A conundrum, a headache, and a breach of promise. 

The Erechtheion was a problem child from its conception in the fifth century B.C. through its most recent reconstruction which continues today. There is so much more to this temple than meets the eye. Its biography is a tale of political delicacy, conflict, conflagration and restitution.

It is the middle of the fifth century BC., the ancient relics of the foundation myth of Athens were under a shanty of roofs and tarpaulins. Athena’s temple had lost its colonnade; Poseidon’s shrine had been trashed; and, the marble statues of the daughters of wealthy families proud of their service to the goddess Athena dotted around the Archaic Acropolis had had their noses broken and their heads knocked off their delicately draped bodies and lay buried in shallow graves.

What’s a premier city run by an image-conscious Pericles with more money than it knows what to do with thanks to his mafia-style protection ring that he ran in the Aegean to do? It was time to build.

The promise

Building was all well and good, but the city was sensitive to the terms of the oath taken on the eve of the battle of Plataea against the Persians that forbade the rebuilding of consecrated temples.

The Parthenon was not a problem: it had been started before the war with the Persians and wasn't a temple. A new home for the olive plank of a cult statue of Athena that fell from heaven was another story. So, instead of rebuilding on the site of her old temple, Athena’s new home was shifted to the north and incorporated the shrines of her competitor, Poseidon, along with many other ancient cults. At least, that was the plan.

Plague, War and more

It is 431 and war breaks out, again. Sparta vs. Athens. It became an epic war that drained money and men from Athens’ coffers. Plague added to the misery, killing off the visionary who had spear headed the redevelopment of the Acropolis, Pericles. But the show must go on.

A proposed first draft: a symmetrical transverse temple that threatened to obliterate Athena’s gift of the olive tree to win patronage of the city and the shrine of Pandrosos. Financing was in place, so was the workforce.

Quarrying and transport began. The blocks were delivered to the Acropolis and foundations were laid. But the plan did not go down well with the priestly contingent and the consequence was an impasse that brought everything to a grinding halt.

Then in 427 there was an earthquake that shook the Acropolis so hard that the perfectly aligned column drums of the Parthenon were shifted out of kilter by several centimetres.

Poseidon had spoken

Athena’s olive wood statue was still in temporary housing. It was time to finish the deal and get construction back on track. A change in plan was agreed between the priests and the architects. Blocks were cut back, the west wing was swung around to double the length of the east, and the whole thing widened to make it less disproportionate.

Construction halted again. No one knows why, but the accountants arrıved in 409 B.C. to make an audit of the building and all its unused materials, and to record their findings in an inscription.

Further surviving meticulous building records over the next few years show that the construction remained on track with a skeleton crew of sculptors, masons and two architects, many of them foreigners; Athens was still fighting a war of attrition with the Spartans. With the end of the war, so ended construction on the Erechtheion; the temple remained unfinished forever more.

Compromised consequences

The result was the quirky, awkward building that we see today with illogical jutting walls and mismatched blocks, minus the changes due to repeated fires and complete overhauls of the building to change its function in the post-Classical period. And then there are the maidens for which the Erechtheion is so famous.

These maidens must be the state’s replacement for those pillaged by the Persians and who lay, ritually buried, elsewhere on the Acropolis. The maidens stand there, clutching their now missing bowls and gazing solemnly at the ruined former home of Athena’s statue, their podium overlapping the old temple’s colonnade – that one infraction of the Oath of Plataea, but their eternal gesture acknowledging and making up for the breach.

In spite of everything the Erechtheion was built and survived changes in civilisation, cannon balls, conversions and centuries of accretions and neglect. This funny little temple is all around us. Its legacy is intrusive and pervasive; look in any city and you will find echoes, sometimes complete reconstructions, often small details such as the special column capitals.

This enigmatic, problematic and beautiful temple lives on at the Acropolis and all over the world. Our appreciation and approbation of the building and the driving forces behind it cannot be ignored.