Parsing the Parthenon (I)

Happy 2018! This marks the 1000th post for The Carpentry Way. I know some blogs do 1000 posts in just a year, but I am pleased to have been able to keep at least a semi-consistent stream of posts coming your way since 2009, and an added bonus is I have to date received no death threats as a result. You never know what might set people off these days. I intend to continue with this blog for as long as it is useful and as long as I have something to contribute.


Today I wanted to talk about a famous work of stone architecture, namely the Parthenon in Athens. I had planned mainly to focus on the intriguing aspects of it’s design, however the history of the structure is equally of comment so this topic will span two posts, the first looking at the history. Before that though I had a few random comments in general about stone architecture.

While stone architecture may seem outside the realm of carpentry strictly speaking, stone architecture in many (but not all) cases is an outcome of building traditions which had previously developed wooden architecture to a high standard, and wanted to emulate their wooden building forms in stone for the advantage conferred by stone, namely vastly increased durability. Possibly the decision to build in stone at different junctures in time was also influenced by what materials may or may not have been available. After all, 50 years ago one could find homes with clear VG 2×12 floor joists, while nowadays that sort of material would be unexpected. It’s curious now how our economic systems have made building architecture in stone an utter rarity. In the US, the place where things are built to last in stone would be one’s neighborhood graveyard and that is about it. All that care and concern about marking in physical terms the people once they have passed out of this world, and yet we cannot, not any longer, justify anything remotely similar in terms of celebrating people and society while living. It is a curious thing.

While stone architecture can emulate wooden architecture through the use of columns and beams, and may imitate wooden architecture’s features, such as gutters and the ends of ‘beams’, one cannot ignore the fact stone has quite different characteristics than timber, and thus it is generally inadvisable to perfectly duplicate in stone what was otherwise done in wood. Stone has little tensile strength, for example, so cantilevered and trussed elements are not practical -instead you need to reduce spans, increase the number  of columns, and enlarge beam sizes. Deep eave overhangs are not possible for similar reasons, so a stone building will have vestigial eaves at best.

A point worth mentioning is that in ancient Greece, temples were built of marble painted in primary colors. But by the time they were discovered by Europeans in the eighteenth century, the paint was long gone, leaving the white marble. And to this day, people associate the Greek Revival with the color white – the white columned look.

It’s a bit perverse to later copy such aspects of stone buildings by imitating them with timber as happened in the West starting in the 1800’s with the Greek Revival period. Buildings of timber were intelligently copied by builders of stone in ancient times  – by that I mean, they used stone in respect to its strengths and not weaknesses, as I’m sure they would have found pretty quickly what the limits of stone were if they tried to copy timber structures too closely. The Greek Revival buildings are however are arguably less intelligently copied, as one can imitate stone in timber quite faithfully without having an immediate result of structural failure. the fact that a building of wood with little or no eaves weathers vastly more poorly than a stone building seems to have been overlooked, or was simply not considered somehow.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead. Following his return to France in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote De La Démocratie en Amérique, or (On) Democracy in America, published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840. In Volume II we find Chapter XI, “Of The Spirit In Which The Americans Cultivate The Arts”, where some very salient points are made about the production of the arts in democracies generally. I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs, as it bears upon Greek Revival architecture:


“This leads me to speak of those arts which are called the fine arts, by way of distinction. I do not believe that it is a necessary effect of a democratic social condition and of democratic institutions to diminish the number of men who cultivate the fine arts; but these causes exert a very powerful influence on the manner in which these arts are cultivated. Many of those who had already contracted a taste for the fine arts are impoverished: on the other hand, many of those who are not yet rich begin to conceive that taste, at least by imitation; and the number of consumers increases, but opulent and fastidious consumers become more scarce.


Something analogous to what I have already pointed out in the useful arts then takes place in the fine arts; the productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished. No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant; and appearance is more attended to than reality. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former, statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modeled in plaster.


When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the Narrows, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a considerable number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were built after the models of ancient architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely the building which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind.”

Anyhow, some minor observations aside, let’s get to the topic at hand.

If you look at the stone buildings of classic antiquity, the most famous is undoubtedly the Parthenon in Athens, now in a state of some disrepair (though it is being restored currently):

The Parthenon is widely regarded as the finest example of ancient Greek architecture, the zenith of the Doric order.

