500–432 BC

Phidias is universally regarded as the greatest of Greek sculptors, was born at Athens about 500 B.C. Of his life we know little apart from his works, and of his works there are none remaining. He is usually accredited with creating the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World, and the giant bronze statue of Athena outside the Parthenon. He is also closely associated with Pericles and his reconstruction of the Athens during the Golden Age. Of his death we have two discrepant accounts, but the more likely, given by Plutarch, is that he was made an object of attack by the political enemies of Pericles, and died in prison at Athens.

Plutarch gives in his life of Pericles a charming account of the vast artistic activity which went on at Athens while that statesman was in power. He used for the decoration of his own city the money furnished by Athens' allies for defence against Persia: it is very fortunate that after the time of Xerxes Persia made no deliberate attempt against Greece. "In all these works," says Plutarch, "Phidias was the adviser and overseer of Pericles." Phidias introduced his own portrait and that of Pericles on the shield of his Parthenon statue. And it was through Phidias that the political enemies of Pericles struck at him. It thus abundantly appears that Phidias was closely connected with Pericles, and a ruling spirit in the Athenian art of the period. But it is not easy to go beyond this general assertion into details.

It is important to observe that in resting the fame of Phidias upon the sculptures of the Parthenon we proceed with little evidence. No ancient writer ascribes them to him, and he seldom, if ever, executed works in marble. What he was celebrated for in antiquity was his statues in bronze or gold and ivory. If Plutarch tells us that he superintended the great works of Pericles on the Acropolis, this phrase is very vague. On the other hand, inscriptions prove that the marble blocks intended for the pedimental statues of the Parthenon were not brought to Athens until 434 B.C., which was probably after the death of Phidias. And there is a marked contrast in style between these statues and the certain works of Phidias. It is therefore probable that most if not all of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon was the work of pupils of Phidias, such as Alcamenes and Agoracritus, rather than his own.

The earliest of the great works of Phidias were dedications in memory of Marathon, from the spoils of the victory. At Delphi he erected a great group in bronze including the figures of Apollo and Athena, several Attic heroes, and Miltiades the general. On the Acropolis of Athens he set up a colossal bronze image of Athena, which was visible far out at sea. At Pellene in Achaea, and at Plataea he made two other statues of Athena, also a statue of Aphrodite in ivory and gold for the people of Elis. But among the Greeks themselves the two works of Phidias which far outshone all others, and were the basis of his fame, were the colossal figures in gold and ivory of Zeus at Olympia and of Athena Parthenos at Athens, both of which belong to about the middle of the 5th century. Of the Zeus we have unfortunately lost all trace save small copies on coins of Elis, which give us but a general notion of the pose, and the character of the head. The god was seated on a throne, every part of which was used as a ground for sculptural decoration. His body was of ivory, his robe of gold. His head was of somewhat archaic type: the Otricoli mask which used to be regarded as a copy of the head of the Olympian statue is certainly more than a century later in style. Of the Athena Parthenos two small copies in marble have been found at Athens which have no excellence of workmanship, but have a certain evidential value as to the treatment of their original.

Ancient critics take a very high view of the merits of Phidias. What they especially praise is the ethos or permanent moral level of his works as compared with those of the later "pathetic" school. Demetrius calls his statues sublime, and at the same time precise. That he rode on the crest of a splendid wave of art is not to be questioned: but it is to be regretted that we have no morsel of work extant for which we can definitely hold him responsible.

—Adapted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Statesman and His Friends  in  Pictures from Greek Life and Story  by  Alfred J. Church
Age of Pericles  in  The Story of the Greeks  by  H. A. Guerber
Phidias in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/artists/_back.html
City of Athens  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
Last Words of Pericles  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
With Chisel and Pencil  in  Stories of the Ancient Greeks  by  Charles D. Shaw
Age of Pericles  in  The Story of the Greek People  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Phidias (completing the Parthanon)
 in The Story of the Greeks

Inside the Parthenon, Thiersch
 in Famous Men of Greece

Pericles visiting the studio of Phidias, Le Roux
 in Famous Men of Greece

Phidias' Statue of Minerva in the Parthenon
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

Pericles and Aspasia at the Studio of Phidias
 in Greatest Nations - Greece

The figure of the goddess was a colossal one.
 in The Story of Greece

The Birds Deceived
 in Stories of the Ancient Greeks

Short Biography
Pericles Athenian statesman during Golden Age of Athens. Made Athens cultural center of Greece.