Parthenon Optical Illusions - Greek Architecture

Parthenon columns


So the architects of the Parthenon set out to make it the best temple ever. Most Greek temples had six columns across the front – the Parthenon has eight. Most temples had either a frieze (a continuous band of sculpture) or metopes (individual panels) – the Parthenon has both. There's a set of triglyphs and metopes on the main architrave, over the Doric columns. And there's a frieze on the inner architrave, over the Ionic columns. So while most Greek temples are either Doric or Ionic, the Parthenon is both.

Parthenon entasis

Everyone wanted to make the building as beautiful as possible. Callicrates and Ictines wanted their Parthenon to seem to float, so they made the whole thing curve slightly upward to the middle, so it almost looks like it is trying to take off into the air.

And they knew that if you make the columns straight, an optical illusion makes them look thinner in the middle, so they made their columns a little thicker in the middle, so the columns would appear to be straight.

Learn by doing: build a model of the Parthenon in Lego or on Minecraft
More about the Parthenon's pediment

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?
More about the Parthenon's pediment home



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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.

More about Professor Carr's work on the Portland State University website

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