The temple and its sculptured decoration

The "Varvakeion Athena", Roman copy of the statue of Athena Parthenos (2nd century A.C.). Athens, National Archaeological Museum
Within the temple reigned a colossal, chryselephantine statue of the goddess Athena, rising together with its base to more than 12 m. in height. It was the work of Pheidias. We can have only an idea of this splendid statue from small Roman copies. The goddess, standing, wore a long peplos and the aegis, adorned with the apotropaic head of the Gorgon Medusa,. On her head she wore a skillfully conceived helmet, richly decorated with mythological beasts. She held the statue of the goddess Nike on her right hand, and with her left, her shield which rested upright on the ground. Her spear stood on the ground propped against her left shoulder. Favorite myths were depicted on various parts of the statue. Depicted in relief on the exterior of the shield was the Amazonomachy; painted on the interior, the Gigantomachy was shown. Scenes in relief on the sides of her sandals were drawn from the Centauromachy. Finally, the base of the statue was decorated in relief with a representation of the Birth of Pandora. 

K. Schwerzek. Reconstruction of the east pediment. Acropolis Museum
K. Schwerzek. Reconstruction of the west pediment. Acropolis Museum     

The pediments, the triangular spaces formed by the horizontal and raking cornices of the roof at each end of the temple, were the last parts of the building to receive sculptural decoration (437-432 B.C.), which comprised colossal statues in the round. The themes were drawn from Attic mythology. The east pediment, over the entrance to the temple, depicted the birth of the goddess Athena from the head of her father, Zeus, in the presence of the Olympian divinities. In the west pediment was shown the contest between the goddess Athena and the god Poseidon for possession of the land of Attica, a contest won by Athena who became the patron divinity of the city of Athens. 

South metopes 30,31. British Museum  
The metopes are rectangular plaques alternating with triglyphs in the frieze of the temple above the epistyle. They were the first part of the temple to be decorated and they showed mythological scenes in relief by important sculptors of the time (445-440 B.C.). The 92 metopes of the Parthenon represent: a) on the east end, the Gigantomachy, the struggle of the Olympian gods against the Giants who wanted to overturn the order of Olympos; b) on the west end, the Amazonomachy, the struggle of the prehistoric inhabitants of Athens with the Amazons who had invaded their territory; c) on the south side, the Centauromachy, the savage fight between the Centaurs and the Lapiths, a Thessalian tribe, that broke out when the Centaurs tried to sieze the Lapith women during the wedding celebration of the Lapith king, Peirithoos and d) on the north side, scenes from the Trojan War. 

North frieze, block II. Acropolis Museum 

The frieze of the Parthenon forms a continuous band with scenes in relief that encircles the upper part of the cella, the main part of the temple, within the outer colonnade. The theme represented was the procession toward the Acropolis that took place during the Great Panathenaia, the festival in honour of the goddess Athena. The frieze had a total length of 160 m. and was 1.02 m. high. Shown in the procession are some 360 human figures and deities and at least 250 animals, chiefly horses. Groups of horses and chariots occupy most of the space on the frieze. The sacrificial procession is next, with animals and groups of men and women bringing ceremonial vessels and offerings. In the middle of the east end, above the entrance to the temple, is depicted the high point of the Panathenaia, this festival of many days duration. The procession ends with the giving of the peplos, the gift of the Athenian people to the cult statue of the goddess, a xoanon (ancient wooden statue) called "diipetes" because it was thought to have been sent down from heaven. Left and right of the peplos scene sit the twelve gods of Olympos.

