Pericles, Phidias, and the rebirth of Athens

The Acropolis of Athens was inhabited since pre-Hellenic times, a stone wall is still preserved from this period, similar to the so called Cyclopean or Pelasgian walls found at Mycenae.

The foundations of the Old Temple of Athena, visible in front of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis of Athens.

However, no one has a clear idea of ​​what the general layout of the sanctuary of Athens looked like before the Greco-Persian Wars. It is not known with certainty whether there were several temples or if cults were practiced all together in one building known as the Old Temple with several cellas and from which only its foundations are left. It was assumed that this temple guarded the famous image of Athena Polias a primitive wooden idol. Athens was jointly inhabited by Dorians and Ionians in complete harmony.

After Themistocles and his fellow citizens returned to Athens when the Greco-Persian Wars were over, the ancient Acropolis was nothing but ruins. The Old Temple was destroyed by the invading Persians.  Themistocles then was in charge of the government of Athens and ordered the construction of the foundations of a new temple on a higher area of the Acropolis that later would be occupied by the Parthenon. The building ordered by Themistocles should be a hundred feet long and so it was called Hecatompedon, its foundations have been recognized under the foundations of the Parthenon, its floor plan was somewhat narrower and was more elongated like those of the archaic Doric buildings. It seems though that after the government of Themistocles ended, the construction of this temple was suspended and during the reactionary government of Cimon it was seriously thought to rebuild the Old Temple.

Bust of Pericles (Vatican Museum), Roman copy after a Greek original by Cresilas from ca. 430 BCE.

However, the site chosen for the Hecatompedon had the advantage of being at the highest point of the Acropolis. When, after the banishment of Cimon, Pericles took absolute government of Athens, the idea of ​​rebuilding the Old Temple was finally abandoned and the project of Themistocles was resumed without further hesitation. Plutarch in his writing about the life of Pericles repeatedly insisted in his liberal spirit and his philosophical education. For Pericles, his homeland Athens would be the ideal city, the emporium of thought and art, the Greece of Greece, and as he said, the “master” city for all the Hellenes. To achieve these objectives Pericles managed to gather at Athens the main artists and philosophers of all Greece. As superintendent and chief of all reconstruction work, Pericles chose Phidias, a sculptor who had already distinguished himself in earlier works.

The “Athena elgin” or “Athena flying her owl”, a bronze statuette from ca. 460 BCE., one of the few surviving models thought to represent the type of the Athena Prómakhos (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
The Athena Lemnia, a Roman marble copy after a bronze original by Phidias ca. 450-440 BCE. (Archäologisches Institut der Universität Göttingen).

Phidias was a pupil of the great master of bronze Ageladas, and even though he soon started learning the casting of bronze, he attained great proficiency in all techniques including painting under the influence of master painters like Polignoto. His first famous work executed on behalf of Cimon between 460 and 450 BCE was a bronze sculpture of gigantic proportions (about 30 feet high) which was erected on the Acropolis near the Propylaea . It was the Athena Prómakhos, that is “the one who fights in front line” to which Pliny called the “great bronze Minerva”. It was the largest metal statue ever casted in Athens. His second master piece was another image of Pallas Athena this time without the helmet, that he executed between 451 and 448 BCE on behalf of the Athenians who lived on the island of Lemnos. It was located outdoors on a pedestal in the Acropolis of Athens and was known by the name of Lemnia. It was a bronze statue of slightly larger dimensions than the natural and was recognized as the most beautiful statue of Phidias. Finally the third Athena of Phidias, also located in the Acropolis of Athens, was the great Athena made of ivory and gold called the Parthenos (or Maiden) which was to replace the old wooden idol of Athena Polias inside the Parthenon. She was crowned by a helmet in form of a sphinx topped with a large plume, on her right hand was holding the Victory, while the left hand rested on her shield. We know this famous sculpture only from small copies of Roman times. Ancient chronicles said that a portion of the gold and ivory that was to be used in the Parthenos disappeared from Phidias’ workshop so he was accused and severely sentenced. Phidias was banished from Athens after the construction of the Parthenon was over. However, before he died Phidias managed to finish another statue: the colossal statue of Zeus for the great sanctuary of Olympia highly praised in antiquity as one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world and of which only its memories remains.

The Athena Varvakeion, (National Museum of Athens), reduced Roman copy of the Athena Parthenos.

Pericles and Phidias transformed Athens from the secondary city that it was into the most beautiful city of all Greece. For two centuries Athens was the soul of Greece, from mid V century BCE throughout the IVth century, with the Parthenon as a symbol of its greatness.

Roman Seated Zeus, marble and bronze (restored), following the type established by Phidias for the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (Hermitage Museum).