It has been widely copied. The Parthenon is a symbol of democracy, the classical desire for ideal perfection and has a very rich cultural significance to Athenians. In the US, the building which started the Greek Revival craze was the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, constructed 1819~1824:

The building’s exterior uses Pennsylvania blue marble, which, due to the manner in which it was cut, has begun to deteriorate from the exposure to the elements of the weak parts of the stone. The building now serves as an art gallery.

Then we have the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, built 1833~1842:


It has a little dome on top, not visible from street level.

Opened in 1835, the third Indiana Statehouse, designed by the firm of Town and Davis, was Antebellum America’s closest replication of the Parthenon:

The above structure is long gone. To quote directly from the ICAA’s page on Parthenon derivatives in the US,

“The limestone constructed statehouse gave the appearance of solidity and permanence, but by the 1860s it had become shabby and its foundations began to fail. The building was finally condemned and demolished in 1877, having served Indiana for only forty-two years, a surprisingly poor record when compared to its ancient Greek precedents.”

In Nashville there is a full-scale Parthenon replica, built in 1897:

In Germany there is Leo von Klenze’s Walhalla, completed in 1842:

In England there is the Birmingham Town Hall Chamberlain Square:

In Oslo there is the University of Oslo’s Faculty of Law building, the middle section of which, borrowing from the Parthenon’s facade, is termed the Domus Media:

There are Parthenon-inspired structures all over Europe, and Russia, however an exhaustive cataloging of those structures is not the point here – only to list a few notable examples to show the influence of the Parthenon upon some of the most important Western Edifices of the past 200 years.

The Parthenon, as such, is not the original building on the site of the Acropolis. There was a ‘pre-Parthenon’, which was destroyed in 480 BC. The structure we see today was a project initiated by the Athenian Statesman and General Pericles – here’s a stone bust of the fellow:

Pericles initiated what might be loosely called a “Make Athens Great Again” campaign in 447 BC,  with an ambitious building project atop the Acropolis. The architects Ictinos and Callicrates began their work in 447 BC, and the building was substantially completed by 432, but work on the decorations continued until at least 431. The period 460~430 BC is termed the “Golden Age of Athens”. Athens got into a kerfuffle with Sparta, leading to the Peloponnesian War, which interrupted construction. The temple was finished during the Peace of Nicias, between 421 BC and 409 BC. The term ‘Peloponnesian War’ is all but universally used today is a reflection of the Athens-centric sympathies of modern historians. As prominent historian J. B. Bury remarked, the Peloponnesians would have considered it the “Attic War”.

This is akin to the conflict termed the ‘Vietnam War’ by most of the Western world, is however termed the ‘American War’ by the Vietnamese themselves.

According to Wikipedia, the Peloponnesian War reshaped the ancient Greek world. On the level of international relations, Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war’s beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection, while Sparta became established as the leading power of Greece. The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The war also wrought subtler changes to Greek society; the conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, each of which supported friendly political factions within other states, made civil war a common occurrence in the Greek world.

Greek warfare, meanwhile, originally a limited and formalized form of conflict, was transformed into an all-out struggle between city-states, complete with atrocities on a large scale. Shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities, the Peloponnesian War marked the dramatic end to the fifth century BC and the golden age of Greece.

Though the conflict shattered Athenian society, the Parthenon survived intact. In the third century Greece was attacked by sea by the Herules, an east Germanic tribe originating in southern Sweden. They were marauding barbarians like the Goths and Huns. The Herules apparently practiced a warrior-based male homosexuality, along with the practice of senicide, where the sick and elderly were killed and burned (by a non-relative, conveniently). Following the death of their husbands, Herul women were expected to commit suicide by hanging. An easy-going group, all in all, wouldn’t you say?

The Parthenon survived the Herules. Then it survived the Byzantine Period, (330~1453) the last hurrah of the Roman Empire. Following a decree by Roman emperor Theodosius II in 435, that all pagan temples be closed, the Parthenon came to be used as a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. That’s not so far off I suppose, as the term ‘Parthenon’  connects to the epithet parthénos meaning “maiden, girl”, but also “virgin, unmarried woman” and was especially used for Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation, and for Athena, the goddess of strategy and tactics, handicraft, and practical reason.

