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The Debunker: Did the Greeks Love Gleaming White Statues and Temples or What?

by Ken Jennings

March has come in like a lion, and I hope that you're just as excited as I am to celebrate March 25, the Greek holiday that marks their 1821 war for independence from the Turks. Opa! "Greece" is the word! In honor of Greek independence, Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here all month to correct a lot of Greek mythology-things we thought we knew about the ancient land that gave us democracy, logic, and nude wrestling. It turns out a lot of this Socratic wisdom is all Greek to us.

Did the Greeks Love Gleaming White Statues and Temples or What?

The grandeur that was Greece, at least in epic Hollywood movies, is really heavy on white marble. Big marble statuary, big marble pillared temples. If you've been to modern Greece, you know that the colossal ruined temples-the Parthenon in Athens, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion-are indeed big chunks of white marble. So what's the big deal?

The Debunker

First of all, the surviving temples don't represent typical Greek architecture. For much of Greek history, the columns and statues of their temples were built of wood and the temple walls of mud-brick. But only the later stone temples survived, because they were more durable. Secondly, most Greek statues were made of metals like bronze, but those were often melted down over the centuries. Most "Greek" marbles extant today are Roman copies of Greek bronzes that no longer exist.

But most surprising to modern eyes would be the color palette of ancient Greek cities. Modern scientific techniques-microscopic examination for brush strokes, ultraviolet light to show traces of organic compounds-have revealed that Greek architecture and statuary was generally painted in bright colors that didn't survive the millennia. Modern recreations of Greek marbles as they actually were can look quite garish and "kitschy" to modern eyes, in comparison with the blank, neutered white torsos that art critics have been conditioning us to expect since the Renaissance.

Quick Quiz: The white stone used to carve Trajan's Column and Michelangelo's David came from what Tuscan city west of Florence, famous for its marble?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.