The Parthenon


The Parthenon is one of the most famous buildings in the world. Many people think it is one of the most beautiful, too, even though it is now in ruins. On this page you will find out everything you need to know about the Parthenon. Click here to see some pictures of the sculptures on the Parthenon, now in the British Museum.

Click here to see my photos of the Parthenon, from September 07.

Where is the Parthenon?


The Parthenon stands on the Acropolis, a sacred hill in the middle of Athens. It’s the big building in the picture below.



The other main buildings on the Acropolis are the propylaion (the gateway onto the hill, left of picture), the temple of Athena Nike (victory), and the Erechtheion, a temple to several gods (behind the Parthenon in the picture).



In ancient times there were other buildings and many statues, including a large bronze statue of Athena.

When was it built?


The Parthenon was built from 447BC to 438BC, but all the decorations and the statue of Athena inside were not finished until 432BC.

The temple was dedicated (formally opened) in 438BC.

Who built it?


Pericles (left), the leader of Athens, ordered the building of the Parthenon. He got his friend Pheidias to be the chief architect. Pheidias, one of the greatest sculptors of all time, carved many of the sculptures on the Parthenon himself. The two architects under him were Callikrates and Ictinos.

Why was it built?


The Greeks fought a war against the Persians from 490BC to 479BC. They finally defeated them but the Persians destroyed the Acropolis in 480BC.



The Athenians had to rebuild the temple to Athena that had been ruined.

They also wanted to celebrate the victory over the Persians, and to give thanks to Athena, goddess of war, who they believed had helped them win the battles.



The Athenians had also found a rich seam of silver in Laurium which gave them the money to build a magnificent temple.

What was the Parthenon used for?


Most people have always thought the Parthenon was a temple to the goddess Athena. The building has the shape of a Doric temple, and there was a statue of Athena inside. Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, and the city was named after her. ‘Parthenon’ comes from Athena Parthenos, which means Athena the virgin.

Sacrifices were made to Athena here, and every four years there was a big festival to Athena which ended at the Parthenon (see later, the Panathenaic festival).

Some people, however, think that the Parthenon was really a treasury. A lot of gold treasure was stored here in a room at the back of the temple, and there was 1000kg of gold on the statue itself (see picture).

What was the Panathenaic Festival?


Every four years the Athenians had a big celebration in honour of Athena. There were athletic games and competitions of music, poetry, and dancing. It lasted from 28 June to 28 July.

Part of the Parthenon frieze, showing the procession.

Athenian girls spent 9 months weaving a ‘peplos’, a dress for the statue. There was a procession which began outside the city gates and went through the agora, up to the Acropolis, and ended at the Parthenon. Animals like oxen and sheep were sacrificed in Athena’s honour.

How big was the Parthenon?


The base of the Parthenon is 72.5mX34m. The columns are 10.43m high and 1.9m wide at the base. There are 8 columns at the front and back, and 17 along the sides, making 46 columns in all.


This picture shows the east side of the Parthenon, which is the front (the right side on the picture above).

How was the Parthenon built?


The Parthenon was built with high quality marble from nearby Mt Pentelicon. The columns go all around the cella. The cella had three rooms, but not much of these is left today. The cella was built first, and the columns around it.

The Parthenon was very carefully built, by expert masons. Some machinery was needed to put the very heavy stone blocks in place. A crane such as that shown here may have been used, and the blocks also had bits sticking out to be used for carrying.

What’s so special about the Parthenon?


The Parthenon is a marvel of architecture. The designers made many corrections, or ‘refinements’, to make the building as beautiful as possible. For example, a long horizontal line seems to sag in the middle. Therefore the base of the Parthenon curves up slightly in the middle, so it doesn’t seem to sag.

The base bulges up 6cm in the middle (East face).

Can you see the curve in this picture?

For the same reason the columns bulge out 2cm. This is called ‘entasis’. Also the columns at the corners are the only ones which you can see in silhouette against the sky. This makes them seem thinner, and so they were made thicker to counter this effect.

The Parthenon Sculptures


Another reason the Parthenon is special is the wonderful sculptures it was covered with. There were 92 metopes which were all carved, as well as the pediments and the frieze on the outside of the cella.


This picture shows part of the east pediment as it is today, in the British Museum, and how it would have looked with the original paint.



All the sculptures were originally painted with a blue background, and reddish-brown, white, yellow, black, and grey.


In January 2006 I visited the British Museum and took some pictures of the Parthenon sculptures. The Greek government wants Britain to give them back. Do you think we should?

The Pediments


Most of the sculptures on the pediments are missing, but from descriptions by an ancient Greek traveller, Pausanias, we know what was on them.

West Pediment: the contest between Athena and Poseidon to be patron of the city. Athena makes the first olive tree grow; Poseidon makes salt water flow from the ground.

 These pictures show a reconstruction of the pediments in the Acropolis Museum.

East Pediment: the birth of Athena. Hephaestus strikes Zeus’ head with an axe, and Athena leaps out, fully grown, with her helmet, spear and shield.

The Metopes


There are 92 metopes which are all carved. Some are still on the building, some are in the Acropolis Museum, some are in the British Museum and some are in the Louvre in Paris. The subjects are all from Greek mythology, as follows:



South wall – the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs

North wall - Greeks fighting Trojans


East wall – the battle of the gods versus the giants


West wall – The Greeks fighting the Amazons (warrior women)

The Frieze


The frieze ran around the top of outside of the cella wall – so it was actually quite hard to see. It showed the Panathenaic procession, with horse riders, women bearing ritual objects, men driving cows and sheep, and finally the gods themselves.

Most of the frieze is in the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum.

A reconstruction of part of the frieze, showing the original colours

What happened to the Parthenon?


The Parthenon was used by the Greeks for centuries, but in the 300s AD pagan religion was banned when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages it was used as a church of the Virgin Mary, and later it became a mosque, when the Turks ruled Athens.


                      inside the Parthenon

In 1687 the Parthenon was being used by the Turks as an arsenal – so it was full of barrels of gunpowder. The Venetians bombarded it with cannon fire, and BOOM! – the middle and the roof were blown up. That’s why it is in such a state today. The Greek government is doing what it can to restore the Parthenon, but this will take many more years to finish.

Right is a model of the Parthenon in the British Museum