the earlier cultures and to both experience and praise the character of the Greek goddess Athena.
  • The power of a place, the character of its energy gives rise to various types of deity forms. The temple of Athena, a goddess of spiritual development and intellectual understanding, catalyzes and cultivates those same qualities in visitors.


  • The Parthenon was the supreme expression of the ancient Greek architectural genius and represents the marriage of simplicity and power.
  • The Parthenon was built to extremely precise dimensions according to the mathematical ratios of sacred geometry.
  • The rectangular building (measured at the top step of its base to be 101.34 feet wide by 228.14 feet long) was constructed of brilliant white marble, surrounded by 46 great columns, roofed with tiles, and housed a nearly 40 foot tall statue of the goddess Athena. The statue, known as Athena Promachos, Athena the Champion, was made of wood, gold and ivory and could be seen from a distance of many miles.


  • The name Parthenon refers to the worship of Athena, the goddess and patroness of the city of Athens.
  • Athena issued fully grown from the head of her father Zeus (Jupiter).
  • She represents the highest order of spiritual development and the gifts of intellect and understanding. Athena is the symbol of the universal human aspiration for wisdom

Sources: http://www.ancient-greece.org/architecture/parthenon2.html


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