The Fascinating Story Behind the Greek Temple of Athena Nike

Athena Nike
The Temple of Athena Nike. Credit: Troels Myrup, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Standing on a bastion at the very entrance to the imposing Acropolis Hill of Athens stands a masterpiece of the Greek temples—that of Athena Nike.

This temple is a small but particularly beautiful monument that was dedicated to the Greek goddess of victory, Athena Nike. This uniquely elegant Ionic temple was constructed in the 5th century BC and has managed to survive on multiple occasions despite the countless wars and destructive power of time.

This ancient Greek structure has been a witness to the rise and fall of empires, civilizations, conquerors, and friendly powers alike. Its history along with its architectural beauty and symbolic significance make it a truly fascinating subject for exploration and a real gem of ancient Greek religion and architecture.

History and construction

The cult of the followers and believers of Athena Nike has deeply ancient roots in the sacred rock of the Acropolis. There is archaeological evidence of worship of this particular Greek goddess dating back to the Archaic period before the Golden Age of Pericles. Before the construction of the Classical temple, as we know it today, a smaller “naiskos”—Greek for small shrine—and altar occupied the same site. This shrine was most likely built in the early 6th century BC. In 448 BC, as part of the impressive building program of Pericles, the Athenians decided to erect a brand new temple, worthy of its goddess, to replace the earlier structures.

The Classical Temple of Athena Nike was designed by the famous architect Kallikrates, who also worked on the construction of the Parthenon. Construction began around 435 BC (or 427 BC according to other accounts) but was soon after halted due to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War that ravaged Greece for years. The temple was finally completed around 420 BC.

This ancient Greek temple was made entirely of the famous and popular white Pentelic marble. The actual construction stands on a raised platform measuring approximately 27 feet (8.2 meters) long by 18.5 feet (5.5 meters) wide. Its proportions, style, and scale perfectly complement the nearby Propylaea, which is the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. The Ionic order of the temple is characterized by beautiful and slender columns as well as scrolled capitals, adding to its elegant, graceful appearance.

Athena Nike
Scene of the Battle of Plataea, from the south frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike, British Museum (London). Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Architectural features

The Temple of Athena Nike is a true masterpiece of Greece’s famous Ionic architecture. Its four monolithic columns on both the east and west ends support an entablature and pediment of the temple. The columns are approximately 13 feet (4 meters) high and have beautiful and intricate bases, along with capitals adorned with scrolls. The continuous frieze of this small temple is a unique feature among all the Acropolis temples, as it wraps around the entire building.

This particular frieze, carved in high relief, depicts many scenes of battles between Greeks and Persians on the north, west, and south sides. These most likely commemorate the Athenian victories—which changed the fate of the entire Western world—at Marathon and Plataea.

The east frieze, on the other hand, showcases an assembly of Greek gods, possibly in connection with the Battle of Marathon and its outcome. However, one of the most striking features of the temple is actually something else: the parapet, added around 410 BC to the bastion on which the temple actually stands.

The parapet’s relief sculptures, carved in the late 5th century BC, depict goddess Nike in various poses, including the famous “Nike adjusting her sandal.” These sculptures are now safely housed in the Acropolis Museum and are considered truly timeless masterpieces of Classical Greek art.

The pediments of the Temple of Athena Nike once contained many sculptural compositions. However, these, unfortunately, have not survived. The east pediment most likely depicted Athena, while the west pediment may have shown a scene related to the Gigantomachy, the mythical battle between the gods and giants.

Within the actual temple stood a cult statue of goddess Athena Nike, which, sadly, has not been preserved. Pausanias, the 2nd-century AD Greek traveler, described this particular statue as wingless. This gave rise to the alternate name Athena Apteros, with “apteros” being Greek for “wingless.” The Athenians believed that by depicting Nike without wings, the goddess of victory would never be able to leave their city and therefore help them be victorious in their future endeavors.

Significance and purpose of this Greek temple

As evidence suggests, the Temple of Athena Nike was of great significance for the ancient Athenians. As a temple dedicated to the goddess of victory, it was their constant reminder of the military success of their city and its aspirations for future triumphs around the Greek world. The location of the temple at the entrance to the Acropolis also symbolized the city’s gratitude to the goddess Athena for her divine protection and guidance to the city and its citizens.

Worshippers would most probably have brought many votive offerings to the temple, seeking Athena Nike’s favor and blessings both for their personal and communal plans. The temple also likely played a role in important religious rituals and processions, such as the Panathenaic Festival, which celebrated the birthday of the goddess Athena.

The wingless depiction of Nike in the cult statue also showcased the desire of the Athenians to keep victory forever bound to their city. It was a powerful symbol of their confidence and pride as well as their belief in Athens’ destiny to always be victorious against its enemies, both Greek and foreign.

Painting of the Temple of Athena Nike, by Carl Werner, 1877
Painting of the Temple of Athena Nike, by Carl Werner, 1877. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Later history and restorations

Like many other impressive ancient Greek monuments, the Temple of Athena Nike has gone through a very turbulent history, similar to the nation of Greece. In the early Christian era during the heights of the Roman Empire, the temple was converted into a church, leading to many alterations in its structure. This was quite common at the time, as the population was turning from the old to the new religion. During the later Ottoman occupation of Greece, the temple was sadly completely dismantled in 1686 by the occupiers, who used its stones to build temporary fortifications around the area of the Acropolis.

In 1834, only a few years after the officialization of Greek independence, it was decided that the temple would be completely reconstructed using original, local materials. Further restorations took place later in the 1930s under the supervision of the well-established and famous Greek archaeologist Nikolaos Balanos. However, these early restorations caused some damage to the foundations and structure of the temple.

From 2000 to 2010, a full-scale comprehensive restoration project was undertaken to address these issues. The restoration involved projects such as replacing the old floor of the temple as well as certain structural elements. Additionally, the works focused on correcting previous restoration errors from the early 20th century. Today, following the completion of the final restoration, visitors can admire the temple in its original state, appreciating its timeless beauty and historical significance.

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