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Ancient Greek Temples, the Parthenon and Its Art


Temples like the Parthenon, gracing the mighty Acropolis over-looking Athens, and the Temple of Concordia on Sicily — with their fluted columns, finely carved reliefs, and impressive design — trumpet the sophistication of ancient Greek society.

Complete Video Script

[89, Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens] By 500 BC, Athens was becoming the bustling center of a growing Greek-speaking world. The energetic Athenians built up their sacred hill — the Acropolis — turning it into the heart of their culture.

[90, Erechtheion Temple, Acropolis, Athens] They topped the Acropolis with glorious temples, statues, and monuments honoring the gods and celebrating their own achievements. This temple was famed for its caryatids: beautiful maidens functioning as columns — striking for their realism and relaxed poses.

[91, Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens] But the greatest temple was the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron of Athens. In its heyday, the temple was decorated with colorful painted sculpture. And inside stood a 40-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue (this is a reproduction) of the goddess Athena. Dazzling in both beauty and power, both the statue and the temple had a huge impact on people.

[92] The temple is massive: 230 feet long and 100 feet wide, made from the finest white marble, and assembled here like a 70,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Its 34-foot-tall columns are simple, yet elegant.

[93] The architects used clever if subtle optical illusions that added to the harmonious effect: The steps intentionally arc upward in the middle, to compensate for how a flat line appears to sag. The columns lean together just slightly, and bulge in the middle, as if absorbing the weight of the stone roof. Altogether, it's organic. Rather than static stone, it feels alive, with perfect proportions, as if heroically connecting with the gods. Subconsciously, it works — a 2,500-year-old architectural triumph.

[94] The typical Greek temple is circled by decorative panels, carved reliefs called "metopes." The building inside the columns is called the "cella" — which itself is often decorated by a ring of carved reliefs called a "frieze." And remember, it wasn't just bare white marble. It was full of color. This reconstruction shows how a temple's triangular pediments were filled with statues — originally brightly painted — which told the mythological story of that place of worship.

[95] The Parthenon was decorated with over a hundred such reliefs and statues. The best, taken in the early 19th century by the English, are now in the British Museum in London.

[96] By the way, much of the most prized art from places like Greece, the Middle East, and Egypt is now in the big museums of powerful countries like Britain, France, and Germany. It's often booty from military campaigns and plunder from archeological digs. That's why travelers to western Europe find themselves enjoying a bounty of ancient art from distant lands.

[97, Parthenon Sculptures (formerly Elgin Marbles), British Museum, London] The Parthenon's 500-foot-long frieze portrays a festive annual parade up to the Acropolis.

[98] The realism is impressive; the anatomy correct: the men's muscles, the horses' bulging veins, and the sense of movement and energy of the procession.

[99] This pediment was decorated with the legend of the birth of Athena. The gods are lounging at a banquet, when suddenly there's a stir and they all turn to watch as Athena arrives. From the relaxed poses to the women's pleated robes, to the dramatic gestures and awe-struck horses — the realism is stunning.

[100] These carved panels or "metopes," showed the legendary battle between enlightened Greeks and brutish centaurs. It's a free-for-all of hair-pulling, throat-grabbing, and head-wrenching. Ultimately, the Greeks got the upper hand, a metaphor for civilized Athens rising above its barbarian neighbors.

[101] The Greeks prided themselves on creating order out of chaos, and the Parthenon — with its classic Greek proportions, dramatic statues, and elegant reliefs — represents the struggle and ultimate triumph of rational thought — of order over chaos.

[102, Temple of Concordia, c. 435 BC, Agrigento, Sicily] As the Greek culture spread, temples like these were built all over the ancient Mediterranean world. This Doric temple, in Sicily, shows the predictable layout: The temple normally faced east, it was ringed by columns made of real marble or stuccoed to look that way, it sits on a raised base with steps. The inner room, or "cella," was reserved for priests and gods. Regular worshippers gathered outside.