To what extent were propaganda and national pride as important as religion in the design, construction and decoration of the Parthenon?
Classical Civilisation Coursework
To what extent were propaganda and national pride as important as religion in the design, construction and decoration of the Parthenon?
Although the decision to build the Parthenon was highly controversial in Athens because of the politics that surrounded it, was the Parthenon erected simply as sign of dedication to the gods? Or was it to fuel the dwindling pride of the Athenian citizens? By studying the structure, decoration and design, I hope to come to a conclusion as to whether the Parthenon was simply physical evidence of Athenian pride or whether it was pride in religion.
Though the Persian wars were possibly over before the Parthenon was being considered, the wars played a vital role for Athens and her temples. During the wars, the armies of Persia attacked Athens and sacked the city leaving much of it in ruins, including the new temple in honour of Athene atop the Acropolis that was under construction. During the struggle, many of the states in Greece joined together to fight against the Persians and decided that they should not rebuild any of the temples that had been destroyed by the Persians to have an eternal memory of the devastation they caused and the lack of respect they have for religion. The once impressive city of Athens was reduced to dust, with small basic houses and nothing really imposing. The relatively basic buildings of Athens must have crushed the pride of the people, however, due to the oath taken at Plataea not to rebuild any of the temples, the people remained humbled by their modest buildings in their cities. Some of the states in Greece joined together in a league to sustain a navy that could protect them from more attacks from the Persians. The money given by each of the states was kept at a treasury in Delos, the Greeks then referred to the band of states as the Delian League. Eventually, it became obvious that Athens would be the leaders of the league and so the money was transferred to Athens. After rebuilding and fortifying the city, the Athenians made peace with Persia in 449BC. The oath of Plataea no longer seemed necessary, and a popular Athenian politician, Pericles, began advances to persuade the Athenians to rebuild the temples of Athens. Pericles wanted to discuss rebuilding the temples and guarding the oceans with the other states in the Delian League. However, no other states came to the conference that Pericles had organised. When this happened, Athens made the decision to rebuild the temples without the input of the other states. As Pericles had proposed the building of the Parthenon, he had to influence the population about funding the huge project. It was decided to use state funds and money given by the Delian League to construct the Parthenon.
Structure of the Parthenon
As a Doric temple, the Parthenon would have been expected to have certain attributes that would immediately classify it. For example, a typical Doric temple would often have columns that sit directly on top of the stylobate (the top step of the temple), without a base as in the Ionic order. Whilst the Parthenon encompasses many of the attributes of a classic Doric temple, it was assumed to be a dedication to Athene, because Greek temples were meant as a house to the gods on earth. Often they housed statues of a god. Despite the Parthenon accommodated the gigantic statue of Athene and had many qualities of an ordinary temple, it was a colossal difference.
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As opposed to a customary 6x13 peristyle, the Parthenon has 8x17. Clearly, this marks a major difference in the size of the temple, both in width and length. There are six Doric columns on the pronaos, which is a porch and another six columns at the back of the opisthodomos, which is the back room. As well as these columns, there are Doric columns inside the main room which is also known as the cella. These columns are two tiered which offers a solution to the fact that if the columns were not two-tiered then the base of the columns would be too broad and might, therefore be viewed as unaesthetically pleasing. It was also a concern that the naos would be too cramped because of the entassis of the columns, which means that the columns are broader at the base than at the top. The swelling at the base would take up a lot of room in the naos. It can be clearly seen in the diagram, however, that the columns inside the cella are considerably smaller in diameter compared to the columns around the colonnade. These columns are also positioned to support the heavy marble roof. In the opisthodomos, the room which was to become the treasury once the temple was completed, there are four Ionic columns to also help support the roof as can be seen in a diagram of the floor plan of the Parthenon to the left. The mixing of the Ionic columns with the Doric columns is not uncommon yet it gives a slender look to the columns. The use of the columns inside the cella and the opisthodomos can be seen as evidence for a large and very grand temple as the roof was made entirely from marble; therefore supporting the roof was paramount to the imposing structure.
On temples in Greece, constructing the whole temple out of marble was a difficult practice and was rarely carried out, making room for terracotta, which was easier to work with because it was lighter. However, the roof of the Parthenon was created out of marble. The marble used was imported Parian marble and was very costly to cut. This feature of the Parthenon clearly shows that the Athenians were eager to build a temple that would be highly elaborate and cost a lot of money. However, it could be viewed that the Athenians were attempting to erect a monument that was a massive dedication to the gods and in particular the patron goddess of Athens, Athene, as the temple was to house a giant statue of the goddess, but many people view the extravagant spending on the Parthenon was merely a ploy to raise moral and national pride amongst the citizens.
Much of the effort that was ploughed into the construction and decoration of the Parthenon can be construed that the people who were involved cared deeply about religion and believed that the sanctuary of the gods was important, but the roof seems a highly expensive and arduous task to execute for the will of the gods. However the possibility still remains that the Athenians wanted to please their patron goddess, as well as the Athenian society.
The decoration on the Parthenon is one of the most elaborate sculptural masterpieces analysed in history. The intricate sculptures are made entirely out of marble, just as the rest of the structure of the Parthenon. Along the frieze there are ninety-two carved metopes around the length of the temple. There was also a continuous decorated frieze inside the peristyle above both of the pronaos’ of the Parthenon and along the side walls of the cella, which was very uncommon for Greek temples. This is often considered to be another show of wealth and high workman ship because the continuous frieze is inside the peristyle. The pediments are filled with complete carved marble statues.
