The Parthenon Enigmaby Joan Breton Connelly
Built in the fifth century b.c., the Parthenon has been venerated for more than two millennia as the West’s ultimate paragon of beauty and proportion. