Seven Wonders II: The Parthenon

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 façade 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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. cameron says:

    You have to admit that the Greeks knew how to do ‘clas­sic beauty’. It’s in their staues, their fres­cos and their build­ings. It’s hard not to take some­thing from the Greeks. The Parthenon is that ‘sym­bol’ of Greek beauty.