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  • Writer's pictureLucy Felmingham, MA

A Brief History of the Temple of Athena Nike in Athens

What is the Temple of Athena Nike?

The Temple of Athena Nike is a small Ionic temple on the Athenian Acropolis that was designed by Callicrates in the 5th century BC and was dedicated to the goddess Athena.

Temple of Athena Nike from the front

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Temple of Athena Nike History

This exquisite temple was dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of Athens, in her ‘Nike’ persona: the embodiment of victory and success in war. It was built in the Classical Period as part of the Periclean building programme to rejuvenate and glorify Athens after the Greco-Persian Wars. The site chosen was that of an earlier temple dedicated to the cult of Athena Nike established in the 6th century BC. Indeed, evidence of a sanctuary on this bastion dates back originally to the Mycenaean Period (the latter part of the Bronze Age). Being technically outside the main Acropolis’ sacred precinct (accessed by the gateways of the Propylaea), it was more easily accessible – via the south wing of the Propylaea and a narrow staircase on the north side of the bastion.

Made from Pentelic marble, this comparatively small structure is the earliest fully Ionic temple on the Acropolis, as denoted by the scrolls visible at the top of each column. The rectangular building, designed with four-column porticos on both the front and back façades, was the work of Callicrates, co-architect of the Parthenon.

The sculptural decoration of the temple included a continuous frieze (a horizontal band of sculpture that ran right around the building), with depictions including an assembly of the gods (on the east side) and Athenian martial victories on the other three sides. It’s thought that high-relief sculptures on the pediments (the triangular upper parts of the structure above the frieze) portrayed mythical battles between the Olympian gods and the Giants (a god-like race who once upon a time tried to usurp their position on Mount Olympus), and the Greeks and the Amazons (a race of female warriors). Just like the scenes that adorned the Parthenon, the sculptural decoration of the Temple of Athena was intended to represent Greek and Athenian dominance throughout historical events. These scenes were brought to life with vibrant colours, whilst the roof of the temple was topped with shimmering gilded bronze sculptures.

Temple of Athena Nike from the rear

Equally as important as the sculptural decoration on the temple itself was that on the parapet – a wall built (a little later than the temple) around the three sides of the bastion on which it stands – which prevented people from falling over the steep cliff face and could be admired when approaching the Acropolis. The ‘Nike parapet’ portrayed the goddess in various poses connected to religious activity, the most famous being the ‘Nike adjusting her sandal’ (now in the Acropolis Museum). The most striking sculptural technique used on these depictions of Nike is ‘wet drapery’: sculpture that shows the body beneath the fabric ostensibly draped around it.

The single interior room, which could only be accessed by a priest or priestess, housed a marble statue of the goddess holding a pomegranate (an emblem of peace) in her right hand and a helmet (symbolising war) in her left. Although many Nikes, including the famous one of the parapet, are represented with wings, this Athena Nike was apteros (‘without wings’). In fact, the ancient Greek traveller and geographer Pausanias claimed that the statue was deprived of wings so that she could never leave Athens.

As with other structures on the Acropolis, the temple as we see it today reflects a long history of religious, social and political reappropriations: it became a Christian church in the 5th century AD and later a munitions store, ultimately dismantled by the Ottomans in the 17th century when they used the materials for fortifications. At that point, some of the sculptural decoration was dispersed across Europe. The temple underwent reconstruction after the 19th-century Greek War of Independence and, more recently, the structure was completely dismantled and rebuilt in the 20th and 21st centuries, and thus restored to its former ancient glory.

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