Parthenon (Acropolis)

(lively piano music)

Voiceover: We're looking at the Parthenon.

This is a huge marble temple to the goddess Athena.

Voiceover: We're on the top of a rocky outcropping

in the city of Athens very high up

overlooking the city,

overlooking the Aegean Sea.

Voiceover: Athens was just one of many Greek city states

and almost everyone had an acropolis.

That is had a fortified hill within its city

because these were warring states.

Voiceover: In the 5th Century

Athens was the most powerful city state

and that's the period that the Parthenon dates to.

Voiceover: This precinct became a sacred one

rather than a defensive one.

This building has had tremendous influence

not only because it becomes the symbol

of the birth of democracy,

but also because of its

extraordinary architectural refinement.

The period when this was built in the 5th century

is considered the high classical moment

and for so much of western history

we have measured our later achievements

against this perfection.

Voiceover: It's hard not to recognize

so many buildings in the west.

There's certainly an association

especially to buildings in Washington D.C.

and that's not a coincidence.

Voiceover: Because this is the birthplace of democracy

it was a limited democracy

but democracy nevertheless.

Voiceover: There was a series of reforms

in the 5th century in Athens

that allowed more and more people

to participate in the government.

Voiceover: We think that the city of Athens

had between 300 and 400,000 inhabitants

and only about 50,000 were actually considered citizens.

If you were a woman, obviously if you were a slave

you were not participating

in this democratic experiment.

Voiceover: This is a very limited idea of democracy.

Voiceover: This building is dedicated to Athena

and in fact the city itself is named after her

and of course there's a myth.

Two gods vying for the honor

of being the patron of this city.

Voiceover: Those two gods are Poseidon and Athena.

Poseidon is the god of the sea

and Athena has many aspects.

She's the goddess of wisdom,

she is associated with war.

A kind of intelligence about creating

and making things.

Voiceover: Both of these gods

gave the people of this city a gift

and then they had to choose.

Poseidon strikes a rock

and from it springs forth

the saltwater of the sea.

This had to do with the gift of naval superiority.

Voiceover: Athena offered in contrast an olive tree.

The idea of the land of prosperity, of peace.

The Atheneans chose Athena's gift.

There actually is site here on the acropolis

where the Atheneans believed

you could see the mark of the trident

from Poseidon where he struck the ground

and also the tree that Athena offered.

Voiceover: Actually the modern Greeks

have replanted an olive tree in that space.

Let's talk about the building.

It is really what we think of

when we think of a Greek temple

but the style is specific.

This is a Doric temple.

Voiceover: Although it has Ionic elements

which we'll get to.

Voiceover: The Doric features are really easy to identify.

You have massive columns with shallow broad flutes

the vertical lines.

Those columns go down directly

into the floor of the temple

which is called the stylobate

and at the top the capitals are very simple.

There's a little flare

that rises up to a simple rectangular block

called an abacus.

Just above that are triglyphs and metopes.

Voiceover: It's important to say that this

building was covered with sculpture.

There were sculpture in the metopes,

there were sculpture in the pediments

and in an unprecedented way a frieze

that ran all the way around four sides of the building

just inside this outer row of columns that we see.

Now this is an Ionic feature.

Art historians talk about how this building combines

Doric elements with Ionic elements.

Voiceover: In fact there were four Ionic columns

inside the west end of the temple.

Voiceover: When the citizens of Athens

walked up the sacred way

perhaps for religious procession or festival.

They encountered the west end

and they walked around it

either on the north or south sides

to the east and the entrance.

Right above the entrance in the sculptures of the pediment

they could see the story of Athena and Poseidon

vying to be the patron of the city of Athens.

On the frieze just inside they saw themselves

perhaps at least in one interpretation

involved in the Panathenaic Procession,

the religious procession in honor of the goddess Athena.

This was a building that you walked up to,

you walked around and inside

was this gigantic sculpture of Athena.

Voiceover: These were all sculptures that we believe

were overseen by the great sculptor Phidias

and one of my favorite parts are the metopes.

Carved with scenes that showed

the Greeks battling various enemies

either directly or metaphorically.

The Greeks battling the Amazons,

the Greeks against the Trojans,

the Lapiths against the Centaurs,

and the Gigantomachy.

The Greek gods against the titans.

Voiceover: All of these battles

signified the ascendancy of Greece

and of the Atheneans of their triumphs.

Civilization over barbarism,

rational thought over chaos.

Voiceover: You've just hit on

the very meaning of this building.

This is not the first temple to Athena on this site.

