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The Parthenon and its Symbol of Imperialism
Sunday, December 11, 2016
by:Mario deSantis


The Parthenon has been glorified as a monument expressing the utmost aspirations of beauty, art, and scientific achievements. It was built during the Golden Age of democratic Athens and later became an icon of Western civilization and “the very symbol of democracy itself.” However, it must not be forgotten that the Parthenon was built with money appropriated from the treasury of the Delian League, which was an alliance of Greek city-states (‘poleis’, singular ‘polis’) led by Athens and formed in 478 BCE to liberate eastern Greek cities from Persian rule. Therefore, the Parthenon must be seen as both representative of Athens democracy and imperialism. In this regard, what is democracy and what is imperialism needs to be briefly defined.

Democracy means rule by the people and its term derives from the Greek
dēmokratiā, which was created from dēmos (people) and kratos (rule). Imperialism is a state policy, practice, or advocacy of extending power and dominion, especially by direct territorial acquisition or by gaining political and economic control of other areas.

This paper describes the perceived artistic beauty of the Parthenon, the imperialistic features of its construction and concludes with the understanding that the Parthenon reflects more the imperialistic ambitions of Athens and of its ruler Pericles rather than a symbolic icon of democracy.


In ancient Greece, religion was a human construct and it was the responsibility of the polis to establish temples for their mythical gods and heroes, and to determine the related public cults and rituals. The shared practices of these cults and rituals provided the citizens of the polis with a sense of belonging to their communities and their loyalties to the polis went beyond any other obligation, including the immediate family.

The Parthenon means “Virgin’s Apartment.” It sits in the Acropolis of Athens and is a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin), patron of Athens. The building of the Parthenon was part of a political program promoted by the military Stratego (General) Pericles to assert the new power of Athens after winning a series of wars against Persia between the years 492 to 449 BCE. The hegemonic ambitions of Athens over other Greek poleis led to the Peloponnesian War and eventually the surrender of Athens to Sparta in the year 404 BCE.

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The Parthenon was designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates and it was built in the years 447 to 432 BCE under the supervision of sculptor Phidias. The Pantheon is a Doric temple and embodies the highest achievement of architectural beauty in Classical Greece. As sculptor Polykleitos demonstrated the perfect harmonious and balanced proportions of the human body in his statue Doryphoros (right), so architects Iktinos and Kallikrates expressed in the Parthenon the proportionally perfect architectural building.

One of the proportional perfection of the parts of the building is expressed by the formula X=2Y+1. In particular, the Doric peripteral columns are 17 (2x8+1) on the longer sides and eight on the other two sides. This sense of perceived beauty and perfection of the Parthenon goes beyond the physical characteristics of the building and includes refinements to offset optical illusion such as having the stylobate curves upward at the centre and the peripteral columns lean inwards and bulge in the middle.

The Parthenon’s floor plan (below) shows 46 outer columns; the Cella is divided into two rooms, one for the statue of Athena surrounded by 23 columns, and the other with four Ionic inner columns for the treasury. There is an understanding that the four Ionic columns of the treasury indicated the subordination of the Ionic polies to Athens. The front and back porch were supported each by a series of six columns.

The construction of the Pantheon required an enormous amount of resources. Manolis Korres, associate professor of architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, states:
The ancient builders extracted some 100,000 tons of marble from a quarry 11 miles northeast of central Athens, roughly shaped the blocks, then transported them on wagons and finally hauled them up the steep slopes of the Acropolis. Yet all that grueling labor was dwarfed by the time and energy lavished on fine-tuning the temple’s finished appearance. Carving the long vertical grooves, or flutes, that run down each of the Parthenon’s main columns was probably as costly as all the quarrying, hauling and assembly combined.
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The Parthenon included many sculptures alluding to the mythical and glorious battles Athens won so that it could become the most beautiful and wealthy polis. There were 92 metopes running along the external columns of the building depicting mythical battles of Athenians against the Amazons, Olympian gods against the Giants, the battle of the Lapiths against Centaurs (right) and the sack of Troy. An Ionic frieze on the exterior walls of the Cella depicted what has been recently proposed the mythological sacrifice of Pandora demanded by Athena to save Athens (below).
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The east pediment depicted the mythological birth of Athena from the head of Zeus (right) and the west pediment the battle between Athena and Poseidon (below) for the honour of becoming Athens’ patron.
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The Cella accommodated the gigantic 38 feet tall chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos right) sculpted by Phidias. She was armed with helmet, spear, shield and she had on her right hand Nike, the personification of victory. She was invested with 40 talents of gold (1000 kg). Art historian Joan Breton Connelly writes that the total cost of the Parthenon was around 469 silver talents, something like $281 million today, however such a comparison is an indication only of how expensive the Parthenon could have been at the time.


