See also

Roman concrete construction

Further reading

Ching, Francis D. K. 1996. Architecture: Form, Space, and Order. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Licht, Kjeld De Fine. 1968. The Rotunda in Rome: A Study of Hadrian’s Pantheon. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

MacDonald, William L. 1976. The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny. London: A. Lane.


Athens, Greece

Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the Parthenon, “earth wears no fairer gem upon her zone.” Even if that was going a little too far, we certainly may assert that the great temple, built 447–432 b.c., is the high point of Greek Doric architecture. The Greeks’ quest for cosmic harmony can be traced in their sculpture and their architecture, especially temples. From archaic shrines—the religious equivalent of the royal megarons—the building type underwent a refinement of form and detail until it eventually achieved the proportional balance and visual nuances of the Parthenon. Having achieved perfection in the eyes of its creators, Doric architecture then had nowhere left to go.

Scholars continue to interpret the Athenian Acropolis, differing over the location of buildings long gone. For centuries, successive shrines to the city’s patron goddess, Athena Parthenos (the Virgin Athena), were built there, including the archaic Hekatompedon, which may well have been a sacred enclosure open to the sky. Peisistratos (602–527 b.c.) encouraged the Athena cult by commissioning a temple just north of where the Parthenon would later be built. Embellished by his sons after 520, this “old temple” was for a while the only one on the Athenian Acropolis, but it was destroyed when the ragtag Persian armies sacked the abandoned city in 480. Within thirteen years Cimon and Themistokles had cleared away the debris and rebuilt the perimeter wall of the Acropolis.

The Parthenon was commissioned by Perikles, who was the effective ruler of nominally democratic Athens from 461 until 428. The temple was to house a cult statue of Athena made by his friend Pheidias, the most famous artist of the day. Pheidias was appointed general superintendent of Perikles’ comprehensive redevelopment of the Acropolis, a fifty-year plan that included the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Ionic Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheion. All was funded with money collected from Athens’ allies—the Delian League—to finance a second war with Persia that never happened. The architects of the Parthenon were Iktinos and Kallikrates, although their exact roles remain uncertain. Probably the latter was responsible for site management and the technical side of construction, executing Iktinos’s design.

Overall, the rectangular gable-roofed building was 228 feet (69.5 meters) long, 101 feet (30.9 meters) wide, and 65 feet (20 meters) high. It stood on a three-tiered platform—necessary on the uneven terrain—formed of 20-inch (50-centimeter) steps; the top one formed the floor of the temple. A surrounding colonnade, known as a peristyle, had eight Doric columns at the ends and seventeen along the sides. Each had a base diameter of a little over 6 feet (1.9 meters) and was just over 34 feet (10.4 meters) high. The 22,300 tons (20,300 tonnes) of marble needed for the work was quarried at Mount Pentelicon, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Athens. The blocks for the walls and the drums that made up the columns were carefully dressed to form perfect joints, and no mortar was used in the entire building.

The subtlety of refinement that makes the Parthenon a great architectural achievement is, by definition, invisible. There is no truly straight line in the entire building, although many may appear to be straight. Minute curves and adjustments were made to create illusions that would refine the gracefulness of the temple. A number of examples will serve to make the point. To the naked eye, a straight-sided column appears narrower halfway up than at the top or bottom; those on the Parthenon had a slight swelling (entasis) so they appeared to be straight. Because corner columns were seen against the sky, they were slightly thicker than those seen against a wall; then all would appear to be the same. Even more remarkably, the axes of all the columns were inclined toward the center of the facade—projected, they would meet thousands of feet in the sky—so they would appear to be vertical. And the platform is slightly convex: on the ends it rises 2.375 inches (60 millimeters) toward the center, and about twice that on the sides, because truly horizontal surfaces would have appeared concave to the eye.