Just a little bit to the right

as we look at the east end

there was an older temple to Athena

that was destroyed when the Persians invaded.

This was a devastating blow to the Atheneans.

Voiceover: One really can't overstate the importance

of the Persian War for the Athenean mindset

that created the Parthenon.

Athens was invaded and beyond that

the Persians sacked the acropolis,

sacked the sacred site, the temples.

Destroyed the buildings.

Voiceover: They burned them down.

In fact, the Atheneans took a vow

that they would never remove the ruins

of the old temple to Athena.

Voiceover: So they would remember it forever.

Voiceover: But a generation later they did.

Voiceover: They did, well there was a piece

that was established with the Persians

and some historians think that

that allowed them to reneg on that vow

and Pericles, the leader of Athens

embarked on this enormous,

very expensive building campaign.

Voiceover: Historians believe

that he was able to fund that

because the Atheneans had become the leaders

of what is called the Delian League.

An association of Greek city states

that paid a kind of tax

to help protect Greece against Persia

but Pericles dipped into that treasury

and built this building.

Voiceover: This alliance of Greek city states,

their treasure, their tax money, their tribute

was originally located in Delos

hence the Delian League,

but Pericles managed to have that treasure

moved here to Athens

and actually housed in the acropolis.

The sculpture of Athena herself

which was made of gold and ivory

Phidias said if we need money

we can melt down the enormous amount of gold

that decorates this sculpture of Athena.

Voiceover: Since that sculpture doesn't exist any longer

we know somebody did that.


We need to imagine this building

not pristine and white

but rather brightly colored

and also a building that was used.

This was a storehouse.

It was the treasury

and so we have to imagine

that it was absolutely full of valuable stuff.

Voiceover: In fact we have records

that give us some idea of what was stored here.

We think about temples or churches or mosques

as places where you go in to worship.

That's not how Greek religion work.

There usually was an altar on the outside

where sacrifices were made

and the temple was the house of the god or goddess,

but with the Parthenon

art historians and archeologists have not been able

to locate an altar outside

so we've wondered what was this building?

One answer is it was a treasury.

Voiceover: It also functions symbolically.

It is up on this hill.

It commands this extraordinary view

from all parts of the city,

and so it was a symbol of both the city's wealth and power.

Voiceover: It's a gift to Athena.

When you make a gift to your patron goddess

you want visitors to be awed

by the image of the goddess that was inside

and of her home.

Voiceover: This isn't any goddess.

This is the goddess of wisdom

so the ability of man to understand our world

and its rules mathematically,

and then to express them in a structure like this

is absolutely appropriate.

Voiceover: Iktinos is a supreme mathematician.

I mean we know that the Greeks

even in the archaic period before this

were concerned with ideal proportions.

Voiceover: Pythagoras.

Voiceover: Or the sculptor Polykleitos

and his sculpture of the Doryphoros

searching for perfect proportions and harmony

and using mathematics as the basis

for thinking that through.

Voiceover: We have that here.

Voiceover: To an unbelievable degree.

Voiceover: What's extraordinary is

that it's perfection is an illusion

based on a series of subtle distortions

that actually correct for the imperfections of our sight.

That is the Greeks recognize

that human perception was itself flawed

and that they needed to adjust for it

in order to give the visual impression of perfection.

Their mathematics and their building skills

were precise enough to be able to pull this off.

Voiceover: Every stone was cut to fit precisely.

Voiceover: When we look a this building

we assume it's rectilinear,

it's full of right angles,

and in fact there's hardly a right angle in this building.

Voiceover: There's another interpretation

of these tiny deviations

that these deviations give the building

a sense of dynamism.

The sense of the organic

that otherwise it would seem static and lifeless.

The Greeks had used this idea

that art historians call entasis before

in other buildings.

Slight adjustments.

For example, columns bulge toward the center.

This is not new

but the degree to which it's used here

and the subtlety in the way it's used is unprecedented.

Voiceover: For instance in those Doric columns

you can see that there's a taper

and you assume that it's a straight line

but the Greeks wanted ever so slight

a sense of the organic.

That the weight of the building was being expressed

in the bulge, the entasis of the column

about a third of the way from the bottom.

In this case every single column

bulges only 11/16th of an inch

the entire length of that column.

The way that the Greeks pulled this off

is they would bring column drums

up to the site.

They would carefully carve the base and the top

and then they would carve in between.

Voiceover: We see this slight deviation in the columns

but we also see it not only vertically

but also horizontally in the building.

Voiceover: That's right.

You assume that the stylobate,

the floor of the temple is flat but it's not.

Rain water would run off it

because the edges are lower than the center.

