Years of war with the Persians had destroyed the Athenian's temple to Athena Parthenos along with the rest of the Acropolis. Pericles, who ruled Athens during the latter part of the fifth century BCE, wanted to restore his city’s pride, so in 447 BCE he began work on a new temple to Athena, one that would be even larger and grander than the original: a great home for their beloved goddess. Today we call it the Parthenon.
Though expensive, the volume of marble and gold used in the Parthenon’s construction was not the only (or even the primary) reason for its beauty. Mathematics and design also played a role. The equation y = 2x + 1 was used in many Greek temples, including the Parthenon, to create a consistent and harmonious sense of proportion. The number of columns on the side and front of the temple (eight and seventeen) is derived from this equation, as are many other proportions within the structure.
Subtle refinements – curves in what appear to be straight lines – add to the Parthenon's soaring beauty. Perfectly straight pillars might look static, but these pillars are a bit thicker in the middle than on the ends, so they look dynamic, as if they are physically pushing upward. The horizontal lines of the temple are not perfectly straight either. They arch upward slightly and, as a result, do not appear to sag in the middle. These small adjustments in an otherwise geometric design serve to create a paradox; the Parthenon looks both solid and light, both strong and ethereal.
Inside the Parthenon stood a forty-foot tall sculpture of Athena herself. Made of gold and ivory, the giant woman held a sculpture of Nike, the goddess of victory, in her hand. The original sculpture, made by the sculptor Pheidias, is gone now, but we have recreations of it that offer some sense of what the original was like - imposing, yes, but also generous, with the gift of victory extended in her hand. In this benevolent gesture, she must have seemed like a guarantor of good fortune to come.
And yet, in 430 BCE, just two years after the completion of the Parthenon, the Athenians’ fortune had run out, and the city was under siege by the Spartans. Pericles advised his people to vacate the countryside and move inside the long walls of Athens (walls he himself had fortified). The historian Thucydides described it this way:
And so the homeless of Athens found living quarters where they could, but not, of course, in the Parthenon, which was on the Acropolis. Athena may have been their goddess and guardian, but they were not welcome to stay in her home.
As so often happened in overcrowded ancient cities lacking modern sanitation, disease spread rapidly in Athens. When a plague arrived, it had a devastating effect. Meanwhile, new arrivals continued entering the city. Thucydides wrote:
To think that just seventeen years before this time, the citizens had worked so hard to build a temple for their patron Athena! But now, with the high likelihood of death before them (about a quarter of the Athenians died from the plague), they stopped worrying about honor and religion and simply lived out their days doing as they pleased. The plague affected all levels of society and in 429 BCE Pericles himself fell ill and died.
The Parthenon was meant to embody the democratic ideals of the city of Athens. As Pericles said in a speech to his countrymen, “Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy.” These are good words, and the idea of a democracy, obviously, outlived the man who spoke them. Still, it is troubling to see how easily his vision for a democracy slipped away, how quickly the decorum of society fell apart in the presence of a threat.
Today the Parthenon is dramatically altered. Its colorful painted exterior is gone, as are most of its marbles, which were taken by the British Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century. When we look at the Parthenon now, it is difficult to imagine what it was like during the Golden Age when it was first built. It’s also difficult, however, to imagine the tremendous suffering that went on during that age which we nevertheless call golden. The design of the Parthenon was so brilliant and its execution so perfect that, even in its dilapidated state, it is hard for us to envision the homeless masses that passed by it on their way through a godless, plague-infested city where they couldn't find a place to sleep.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be. The current refugee crisis has once again brought homeless and desperate people to Athens. And, just as in the past, they are making homes in cramped quarters. Refugee camps have been set up in many places, including the baseball stadium used for the 2004 Olympics. The contrast of the grandeur of the Olympics and the misery of these displaced people is reminiscent of the contrast between the plague and the Parthenon. Our impulse to build large shiny things is, apparently, as enduring as our impulse to wage wars that drive people from their homes.
The fragility of democratic ideals, too, is a contemporary issue. Most of us long for what Pericles spoke of when he described an “administration (that) favors the many instead of the few.” And yet, we find ourselves fighting over what that should look like and who, if anyone, can carry the vision forward. We’d like a simple equation (y = 2x + 1) to teach us how to create enduring harmony and balance. We’d like a shiny god or goddess to promise us good fortune in the future. And we’d like all the things that seem heavy and dead to become light and beautiful. But these ideas are difficult to uphold, so we find ourselves with flimsy scaffolds and the tedious work of resurrecting, if not the glory of Athens, perhaps the glorious things it aspired to be.