In 479 B.C. the Athenian victory over the Persians in the battle of Plateia failed to quell fighting between the two sides. Athens began supporting Egyptian revolts, which were aimed at overthrowing the Persian rule and establishing a national dynasty. In 459 B.C. the Athenians supported the revolt of the Libyan prince Inaros, by sending him 200 warships and aiding him in taking the capital of Memphis. Donald Kagan states In order to establish legitimacy, Inaros liked himself with Nit, a war goddess who supposedly stood by the king of Egypt during the time of battle (59). It is in this context that the Greeks identified Nit with the goddess of Athena. Just as Nit brought victory to the Egyptian army, Athena brought victory to the Greeks.
The majority of scholars who have studied or followed the Temple of Athena Nike closely, believe it to be a symbol of victory, containing no multiple meanings. Donald Kagan provides some early history to the Temple of Athena Nike and also includes his views on the downfall of Athens during Pericles reign. John Pedley describes the temple as a dedication of wealth and prominence, while Frederick Praegar believes the acropolis is also a symbol of military dominance. R.A. McNeal and Catherine Kessling both suggest that the Temple of Athena Nike and components of the acropolis foreshadow Athens s downfall. Mary Moore also takes this downfall motif into consideration.
In this paper, I will examine how the Temple of Athena Nike was originally constructed to glorify Athens as a supreme power in the Mediterranean, but later evolved into an icon that foreshadowed the downfall of Athens. Evidence to support this claim will be gathered from later structural additions in the temple like the balustrade and joint dedications that were made to the goddess of Athena.
In order to understand the original meaning of the Temple of Athena Nike, one must have some rudimentary knowledge of the acropolis. According to Frederick Praegar, The best-known acropolis or high city of all is Athens. Its buttressing walls, fortifications, and ingeniously shaped plateaus make it accessible from only one side (11). Furthermore, Praegar states Athena was the real mistress of the acropolis, despite the fact that other divinities had their own enclosures within the temple (13). Much of her presence can be felt in the architecture of the acropolis. John Pendley describes the Temple of Athena Nike as one of four components of the acropolis that marked the high point of the glorification of Athens (239). The unique and rare qualities of its construction seek to praise Athena for watching over the Greeks in the time of battle.
It appears that the numerous victories over the Persian Empire and the gradual establishment of a supreme power in the Mediterranean were the main motivations for the architect Kallicrates s, creation of the Temple of Athena Nike. Upon first examination, the Temple of Athena Nike s components and statues portray a steady stream of wealth, power, and success for the city of Athens. It is unique in structure, as it was the first temple on the acropolis to be built purely in the Ionic style. The Erechtheion, the other temple of the Acropolis was also built in Ionic style, but was constructed around 430B.C., several years after the Temple of Athena Nike was built. The Parthenon was actually the first temple of the Acropolis to be built with ionic features, but it isn t considered to be as pure as the Temple of Athena Nike, due to many of its Doric elements. The Temple of Athena Nike is also one of the few examples of an amphiprostyle temple in all of Greece.
The temple contained four columns front and back, a cella, and a continuous ionic frieze along the South, East, and West borders. John Pedley states The South frieze depicts Greeks fighting Persians, the West, Greeks fighting Greeks, and a congregation of divinities, both standing and sitting from the East frieze (257). From these frieze illustrations, it can be inferred that the Greeks believed that deities watched over them during the heat of battle. Further examination of the Temple of Athena Nike s other structures, show more attributions to Athena, the bringer of victory. This can be seen in the parapet, a slab of pentelic marble and a product of some three years of carving, believed to have been begun around 416 B.C. R.A. McNeal believes The different actions of the Nikai, whose figures address their beholders, are transposed from reality to an ideal world. This happens on all sides of the parapet, presenting a continuous metaphor (133-134). The metaphor described by McNeal is one of Athenian victory. Once again the goddess Athena is being honored for her victories of the past.
The parapet, or balustrade is not always interpreted as a sign of victory. John Pedley describes the balustrade as a group of Nikai figures in a precarious position allowed drapery folds swinging across the figure to reveal the legs, while the clothing pressed against the torso makes the breasts visible, though they are covered (257). Pedley leaves his description open to interpretation. It can be presumed that this description suggests vulnerability. Perhaps the precarious position of the Athena figures and the exposed clothing suggests that Athens itself has become vulnerable, several decades after reaching supremacy in the Mediterranean.
Evidence from the earlier sixth Century old Athena Temple, which was located directly below the Temple of Athena Nike, also suggests the theme of vulnerability. According to Mary Moore, Architect Stephen Belanos discovered the base of the statue of Athena covered with stone and filled with Mycenaean statues representative of the fact that the cult statue had been removed to safety (637). Yet, when this phenomenon exactly occurred is unknown. Some scholars estimate that it could have occurred around the same time of the Peloponnesian war or plague. This date is attributed to the food offerings that were found in the old Athena temple which suggest that the Athenians were begging the goddess of Athena for relief from the deaths around them. Or, perhaps it occurred around the same timeframe when the precarious balustrade Athena figures were constructed, foreshadowing a decrease of power or downfall of the Athenian empire.
Historically, the downfall of Athens is attributed to its involvement in the Peloponnesian war and the mysterious plague that spread through the empire. Athens ambitions to dominate the Mediterranean by controlling the Delian league can be blamed on Pericles overzealous leadership skills. Donald Kagan states how the overwhelming odds eventually wore the Athenians down. The overwhelming 2 to 1 ratio of the Spartan army combined with the mysterious plague from Egypt slowly deteriorated the Athenian empire (143). Thus, one can come to the conclusion that the Temple of Athena Nike, which was once a symbol of military dominance and power came to be known as a symbol of deterioration and downfall to the people of Athens and those living around