The Parthenon

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Overview

Oscar Wilde compared it to a white goddess, Evelyn Waugh to Stilton cheese. In observers from Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud to Virginia Woolf it met with astonishment, rapture, poetry, even tears--and, always, recognition. Twenty-five hundred years after it first rose above Athens, the Parthenon remains one of the wonders of the world, its beginnings and strange turns of fortune over millennia a perpetual source of curiosity, controversy, and intrigue.

At once an entrancing cultural history and a congenial guide for tourists, armchair travelers, and amateur archaeologists alike, this book conducts readers through the storied past and towering presence of the most famous building in the world. Who built the Parthenon, and for what purpose? How are we to understand its sculpture? Why is it such a compelling monument? The classicist and historian Mary Beard takes us back to the fifth century B.C. to consider the Parthenon in its original guise--as the flagship temple of imperial Athens, housing an enormous gold and ivory statue of the city's patron goddess attended by an enigmatic assembly of sculptures. Just as fascinating is the monument's far longer life as cathedral church of Our Lady of Athens, as "the finest mosque in the world," and, finally, as an inspirational ruin and icon. Beard also takes a cool look at the bitter arguments that continue to surround the "Elgin Marbles," the sculptures from the Parthenon now in the British Museum. Her book constitutes the ultimate tour of the marvelous history and present state of this glory of the Acropolis, and of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
This grandiose project, part temple, part treasury, was from the start primarily a symbol: of Athens' wealth and imperial authority, of its autochthonous identification with, and embodiment of, the great goddess Pallas Athena. Beard also traces its subsequent fascinating metamorphoses: Christian cathedral, Turkish mosque, icon of the new Greek state and romantic Western philhellenes, its sculptures a target for high-minded looters. — Peter Green
The New Yorker
This short, lively history by a Cambridge classicist examines not only the building's construction in the fifth century B.C. but also its subsequent life as Byzantine cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and iconic ruin and tourist destination. Beard steps adroitly through such controversial matters as the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, and is happiest when teasing out contradictions in the building's history: the Parthenon as it appears today is largely the result of the depredations of Victorian archeologists bent on stripping away anything that was not from Periclean Athens, and of extensive reconstruction in the nineteen-twenties -- the combined results of which would be unrecognizable to any Athenian of classical times. She suggests that the Parthenon is ultimately as much an ideal of classicism as it is an actual building, and she relishes the story of the German scholar who went to Athens early in the twentieth century but couldn't bear to visit the Parthenon, in case it didn't live up to his expectations.
The New York Times
It's an elegant, learned little volume that does very readable justice to what really happened on the Acropolis and what people made of it and why. — Michael Pye
Library Journal
Among the many texts on Greek architecture and culture, Beard offers what she calls "another dimension" to the fame and cultural heritage of the Parthenon when she asserts that is has the "added distinction [of being] worth arguing about." A Cambridge University classicist and coauthor with John Henderson of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome, Beard contends that the same contentious history that has left the Parthenon in perpetual partial ruin also sets it apart from other extraordinary structures. Beard asserts that "if it had not been dismembered, the Parthenon would never have been half so famous," and her book traces the passionate controversies and gradual dismantling of the structure over the past 2500 years. With plenty of "Further Reading" suggestions and a firm understanding of classical art and culture, Beard's intelligent narrative helps Parthenon visitors understand the attraction and power of a structure that has been dismantled for defense and for profit but still manages to impress and inspire. Appropriate for travel collections and classical art and architecture collections in public and academic libraries.-Mari Flynn, Keystone Coll., La Plume, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The Atlantic

Wry and imaginative, this gem of a book deconstructs the most famous building in Western history. Beard, probably Britain's best-known classicist, elucidates...the history of the ancient building, the functions—church, mosque, barracks, ammunition dump—it has served since antiquity, and the place it has held in the European imagination in the modern era. With éclat she dashes most of what we think we know about the ancient Greeks' building: the iconic image of the Parthenon held today is the product of a terribly inaccurate reconstruction in the 1920s, a reconstruction now being painstakingly undone...Beard reveals just how alien...the classical Greeks are to us, and just how little we know about them.
— Benjamin Schwarz

Boston Globe

With painstaking attention to detail and a fair-minded view of centuries-old controversies, Mary Beard delivers a brief, but thorough, and surprisingly readable history of what is arguably the world's most famous building...Beard pieces together what we do know, beginning with the earliest surviving account...[She] does a fine job of storytelling...describing changes on the site from a modern tourist's perspective.
— Stephen H. Morgan

New York Review of Books

In her brief but compendious volume [Beard] says that the more we find out about this mysterious structure, the less we know. Her book is especially valuable because it is up to date on the restoration the Parthenon has been undergoing since 1986.
— Garry Wills

Sacramento Book Review

The Parthenon is an excellent and concise guide to one of the most famous structures in the world. Mary Beard takes readers on a journey, at once historical, anthropological, and archaeological, that is both thorough and good-naturedly humorous...This book will appeal to a wide range of readers looking to learn more about the Parthenon and Greek history. And, it can be used as a guide for those visiting the Parthenon or as an armchair trip for those who can't get to Greece.
— Rachel Wallace

The Atlantic - Benjamin Schwarz
Wry and imaginative, this gem of a book deconstructs the most famous building in Western history. Beard, probably Britain's best-known classicist, elucidates...the history of the ancient building, the functions--church, mosque, barracks, ammunition dump--it has served since antiquity, and the place it has held in the European imagination in the modern era. With éclat she dashes most of what we think we know about the ancient Greeks' building: the iconic image of the Parthenon held today is the product of a terribly inaccurate reconstruction in the 1920s, a reconstruction now being painstakingly undone...Beard reveals just how alien...the classical Greeks are to us, and just how little we know about them.
Boston Globe - Stephen H. Morgan
With painstaking attention to detail and a fair-minded view of centuries-old controversies, Mary Beard delivers a brief, but thorough, and surprisingly readable history of what is arguably the world's most famous building...Beard pieces together what we do know, beginning with the earliest surviving account...[She] does a fine job of storytelling...describing changes on the site from a modern tourist's perspective.
New York Review of Books - Garry Wills
In her brief but compendious volume [Beard] says that the more we find out about this mysterious structure, the less we know. Her book is especially valuable because it is up to date on the restoration the Parthenon has been undergoing since 1986.
Sacramento Book Review - Rachel Wallace
The Parthenon is an excellent and concise guide to one of the most famous structures in the world. Mary Beard takes readers on a journey, at once historical, anthropological, and archaeological, that is both thorough and good-naturedly humorous...This book will appeal to a wide range of readers looking to learn more about the Parthenon and Greek history. And, it can be used as a guide for those visiting the Parthenon or as an armchair trip for those who can't get to Greece.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055636
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 6/30/2010
  • Series: Wonders of the World Series , #15
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 425,408
  • Product dimensions: 4.50 (w) x 6.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog “A Don’s Life”. She is also a winner of the 2008 Wolfson History Prize.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Why the Parthenon might make you cry 1
Ch. 2 'The temple they call the Parthenon' 23
Ch. 3 'The finest Mosque in the world' 49
Ch. 4 From ruin to reconstruction 83
Ch. 5 'The Golden Age of Athens'? 117
Ch. 6 Meanwhile, back in London... 155
Making a visit? 183
Further reading 191
List of illustrations 199
List of figures 202
Greek Names 203
Acknowledgements 204
Index 205
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