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Analytical Essay on Parthenon and Federal Hall: Periclean Democracy Versus Constitutional Democracy

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Lying on Acropolis, the magnificent birthplace of Greek myths, Parthenon serves as the most representative figure in Greek culture, and was built to worship Athens’ patron deity, Athena. Funded by the Delian League in memory of the victory in the Persian War, Parthenon has also seen a demonstration of absolute Athenian dominance, built right on the debris of the original temple that was destructed by the Persians. Similarly, Federal Hall is presently seen as the democracy milestone in America’s history. Served as the first congress, supreme court, and executive branch offices, and also went through destruction, Federal Hall now solemnly stands on Wall Street, reminding people of the national pride it resembles. One can argue that Parthenon and Federal Hall serves as a symbol of democracy in their nations. During the construction of the Parthenon, every detail was voted by the citizens of Athens; Federal Hall, even though it didn’t go through the same process, whose location, and its own body was still carefully selected and was reconstructed many times for various purposes. More importantly, Federal Hall carried all forms of historic democratic highlights, such as the signing of the Bill of Rights. The two architectures are often seen as the resemblance of democracy. Parthenon, built in the “Golden Age” under the lead of Pericles, represents the democracy under one man’s rule; Federal Hall, however, even though borrowed the similar Dorian structure from Parthenon, resembles a more concrete democratic system that the Athenian democracy failed to present.

Parthenon is frequently seen as the representation of national dominance and restored democracy demonstrated by the Athenians. After capturing the Persians at the gulf of Salamis, the coalition of Spartans and the Athenians established a good reputation for defeating the Persians by using successful strategies. Then Athens, which later on expanded her ambition to a prodigious empire, decided to build an alliance named Delian League. Then during its empirical era, Athens turned her affiliated city-states to client states and they had to pay treasury by certain periods to be under Athens’ protection. Then the leading statesman, Pericles, brought up the proposal of restoring the temple as well as demonstrating the world of Athenian dominance. Pericles’ proposal, later on, was passed by the Athenian assembly—the Council. The entire process was based on the majority-ruled policy which later on recognized as Athenian democracy. The procedure of constructing the Parthenon was also democratic: A suggestion would be brought up to the national assembly, then the assembly would debate then vote if the detail of construction would be passed or not. In the end, five guys were voted to lead the construction: Phidias and Kalamis, who were the designers of interior sculptures, and Ictinus and Calibrates were the architects, and Pericles, who was in charge of the overall construction.

Even though the construction of the temple was seemingly beneficial to the Athenians, the historical facts are against the common belief. It was indeed brought beneficial to Athens. As the greatest sea power during the era, the construction of the temple undoubtedly increased patriotism towards the Athens Empire, and it indeed created more job opportunities for the lower-class men especially on construction. Parthenon is a treasure to the world too. In fact, including many other notable architectures that have been remained in nowadays Greece, many architecture masterpieces were built during the Golden Age of Pericles, together continuously inspire modern architecture such as Federal Hall and the replica in Tennessee. However, it was possibly initially not recognized by the Hellenic people. According to Meiggs theory, after the battle of Plataea, the Hellenic people already agreed that they would not build another temple on the ruins of the Persian War, for they wanted to leave the ruin as “an everlasting memorial of the barbarian’s sacrilege” (Meiggs, 37). So the motive of building the temple was not the majority of people’s pursue in the first place, but Athenians still built it anyways. What’s more, even the motif of building architecture can be justified by restoring the national pride, it can’t change the fact that Pericles was using the entire Delian League’s treasury to construct his own state. So it can’t be neglected that Athenians treated their alliances as objects and used the league’s funds for their own purposes. What makes this movement more suspicious, is, even though these architectures that survived after thousands of years undeniably were the treasure in the Hellenic era too, unfortunately, most people who enjoyed this benefit were Athens people but not the rest of the Delian League; and the number of the Athenians who had seen Parthenon in their lifetime is much less than what it is predicted nowadays.

So there have been voices arguing Parthenon was more like a political campaign and a religious restoration Pericles made targeting the lower-class men and aristocrats. Pericles promises of opening more jobs to lower-class men and protect the religious unity regarding the construction. And by this Pericles won the workers’ and craftsmen’s hearts. Meanwhile, before the Persian war, Persian people already brought in Zoroastrianism, a form of monotheism by believing in only one god. It is reasonable to predict that during the Persian invasion Zoroastrianism was spread to Athens. On the other hand, new science began taking place, led by Thucydides and later on Socrates, attacking the idea of polytheism and the notion of moral cosmos; the elite class began losing to believe, only paid lip service to the gods. To restore the existing aristocracy, which, to some extent, maintaining his leadership, Pericles started conveying people to rebuild the sacred temple. It was also proven that one of the designers was Pericles’ friend, so clearly it was a misuse of power. So more likely built under Pericles’ intention, despite establishing national dominance of religious sacredness of the Athens, Parthenon was served more like a political tool of keeping his reign while keeping Pericles’ promises to the lower class, and the way of promoting his best friends.

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Federal Hall, on the other hand, witnessed the birth of constitutional democracy. Served as the Stamp Act Congress, the building had been served for rebellious uses against the British, and from 1785 to 1789 it served as the congress of the confederation. However, the most significant event was the inauguration of George Washington, which ensembles that the constitutional democracy had been instituted by the American government. Then having gone through reconstructions and demolishment it was renovated in 1812 after the capital of the U.S was moved to Philadelphia. The new structure borrowed the classic Dorian structure of the Parthenon, in the meaning of borrowing its democracy too. Then in 1883, a new statue of George Washington sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward added the final touch of the Federal Hall we see today. Interestingly, Parthenon has a chryselephantine statue standing inside of the temple, designed by Phidias, to represent the goddess herself and the great success that Athenians made, so one may argue that the two statues share the same meaning but different. The Athenian democracy, which doesn’t have a fundamental law or debate but directly vote. Meanwhile, the modern-day democracy more contains, in Wolin’s words, “a constitution that establishes representative government and so enables a large, scattered citizenry to “participate”; and a pluralistic politics that is generated by free competition between highly organized economic and social interests”(Wolin, 84).

