What is the Parthenon? - Ancient Greece
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The Parthenon in Athens

Parthenon at night
Parthenon, Athens, Greece (440 BC)

The Parthenon was a temple to Athena built on top of the highest hill in Athens, the Acropolis (Acropolis means High City). In the Late Bronze Age, about 1300 BC, the Acropolis had been where the kings of Athens lived (like Theseus in the myth), and where everybody went to defend themselves when there was a war. But after the Dark Ages, the Athenians had no more kings to rule them. Instead they had an oligarchy, and so there was no king to live on the Acropolis. Instead, the Acropolis became sacred to the goddess Athena, and the Athenians built her a temple there.

There was at least one Parthenon temple on that spot before the one that is there now. The earlier temple was built in the Archaic period out of limestone. The Persians destroyed this first temple when they sacked Athens in the Persian Wars, just before the battle of Salamis in 480 BC. We have only scraps of that temple that were buried on the Acropolis after the war.

For a long time after the Persian Wars, the Athenians left the Acropolis in ruins, as a sort of war memorial. But by the 440s BC, a generation later, the Athenians wanted to rebuild their Parthenon bigger and better than before.

To get the money for this new, big, beautiful temple, the Athenians used the tribute money from their allies, that was supposed to be spent defending the Greeks from Persian invasions.

The Athenians hired two great architects, Callicrates and Ictinus, and a great sculptor, Pheidias, to rebuild the Parthenon. This time the whole building would be made of marble, and in the very latest style, and big, too.

Learn by doing: build a model of the Parthenon in Lego or on Minecraft
The Parthenon's Optical Illusions

Bibliography and further reading about the Parthenon:

A Greek Temple, by Fiona MacDonald, Mark Bergin (2002) (this is specifically about the Parthenon, not just any Greek temple)

Parthenon, by Lynn Curlee (2004). Easy reading. Lovely pictures.

The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, by Jeffrey M. Hurwit (2000). This is not a children's book, but it is pretty interesting reading. Hurwit is a archaeologist and art historian who works on the Athenian Acropolis.

Take our quiz - how much do you know about the Parthenon?
The Parthenon's Optical Illusions
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Learn more about the Parthenon

A teeny model of the Parthenon to put together

A larger model made from eco-friendly paper - no glue or knives needed

Or use regular Legos to build your own model of the Parthenon

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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