The Byzantine ended with the Byzantine-Ottoman Wars and the fall of Constantinople. In 1456 Ottoman Turks invaded Athens and after a year-long siege, gained control. The Parthenon was then appropriated for use as a Mosque, the Christian altar being removed, minaret’s added, and Christian imagery whitewashed over. The Parthenon was still largely intact however, as a drawing published in 1688 shows:

The interesting thing about this picture is the roof depicted. It was an accurate drawing, however the roof pitch we can see in the drawing was not original to the structure. The ancient roof had been severely damaged by a fire in the 3rd century, and had been rebuilt with the steeper pitch. It would be most interesting to learn how they adapted the steeper pitch roof onto the older one, however the evidence is long since gone as far as I know.

The Ottoman Turks got into a war with the Venetians in 1683, a conflict now termed the Great Turkish War. It was the 6th war between the two parties.

The year 1687 was not a good one for the Parthenon. The Ottoman Turks had fortified the Parthenon and were using it for the storage of gunpowder. The Venetians sent a charmer named Francesco Morosini to attack Athens and capture the Acropolis. Most of his soldiers were German mercenaries. Here’s a portrait of Francesco, who apparently always dressed in red from shoes to hat, and went into battle accompanied by his cat:

Right away he comes across as a colorful character, if not a nut.

As historian of Athens Dimitrios Kambouroglou writes: “The Venetians had discovered the secret for conquering the world. They didn’t trouble themselves to have their own armies and generals. They rented them.” The Venetians took on the obligation to pay the mercenaries, supply them with war-making materials and ensure that their food supplies were adequate. This was paid for by selling state offices and titles of nobility.

The mercenary forces were placed under the administration of Count Otto Wilhelm Königsmarck (1639-1688), a commander in the Swedish Army. With 10,000 mercenaries and Königsmarck in tow, Morosini advanced to Athens, only to find the Turks walled up inside the various structures atop a recently-fortified Acropolis. The Turks had long gotten wind of the Venetian forces advance, and had taken up a defensive position. The Acropolis, as it turned out, was the only defensible position in the entire city. The Turks wanted to hold onto Athens, as without it they feared they would lose their foothold in Greece altogether. Upon arriving, Morosini offered the Turks safe passage out if they surrendered, but that was refused. The Turks, as it turned out, were expecting reinforcements and figured they could hold off Morosini for long enough for those forces to arrive.

According to a page on the website dedicated to the archaeology of the City of Athens, on the morning of September 23, the Venetian artillery was in its final positions and began to systematically strike the Acropolis. In charge of the artillery was Antonio Muitoni, Count di San Felice, who most witnesses accuse of being totally incapable. Amply ironic descriptions from his collaborators tell us that “often the shells sailed over the Fortress and landed on the other side, resulting in the deaths of the besiegers instead of the besieged.”

He was replaced by a more capable gunner named Leandros, while Königsmarck personally supervised the shelling. On September 25, according to the Count Léon de Laborde, a bomb landed in the small powder magazine in the Propylion (the entrance/gateway to the Acropolis) the gunpowder ignited and a portion of the Propylion collapsed. The Venetians continued to bombard the Fortress with undiminished intensity however.

According to a witness, (the German officer) Sobievolski, on September 22, an escapee from the Fortress informed the Venetians that all of the ammunition had been transferred to the so-called Temple of Athena and that all of the Turkish dignitaries had taken refuge there in the belief that the Christians would never damage the temple. After receiving the information, most of the mortars were now directed at the temple, without, however, success, since the temple was marble, and thus the building was well protected.

The night of September 26 (towards the 27th), during the full moon, a bomb—some claim that it was fired by a lieutenant from Luneburg – managed to pass through an opening in the roof of the Parthenon and then ignited a large quantity of gunpowder that was stored within the temple. The explosion that followed split the building in two, ruining the finest structure of classical Art. The Venetians, according to the sources, exploded in cheers. Some shouted “Long Live the Republic”, others “Long Live Königsmarck”.

That reminds me of a scene from the satire ‘Team America: World Police’:

The explosion on the night of September 26th collapsed three of the four walls of the Parthenon, took down the entire roof, and caused 3/5ths of the sculptures on the walls to come down. Some 300 Turks, mostly women and children, were killed. The night of September 26th through following day, the Acropolis burned.