However, if the initial purpose of using a similar Dorian structure aims at borrowing the Athenian democracy as well, people will probably be disappointed because the two buildings, even though they look similar, represents different concepts of democracy. Athenian democracy, even Periclean democracy, was performed in a relatively peaceful way. Even though it was seen as tyranny, Eupatrids and Draco’s Council of 500 already demonstrated their determination of bringing Athens a more powerful political structure. Then in 593 BC when Solon, a nobleman succeeded the leadership, he peacefully reformed the existing council by elevating the economic burden while shredding the influence of remaining aristocracy. Because the former leaders already built a strong base of democracy, when Pericles succeeded from the hollow structure from Cleisthenes, it was also peaceful and in a democratic way. America, however, established its democracy by unrecognizing nobilities and in a form of violence. Wanted to be recognized and treated equally by the British government but ignored, inspired by the French Revolution, the series of huge defensive actions against the British Empire like Battles in Lexington and the signing of Bill of rights was based on the idea of “give me liberty or give me death” by Patrick Henry.

One can argue that American has conquered the democracy problems where Athens failed to realize. As Plato once said, “Democracy is a savage beast, and the Athenians proved this by making beasts of themselves”(Cary, 209), indicating the Athenian democracy will eventually turn into tyranny. Indeed, Athens was the most successful state that utilizes democracy after it emerges, whereas other Ionian states, even though after the defeat of Sparta gave way to oligarchies to democracies, was not able to control it from turning to tyranny. After the Persian War, the Athens embarked upon a new ear between the death of Aristotle and the rising of Pericles. It does not doubt that Pericles is a good leader, and as a leading statesman, the assembly always seeks his guidance because he can always uphold the satisfaction among them by his amazing proposals and excellent speech skills. However, it cannot be guaranteed that there will always be that person with charisma to lead the states all the time. This was most obvious in the Peloponnesian War when Pericles died the moral absolute lost its beheading power, so it turned into chaos and oligarchies, and finally led to tyranny, eventually, the fallen of the Athens. Different from the potential moral absolute Athenian democracy is leading, Federal Hall established a different but same “form” by using branches and bureaucracies. Therefore, it separates different branches, which has a central government culminating national power, the armed forces and the supreme court to hold each others’ power from going far way beyond, and eventually, the president serves a representative figure of what the government resembles. It could be said that constitutionalizing America shaped democracy in a way which it would not be uphold to tyranny. Nowadays some scholars think America is moving from constitutional democracy to democratic constitution, such as Croly, who derived the conclusion that America is going to a necessary sequence of a democratic constitution, where the government is more centralized in its industry, society, etc. (Croly, Chapter 9, 338). However, America is still a democratic country because of its separation of power, and just because of its centralized action, both government and people would strengthen their responsibility.

Then it is possible to bring out the conclusion that the Athenian democracy, especially Periclean democracy, carried out by different results, is shaped into different political systems. Known from rising from revolution, the American government believes that democracy is rooted in the revolution. But they know democracy shall be suppressed by the constitution, so they separated power to uphold the potential tyranny that could be caused by moral absolute. Athens, on the other hand, established democracy in a relatively peaceful way but ignored the fact that it has the potential of turning to tyranny, which is the least what the American government is looking for. So one could say based on their shared architecture style, both Parthenon and Federal Hall represents democracy, but the difference is, the Athenian democracy was not necessarily served in building the Parthenon, non in building the Federal Hall.

Works Cited

  1. Allan, David. “The Age of Pericles in the Modern Athens: Greek History, Scottish Politics, and the Fading of Enlightenment.” The Historical Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, 2001, pp. 391–417. JSTOR,
  2. Barnes, Elinor. “THE FIRST FEDERAL CITY: NEW YORK IN 1789.” New York History, vol. 21, no. 2, 1940, pp. 162–179. JSTOR,
  3. Cary, M. “ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY.” History, vol. 12, no. 47, 1927, pp. 206–214. JSTOR,
  4. Chambers, Mortimer H. “Thucydides and Pericles.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 62, 1957, pp. 79–92. JSTOR,
  5. McWhorter, Robert Ligon. “The Athenian Democracy.” The Georgia Review, vol. 5, no. 3, 1951, pp. 290–299. JSTOR,
  6. Meiggs, Russell. “The Political Implications of the Parthenon.” Greece & Rome, vol. 10, 1963, pp. 36–45. JSTOR,
  7. “The American Democracy and Its National Principles.” The Promise of American Life, by Herbert Croly and Franklin Foer, REV – Revised ed., Princeton University Press, PRINCETON; OXFORD, 2014, pp. 326–354. JSTOR,
  8. Thucydides, and Jeffrey S. Rusten. The Peloponnesian War. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  9. Xenos, Nicholas, editor. “NORM AND FORM: THE CONSTITUTIONALIZING OF DEMOCRACY.” Fugitive Democracy: And Other Essays, by Sheldon S. Wolin, Princeton University Press, PRINCETON; OXFORD, 2016, pp. 77–99. JSTOR,
  10. 4982.Seymour, Whitney North. “The Proposed Bill of Rights Memorial: A Gift from the Lawyers of the United States.” American Bar Association Journal, vol. 48, no. 12, 1962, pp. 1159–1162. JSTOR,

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