The lavish Ionic temple of Athena Nike was completed in the late 420's BC, probably
a year or two before the Peace of Nikias, the treaty signed between Athens and Sparta
in March 421 BC that ended the first half of the Peloponnesian War.
Above: reconstruction of the Acropolis and Temple of Athena Nike in antiquity.
The temple was built on top of the Mycenaean bastion overlooking the west slope of the Akropolis; at least two earlier shrines
had been dedicated to the goddess on the same site. The building and temenos - or sacred precinct - seem to have been designed
by the master architect Kallikrates, although some dispute remains on this point.
Above: reconstruction of the Propylaia and Temple of Athena Nike in antiquity.
The date of the Nike temple decree, which set out the terms of construction, is also debatable; dates in the early 440s or in the
mid 420s are given. Even so, it is virtually certain that the sanctuary was active by 423. By the late 420s, at the height of the
Peloponnesian War, the new temple of Athena Nike housed a fully functioning cult.
In terms of its sculptural program, the Nike temple was lavish.
Proportionally, the little building was more heavily adorned than any Ionic temple in the history of Greek architecture.
Its decoration was divided into five interconnected zones, each dramatically reflecting the theme of Athenian victory
First, the roof peaks were topped with massive Nikai akroteria in gilded bronze. This sculpture served as the
crowning ornament for both the temple and the entire bastion.
Second, the pediments held sculptured battle scenes. This was unusual at the time of construction because the
pediments of Classical Ionic buildings were not normally adorned.
Above: reconstruction of the West pediment and friieze of the Temple of Athena Nike.
The south, west, and north sides of the frieze showed three separate battle scenes. Two of these scenes, on the
south and west side, almost certainly refer to specific, historical encounters. The south side depicts a conflict between
Athenians and Persians. The scene almost certainly reflects the battle of Marathon. The west side shows a battle
between Greeks. Most scholars believe that this scene is a representation of some contemporary or near-contemporary
fifth-century conflict. There is far less certainty regarding the north frieze.
Above: reconstruction of the East pediment and friieze of the Temple of Athena Nike.
The Famous Parapet
The Nike temple's Fourth decorative zone was its famous parapet, set on top of a Pentelic marble shelf that was
integrated into the temple's stereobate and euthynteria.- two important courses of the temple's foundation.
This oft neglected archaeological detail proves that the parapet was seen as an integral component of the temple's
design from the very beginning of the construction process. The parapet enclosed the Nike temenos on three sides
and protected worshippers from the bastion's steep drop.
Above: reconstruction of the North & West parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike. With the Shields of CLEON.
The parapet's large frieze was carved in high relief with three companies of luxurious, sensual Nikai setting up
trophies and leading cattle to sacrifice in the presence of three seated Athenas.
Fifth and finally, the exterior walls of the Nike temple bastion seems to have been covered with votive shields.
This adornment transformed the bastion itself into a gleaming tower of bronze, a permanent trophy dedicated
to Athena Nike.
From the crowning akroteria glimmering over the city, to the bastion encrusted with battle-field spoils, the Nike temple
and its bastion forcefully communicated its theme of victory from the heights of the Athenian Acropolis.
Acropolis & Temple of Athena Nike reconstructions ©2016 John Goodinson