The subject needed to cover so long and narrow a surface had to be one comprising many figures. A procession was therefore considered to be suitable.The ancient sources that refer to the frieze are all later than the Parthenon, beginning at the end of the 5th century B.C. At some points, the sources do not agree with the rpresentations themselves. This disagreement has given rise to varying interpretations. Most scholars, nonetheless, with minor variations, agree that the theme of the Parthenon frieze is the procession of the Panathenaia, the main part of the Great Panathenaic festival in honour of the goddess Athena, protectress of the city. The festival was celebrated every four years with contests, sacrifices and with the presentation to the goddess' statue of a peplos, woven during the preceeding nine months by the ergastinai who embroidered it with a scene of the Gigantomachy. The procession begins at the southwest corner of the temple and divides into two sections, each of which moves toward the east. One goes along the south side, while the other traverses the west end and then moves along the north. Both end at the east, above the entrance to the temple. On the west and north sides,move from right to left as seen by the viewer. Along the south, they move from left to right. The actual procession began in the Kerameikos, at the Pompeion, a building with a spacious court, where the horsemen and their horses made ready for the parade, as is shown on the west end. The area along which the procession moved was known as the Dromos or Panathenaic Way, a road that cut diagonally across the Agora. Here the riders raced their horses and the apobates contest took place. All this is shown on the parallel files of the north and south friezes. Then follow: political representatives, musicians and skaphephoroi (tray-bearers) along the south side, thallophoroi (bearers of olive branches), musicians, hydriaphoroi (bearers of water-vessels) and skaphephoroi along the north side. Finally, at the east end of both sides, come the sacrificial animals. Scattered at intervals throughout the long procession are teletarchai (in charge of the ceremonies), epoptes (marshalls) and servants. The procession ends at the Acropolis, where the peplos is presented in the presence of the gods and heroes, as depicted on the east end. The atmosphere of preparation, the start, the increasing rhythm of horses and chariots and, finally, the end, all is wonderfully and vividly conveyed. The scenes unfold, from block to block with the rhythm of a cinema-film. 

This was the most important of the Athenian festivals. It was celebrated every four years in the month of Hekatombaion (July-August) in honour of the guardian of the city, the goddess Athena. Tradition held that the festival was established in prehistoric times by Erichthonios, being known then as the Athenaia. Theseus was supposed to have reorganised it at the end of the Mycenaean period and from then on the celebrations were called the Panathenaia. New changes were made by the tyrant Peisistratos in 566 B.C. The celebrations every four years (the Great Panathenaia) were held with such brilliance that during the 6th to the 4th century B.C. they were on a Panhellenic scale. The Lesser Panathenaia, held annually, were local in character. The festival of the Great Panathenaia included numerous ceremonies and sacrifices, of which the most striking was the Hekatomb (sacrifice of 100 bulls). Of great importance too were the riding, athletic and music contests. The ceremonies and games, which lasted from 4 to 12 days, reached their peak on the 28th of Hekatombaion, the day held to be Athena's birthday. On this day the people of Athens gave their goddess a peplos woven with thread-of-gold by the Arrephoroi and the Ergastinai, maidens from prominent families in the service of the goddess.
The peplos was brought in a splendid procession from the Kerameikos to the Acropolis, carried like a sail on a wheeled ship as far as the Eleusinion and thereafter by hand. The procession was ritual in character. Taking part were musicians who provided the rhythm, officials, youths who led the sacrificial animals, youths carrying olive branches and baskets of offerings for the goddess. On the Acropolis, the peplos was handed over to priests, who dressed the "xoanon" (the venerable wooden statue) of the goddess, initially in the "most ancient temple" (archaios naos), later on in the Erechtheion. This is the procession represented by Pheidias on the Parthenon frieze. 