Athens was a direct democracy under Pericles when the Parthenon was built, but participation in democracy was only relegated to the adult male citizens of Athens. Out of some 38,200 citizens no more than 6,000 of them could have been accommodated in the Assembly. There was never a census in 5th century BCE about the slave population of Athens, but out of an approximate total population of 320,000 a reasonable number of slaves could have been about 120,000. Athenians had a strong prejudice against manual labor and trade. Citizens were encouraged, especially rich landowners, to pursue excellence in participating in public life and holding office. Therefore, any form of government designed within this cultural and economic environment, including Athenian democracy, would have served the elitist Athenian citizens.

The above premise is enough to discount the myth of the Parthenon as a symbol of Western democracy and to assert that the Parthenon was a symbol of Athens’ imperialism.

The Parthenon functioned as a treasury and its monumental size alluded to the dominance of Athens over other Greek poleis and Barbarians. The metopes, representing mythical battles, are all symbols of Athens’ imperialism, and the sculpted Ionic frieze around the external walls of the Cella represented Athens’ domination over the Ionic colonies. The gigantic militaristic statue of Athena in the Cella is another iconic example of Athens’ imperialism and expansionism.

The Parthenon was expensive, it was monumental, it was supposed to be glorious and resplendent, it included sculptures to remind Athenians of their own heritage and superiority, and being on the Acropolis it was a constant reminder for all to see the imperialistic power of Athens.



Athens’ democracy was a new constitutional framework of government and it has been hailed by the Western culture as the first known democracy in the world. However, this paper has shown that a change of form of government has no relevancy on the health of the state when a culture is continuously pursuing warfare, claiming citizens’ superiority, and building monumental treasuries such as the Parthenon.

Beautiful works constrained to fit imperialistic purposes are not art, and the Parthenon is therefore an imperialistic symbol and represented Pericles’ vision to show the grandeur and power of Athens to the world. Against this vision of grandeur and power we have the voice of Socrates:
In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the state is the one which I have described (a society in which only the basic needs of all members are satisfied). But if you wish to take a look at a society at fever-heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all of these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of material must be procured. Then we must enlarge our borders, for the original healthy state is no longer sufficient.



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Fig. 1. Iktinos and Kallikrates, Parthenon (Temple of Athena Parthenos). Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 447-438 BCE. Photo by Steve Swayne, taken in 1978. Available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 4, 2016).

Fig. 2.
Polykleitos, Doryphoros from Pompeii. Roman copy from the palestra, Pompeii, Italy, of a bronze statue, ca. 450-440 BCE. Marble 6’ 11” high. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Digital photo available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 3. Plan of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 447-432 BCE. Photo available from: ArS Artistic Adventure of Mankind, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 4.
Centaur and lapith in combat, from a Metope of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447-438 BCE. British Museum, London. Photo available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 5.
Peplos Scene from the Ionic Frieze of the Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447-433 BCE. British Museum, London. Photo available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 6.
Reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447-433. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, taken in 2009. Available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 7.
Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek. Acropolis, Athens, Greece, ca. 447-433. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, taken in 2009. Available from: Wikimedia, (accessed on December 3, 2016).

Fig. 8. Small Roman 1.05 m high
Replica of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias in the Parthenon, ca. 438-432, Chryséléphantine, 11,50 × 8,065 × 4,10 m. Found in Athens near the Varvakeion school, Greece, ca. 350 ACE. National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Photo by Marsyas. Available from: Wikimedia,