A t h e n s T e m p
l e s
TEMPLE OF ATHENA NIKE
This small Temple is one of the most memorable
monuments on the Acropolis. Pausanias mentions seeing it on the way up
to the Propylaea: The Temple of Athena Aptera (Wingless Victory)
stands to the right of the Propylaea (gateway). The sea is visible
from the spot, and the story goes that Aegeus flung himself from here when
he saw the ship which had borne the young Athenians to Crete returning
with black sails aloft. Theseus had left Athens in the hope of killing
the Minotaur and had promised his father that he would hoist white sails
in the event of success. But he forgot his promise and Aegeus, thinking
he had been slain, leapt to his death from the citadel. (Paus.
The Athena Nike (Athena of Victory) Temple
stands on the remains of a Mycenaean fortification of Cyclopean masonry,
originally several meters higher than the present bastion. By the 6th century
B.C.E. a cult worshipping Goddess Athena as Goddess of Victory, had been
established in the same location, and by ca. 490 B.C.E. a small poros Temple
and several altars had been built.
The Temple of Athena Nike was begun in 427
B.C.E., two years after the death of Pericles. The building was completed
three years later (424 B.C.E.), but the sculptors continued working on
it until about 410 B.C.E.
Ca. 410 B.C.E. the famous carved parapet
was constructed around the Temple, and the entire area is sometimes referred
to as the Nike Parapet. Also on the bastion were Shrines of the Graces
and Artemis Epipyrgidia (Artemis on the Tower).
Ionic style, this small Temple of Pentelic
marble is about 23 feet (7 m) high, 27 feet (8.2 m) long, 18 feet (5.6
m) wide and 13 feet (4 m) column height. Both the front facade and the
back have a four-column portico. The cella (the inner sanctum) has
unadorned walls, except for the east wall where two rectangular pillars
stand between the antae. Originally it housed a statue of the Goddess
that was a copy of the xoanon (wooden image) burned during the Persian
occupation. The Ionic triple architrave is supported by the porticos and
the long walls of the cella.
A sculpted frieze runs around all four sides
of the building. The only surviving original panels in sito are
those on the east side; all the others are castings taken from the originals,
which are in the British Museum. The figures on the frieze of the east
wall have been damaged by pollution; but the Goddess Athena, with Her shield,
and the God Zeus (beside Her) are easily recognizable, with a throng of
Gods and Goddesses around them. Illustrated on the other friezes are battles
against the Persians, notably the 5th century B.C.E. Battle of Plateae,
on the North wall. Because the Temple is so close to the edge of the platform
there is a parapet on every side except the east. The balustrade, about
3 feet (91 cm) high and built of marble, supported a bronze grille. The
marble slabs are decorated with reliefs on the outside. At the center of
the west side of the balustrade, the most decorative panel of the ensemble
depicts the Goddess Athena receiving the homage of two processions of winged
Victories. Some of these sculptures are on display in the Acropolis Museum.
Inside the Temple was a cult statue described
by literary sources and rendered in a fourth-century relief has a stiffly
standing figure of wood holding an unusual pair of attributes, a helmet
and a pomegranate.
When Athena announces the festival program
at the end of Euripides' Erechtheus, the last item is a sacrifice
emphatically located at my own altar and placed in charge of the
priestess of Athena Polias. An ephebic (young people) decree of 123/2 B.C.E.
happens to mention a separate festival with sacrifice at the altar of Athena
Nike: an ox is led by processioners up to the Acropolis. Erechtheus
and the ephebic decree refer to the same festival and sacrifice. It is
the Skira, and this is the ritual which the shrine is meant for.
The festival etiology is the battle between
Erechtheus and Eumolpos. At the end of Erechtheus, also Athena describes
a sacrifice that takes place at the other terminus of the Skira, the farmland
west of Athens. Oxen are slaughtered inside a forbidden precinct, abaton,
reputedly the grave of Erechtheus' daughters. Euripides speaks of the rite
as sphagai bouktonoi, "a blood-letting of slain oxen". Though part
of the festival, it is assimilated in the following lines to the military
practice of killing an animal just before battle is joined. It is even
said that the precinct is closed off in order to prevent any enemy from
conducting the rite and thus ensuring "victory" for himself. To warrant
this analogy, the animals must have been slaughtered in the same way as
on the battlefield, by stabbing through the neck. The threshing was an
anxious time, no less so than a battle.
The festival explains both the features
of Athena Nike and the decoration of Her shrine. The wooden image holded
a helmet and a pomegranate in token of war and of natural abundance. Battles
are depicted on the Temple frieze, and on the parapet frieze personified
Nikai set up trophies and sacrifice oxen. In one version of this repeated
scene, on the prominent west face of the parapet, a Nike raises a sword
in her right hand, and wrenches back the animal's head with her left. The
ox is being slaughtered in the fashion prescribed for the abaton.
The parapet frieze was carved, seemingly in haste, about the same time
as Erechtheus was performed.
In 1678 Spon and Wheler viewed the Temple
intact on its outcrop, but within eleven years it had been demolished during
the siege of the Acropolis by the Venetians.
In 1835 the architects Schaubert and Hausen
rediscovered nearly all the blocks and reconstructed the Temple on its
original foundations, which had remained intact.
The program of restoration now under way
involves the complete dismantling of the Temple and the treatment of each
stone individually. The concrete foundation dating the 1938 restoration
will be demolished and its iron girders replaced; the plinth will then
be reconstructed and the Temple restored to include newly identified architectural
elements, secured with titanium studs.
view of Acropolis, from SSE, Close; good view of Theater, Odeion, Stoa,
view of Acropolis, from SE
view of Acropolis, from SW
of Temple and bastion from Odeion below
part of Acropolis and the Areopagus, from the the S side of the Areopagus,
just above Agora, from NW
side from below
on east facade, south section
on east facade, center section
on east facade, north section
View of Temple
of Athena Nike from W
Timeline: The Greek
Perseus Project: Temple
of Athena Nike
Acropolis Virtual Tour: The
Temple of Athena Nike
of Athena Nike
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©1998-1999 Roy George