The interior of the Parthenon was packed with treasures, relics, cult equipment, and - of course -
Pheidias' great chryselephantine sculpture of the goddess Athena. While Pheidias' impressive
statue of the deity formed the visual and spiritual heart of the temple, Athena was not alone.
Rather, she was attended by a veritable flock of golden nikai - images of winged victory - that
served as a testament to Athens' wealth, a symbol of her martial prowess, and the proper
entourage for Athena in her sacred home.
The dedication of these Nikai seems to have begun immediately before the Peloponnesian War (432/1-405/4 B.C.E.); the first extant
evidence for a golden nike being dedicated comes from a decree of 434 B.C.E., perhaps in connection with Athens' victory over the
Samian rebels in 439 B.C.E.. Dedication of these statues continued well into the fourth century; the last extant evidence for golden
Nike being dedicated comes from the Athenian treasury lists of 374/3 B..C.E.
Some scholars have pointed to a connection between dedication of these Nikai and important Athenian naval victories and this
makes sense: victories at sea were often accompanied by the capture of enemy ships, slaves, tackle, and other precious spoils
which the goddess was entitled to share.
The purpose of these golden Nikai was multifaceted. On one hand, these statues were seen as simple tithes: the dues owed
to the patron goddess of the city. On the other hand, these statues were physical repositories for wealth and could (and were)
melted down in times of financial crisis for the good of the polis and its military forces. The nikai served this purpose well both
physically and symbolically.
On one hand, as shaped bullion, these statues were literally worth their weight in gold. On the other hand, as symbolic images
of victory, these statues embodied the grace and protection of the Athena and served to both inspire and reflect the goddess's
favor in all contests, especially those of war. The treasury lists and other epigraphical evidence give a very clear picture
of the amount of gold fixed in these images: around two talents. This is just under 55 kg of gold per statue.
At present market prices (24.29 GBP per gram) each of these nikai would have been worth over 1.3 million British pounds.
What did these statues of nike look like? Here, the archaeology can help. Reconstruction of the height of the figures can be based
on the weight preserved in the epigraphical evidence. The Nikai were probably slightly over life - about 2 m - and made of bronze
onto which gold "foil" and other golden objects were fixed.
The bronze cores of the statues were made of separate pieces -- common practice for fifth and fourth century bronze
casters - which could be easily disassembled for weighing and inspection by the treasurers of Athena. As for their style,
the Acropolis was packed with images of Nike, so there would have been no shortage of models. Moreover, since these statues
were dedicated over time we can probably best imagine a wide range of nike types as paradigms. The Nike held in the hand
of Pheidias statue of Athena is one. The famous Nike of Paionios, dedicated in Olympia by Athenian allies in the middle
420s B.C.E., is another.
Regardless of their particular appearance, there can be little doubt that these stunning, gilded personifications of victory
would have made stunning additions to the luxurious interior of Athena's most important sacred building at the heart
of the Athenian Acropolis.