The problems of interpreting the scenes on the frieze are manifold indeed. It is evident that neither place nor time of the different scenes have been explained. Scenes of preparation scattered at various points alternate with scenes of the procession moving. The horsemen of the west frieze must be at the Dipylon; the chariots and the horsemen who are galloping their horses cannot possibly be on the uphill approach to the Acropolis. Yet the kanephoroi (basket- carriers) have already gone ahead and handed over their offerings.
Many questions remain to be answered. Since the archaic temple of Athena had been burned by the Persians, while the Erechtheion had yet to be built, to what extent is the theme focussed on the old or the new peplos, that covered the diipetes xoanon of the goddess, and was shown in the central scene? If the positioning of the gods and goddesses on the east frieze corresponds to the topographical location of the sanctuaries at Athens and the deities are in the area of the Peribolos (Precinct) of the Twelve Gods, then the King Archon and the priestess can place the peplos somewhere close, perhaps in the Royal Stoa in the Ancient Agora.
There are differences between the representations on the frieze and the descriptions of the procession in the ancient sources. For example, the representatives of the allies and colonies are omitted, as are also the skiaphoroi (parasol-carriers) and diphrophoroi (stool-bearers) who were the daughters of metoikoi (metics, settlers) and who followed the kanephoroi, Athenian maidens who carried the offering baskets. The most significant omission, however, is that of the Panathenaic ship, on the mast of which the peplos was carried, like a sail. The ship, to be sure, was not taken up the Acropolis rock. It stopped somewhere near the Areopagus. From this point on, the peplos was carried by hand. This is what led the American archaeologist, S. Rotroff, to suggest that at the eastern parts of the long sides of the frieze are shown the two sections of the procession that mounted the Acropolis, whereas the ship remained at the Areopagus.
The Greek archaeologist, Chr. Kardara, presented a different interpretation according to which the frieze represents the original first procession with the institution of the Panathenaic festival by Erechtheus, whom she identifies with Erichthonios, and recognises as the boy (35) in the east frieze. The priest (34) on the same side she identifies as Kekrops, figure (33) as Ge and the young maidens (31 and 32) as his daughters.
The theory of the English archaeologist J. Boardman is also of interest. He identifies the procession of 192 horsemen shown on the frieze as the procession of the 192 heroised dead of the battle of Marathon in the presence of gods and eponymous heroes. He excludes, however, the charioteers of the apobates' chariots, although the charioteers are known to have shared victory with the apobates and for this reason received a prize.
The mixture of scenes in place and time, and the division of the procession into two parts has from time to time resulted in other hypotheses. The American archaeologist E. Harrison, for example, suggests that on three of the sides the frieze represents the Panathenaic procession at different chronological periods. Thus the west frieze shows the procession in mythical times, the north in the archaic period, the south in the classical period. On the south frieze 60 riders are depicted who are divided into 10 groups of six each, 10 chariots, 10 bulls with their drivers and so on. The predominance of the number 10 on the south side is a reference to the ten tribes into which Kleistenes divided the Athenian citizens for administrative and political purposes. On the north frieze the number 4 appears constantly, a reference to the 4 tribes of the archaic period, and the 12 chariots reflect the 12 phratriai (political sub-division of a tribe, a brotherhood).
The German archaeologist, E. Simon, has presented a similar theory, suggesting that the the north procession refers to the archaic period, the south to classical times.
The Italian archaeologist, L. Beschi, as does E. Harrison, accepts the idea that the division of the procession into two sections is governed by separate arithmetical references. On the south side the repeated number 10 of the different groups corresponds to the 10 tribes. On the north side, the predominance of the number 4, with its multiples, agrees with the archaic division of the citizens into 4 tribes. In each section there are three themes: sacrificial procession on the Acropolis, chariot race and parade of horsemen at speeds varying according to the phase of the contest on the Dromos (Panathenaic Way) in the Ancient Agora. Thus rhythms, times and places vary. This is in opposition to the view that the frieze depicts a single procession from the Kerameikos to the Acropolis. Even so, a view of the frieze as a unified whole draws support from the idea that the place represented is not real, but idealogical, an entire cult area in itself a votive offering. The Parthenon, which is a building without an altar, containing a statue that is not a cult statue, is indeed a great votive offering and the frieze is the greatest votive relief in history, with important themes chosen from the ample programme of the Panathenaic festival. The chosen themes are alloted to two facades according to their origin, historical-religious and political. While they appear to form an antithesis, they come together in a wonderful way on the east end. Thus the frieze is a combination of both the earlier tradition and the democratic revival at a rare moment of equilibrium.

