The construction of the Parthenon, one of the great building projects of the Athenian leader Pericles, started in 449 BCE. As temple of Athena, the protecting goddess of Athens, it was the place par excellence where the Athenians could show what they thought of themselves, their town, and their goddess - and they were proud. They had every reason to be so. Their fathers had defeated the Persians (480-479 BCE), and the city was rightly famous for this victory. Besides, the economy was functioning well, and Athens was the leader of the Delian League, a position that it used unhesitatingly to impose tribute.
Once, the Athenian leader Aristides had organized the League as a confederacy of equal states with equal rights (isonomia), but in the decades between 479 and 449 BCE, Athens had seized the initiative and had started to regard the other towns as subjects. Rebellions against the tribute and Athenian intervention in local affairs had mercilessly been repressed. Athens possessed the means to do this, because it had used the tribute to built the largest army and navy in the Greek world.
The Athenians had every reason to build a temple worthy of the powerful goddess that had assisted them. Therefore, the Parthenon was the best place to show the world why the Athenians and Athena were the best rulers of the Greek world. An ambitious project by an ambitious town.
In these years, people started to speak of an "Athenian empire", and perhaps the Athenians were looking for inspiration to the other superpower of their age: Persia.
Xerxes, Darius and Pharnaces
Some seventy years earlier, the Persian king Darius I the Great had started to build one of the palaces where he and his court were to stay: Persepolis. Here the king received guests and subjects; here he lived his official and private lives when he was in Persis; here he stored his treasures. Craftsmen and specialists from all parts of the Achaemenid empire were invited to come and help building the palace, such as Yaunâ (Greeks from Ionia), who were well-known for their expertise in sculpture. Although we can not have absolutely certainty that the Ionian Greeks are the makers of the reliefs discussed below, it is reasonable to assume this, since no other nation in the Achaemenid empire was capable of the perfect rendering of the human body.
The western side of the Apadana stairs
The relief under discussion can be found on the eastern wall of the audience hall, which is usually called Apadana. It is part of the decoration of a large stairs. On the relief we can see how the subject nations come and visit the great king during the New Year's festival and bring their tribute. They approach from the right, and every ambassador is accompanied by a Persian courtier; they are introduced to king (Darius) and crown prince (Xerxes) by a high official (who has been identified with Pharnaces) (see picture above). Behind the king are noblemen, horses, chariots, knights, and guardsmen. Everything appears to be ready to begin. The ambassadors and the men behind the king are talking and correcting their dresses. The highest official is about to introduce the first ambassador.
Now let's compare the relief of the Apadana at Persepolis to the frieze of the Parthenon in Athens, which is currently in the British Museum in London (the so-called Elgin marbles). Here we see the Panathenaea, the yearly festival in which the Athenian citizens visited the statue of Athena. Every four year, they offered her a new cloak (peplos). At the end of the procession, on the western side of the sanctuary, are the knights, then we see chariots, citizens, the carriers of the objects needed during the ceremony, victims, and the officials of Athens. On the eastern side, above the main entrance of the temple, the gods are already waiting to receive the offerings.
In the central part of the frieze, the old peplos is folded up, a footstool is brought for the ritual king and queen of Athens (the basileus and basillina), and everybody is waiting for the ceremony to begin. People in the queue are talking to each other, horses are calmed down.
Reclining gods on the Parthenon frieze London (British Museum)
Both reliefs are tripartite, and the central parts are the most important. The other two parts, flanking the central composition, also show strong similarities. At the extreme ends, we see the last partakers in the processions, e.g., horses and other animals. There is much space allotted to them. More to the center, the people become more quiet, are placed closer to each other. Here, turned heads or stretched arms are the only visible actions. The central panel, where Darius and Xerxes or the basileus and basillina are visible, is larger and more spacious. This composition forces, so to speak, the spectator to look to the center of the relief.
It is possible to make another tripartite division. In both works of art, the picture is that of a central figure, an entourage surrounding him, and people approaching him. (In the Parthenon frieze, the entourage consists of gods and the folding of the peplos.)
Another resemblance is their placing: they are both situated on the spot where the ceremonies actually happened. This must have caused a special effect. The Athenian spectator was not just looking at a beautiful picture with an obvious symbolism, but recognized something that he had experienced himself. The Persepolis relief created a similar involvement of the spectator, although at a larger scale. But those who saw the relief on the Apadana, knew instinctively that they belonged to this procession of subjects, belonged to the Achaemenid empire, and had to contribute to its strength. This solidarity was of course what the great Achaemenid empire, or any nation that wanted to be great, needed. Of course, the depicted unitedness -social and political in Persia, religious in Athens- was not necessarily real, but an ideal.
The Parthenon is not a pure religious building. The frieze is also a political statement, inviting the citizens to remain united. But this is not the only message. Elsewhere, on the metopes, we can see a battle between Amazons (dressed as Persians) and Greeks that is usually interpreted as a mythological reference to the war between Athens and Persia, and a deep insult to the Persians, who could not be offended more than by being called "woman". We can also see gods fighting against giants, Greeks against centaurs, and Achaeans against Trojans. (Similar representations of the war between the powers of chaos and order can be found in Persepolis, where we find pictures of a bull and lion.) All this served to present the Athenians as valiant warriors, the equals of the gods and the legendary heroes.
The Parthenon also had a function as treasury of the Delian League and a reserve fund. For example, every tributary town was supposed to send an ambassador to the Panathenaea and offer a cow and a coat of arms. This was again similar to the Persian example, because one of Persepolis' main functions was that of treasury. Both buildings, Apadana and Parthenon, were an empire's focus points of politics, religion, and finance, and it is possible that Athenian artists had learned from their older Ionian colleagues how the great king had invited his subjects to be his collaborators.