Athenian Ideals and the Parthenon on the Acropolis

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Athenian Ideals and the Parthenon on the Acropolis

The Athenian Acropolis sits on a hill above the city of Athens and was the home for the temple to their patron goddess, Athena. Before the Persians were expelled from the Greek peninsula in 480 BCE, they decimated the Acropolis, leveling the temple and destroying the statuary that occupied its ground. For over thirty years, the Acropolis lay barren as a reminder of the harms their Persian enemies had caused. During this time, Athens had emerged as the center of Greek culture, its democratic ideals and decisive role in the defeat of the Persians inspired cultural regeneration for the region. Under the leadership of Pericles, the Acropolis was to be rebuilt in splendor and a new temple to Athena, the Parthenon, would become the embodiment of the classical ideas of Ancient Greece and a document of Athenian civic virtue and pride.

The classical period of Ancient Greece dates between the expulsion of the Persians in 480 BCE and the beginnings of the Peloponnesian war in 431 BCE. There are certain characteristics that define this period, and one of the most important is the intense idealism and naturalism within their art. As Protagoras, a classical Greek Sophist had stated, man is the measure of all things.” Sculpture became increasingly more faithful to how humans looked and acted combined with idealized proportions and expressions. Ethos and the intellect had triumphed over pathos the emotions, and Greek architecture and sculpture of the classical period reflected this. Man had an ability to create order out of chaos and beauty through symmetry and harmony.

Iktinos and Kalikrates were the architects of the Parthenon, and constructed it with ideal mathematical proportions, blended with adjustments to account for how the building would be viewed by the human eye. It appears to be lighter and less massive than earlier temples, yet is the largest temple from its time. The space between columns was widened and the swelling or entasis of the center of the columns reduced. The prescriptive formula used was x= 2y +1, where there are twice as many plus one columns in length as the width: 17 columns long and 8 columns wide. This mathematical ratio is reflected elsewhere in the structure as well. To account for the viewer’s perspective, the floor and entablature are raised in the middle on the long sides; the columns in the corners are closer to their neighbors than the others while leaning ever so slightly inward toward the center. All of these discrepancies from mathematical perfection were intentional to account for optical perception which can distort the actual reality. In this case it accounts for the eyes tendency to bend straight lines that are long on a horizon and to accentuate height when looking up. The end result is a building that measures up to the Greek ideals, an ordering and perfecting of the natural world, ideals which would also be reflected in the sculpture that adorned the temple surfaces.

Much of the sculpture has not survived the ages, but fragments from the east pediment along with examples from the metope and frieze provide us a good sense of its overall splendor and meaning. In the east pediment we witness the gathering of the gods for the birth of Athena. The reclining male and female figures reflect ideal proportions, actual bodies in motion and the expression of the reclining male speaks to the calm of ethos, a trait highly praised by the Greeks. The female figures indicate a new trend toward revealing female form in public sculpture. The clothing, clinging to their flesh like wet drapery, predicts the nude erotic sculptures to come in the Late Classical era, but here still reflected values of restraint over decadence.

Along the south frieze metopes the story of the Lapiths and Centaurs was depicted. Centaurs being half animal were connected to passion and emotion. Their eventual defeat with the help of Apollo was another sign of the triumph of ethos over pathos, and also stood as an allegory for the Greek defeat of the Persians. Although we cannot see the face of the centaur, his body language is indicative of the type of emotional expression the Greeks would ascribe to the antagonists in their stories.

The inner frieze is perhaps the most interesting of the sculpture on the Parthenon. It continues to show the triumph of ethos over pathos, as the figures are naturalistically and idealistically rendered. Yet the subject of the frieze, the Panathenaic festival, breaks with one of the most important conventions, which is that mortals are never shown on the same level as the gods. The Panathenaic festival took place every four years in Athens where the citizens made a processional parade from the city up to the Acropolis and through the Parthenon to give tribute to Athena, their patroness. We see men on horseback, calm, cool and collected as their horses rear in excitement and the seated gods and goddesses watch as the procession goes by. The inclusion of the Athenian citizens indicates that they thought high enough of themselves to be included amongst the deities. Protagoras’ statement had rung true: man was the measure of all things and could attain perfection to be memorialized on the temple walls.

Monumental works of architecture require enormous resources to construct, and the Parthenon was no exception. The Greeks had united themselves against the common enemy of the Persians and formed the Delian league, pooling their financial resources. But after the Persian defeat, the Athenians assumed the position of first amongst supposed equals and took control of the funds to glorify the city of Athens and rebuild the Acropolis. It is this action that sparked the resentment of neighboring city-states and resulted in the Pelopenisian war. After decades of conflict, Athens was defeated by Sparta, and the Greeks were significantly weakened allowing for the easy conquest of the peninsula by Phillip of Macedon, ending the Classical period. It is in the Parthenon that we see classical Greek idealism, naturalism and optimism. But it is also where in hindsight we also see the hubris and self-importance that lead to their downfall.

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