The ruins of the Parthenon crown the modern city of Athens with a hazy ambiguity. To the world outside of Athens, the stunning monument identifies the birthplace of Western civilization, reflecting its founding ideals and embodying absolute perfection. It bestows upon the city a unique dignity, gracing the horizon with elegance and grandeur. You can read such perceptions clearly on the faces of tourists, as they gaze upon the magnificent structure and delightedly snap photographs. But to the generations of people that have called the city home, the meaning of the monument is constantly changing.
Completed in 438 BC, the Parthenon has carried with it countless implications over the past two and a half millennia. Today, as the Greek economy implodes upon itself, irony drips from the cliffs of the majestic Acropolis onto the dilapidated stalls of the neighborhood of Monastiraki. To some, the Parthenon stands as a painful reminder of the glorious past, evoking the stories of cultural imperialism and regional domination that ushered the city to its present state. As the breathtaking remains of what was once the most revered city, the monument mocks its home’s current condition. It exposes the gap between the city’s triumphant beginnings and its contemporary humility, pointing to its society’s declining standards and values. It taunts the ugly, industrial city with reminders of what once was, but may never be again.
To others, even the Parthenon itself is no longer beautiful. Instead, it is a literal representation of the desolation that characterizes today’s city. The ruins have been called “colorless skeletons,” reflecting the country’s bitter history. The temple has been described as the “dismembered corpse” that forces us to acknowledge the city’s bygone days.
The Greek media often correlates the solid marble with the political immobility and indifference of the governing elite. Some Athenians write the structure off as “a tool in the hands of fascism,” recalling the nationalistic rhetoric of former military dictatorships. They refuse to forget how the authoritarian leaders manipulated and exploited the structure’s patriotic implications in their efforts to control the consciousness of the people.
Still others shake their heads at the commercial and touristic exploitation of the Parthenon. Perhaps the modern era has degraded the monument with its endless reproductions and replications. After all, many a tourist leaves the city with his very own bubble-wrapped Parthenon nestling in his suitcase.
Even so, some Athenians view the crumbling structure as a reflection of the city’s astounding strength and endurance. As the distinguished scholar Liana Giannakopoulou famously wrote, “Dismembered through it may be, it discloses its power more intensely when it is the barer. A heroic, triumphant energy reveals itself in those very ruins.” In other words, the Parthenon reflects the immortal beauty of the Greek spirit and its unique ability to transcend time.
Even to the ancients, this structure conveyed a variety of contradictory meanings. Its construction was initially opposed by Thucydides and his supporters because it was funded with reserves that had been entrusted to Athens by its Delian League allies. Transferring the treasury from Delos to Athens and using the funds to support such a building project was seen to be a gross abuse of power. On the other hand, Pericles and his supporters believed the city was entitled to these reserves after leading the tremendous Greek victory over the Persians. He claimed that the monument would rightfully immortalize the city’s power and strength, while creating jobs for the people and thus fairly dispersing the spoils of war.
Because the people ultimately voted in favor of the Parthenon’s construction, electing the architects and sculptor as well, the monument came to reflect a new era of civilian power and democratic government. Moreover, the daily wages that were paid out over the course of ten years to the 1,000 people who aided in the construction project empowered the populace in an entirely unprecedented way. Even so, as the traditional aristocracy lost its footing and new actors emerged in society, this redistribution of power was seen by many to be politically dangerous.
But most importantly, the building’s construction marked a new era of peace. The beginning of construction commemorated the end of the Athenians’ vow to leave the ruins as an eternal reminder of the Persian’s burning of the Acropolis. To those within Athens, this new construction project sparked an architectural revival.
To those outside the city, however, the construction of the Parthenon was nothing unusual. Pheidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon’s cult-statue of Athena, had just completed the magnificent statue of Zeus at Olympia. Similarly, Iktinos, one of the architects, came to work on the Parthenon after designing the temple of Apollo in Arkadia, while Kallikrates, the other architect, would later design the Nike temple on the Acropolis. The structure inherited every one of its aesthetic refinements from earlier buildings. Even its amazing “entasis,” the gradual swelling of the columns intended to counterbalance the impression of concavity, was nothing new. The slight curve within every one of the monument’s horizontal lines gave it an elasticity that had been experimented with many times before. Many saw the Parthenon’s functions as merely practical: it was to serve as the Delian League’s treasury, and as a shelter for the cult-statue.
The building came to take on many other functions as the centuries progressed. It was converted into an Orthodox church in the fifth century AD and, because many of the classical artistic themes were deemed to be unbefitting, many of its sculptures and metopes were defaced. With the conquest of Greece during the Crusades, the Parthenon became a Catholic church. In the 15th century, Greece was overtaken by the Ottoman empire and the structure became a mosque with a minaret attached to it. Because the Ottomans then used the structure as a powder keg during their war with the Venetians, the Parthenon exploded in 1687. The Ottomans then built a new, smaller mosque amidst the destruction.
After so many phases of foreign occupation, the Greeks no longer associated these antiquities with their native culture. Instead, the Parthenon came to symbolize domination from the outside and brutal oppression. In fact, Greek folklore propagated the belief that supernatural spirits dwelt within the marble, many of which were human beings that had been petrified by magicians. While the Greeks were afraid to approach these ruins, foreigners flocked to them.
From 1802 to 1812, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, bribed local Ottoman authorities into permitting the removal of about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He used these antiquities to decorate his mansion in Scotland and then later sold them to the British Museum in an attempt to repay his escalating debt. The introduction of the marbles to the public scene radically influenced the aesthetic taste of the British aristocracy, provoking a dramatic Greek revival.
In response to this shift in the Western artistic perception, Greece rediscovered its ancestral heritage, giving rise to what scholars call the “imagined community of the Hellenic nation.” The Greeks created a new national narrative, remolding their folklore to demonstrate a continuity between themselves and the ancients and devoting themselves to the study, collection, and systematic care of these antiquities. The Parthenon marbles taken by Lord Elgin have become metaphors for the five million people who live outside the borders of Greece, but still consider themselves Greek. Like the marbles, these immigrants have experienced the heartbreak of living in exile, separated from relatives and homeland. The spectacular ruins reflect the profound pride in a rich cultural heritage that no economic crisis could ever uproot.
When you glimpse this elegant interruption to the city’s modern skyline, the strength and perseverance of the Greek people seem unmistakable. In the early 1900s, the Greek government set out on a program to “purify” the Greek language, returning it to its classical roots and calling this new version katharevousa. Much of the population opposed these measures, and instead championed the naturally developing demotic version of the language. Those who opposed katharevousa connected the living version of the language with the ruined Parthenon, claiming that the supposed imperfection brings authenticity. In restoring either the language or the Parthenon, the government would degrade the freedom and grace that comes from withstanding the test of time. The crumbling Parthenon, like the evolving demotic language, embodies the tested resilience of the Greek spirit.