The Parthenon Friezes: Their Story Explained

The Parthenon friezes meant to convey a Panathenaic procession, the victory of the Athenians at Marathon, the power of Athens as a city-state, and the piety of its citizens.

Aug 2, 2020By Paulina Wegrzyn, BA Classical Studies, w/ focus on Greek and Roman Archaeology
the parthenon frederic edwin church
The Parthenon by Frederic Edwin Church, 1871, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Parthenon is one of the most iconic buildings in the Ancient World. This building dedicated to the goddess Athena stands tall upon the ancient Athenian acropolis and serves as a reminder of times past. What we often don’t realize is that the original friezes of the Parthenon, that are no longer affixed to the building, are housed in the British Museum. Understanding the illustrations on these friezes allows us a whole new appreciation of this iconic piece of architecture. 


The Parthenon Friezes: Part Of Greece’s Most Iconic Monument

the parthenon acropolis
The Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, via UNESCO


As one of the most iconic buildings in the world, the remains of the Parthenon stand atop the Athenian Acropolis as a testament to time’s past. Many modern-day tourists do not realize that the Parthenon looked very different in antiquity than it does today. Its classic simplicity that we recognize from photographs wouldn’t be recognizable to the ancient Athenians, as the structure was richly decorated with sculpture and decoration that was both significant and meaningful to contemporary Athenians. It is even believed that these sculptures were originally painted with bright colors, creating a whole new picture of the now monochromatic building. These sculptures and decorations are now scattered among some of the most famous museums in the world. Despite a growing push to return all of the surviving sculptures and artwork from this building back to Greece, The Louvre, the British Museum, and the Acropolis Museum in Athens all currently house some of its artwork. 


The Parthenon: A Symbol Of Athens 

colossal statue athena
Colossal Statue of Athena Parthenos, designed by Phidias, 170 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 BC when Athens was at the peak of its power. This period is often referred to as The Golden Era of Ancient Greek civilization. In more ways than one, the Parthenon is a victory monument to Athens and its strength as an imperial force. It was built using funds from the Delian League, which was a group of city-states loyal to Athens, and for all intents and purposes, completely under its military and political control. Although there was a statue of Athena in the building, the Parthenon had no priestesses or an altar for sacrifices, meaning it is not truly a temple. As a repository for state funds, the Parthenon, it can be argued, was actually a treasury. Furthermore, no ancient sources refer to the Parthenon as a temple for Athena Parthenos, strengthening the claim that it was at least in part a secular building. 


The Parthenon Friezes: A Panathenaic Procession

the west and south friezes parthenon
The West and South Friezes of the Parthenon, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The Acropolis Museum, Athens 


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Traditionally scholars of Greek art and architecture have believed that the Parthenon Friezes depict a Panathenaic procession, which was an element of the popular Panathenaic festival celebrated on the day of Athena’s birth. More specifically, experts believe that the frieze depicts a Greater Panathenaia, which was a more elaborate festival of the goddess’ birth that, beginning in 566 B.C, was celebrated every fourth year. The festival was only open to Athenian citizens, making it a large nationalistic festival. The culmination of this festival was the redraping of the Athena Parthenos statue, which was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. The giant statue, meant to be composed of chryselephantine, gold, and ivory, was redraped in a new elaborate cloak made by prestigious Athenian citizens in a showcase of Athenian piety. 


All around the frieze of the Parthenon subjects march or ride horses in a long procession until they finally reach the pantheon of the Greek gods. Here they are meant to offer a sacrifice. The images on the building’s frieze mimic what would actually occur in reality: a procession of individuals would come up the Acropolis and weave their way to the front of the temple in the culmination of the large festival to Athena Parthenos. 


The West, North, And South Parthenon Frieze: Mounted Horsemen

classical greek horsemen
Classical Greek Mounted Horsemen on Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The British Museum, London


The frieze is actually a continuous tableau of marble sculpture that runs around the entire exterior of the inner building. The procession begins on the west end of the building, as that is the side of the temple that would have been first seen when an individual walked up the Acropolis. Here, there are colonnades of mounted horsemen, which slowly transition into men carrying different objects, presumably to sacrifice to Athena Parthenos. The west and much of the north and south friezes are taken up by heroized horsemen, which many scholars believe are a representation of mortal men who fought as soldiers at the Battle of Marathon, the famous battle between the Persians and the Greeks. It is important to mention that ancient temples would rarely feature mortal subjects in their artwork, as sculptures would typically feature gods, goddesses, or heroes in the Greek mythological realm. Some of these original frieze scenes no longer survive, and we must rely on old artistic renderings for information about the Parthenon frieze.


south frieze sacrificial procession
South Frieze Sacrificial Procession by Feodor Iwanowitsch Kalmuck, 1801, via The British Museum, London


In Greek mythology, a Greek hero has one mortal and one divine parent. Thus, featuring these mounted horsemen on the frieze makes an important statement: they must be gods, or at least Greek heroes. These individuals were so extraordinarily honored by the Athenian city-states that they became a representation of Greek superiority over the Persians, and scholars often consider their representation on the Athenian frieze to be an implication of their status as Greek mythological heroes. This means that the frieze of the Parthenon does not just celebrate Athena, but also these heroic, fallen Marathon warriors. It has been suggested that these horsemen are not just simply marching to meet the goddess Athena, who is the focal point of the temple frieze, but symbolically marching to their own death and subsequent heroization.  


