What is the Parthenon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Parthenon is a Greek landmark which is almost universally recognizable, thanks to its fame. It represents the pinnacle of Greek culture, and a highlight of the culture of the Mediterranean Ancient World. Located in Athens in the Acropolis complex on a high hill, the Parthenon towers over the city, and this landmark is an extremely popular tourist spot. At night, the Parthenon and Acropolis are illuminated in a light show which can be seen from many locations in the city.

A series of smaller temples and courtyards existed at the foot of the Parthenon.
A series of smaller temples and courtyards existed at the foot of the Parthenon.

This rectangular structure was built in the fifth century BCE by Callicrates and Ictinus, and it was designed to replace an older temple which had been located on the same site. The Parthenon or “Temple of the Virgin” was dedicated to the goddess Athena, and it included a towering sculpture of the goddess, along with numerous relief sculptures and friezes depicting a variety of scenes.

The Parthenon is surrounded by Doric columns.
The Parthenon is surrounded by Doric columns.

Architecture instructors who cover the Ancient World often use the Parthenon as an example of Doric-style architecture. The columns which surround the Parthenon are Doric in style, as are the decorative metopes mounted on top of the columns to create an ornamental border. This structure is also highly visually interesting, with its white marble construction, large size, and varied carvings.

Given the amount of looting and damage which has occurred in this region of the world, it is remarkable that the Parthenon remained largely intact for most of its existence. It was briefly used as both a Christian church and a Muslim mosque, but contemporary discussions of the structure from these periods seem to suggest that it was still in very good condition.

Unfortunately, in the 1600s, the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a munitions dump, which would not have been a major issue, except that the building was struck by a shell, causing an explosion and subsequent damage. The Parthenon was further damaged in the 1800s, when many of the sculptures were removed by Lord Elgin, who received permission from the Ottomans. The Elgin Marbles, as these sculptures have come to be called, continue to be a topic of controversy, with the Greeks demanding that they be returned, and the British retaining them as one of the star attractions at the British Museum.

The Parthenon continues to face threats from the high level of smog and air pollution in Athens. Many of the remaining columns and sculptures have been damaged, and restoration efforts are continually underway to save this prized cultural icon. The Greek government remains very proprietary about the Parthenon, preferring to use its own experts in the restoration.

The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena.
The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@matthewc23 - I understand your point, but I think we are missing the big picture here. How are people stealing bricks like this and smuggling them?

One would think that there would be a lot of security and cameras at the Parthenon, but apparently this is not the case as I know I have met at least two people that have a brick from the Parthenon.

I really do not understand why anyone would try it or even get away with it. I am guessing security must be a bit lax there and I find this to be very unfortunate.


I have heard stories about people looting the Parthenon and I think this is very sad and makes me believe the Greek government needs to re-think their security at this site.

I have heard stories of people stealing bricks from the site and taking them back to the United States to show to their classes and I find this to be so odd, because they never get in trouble for it.

I really think that although it is a great site for tourism, the Greek government needs to do what the Egyptians did and close off the site to tourists and allow them to simply look at it.

I know it is unfortunate, but it is something that may need to be done in order to preserve this icon in history.


@MissDaphne - The article hints at that but doesn't quite say. The name comes from the root word "parthenos," meaning virgin. Athena was famous as a virgin goddess. (There were others, I think, but she was sort of the main one.) Kind of like how the state of Virginia was named after Queen Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen." In Elizabeth's case, "virginity" may have been more a political matter, but Athena was definitely untouched.


Maybe this is a dumb question, but why is it called the Parthenon? That doesn't sound anything like "Athena" and it seems like other things from Greek mythology are named after the person involved. Like The Odyssey gets its name from Odysseus, its main character.


Good website. Can fill in a lot of information about the Parthenon.

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