Holes on the Parthenon


There is so much on the Acropolis that details often get lost in the multitude of things to see. One of those details (besides my favorite ignored historic relic) is the holes on the architraves of the Parthenon (ie. the horizontal beams above the columns). What are those holes? What purpose did they serve up there? To answer these questions, let us go back in time…

The victory

In June 334, exactly 2347 years ago, Alexander III of Macedon won a great victory against the Persian army, on the banks of the River Granicus. This victory essentially laid the path for the conquest of the mighty Persian Empire, which would later win him the apellation Alexander the Great, and usher a new epoch, the Hellenistic Era.

The trophies

After his victory, Alexander dedicated a series of 25 statues to the sanctuary of Zeus (Jupiter) in Dion of Macedon, depicting 25 of his select troops, the Hetairoi, who fell during the battle.

He also sent a great votive offering of 300 suits of armor to the Acropolis. His historian, Arrian, mentions the inscription accompanying the dedicated trophies: “Alexander, son of Philip, and all Greeks, except the Lacedaimonians, [taken] from the barbarians living in Asia.”

The tradition

It was a matter of pride (and shrewd advertisement) for victors to dedicate the spoils of war to temples and sanctuaries, especially pan-Hellenic ones (revered and visited by all Greeks). The practice dates already from the Archaic period (7th century BCE). Others offered their own weapons, like Miltiades who, after the battle of Marathon, gave his helmet to the temple of Zeus in Olympia.

Finds in the Acropolis but mostly in Olympia and Delphi corroborate the historic accounts. Dedicated items were usually accompanied by an inscription telling of their provenance and the victor’s identity. They would be hung on the walls of the temples or displayed as full suits of armor on a simple wooden post.

Hanging shields on the walls of temples dates already from the 5th century BCE. The Spartans had offered a golden shield to the temple of Zeus (Jupiter) in Olympia, for their victory in Tanagra in 457. Geographer Pausanias mentions seeing at the temple of Apollo in Delphi Persian shields dedicated by the Athenians.

Roman emulators

The practice continued throughout well into the Roman times. For instance, Roman general Mummius, after sacking the Greek city Corinth, dedicated shields in Olympia.

The significance of Alexander’s dedication

Alexander’s choice to dedicate such a rich offering to the Athens Acropolis proves that the city still had some significance, at least as a locus for political statements. Let us not forget that in 334, Athens may not be a superpower but it still is a major naval force in the Aegean and, at least nominaly, one of Alexander’s allies. Even later, another Macedonian king, Demetrius Poliorketes, is said to have dedicated a whopping 12,000 shields at the same sanctuary.

Alexander’s inscription stresses the pan-Hellenic character of his campaign, mentioning the participation of all Greeks, except the traditional enemies of Athens, the Spartans (also known as Lacedaimonians). Although but a shadow of its former self, Sparta still shines through its absence. Twenty-three centuries later, this was poignantly commented on by Greek poet C. Cavafy (see here).

What happened to the offerings?

Historic accounts mention that the offerings disappeared during the time of the city’s tyrannical ruler, Lachares, who, probably in 295 BCE, looted not only the weaponry of the sanctuary for their metal, but even the golden parts of the statue of goddess Athena. This didn’t help him much – escaping the city for his life, the notoriety of the riches he had amassed earned him an untimely death in the hands of thieves.

Traces of the weapons on the Acropolis

The shields and suits of armor may have been lost, but it is quite probable that traces of at least the former are still visible on the Parthenon. On the temple’s eastern façade, on the architrave, one can see rectangular holes, into which the metal pins for hanging the shields are still visible.

If you look carefully (and the light helps), you may just make out the circular traces of the shields on the old marble. In some cases the round shape is slightly less eroded than its surrounding. In others, you can see the trace of the shield itself, on the stone.



Archaeological evidence

The weather marks on the Eastern side of the temple (its good side, where the entrance was) belong to fourteen shields with a diameter of 1.25 metres (about 4.1 feet). These dimensions are somewhat larger than the ordinary Greek shield of 1 metre (3.2 feet).

On the other sides of the temple, markings belonging to a different phase betray the existence of another 42, smaller, shields (or golden wreaths, according to another interpretation).

Arrian mentions 300 suits of armor, not shields. Could the traces visible today on the eastern side correspond to a part of this offering? It is quite possible, but if that is the case, then, after their removal from Lachares, they must have been replaced somehow. When in 61 CE an inscription was added to the architrave, its letters restricted themselves to the space between the shields.

For more about this later inscription, which left the marble beams riddled with holes, see my next post.

2 comments on “Holes on the Parthenon

  1. Pingback: The mystery of the missing inscription | Aristotle, guide in Greece

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