Did the Turks surrender after this catastrophe? No, they did not. One can certainly blame the forces under Morosini’s control for the destruction of a priceless work of art, however the Turks were equally culpable in a sense. The Turkish strategy was to withstand the siege by the Venetians until the point came where a relief attempt from the Ottoman army from Thebes could arrive. However, this force was repulsed, without a shot fired, by Königsmarck the 28th of September. It was only after that retreat had transpired did the Turks surrender their position on the Acropolis. Their strategy had proved ill-conceived, and the Parthenon had been destroyed for nothing.

Following the withdrawal of the Turkish forces, Morosini’s forces took up occupation of Athens. All was not well however, as internal conflicts within the group between mercenaries and commanders, arguments over pay, disagreements of religion, and the gradual amassing of Turkish forces nearby, led to a change in plans. On December 31, 1687, Morosini convened a war council in Piraeus where he laid out the critical nature of the situation. He demonstrated that, in order for Athens to be properly fortified, many years of labor and around 3000 laborers would be required. Excluding this, he proposed abandoning Athens, exiling the Athenians in order to avoid their slaughter by the Turks and, finally, using explosives to level the city and the Acropolis to their foundations, in order the prevent the Turks from once more fortifying them.

You can tell how much he cared about works of antiquity. On February 12th of 1688, the final decision was made by Morosini’s council to abandon the city. By that point, there was not time nor the means however to carry out their plan to demolish the city. Instead, following the orders he had received from the Venetian Senate to strip the Acropolis of whatever good stuff he could get,

          “Morosini chose the best preserved statues of the western pediment and tried to remove them. He writes in his report of March 19: An effort was made to remove the large pediment, but collapsed from the colossal height and it is a miracle that something didn’t happen to some laborer. The reason is that the structure is built without mortar and the various stones are assembled together with remarkable skill. Furthermore, from the explosion in the gun powder magazine, the structure suffered a most serious shock. Our inability to erect scaffolds, by transferring from the galleys the high masts and other necessary mechanisms, has forced us to abandon any subsequent effort. As a result, every effort to remove other sculpted decorations has ceased. Furthermore, missing from the buildings at this point are the most wonderful pieces and those that remain are of lower value and manifest missing parts due to their age. By all means, he continued, “I decided to take a lioness of the most beautiful artfulness, even if its head is missing, that could be easily be replaced, however, with the marble that I will send you along with the lioness and is of a like.
In total, Morosini took whatever lions he found: one from the Acropolis, one from the district of the Theseion, and of course, the well-known Lion of Piraeus, which was the reason that the port of Piraeus had been named Porto Leone. The lions were transported to Venice and, from that time, have adorned the Naval Station of the Republic as a trophy of the victors. Morosini’s officers, Venetian and foreign, took with them whatever pieces were easily transportable. Items from the Parthenon or other monuments of Athens which today are found in private collections and European museums without anyone knowing how, were possibly transported in this period by the soldiers of Morosini’s army.”

Above quote from

The destruction of the Parthenon accomplished nothing for the Venetians, save for a few looted artifacts and a hollow temporary victory. In 1688, Athens was retaken by the Ottoman Turks. They built a new mosque in the ruins of the Parthenon, as a painting from the early 1830s shows:
From a military standpoint, the campaign against Athens was an unsuccessful venture at best, however it remains historically significant because it resulted in the destruction of the greatest masterpiece of classical antiquity. The Venetians, of course, looked at the matter from the mindset of the era. They attempted with mortars to destroy the Acropolis, then celebrated when the Parthenon exploded and their goal was attained, while the only reason they did not destroy the monuments before abandoning Athens was the lack of time, workers and tools.


Morosini was a highly capable general, despite his eccentricities otherwise. Once the decision to attack was made, the Acropolis, for him, was merely another fortress and the Parthenon another powder magazine that needed, at all costs, to be conquered by arms. As James Morton Paton wrote in 1940 in his work The Venetians in Athens, 1687-1688, it was amongst the first and, by all means worst instances where “strategic necessity” turned modern weapons against an unrivaled work of art.

I find the history of the Parthenon intriguing. You can build something as an ode to permanence, and yet permanence is relative in an age of gunpowder, and people do not always value the great works of the past.

More interesting yet though is the nature of the Parthenon’s structure itself, for it is not all it appears. It is in fact an incredibly sophisticated design. More on this in Part II of this Post.

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.


One Reply to “Parsing the Parthenon (I)”

  1. Splendid story of dull ignorance, of what I took for granted as a dull case of decay. But in fact it’s both.
    Thank you Mr. Hall!

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