The Parthenon was built in Athens, Greece, during the fifth century b.c.e. to honor the city’s patron deity, Athena. Following the Persian War, which ended in 487 b.c.e., Athens was at the height of its power. Under the leadership of Pericles, the Athenians used war monies to begin building the Parthenon in 448 b.c.e.
Architects Ictinus and Callicrates erected the temple atop the southern flank of the Acropolis, the central hill of the Greek city-state that was used for defensive and religious purposes, in 17 short years, completing the decorations by 432 b.c.e.
Built of marble from Mount Pentelicus, the Parthenon is of post-and-lintel construction, block on block without mortar. A simple Greek temple plan comprises two back-to-back halls. The smaller inner hall (the opisthodomos) housed the treasury and temple rites, while the Parthenon’s larger main room (the cella) housed the statue of the goddess Athena.
The short but wide cella is surrounded by a continuous wall of columns (the peristyle) that supports the upper elements of the structure between the tops of the columns and the roof (the entablature) on massive horizontal beams (the architrave).
The cella also has a large front porch (the pronaos). The peristyle columns are of the Doric order. Doric columns are fluted and are topped by plain square or rectangular slabs, without decorated bases. The massive Doric columns have an outward curvature in the middle.
This swelling, or entasis, is an architectural refinement used to correct the optical illusion from a distance that the column is disproportionately thinner in the middle than at the top and the bottom. Eight Doric columns spread across each end of the Parthenon, with 17 along each side, making the octastyle, peripteral building the largest of all Doric temples.
A colossal polychrome ivory-and-gold cult statue of the goddess Athena Parthenos (Athena, Virgin) by sculptor Phidias (c. 490–c. 430 b.c.e.) stood in the cella. A two-story colonnade (pteron) of Doric columns supported a wooden roof above the statue.
The roof of the smaller treasury hall was supported by four square-set Ionic columns, which are thinner and more delicate in scale, have decorative bases, and display ornamental scroll capitals (volutes). The architect Ictinus is credited with this innovative use of the Ionic order within the Doric order.
The exterior sculptural decoration of the Parthenon consisted of the metopes, pediments, and the friezes. There were 92 metopes, rectangular panels flanked by triglyphs, which are rectangular blocks containing sculptures in very high relief, above the outer colonnade.
The pediments, triangular gables at the top of the front and back of the temple, bear figures almost in the round. The birth of Athena was placed on the east pediment, and on the west, Athena’s contest with the sea god Poseidon for the Athenian lands.
The figure of Dionysus and the Three Goddesses from the east pediment are considered to be some of the finest extant examples of classical Greek sculpture. The frieze, a decorative sculpted band that runs horizontally along the Parthenon’s entablature for 525 feet, is found above the exterior temple walls and inside the outer colonnade.
These contain low-relief sculptures, which were carved in place c. 442–438 b.c.e., of a Panathenaic procession. On the north, bas-relief horsemen are preparing to mount, water bearers carry hydra, and girls and stewards follow.
In the central scene on the east side a priest and an attendant holding a peplos, the sacred robe presented to Athena during the Panathenaia, enact a ceremony. On either side of them, seated gods look on—Hermes, Dionysus, Demeter, and Ares on the left, and Poseidon, Apollo, and Artemis on the right.
In 1806 Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, removed many of the Parthenon sculptures and deposited them in the British Museum. Many of the Parthenon’s original sculptures, hence called the "Elgin Marbles", now reside in the Acropolis Museum, the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery, and the Louvre.
The Parthenon existed as a temple to Athena until the fourth century c.e. During the fifth century the cult statue of Athena was taken to Constantinople where it was destroyed during the Fourth Crusade. Since this time the Parthenon has been used as a Christian church and a mosque.
In 1687 the southern side sustained considerable damage in an explosion due to the storage of gunpowder. In 1832 when Greece gained independence, all of the medieval and Ottoman additions were removed from the Parthenon, and it became a national historic precinct of the Greek government.
After 1975 the Greeks began to restore the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, and to create measures to protect the historic structure from tourist traffic and environmental pollution. A full-scale replica of the Parthenon was built in downtown Nashville, Tennesee, in 1897 for the Centennial Exposition, and it houses a full-scale recreation of the polychromed Athena Parthenos statue by sculptor Allen LeQuire.