The temple of Athena Nike was crowned with an elaborate set of roof sculpture. Architectural roof
sculpture of this sort was known, in ancient Greek, as akroterion (singular) or akroteria (plural).
While we have lost the actual akroteria of the temple of Athena Nike, both the text from ancient
inscriptions (epigraphical evidence) and the remains of the akroteria's statue bases (archaeological
evidence) provide important data regarding the size, the composition, and the appearance of the
Nike temple's mysterious, missing roof sculptures.
To start, we know for a fact that the akroteria of the temple of Athena Nike were made of gilded bronze, not marble which
was far more common. This fact comes from two sources. First, the inventory lists of the Parthenon (which preserve
a detailed record of the precious goods held in Athena's treasury) describe 'a piece of gold foil from the akroteria
of the temple of Athena Nike'.
Second, the statue bases of the Nike temple's roof sculpture show evidence of deep sockets that would have received large,
metal posts. These sockets in no way resemble the shallow plinth cuttings typical for the installation of marble sculpture,
but are very similar to the thousands of known sockets used to mount bronze statues to their bases.
The epigraphical and archaeological evidence proves that the Nike temple's roof sculpture was made of gilded bronze.
But what did this gilded bronze roof sculpture look like?
One thing is certain.. The akroteria were large. Far larger than we might have guessed. The evidence for the large size
of the Temple of Athena Nike's akroteria is conclusive. The statue base for the central akroterion of the Nike temple was
substantially larger than the central akroteria base of the temple of Rhamnous (ca. 420 BCE) and substantially larger
than the central akroteria base of the temple of Asklepios at Epidauros (ca. 370 BCE).
Both of those temples were over twice as large as the Nike temple, yet their central akroteria bases are significantly smaller.
The same can be said about the Nike temple's lateral akroteria bases.
The lateral akroteria bases of the Temple of Athena Nike were larger than the lateral akroteria bases of the Hephaistion
in the Agora (ca. 450 BCE), a temple over four times the size of the Nike temple itself. Detailed analysis of all available
comparanda allows for a height of between ca. 1.2-1.7 m for the central akroteria, and ca.. 0.85-0.95 m for the lateral
akroteria. For its size, proportionally, the temple of Athena Nike boasted some of the largest akroteria in the history
of ancient Greek architecture.
Why so big? Simple. The akroteria of the temple of Athena Nike were not conceived as the crowning ornament for the
temple alone. Rather, they were conceived as the crowning ornament for the entire Nike temple bastion, as glimmering
gilded reminders - visible to the entire city -- that Athens, and Athens alone, was the true home of victory.
What did these large, gilded bronze represent?
Here, we enter the realm of speculation. The roof sculpture on the corners of the Nike temple were single figures.
This is known from the remains of their statue bases.
Since the temple of Athena Nike is dedicated to Athena in her guise as the bringer of victory, and since winged nikai often
serve as lateral akroteria, it is a short leap to suggest the the corner sculpture on the Nike temple would have been
As for the central akroteria, the archaeological evidence suggests three options: a tripod, a trophy with a shield at its base
flanked by nikai, and a nike on a pillar with shield flanked by nikai. The latter two are more plausible than the first, since the
Parthenon inventories record "a piece of gold foil from the shield on top of the [Nike] temple."
The last is perhaps the most compelling, since it is based on a contemporary central akroterion type designed by an artist
long thought to be associated with the temple of Athena Nike: the master sculptor Paionios of Mende.
Paionios sculpted a large, gilded bronze nike placed over a shield for the temple of Zeus at Olympia. If this reconstruction
is accurate, then the temple of Athena Nike's akroteria would have belonged to a set of victory monuments that were used
to "broadcast" a series of spectacular victories won by Athens in the middle 420s, at the height of the Peloponnesian War.