The artistic rendering of the horsemen makes this heroization clear. The riders are shown nude, which is a typical representation of a Greek hero. They are depicted as impossibly young, while a true Athenian soldier would begin his career at 18 years old and not leave to fight battles abroad until he was 20. All of the horsemen on the Parthenon frieze are clean, youthful, and beardless, showing their idealization in the eyes of those who commissioned the frieze. This mythicizing quality of the statues further served to aggrandize the soldiers in the eyes of the Athenian citizens. 


The East Parthenon Frieze: The Mortals And The Gods

plaque ergastines east parthenon frieze
The Plaque of the Ergastines, east Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The Musée du Louvre, Paris


The east side of the frieze depicts the culmination of the procession. Here, mortals and gods alike are depicted in close proximity. Men and women, no longer on horseback, draw closer towards the deities, who are all seated in the center of the east frieze. The women on this frieze have been sculpted in the same style as the horsemen who began the procession: they too are idealized in the High Classical style. Scholars often regard the women in this procession to be either the Ergastinai, women who wove the new cloak for Athena Parthenos, or other religious attendants carrying sacrifices. 


Only women who belonged to elite families were chosen to create the peplos or cloak for Athena. Interestingly, the individual in charge of supervising the weaving of the peplos was the priestess of Athena Polias, as Athena Parthenos did not have a priestess. The priestess of Athena Polias was always chosen from one of the ancient families of Athens, who were believed to be descended from the old aristocratic Kings from which Athenian Kings were always named. It was a great honor to be chosen as an Ergastinai. Showing these prestigious individuals on the frieze of the Parthenon not only showcased the important aspects of the Panathenaic Festival but also celebrated the mortal women who were so honored to weave the cloak for Athena Parthenos. This dual messaging of the Parthenon frieze as both political and religious seems obvious here. 


eponymous heroes east parthenon frieze
The Eponymous Heroes, east Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The British Museum, London


Following the Ergastinai came the Eponymous Heroes, who were another reminder of the power of the Athenians. As the legend goes, the Eponymous Heroes were male heroes who represented each of the ten voting tribes in Athens, which prided itself on its democratic process of government. It is said that when Cleisthenes established a democracy in 508 BC, he sent the names of one hundred Athenian mythical heroes to the Oracle at Delphi. The oracle then chose ten of the heroes to represent each of the ten voting tribes in the city. The Eponymous Heroes are a powerful symbol for the democracy and the secular state of Athens. The Eponymous Heroes have achieved almost mythical status, as they are placed standing directly next to the entire Pantheon of the twelve Athenian gods and goddesses


One of the only ways in which the gods and goddesses differ from their mortal companions on the Parthenon frieze is through their size: they are depicted as twice as large as mortal humans. This size discrepancy is meant to represent the power and majesty of the gods, and remind the viewer who is omniscient and in control. That being said, the gods and goddesses of the Athenian pantheon are often portrayed in very similar poses and fashions in Greek art. This is largely due to the fact that visual imagery was very important in the ancient world, as the large majority of individuals were not literate. The artist had to ensure that the viewer could recognize the gods and goddesses, and identify them from one another. This stereotypical imagery also served another purpose: it became very easy to identify when an artist had changed a god or goddess’ appearance from its stereotype to convey a political or artistic message.


hera zeus parthenon frieze
Hera and Zeus seated next to smaller participants of the Panathenaic procession, east Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The British Museum, London


Scholars have remarked on the similarities between the mortals and the gods on the Parthenon frieze. One of the often-mentioned gods in this context is Apollo: here he is seated beside Poseidon, the god of the sea (left). He is often identified by his triton, which is not included here due to its lack of preservation. On the other side of Apollo sits Artemis (right), who is usually illustrated in close proximity to Apollo, since she is his sister. Apollo sits unbearded and youthful. His expression here is very similar to that of the horsemen in the procession on the east side of the frieze. 


Academics believe that this similarity was done deliberately to create a further connection between the horsemen at Marathon and the idea of divinity. This, of course, could just be the style of the artist, but it makes one wonder if the similarities are deliberate and done to convey a specific visual message. By making Apollo appear akin to the horsemen at Marathon, the horsemen at Marathon suddenly bring on images of Apollo, one of the most important gods in the Greek pantheon. Clearly, the cultural influence that the Battle of Marathon had on the Athenian psyche cannot be underestimated. 


poseidon apollo parthenon frieze
Poseidon, Apollo, and Artemis, east Parthenon Frieze, designed by Phidias, 447-32 BC, via The Acropolis Museum, Athens


Legacy Of The Parthenon Friezes


It is easy to see that the content on the Parthenon was not only meant to be sacred but also political. By analyzing the artwork of the Parthenon through a historical and contextual lens, the dual messaging of the Parthenon’s friezes becomes very obvious to the modern observer. It must have been even more apparent to the contemporaneous Athenian, as the imagery made allusions to very commonly recognized themes, myths, and characters in Athenian culture. 

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By Paulina WegrzynBA Classical Studies, w/ focus on Greek and Roman ArchaeologyPaulina earned an undergraduate degree in Classical Studies from the University of Western Ontario, with an emphasis on Greek and Roman Archaeology, before completing her Master’s in physical therapy at the University of Toronto. Despite her new career focus, she continues to learn and write about the ancient world, as it will always have a soft spot in her heart.