It is evident that the frieze was planned as a whole by the sculptor Pheidias, who was responsible for the supervision of the entire construction of the temple and its decoration, which was carried out by his students Agorakritos, Alkamenes, Kresilas and other famous sculptors. The frieze was made of blocks of various sizes. Its total length was 160 m., and its height 1.02 m. It went around the top of the walls of the cella (sekos), the main part of the temple. With the height of the frieze given, the artists were obliged to render the figures in different sizes and poses. Thus some are depicted on the ground, some ride, some stand, others leap into chariots, in such a way as to fit into the limited space of the frieze. Characteristic is the decrease in relative size of the horses and the greater size of the divinities who are shown seated on the east end of the building.
The scenes on some of the blocks are known from the drawings of J. Carrey (1674) and J. Stuart (1751). Other blocks have been entirely lost. The precise number of blocks along the sides is doubtful. It may be noted here that they are referred to as (slabs/plaques) in the bibliography, since Elgin sawed off the backs of the blocks to reduce their weight for shipping. In fact, as may be seen from the blocks in the Acropolis Museum, the frieze constituted a structural element of the cella wall and it was made of blocks 0.60 m. thick, the outer surface of which was sculptured in relief that did not exceed 0.06 m. There was a problem of visibility of the frieze because of its low relief and because it was set so high above the ground. This was resolved to a great extent by the use of colour, in particular the blue background, and especially by the deeper cutting of the upper in comparison to the lower part of the frieze, so that the sculptured surface inclines slightly toward the viewer.
The frieze was set in place between 443 and 438 B.C., that is between the completion of the metopes and the pediments. The north frieze is later than the east and west, but earlier than the south frieze. Most scholars believe that the frieze was carved after, rather than before, being set in place on the building. This is true of the long sides, but it does not hold for the west frieze, where each block has an independent representation.
Drawings by M. Korres

In antiquity the frieze remained undisturbed in place on the monument for many years. Shortly after the middle of the third century A.C. there was a big fire in the Parthenon, but to what extent it damaged the frieze is unknown. When the great temple was converted into a church, probably between 450 and 500 A.C., the centre of the east pediment and part of the frieze of the east end were removed. Later on, perhaps during the 12th century, six blocks of the frieze were removed in order to make an equal number of windows, three on each long side of the building, which continued to function as a church.

The Parthenon as an Ottoman precinct during the 17th century. Dimetrical drawing by M. Korres The explosion of the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. Dimetrical drawing by M. Korres
In 1458, when the Turks seized Athens, the Parthenon became a tzami (mosque). In 1674, the artist Jacques Carrey accompanied C.F. Olier, Marquis de Nointel, French ambassador in Constantinople, to Athens where he made remarkably accurate drawings of the sculpture. Preserved today are his drawings of the east, west and parts of the long sides of the frieze.
The great desctruction of the Parthenon occurred thirteen years later, in 1687, during the Turko-Venetian war and Morosini's campaign in Athens. The explosion that occurred at that time destroyed a large part of the frieze of the long sides of the temple and caused irreparable damage to stones that remained in place as well as those that fell out. The way was thus open to looters. In the mid-eighteenth century the English architects, J. Stuart and N. Revett made for the first time accurate architectural drawings of the temple, the sculpture and whatever of the frieze still remained in place.

The Parthenon with the scaffolding for removing the sculpture. Drawing by Sir William Gell, 1801. British Museum
During the first years of the 19th century, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, removed from the ruined Parthenon as many sculptures as he could. Among these pieces were eighty metres of the frieze. The backs of the frieze blocks were sawn off in order to reduce their weight for shipping. The pieces, known as the Elgin Marbles, are today in the British Museum in London.
The last stretch of the frieze that remained in place was that on the west end, measuring approximately twenty metres. For protection of the marble surface of the west frieze from exposure in the open air and rain, it was imperative that this section be removed and transferred to the Acropolis Museum. This was done in 1993.