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Athens, Parthenon

I said in the previous entry that the seven wonders would be a personal choice. There are plenty of reasons why the Parthenon wouldn’t make the list. It’s hardly intact, especially given the slicing of the monument to ship parts of it to western Europe. It’s not the biggest Greek temple, nor the oldest. It’s not the holiest. It was built with money extorted from other Greek states, supposedly for guaranteeing freedom. Arguably the ancients didn’t see it as the greatest Greek site either as it wasn’t on the canonical list of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

None of that matters. This is the apogee of architecture.

One of Jostein Gaarder’s favourite phrases is that the Parthenon was built without a single straight line. There are many optical effects built into the temple. One is that the stylobate, the platform the temple sits, on rises slightly in the middle so that, viewed from a distance, it appears flat – or possibly just clear of rainwater. The columns are angled slightly inward to avoid looking splayed. They’re also built with a slight bulge, possibly to stop them looking concave. The techniques weren’t new, but it’s where they were all put together to create something amazing.

It might be explicable for conquered peoples to adopt the architecture of their conquerors, but the Romans did the opposite, taking the design of the Greek temple and making it their own. The Parthenon embodies this idea which survived the Roman conquest and has since spread around the world. It’s not just found in Europe but also in the New World and Asia. Any place with pretensions to international prestige will in some way or another have buildings which employ Doric columns as an echo of the facade of the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a wonder because its image replicated by aristocrats making the Grand Tour created the architectural language to describe prestige.