3.1-2 acropolis and parthenon athens

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3.1- 2
TRANSCRIPT FOR The Acropolis and Parthenon of Athens
A visitor to Athens in the late fifth century bce would have been impressed by a grand complex
of temples and other buildings. This was the Acropolis, or “highest city” in Greek. Originally a
fortress, by this time the Athenian Acropolis was the site of some of the finest art and
architecture in Greece.
The Acropolis was an imposing mound of rock that rose steeply above the surrounding city. The
largest building on the Acropolis was the Parthenon, built entirely of fine marble. Although more
familiar to us as a temple, the Parthenon was also utilized as a treasury. It was used to store
thousands of pounds of silver, paid annually to Athens by the Delian league: a group of memberstates set up in joint opposition to the Persians, but which Athens came to have command over.
The treasure was kept in a chamber called the “Virgin Room,” or “Parthenon,” hence the
temple’s name.
To the north of the Parthenon was a smaller temple, dedicated to Athena Polias, the city’s patron
goddess, who gave Athens its name. This building is known today as the Erectheum.
To the east was a monumental entryway to the Acropolis, the Propylaia, or “Gateways,” named
after its five doorways. The Propylaia was designed to be not merely a gatehouse, but also to
impress visitors before they passed through to the temple precincts.
Jutting out to one side of the Propylaia was a small temple dedicated to Athena Nike, the goddess
of victory in war. Appropriately, in the fifth century bce the temple was adapted from a military
building, and covered in fine marble during the construction of the Propylaia.
To the south stood the open-air Theater of Dionysos, named after another Greek god. Sitting on
semicircular banks of marble bleachers, the audience watched the actors perform in a circular
space called the orchestra. Behind stood the skene, where the actors prepared for the
performance. Athenians flocked to see the latest tragedy or comedy by such playwrights as
Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides, all of whose works are still performed today.
The Parthenon as we see it now stands on the site of an earlier, unfinished temple, destroyed by
the Persians when they invaded in 480 bce. A few decades later, when the Athenians rebuilt the
temple, they did so in grand style, sparing no expense; the new Parthenon was bigger and
constructed of the finest materials.
Work on the Parthenon began in 447 bce and was mostly complete by 437 bce. It was overseen
by three men: Pheidias directed the sculptural program and the overall design, Iktinos was the
architect, and Kallikrates organized the works.
Ancient Greek architects adhered to certain rules and style guidelines. The two main
architectural styles were Doric and Ionic, but the Parthenon mixed both. Its plan and outer
facades were Doric, but the columns of the rear chamber were Ionic, and an Ionic frieze ran
round the outer walls of the inner building.
The building we admire today has been significantly altered by the effects of war and other
damage inflicted over several centuries. We can gain an impression of the Parthenon’s original
splendor from a replica constructed in Nashville, Tennessee, between 1920 and 1931.
The Parthenon was not just a marvel of architecture; it was also decorated with the finest Greek
sculpture. In its main hall stood a 30-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue of Athena, accompanied by
statues of Athena Nike, each 6 feet 6 inches tall, and covered in gold.
The four sides of the building were richly decorated with relief carvings. One set of reliefs
portrayed a mythical battle between the centaurs (part-human, part-horse creatures) and the
Lapiths (a mythical Greek people.)
This mythical conflict was a reference to the real-life wars in which the Greeks, aligned with the
heroic human Lapiths, fought off the marauding Persians, represented by the barbaric centaurs.
The frieze on the walls of the inner building depicted the ritual procession of Athens’s most
important civic festival, the Great Panathenaia: a celebration of the goddess Athena’s birthday.
On that day, Athenians paraded from the Dipylon gate in the city wall, through the Agora
marketplace, up the ramp and steps leading into the Acropolis, and finally through the Propylaia
into the temple precincts, where bulls were sacrificed in honor of Athena.
The famous frieze shows horsemen; chariots; girls in the procession; women leading bulls to
sacrifice on the Acropolis; and the gods themselves.
Although we see the Parthenon today as a pure-white marble monument, in its day it would have
been a brashly colorful building. Weathering has worn away the paint over time, leaving only
traces for scientists to find. The metope sculptures would have been painted bright colors,
enhancing the contrast of relief to background.
Many of the sculptures from the Parthenon are now in the collection of the British Museum in
London. The carvings are known as the “Elgin marbles,” after the early nineteenth-century
British Ambassador to Constantinople, Lord Elgin. In 1801, the Turks, who governed Greece at
the time, gave Elgin permission to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon site to England.
The Greek government has long demanded the return of the sculptures to Greece, where in 2009
it finished building a new museum to display them. The British Museum responds that the
sculptures were removed with legal permission, and that, as part of world heritage, they are
available to visitors the world over in London.
The scenes of conflict depicted in the Elgin marbles remind us that these magnificent works of
art remain the object of this great and unresolved controversy.
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