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A Brief Overview of Ancient Greek Temples

Updated on June 10, 2012

A Brief Overview of Greek Temples

The Parthenon at night
The Parthenon at night | Source

Greek Temples - A look at the Parthenon

Greek Temples

In this hub, I’m going to offer a very basic introduction to Greek temples and their design, using the Parthenon in Athens as a case study. I’ve chosen a temple from the Classical era of Greek history (rather than the Hellenistic era) because it represents Greek temple architecture at its zenith. The Classical period is generally said to stretch from about 750 BC until about 336 BC, the rise of Alexander the Great.

It is interesting to note that the word ‘Temple’ is Latin in origin, from templum , etymologically connected with the Greek word temenos , meaning to be ‘cut off’. A templum was therefore something ‘cut off’ from the rest of the world, that is, set aside for purposes of the gods. The ancient Greeks commonly used the word naos (ναος) or ‘dwelling’ to refer to a temple. As we will see below, naos can also refer to the central shrine or sanctuary of the temple itself.

The Parthenon

It was designed by the architects Ictinos and Callicrates who built it over the remains of an older temple dedicated to the goddess. Construction was started in 447 BC and completed about nine years later, although detail work and decoration carried on for several years after that. It was built on the Acropolis, a defensible, high hill-top that served as a site for a number of other prominent buildings of the Classical period. It was built, in part, as an attempt by Pericles and the Athenians to display their wealth and skill and assert their superiority over other Greek city-states. The Parthenon was meant to overshadow the Temple of Zeus built at Olympia only a decade early.

It would survive as a center of worship for Athena for over a thousand years, until its massive statue was looted by a Byzantine emperor. Shortly afterwards, it was turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It would serve as a church for nearly a millennium as well, until after the Ottoman conquest, when it was turned into a mosque in the 1460s. Sadly, the Parthenon was badly damaged in 1687 in the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League. The Ottomans used the temple as a shelter and an armory for gunpowder. The Venetians bombarded it with hundreds of cannonballs. The gunpowder eventually ignited from the fury of the cannonade. In subsequent decades, the ruins became a prime haven for looters and yet again a battleground until reconstruction was started in the late nineteenth century.


Floorplan of the Parthenon

This is a floorplan of the Parthenon with notes that I added to illustrate different points of Greek temple design.
This is a floorplan of the Parthenon with notes that I added to illustrate different points of Greek temple design. | Source

Temple Interior

Portico (Pronaos)

Most Greek temples were rectangular in shape and built along an east-west access. The main entrance faced east, towards the rising sun, the direction that sacrifices were traditionally offered. The pronaos was a portico or vestibule that served as the entranceway into the sanctuary.

Sanctuary (Naos)

The temple proper or sanctuary (also called naos) was the main hall where a statue or cultic image of the deity resided. It was neither a place for worship, nor for believers to assemble (as in a church or synagogue). There might be a table off to one side where devotees could leave votive offerings. Sometimes there was an additional room behind it, the adytos (meaning “inaccessible”) which served as a treasury for the offerings brought by supplicants. Such a room was off limits to all except the clergy. In the Parthenon, a small doorway was recessed behind the statue, connecting the naos to the adytos.

The sanctuary was shrouded in solemn silence; as all actual worship was done outside and visitors rarely entered, except to leave a votive offering. Sacrifices were never performed inside the sanctuary, but alongside the pronaos on a small altar called the bomós (βωμός).

Rear Portico (Opisthodomos)

The rear portico was a design feature intended to balance the pronaos in the interests of symmetry. More often than not, it did not serve to connect to the naos, though it might have a doorway to the adytos, if the temple had one.

Colonnade (Peristasis)

The naos was surrounded on four sides by a single row of columns (or more rarely two rows). The covered portico created by the columns and overhang of the temple roof was called the pteron (meaning “wing”). It served as a place for religious processions or pompe (πομπή).


Athena Parthenos

A recreation in modern materials of the lost colossal statue by Pheidias, Athena Parthenos by Alan LeQuire is housed in a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park.  The photograph is by Dean Dixon.
A recreation in modern materials of the lost colossal statue by Pheidias, Athena Parthenos by Alan LeQuire is housed in a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park. The photograph is by Dean Dixon. | Source

Athena Parthenos

In the center of the sanctuary or naos stands the cultic image. In the case of the Parthenon, it was the massive Athena Parthenos . Built by the sculptor Phidias the Great (480-430 BC), the designer who oversaw much of Pericles’ building program, this statue is a prime example of use of the chryselephantine (from the Greek words for ‘gold’ and ‘ivory’) medium. The Parthenon takes its name from the image depicted in the statue; Athena Parthenos means, ‘ Athena the Virgin’.

The Parthenos statue was about forty feet tall and constructed from a wooden core covered over with shaped bronze plates. Gold plates were laid over top. Ivory surfaces were used for the goddess’ face and arms. Over a ton of gold total was used in the statue, representing a significant investment of the Athenian government in an ostentatious display of wealth and piety. It remained until the fifth century AD when a Byzantine Emperor carried it off.

Athena is depicted in the statue in armor, the head of the medusa on her breastplate. She holds a small statue of Nike (the goddess of victory) in her right hand and a large shield in her left. A spear rests against her left shoulder. At her feet, a serpent representing the mythic king Erichthonius.

The American sculptor Alan LeQuire was commissioned to build a full-sized reproduction of the statue which he unveiled in 1990. It stands in the Nashville Parthenon, a full scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens.


Engravings on the Parthenon

Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis.
Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek. Photo by Tilemahos Efthimiadis. | Source
Lapith fighting a Centaur; from the south facing side of the temple. Photo by Adam Carr.
Lapith fighting a Centaur; from the south facing side of the temple. Photo by Adam Carr. | Source

Engravings on the Parthenon

The exterior of temples were often decorated with elaborate carvings. The Parthenon has many done in exquisite detail.

Pediments, the triangular sections found at each long end of the temple above the columns, depicted scenes from the life of the goddess Athena, including her birth from the head of Zeus as well as her contest with Poseidon to become the patron of Athens.

The exterior walls of the naos are decorated by a frieze that depicts themes from Greek mythology and folklore. Along the outside of the temple, 92 friezes called metopes depicted scenes from ancient battles, both mythological and historical. They thematically represent the victory of order over disorder and law over chaos, recurring motifs in many ancient religions.


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    • Bedbugabscond profile image

      Melody Trent 5 years ago from United States

      Athena Parthenos is an amazing statue. I would love to see it one day. Thanks for sharing.