Category: cath-parnell

Face-Off: Pergamon Altar ‘V’ Parthenon Frieze

Legless lion still has plenty of fight.Both of these monumental pieces of sculpture are beautiful, both portray good overcoming evil and the greatness of civilised man over barbarians. The Parthenon itself is awe-inspiring. If you haven’t managed to see it yet (a perfect opportunity for a holiday in Athens!), when you get up to the Acropolis and walk around, look at the Parthenon frieze, the pediments, the metopes, and then you should get ready to pick your jaw up off the floor! It is honestly one of the most magical buildings that I have ever seen. Everything about it proclaims the glory of Athens – it’s position on the Acropolis, the monumental sculpture, and of course the story which is told by the frieze.

The Pergamon Altar was built during the reign of King Eumenes II in the first half of the second century BC on the acropolis in Pergamon in Asia Minor. Although it is often said to be a temple, it’s not. It is in fact more likely to be an altar for a temple, maybe for the temple of Athena which was also on the acropolis slightly abve the Pergamon altar. One of the theories is that the Pergamon altar was only a place for making sacrifices. Another is that the altar didn’t have a temple, that it was simply an altar. This sounds silly but an altar did not necessarily have to have a temple around it, although temples always had to have an altar. There is no one theory which has been widely accepted and Wolfgang Radt who had worked on the excavations at Pergamon went so far as to say: No research is undisputed concerning this most famous artistic masterpiece of Pergamon.

So Let’s compare these two great monuments head to head and see which one you think comes out on top!

The Parthenon Frieze

Parthenon Frieze Section

The Parthenon Frieze was sculpted by Phidias under the rule of Perikles during the so called ‘Golden Age’.

The frieze runs in an unbroken line around the exterior wall of the cella, and is one metre high and 160 metres long. It is carved in low relief sculpture and depicts a parade of horses, riders, gods, people and animals. All of these together are most often interpreted as showing the Panathenaic Procession.
This happened in Summer in the first month of the Athenian Calender and was an incredibly important festival for the people of Ancient Athens. It begins in the Southwest Corner and then the 2 processions go in different directions until they meet on the east side.

In the centre part of the frieze is the folding of the peplos which was woven by virgins who were dedicated to the goddess Athena. Some scholars argue that the frieze does not show a particlar Panathenaic Procession but rather that it just shows an idealised procession that indicates what the panathenaic procession should be like.

If we agree that the frieze shows the Panathenaic procession then why are there gods depicted with mortals?

The frieze is split between Athens and London, with a few stray parts housed elsewhere in the world. In London it makes up the largest part of the Elgin Marbles Collection of the British Museum.

In Athens’ New Acropolis Museum it is laid out as it would have been when it was on the Parthenon itself and the missing parts have been replaced with marble plaster casts, presumably until they manage to get the rest of the frieze back.


  • Seeing the Parthenon Frieze on the Acropolis is magical
  • You get to walk around the frieze and see exactly the way it was on the Parthenon


The Pergamon Altar

Pergamon Altar

The Pergamon altar is often described as the high point of Hellenistic Art. However, little is written about its origins apart from one or two comments in the Ancient texts.

The entire altar is about 35 metres wide and 33 metres deep. It’s absolutely massive! The front stairway alone is almost 20 metres wide, and the frieze itself is about 113 metres long, one of the longest friezes from Greek Antiquity after its rival the Parthenon frieze.

The base is decorated with a frieze in high relief. This shows the battle between the giants and the gods of Olympia (Gigantomachy). Here the children of Gaia (who are often described as giant creatures with snake feet) fight against the Olympian gods.

The East frieze is the one that visitors to the Pergamon altar would have seen first and it shows most of the important Olympian gods.

There is a second, smaller frieze on the inner court walls which depicts events from the life of Telephus, who not only was the son of the great Herakles but who was also accredited as the founder of Pergamon.

The Pergamon altar is housed in Berlin. After the friezes were moved there archaeologists found that the slabs weren’t actually in the right order and so they had to be re-arranged.

Also, the old museum was found to be far too small to house the alter properly a new museum was built to display them to their best adavantage, hence how the alter got its own museum – the Pergamon Museum.


  • The altar is the high point of Hellenistic art
  • The Gigantomachy is an exciting story
  • It’s got its own museum


  • If you go to the site itself there’s nothing much there apart from a few olive trees
  • Not all the panels survived being moved after they were found to be in the wrong order

10 Ways to Experience Ancient Greece in London

Mycenaean Linear B Tablet Ashmolean Museum Oxford.JPG

The history of Athens and its many monuments is endlessly exciting for visitors and you don’t need to be in the city itself to get a taste of its glorious past. Wander around London, admire a few buildings, have a short visit to the British Museum and then finish your day with a trip to the cinema and you will feel like you’ve been to transported to ancient Greece. So here are 10 points of call for experiencing your very own “Athens day” in London.