Voiceover: But only very, very slightly lower.

Voiceover: Across the long side of the temple

the center rises only 4 3/8 of an inch

and on the short side of the temple

on the east and the west side

the center rises only by 2 3/8 inches.

What happens is it cracks.

Our eye would naturally see a straight line

seem as if it rises up at the corners a little bit

so it seems to us to be perfectly flat.

The columns are all leaning in a little bit.

Voiceover: You would expect the columns

to be equidistant from one another

but in fact the columns on the edges

are slightly closer to one another

than the columns in the center of each side.

Voiceover: Architectural historians have hypothesized

that the reason for this

is because the column at the edge

is in the sense an orphan.

It doesn't have anything past it.

Therefore, it would seem to be less substantial.

If we could make that column

a little bit closer to the one next to it

it might compensate

and it would have an even sense of density

across the building.

Voiceover: Placing of the columns

closer together on the edges create a problem

in the levels above.

One of the rules of the Doric Order is that

there had to be a triglyph

right above the center of a column

or in between each column.

Voiceover: They also wanted the triglyphs

to be at the very edge

so one triglyph would abut against another triglyph

at the corner of the building.

If in fact you're placing your columns closer together

you can actually solve for that problem.

You can avoid the stretch of the metope

in between those triglyphs that would result,

but because the columns are placed so close together

they had the opposite problem

which is to say that the metopes

at the ends of the building would be too slender.

What Phidias has done in concert

with Iktinos and Kallikrates the architects

is to create sculptural metopes

that are widest in the center

just like the spaces between the columns

and actually the metopes themselves

gradually become thinner

as you move to the edges

so that you can't really even perceive the change

without measuring.

Voiceover: The general proportions of the building

can be expressed mathematically as

X equals Y times two plus one.

Across the front we see eight columns

and along the sides 17 columns.

That ratio also governs the spacing

between the columns

and its relationship to the diameter of a column.

Math is everywhere.

Voiceover: If we look at the plan of the structure

we see the exterior colonnade on all four sides.

On the east and west end

it's actually a double colonnade

and on the long sides, inside the columns

a solid masonry wall.

You can enter rooms on the east west only.

The west has a smaller room

with the four Ionic columns within it

but the east room was larger

and held the monumental sculpture of Athena.

It's interesting.

The system that was used to create a volt

that was high enough to enclose a sculpture

that was almost 40 feet high was unique.

There was a U shape of interior columns

at two storeys.

They were Doric and they surrounded the goddess.

The sculpture is now lost

but the building is almost lost as well.

Here we come to one of the great tragedies

of western architecture.

This building survived into the 17th century

and was in pretty good shape for 2000 years

and it's only in the modern era

that it became a ruin.

Voiceover: First it was as we know

an ancient Greek temple for Athena

then it became a Greek orthodox church

then a Roman catholic church and then a mosque.

In a war between the Ottomans

who were in control of Greece

at this moment in history in the 17th century

and the Venetians.

The Venetians attacked the Parthenon,

the Ottomans used the Parthenon

to hold ammunitions, gunpowder.

Gunpowder exploded from the inside

basically ripping the guts out of the Parthenon.

Voiceover: Then to add insult to injury in the 18th century,

Lord Elgin received permission from the Turkish government

to take sculptures that had already fallen off the temple

and bring them back to England.

The [lie] and share of the great sculptures by Phidias

are now in London.

Greece recently has built a museum

just down the hill from the acropolis

specifically intended to house these sculptures

should the British ever release them.

Voiceover: Some have argued

that Elgin saved the sculptures

that would have been further damaged

had he not removed them,

but what to do about the future is uncertain.

Voiceover: At least one theory states

that this building was paid for

by plundered treasury from the Delian League

so there's a long history of contested ownership.

Voiceover: As we stand here very high up

on the acropolis overlooking the Aegean Sea,

islands beyond and mountains

on this glorious day,

I can't help but imagine standing inside

the Parthenon between those columns

which we can't do today.

Voiceover: The site is undergoing tremendous restoration.

There are cranes, the scaffolding

to maintain the ruin and not let it fall

into worst disrepair.

Voiceover: But if we could stand there

what would it feel like?

Voiceover: There is this beautiful balance

between the theoretical and the physical.

The Greeks thought about mathematics

as the way that we could understand the divine

and here it is in our world.

Voiceover: There's something about the Parthenon

that is both an offering to Athena,

the protector of Athens,

but also something that's a monument

to human beings, to the Atheneans,

to their brilliance,

and by extension I suppose in the modern era

human spirit generally.

(lively piano music)