The temple of Athena Nike on the Athenian Acropolis was surrounded by a parapet of exquisitely
sculpted Pentelic marble. Carved sometime around 425 BCE, this sculpted parapet shows some
of the most unique, most lavish, most erotic, and most powerful representations of Nike ever made.
While some scholars have suggested that the luxurious figures of Nike preserved on the parapet are best seen as a ‘decadent’ development in Athenian sculpture following the ‘classical’ style of the Parthenon, the sculpted Nikai are probably best understood as potent, dynamic reflections (and projections) of the culture of triumph that dominated Athens in the middle 420s BCE, a time during which the Athenians believed – in their hearts – that they had won the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).
Perhaps the most well known of the figures from the sculpted parapet of the temple of the Athena Nike is the famous ‘Sandal Binder.’ Positioned on the short, eastern side of the parapet, the side of the parapet that was approached by its own small set of stairs from the Great Ramp of the Acropolis, the young, nubile figure of Nike raises her right foot and prepares to remove her shoes.
Her drapery is hyper-stylized, lavishly carved, and explicitly erotic – note the sleeve of her chiton that slips suggestively off her shoulder, a trick the sculptor uses to draw our eyes to her right breast. It is almost as if the sculpted cloth has become a mere excuse to revel in the female body that it both hides and, simultaneously, reveals.
Here we are shown in the most emphatic sculpture language that victory is something to be sought, something be craved. Something to lust after. While we do have some major sculpted panels that preserved nearly whole figures of Nike – like the ‘Sandal Binder’ – the vast majority of the parapet’s relief sculpture has been lost to us. In other words, as a unified composition, the parapet is poorly preserved.
This loss of evidence has made both the specific date of the parapet’s relief sculpture and the specific meaning of the parapet’s
iconography rather mysterious. For example, until recently it was believed that that parapet was carved over a long period
of time, by several different teams of sculptors, beginning around 420 BCE and finishing some three decades later, around 390 BCE.
Below: key reconstructions from existing sculpture fragments from the Parapet of Athena Nike.
In addition to being strange in terms of construction logistics – why would the parapet take thirty years to carve when
the Parthenon’s frieze took only three? – recent discoveries have shown that the parapet was conceived as a unified,
integral part of the Nike temple’s design from the very beginning. A date for the relief sculpture of the Nike temple
parapet in the middle 420s is now our best, and most correct, estimate for the chronology of this fantastic monument.
The question of date, of course, is also directly tied to questions of meaning. Think about it like this: What would the
parapet of the temple of Athena Nike have meant to the Athenians if it had been carved in 405 BCE, just after the
Athenian navies had been utterly destroyed by the Spartans at the Battle of Aegospotami?
What does a victory monument mean when the erecting city has just been defeated? On the other had, what would
the parapet of the temple of Athena Nike have meant to the Athenians if had been carved in 425 BCE, just after the
Athenian hoplites had shattered the legend of Spartan invincibility at the Battle of Sphakteria forever, capturing
nearly three hundred Spartan and dragging them, chained, into the Athenian Agora?
Above: reconstructions from existing sculpture fragments showing mesh detail for two existing poses.
Above: Parapet in colour: reconstructions / proposition from our research for the West Parapet of Athena Nike.
Nike favors the bold. And the mysteries of the Nike temple parapet – while shrouded in secrets – are worth investigating in detail.
Not only for what they might tell us about ancient Athens, but also what they might tell us about Nike herself.