Into the triangular pediments of the roof, there were sculptures depicting the birth of Athene on the east pediment, and on the west pediment was the portrayal of the competition between the god Poseidon and the goddess Athene as they contested for Athens. In my opinion, the birth of Athene seems to imply that the gods are incredibly important. Supporting the image are the gods and goddesses witnessing the birth of Athene. However, the sculpture is on the pediment that is at the front of the temple yet it is not the first pediment that you see. Although the pediment at the back of the temple shows the contest for Athens, it is however the first pediment that is in view as you advance towards the temple. It is possible that the contest for the city is meant to convey the idea that Athens is a wonderful place and worth competing for. This is possibly deliberate for propaganda; the citizens would feel a sense of patriotism towards Athens as it would be the first part of the temple they would see. The sculptures inside the pediments were created to make an impact. As they were so large, they would be seen from further away from the temple. Therefore, the battle for Athens (as opposed to the birth of Athene), may well have been positioned where it would receive most glory and admiration which would imply that there were political issues involved. It is also possible to support this theory because the statues would have been painted, which would have created a larger contrast to the eye and caught attention much more easily.
The ninety-two metopes had different themes on each side. Each side depicted a mythical battle. On the east side, sticking with the theme of religion on the pediment above, the metopes show the battle between the gods and the giants. This again would not be the first thing that the Athenians would see because the east side was the back of the temple. On the South side, it was a depiction of the conflict between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. The centaurs were half-horses with the body of men and were invited to a wedding of the Lapiths. The centaurs became drunk and began stealing the Lapith women. In this tale, the Lapiths are symbolic of the civilised Greek people, civilised humans constantly raging against savage enemies. On the west metopes, the battle of the Greeks against the Amazons is sculpted. This could also have a symbolic meaning, as the Amazons were women warriors who fought instead of men. In patriarchal Athens, the women would have been considered disrespectable and so this would serve as a reminder that the system in Athens was the civilised way to live, where men ruled. The battle shown on the north side of the Parthenon was the Trojan War. A much loved story, the Trojan War was testament to the Greek’s supreme power and strength in battle. None of the metopes have a direct religious link and so it must be the connection with propaganda and bringing pride to the people of Athens. On the other hand, there are a total of ninety-two carved metopes. The metopes would have also been painted as were the statues in the pediments. The elaborate skill and intricacy can also be debated as dedication to religion as the Athenian citizens invested much effort into the carvings of the metopes for the house of Athene.
The frieze has been described as “an unexpected Ionic touch” (Woodford, 1981) on the Parthenon as it is decorated in its entirety, whereas a Doric frieze is often triglyphs and carved metopes. As I mentioned earlier, the Parthenon is different because it has both a decorated frieze and carved metopes. The frieze however is inside the peristyle of the Parthenon and travels above the pronaos and along the walls of the side of the naos. It is possible to tell from the diagram here that the frieze would remain hidden until one came towards the colonnade and looked up between the columns. One can also see the triglyphs and metopes along the peristyle. Once again, I can deduce that a vast amount of money has been invested on the Parthenon. I think that the frieze was unnecessary because it was a hidden feature. The carved metopes seem very elaborate so why did the designer, Phidias, feel the need to include a frieze? To answer this, I believe that the frieze was further tribute to the goddess Athene. The sculpture on the frieze is of the Panathenaic festival, which is a religious celebrating her birth. But possibly, the frieze could have been another illustration of wealth to encourage the Athenian citizens to have pride.
The gigantic statue of Athene was to become the biggest attraction on the Acropolis. Made of ivory and gold, this was more expensive to sculpt that the Parthenon was itself to build. It could be argued that the statue was a dedication to Athene, yet Athene was the patron goddess of Athens who clashed with the god Poseidon for patronage of Athens. This again could be seen as a tool in a propaganda war to win the Athenian society’s favour for the building of the temple, reminding them that the Goddess Athene fought for the city. Reminding them that the city was worth fighting for therefore in turn, reminding them that the city was a magnificent place and worthy of a temple as monumental as the Parthenon.
Religion in Athens
Although religion was an important part of life in Athens, it did not govern the way people behaved. The Panathenaia was the most important festival to the Athenians. The festival celebrated the birthday of Athene and was celebrated every four years. The people of Athens believed that pleasing the gods would win their favour for fertility or harvests and so made sacrifices of oxen or other animals. It is possible that the building of the Parthenon was an incredible gift to the gods as a sanctuary. The word “Parthenon” means “virgin” and the temple was named after Athene’s virtue. The work, effort and money put into the Parthenon could be seen as religious piety to the pantheon and in particular, to the patron goddess Athene.
I think that the answer to the title is slightly ambiguous. I believe that Pericles wanted to see his fair city become a shining monument to the people and win favour as a politician. But I think that it could be seen as cynicism of the people today that people of ancient Greece could be so dedicated to religion and chose to spend a great deal of money on so huge a project. Perhaps they wanted to show their piety and appreciation to the gods that after so many violent wars, their city was still here. So to conclude, I believe that national pride was hugely important in the building of the Parthenon, and although it seems that religion took a lower priority, it may have been just as important as national pride in the building of the Parthenon.
Bibliography - Books
D’Agostino, Bruno (1974) Monuments of Civilisation Greece, Readers Digest, London
Connolly, Peter; Dodge, Hazel (1998) The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome Oxford University Press, Oxford
Jenkins, Ian (1994) The Parthenon Frieze, British Museum Press, London
Peach, Susan; Millard, Anne (2003) The Greeks, Usborne Publishing, London
Woodford, Susan (1981) The Parthenon Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Beard, Mary (2002) The Parthenon Profile Books, London
Bibliography – Websites
Bibliography – Video
Sculpture of the Parthenon Viewtech