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December 11, 2007

Temple of Athena Nike

Reconstruction of the temple
Reconstruction of the temple

Nike means "Victory" in Greek, and Athena was worshiped in this form, as goddess of victory, on the Acropolis, Athens. Her temple was the earliest Ionic temple on the Acropolis was compensated by its prominent position on a steep bastion at the south west corner of the Acropolis, to the right of the entrance (propylaea). There the citizens worshipped the goddess in hope of a prosperous outcome in the long war fought on land and sea against the Spartans and their allies. The Temple of Athena Nike was an expression of Athens' ambition to be the leading Greek city state in the Peloponnese.

The Temple sits within the sanctuary of Athena Nike, atop a bastion on the south flank of the great stair to the Athenian Acropolis. In contrast to the Acropolis proper, a walled sanctuary entered through the Propylaia, the Nike Sanctuary was open, entered from the Propylaia's southwest wing and from a narrow stair on the north. The sheer walls of its bastion were protected on the north, west, and south by a parapet, the famed "Nike Parapet", named for its frieze of Nikai celebrating victory and sacrificing to their patroness, Athena.

Temple architecture and sculpture

Floor plan
Floor plan

The Temple of Athena Nike is a tetrastyle (four column) Ionic structure with a colonnaded portico at both front and rear facades (amphiprostyle), designed by the architect Kallikrates. This building was erected on top of the remains of an earlier sixth century temple to Athena, demolished by the Persians in 480 B.C. The total height from the stylobate to the acme of the pediment while the temple remained intact was a modest 23 feet. The ratio of height to diameter of the columns is 7:1, the slender proportions creating an elegance and refinement not encountered in the normal 9:1 or 10:1 of Ionic buildings. Constructed from white pentelic marble, it was built in stages as war-starved funding allowed.

A cult statue of Athena Nike stood inside the small 5 m x 5 m naos. The account by ancient writer Pausanias describes the statue as made of wood, holding a helmet in her left hand, and a pomegranate (symbol of fertility) in the right. Nike was originally the "winged victory" goddess (see the winged Nike of Samothrace) The Athena Nike statue's absence of wings led Athenians in later centuries to call it Nike Apteros (wing-less victory), and the story arose that the statue was deprived of wings so that it could never leave the city.

The friezes of the building's entablature were decorated on all sides with relief sculpture in the idealized classical style of the 5th century B.C. The north frieze depicted a battle between Greeks entailing cavalry. The south freize showed the decisive victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea. The east frieze showed an assembly of the gods Athena, Zeus and Poseidon, rendering Athenian religious beliefs and reverence for the gods bound up in the social and political climate of 5th Century Athens.

Some time after the temple was completed, around 410 B.C a parapet was added around it to prevent people from falling from the steep bastion. The outside of the parapet was adorned by exquisitely carved relief sculptures showing Nike in a variety of activities, the best-known illustrating Nike adjusting her sandle.

After three separate restorations the small Temple of Athena Nike/Apteros still stands on the Acropolis, together with the Erechtheum and the Parthenon, a survivor of antiquity. The main structure, stylobate and columns are largely intact, minus the roof and most of the typanae. Fragments of the sculpted frieze are exhibited in the Acropolis Museum; copies of these are fixed in their place on the temple.

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