1. Clay tablets With Linear B

Get to grips with the language of ancient Greece by discovering the clay tablets inscribed with Linear B. These clay tablets are inscribed with the earlist form of the Greek language (linear B).Tablets in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford describe the business and administrative side of palace life, and examples in the British Museum record the number of sheep at Phaistos. Interestingly, some of these tablets describe the offering of oil to deities. So that’s why we’re running out of the stuff!

The tablets were only a small part of archives found in the Palace of Knossos on Crete. The fire which destroyed Knossos baked the clay hard and this disaster preserved these tablets. This is probably one of the few time where people are actually pleased that there was a fire, as without all the heat the tablets probably wouldn’t have survived!

2: The Parthenon Metopes

Metope of the Parthenon - Lapith and Centaur

Not only are these metopes in the British Museum carved with illustrations of a vicious fight between centaurs and lapiths but when we look at them we can see exactly what the ancient Greeks thought of their culture and how they wanted foreigners to view it. When we look at the eye-gouging and hair pulling we are meant to identify the human forms (lapiths) with the Greeks and the Centaurs with the enemies of the Greeks/barbarians, so of course in these sculptures the lapiths have to beat the centaurs!

3: The Caryatid from the Erectheion

This sculpture of a maiden is one of six which act as pillars supporting the roof of the Erectheion on the Acropolis (the others are now in the new Acropolis Museum in Athens). The caryatid wears a simple robe called a peplos and the robe follows the lines of her body so you can see that one of her legs is bent, almost as if she’s getting a bit tired of holding the weight of the roof!

4. Block from the west frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis

Only fragments of the frieze which ran around the temple remain, and this fragment displays Greeks fighting Greeks. The story seems to be centred around a warrior in the centre who has fallen to the ground and is surrounded by his comrades fighting it out with spears and swords.

5. St Pancras’ New Church in London

St Pancras Parish Church

St Pancras is one of the most famous Greek revival buildings. St Pancras was begun in 1819 and was built to imitate the Erectheion of the Acropolis in Athens. It even has caryatids like those of the Erectheion, although those of St Pancras are on the North and South of the building and guard the crypt of the church. It also has a propylon and portico in what is called the Ionic style.

6. Amphora Portraying Achilleus Killing Penthesilea (the Amazon Queen)

This vase is from about 540-530 BC and is in the black figure style. The black figure style is easy to remember as you just have to look at the vase and see if the figures portrayed are black and if they are then it’s most likely from the BF period. This vase shows these two warriors fighting: Achilleus is clearly the winner as his spear is stuck firmly in Penthesilea’s throat whilst hers is only grazing his chest! In later versions of the story Achilleus and Penthesilea were supposed to have fallen in love just before her moment of death and are sometimes portrayed gazing lovingly into each others eyes as he kills her. In fact, this scene is often described as one of the most erotic depictions of murder!

7. Stop for a Break Outside the British Museum

After all this artefact-spotting, you’ll probably want to sit down and take a break – Athens-style of course. London is full of Greek restaurants, but for real authenticity, you can’t beat the entrance to the British Museum.

British Museum's Entrance

Not only does the BM house one of the largest collections of ancient Greek antiquities outside of Greece itself but it is also built to remind visitors of the power, greatness and glory of ancient Greece. It’s an incredibly impressive building that only becomes more impressive when you set foot inside – the ceiling of the Weston Hall is covered with designs which are like those from classical Greek buildings.

At the south entrance the BM has columns and a pediment which emulates Classical Greek architecture. It’s the perfect place to grab a pic-nic snack and contemplate your next move.

8. Central Scene of East Frieze of the Parthenon

The caryatid seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders!

This chunk of relief sculpture is from the East frieze of the Parthenon. At first glance, this scene looks a little odd because it seems to be dominated by people folding a cloth. So what’s so special about this material? The theory is that this cloth was Athena’s sacred robe. During the Panathenaic festival this special robe was carried through the streets of Athens on a custom-made cart, much like a modern-day parade.

9. Colossal Marble Head of Asklepios

This head is absolutely enormous and its worth seeing just so you can imagine how big the whole body must have been when it was all together. Asklepios was one of the ancient Greek gods and was associated with healing people and medicine. In fact, on some pharmacies nowadays you see a picture of what looks like a walking stick covered in snakes and this is the rod that Asklepios is often pictured carrying around.

teatro di epidauro, argolide

10. Take in a Movie, or a Play

A trip to any theatre or cinema is a great way to experience ancient Greece. You only need to step inside, sit down and marvel at how the sound carries to every part of the room and how everyone (no matter where you’re sitting) can see the screen/stage.

The ancient Greeks built many amphitheatres to show their plays and some of them, like the one at Epidauros, are still in use. Nowadays, theatres and cinemas use the very same technology that the Greeks used to make sure that everyone can see and hear all of the action as it happens! With any luck, you might catch a re-run of Spartacus.

If you have any Athenian hotspots to add to our list, please add your suggestions in the comments below.