Daily Dose of Europe: The Parthenon

Rising up from the teeming heart of modern Athens, this gleaming temple shines from the top of the Acropolis hill like a beacon…a beacon of civilization.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

The temple — dedicated to the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens — was the crowning glory of the city’s enormous urban-renewal program during its Golden Age in the fifth century BC. After the Persian War, Athenians set about rebuilding the Acropolis, creating a vast and harmonious ensemble of temples and monuments with the Parthenon as the centerpiece.

Climbing the fabled hill, you reach the summit and, of everything there, bam: The Parthenon is the showstopper — the finest temple in the ancient world, standing on the highest point, 500 feet above sea level. Constructed about 440 BC, it’s massive, the largest Doric temple in Greece — about 230 feet long and 100 feet wide. It’s surrounded by 46 white-marble columns, each 34 feet high, 6 feet in diameter, and capped with a 12-ton capital.

But even more impressive than its sheer size is the building’s sheer beauty. The columns are in the classically simple Doric style — lightly fluted, with no base, and topped with plate beneath a square slab. In its heyday, the pure white structure was adorned with colorful statues and reliefs painted in vivid colors. Inside was a legendary 40-foot-tall statue of Athena (though now lost to history). All in all, the temple was a model of balance, simplicity, and harmonious elegance. It epitomized the goddess of wisdom, Athena, as well as the enlightenment of the Athenian people.

The architects achieved that harmonious effect with some clever optical illusions. For example, the Parthenon’s steps subtly arch up in the middle — to compensate for the sagging effect a flat line makes to the human eye. Similarly, the columns lean slightly inward to appear parallel, and they bulge imperceptibly in the middle to give a pleasing sturdiness as they support the stone roof.

The Parthenon’s builders used only the finest white Pentelic marble — 100,000 tons of it, brought in from a quarry 15 miles away. Unlike ancient structures constructed by the Egyptians and Romans, the Parthenon was not built by slaves, but by paid workers. The columns were made from huge marble drums, stacked like checkers, and fixed with metal pins in the center. Each piece of the Parthenon was unique — individually sized and cut to fit — then assembled on the spot like a giant 70,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The Parthenon, then and now, stands as the symbol of Athens’ Golden Age — that 50-year era of prosperity and enlightenment when the city laid the foundations for what came to be known as Western civilization. It’s one of the most influential works ever created by humankind. For 2,500 years, it’s inspired architects, sculptors, painters, engineers…and visitors from across the globe.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Parthenon.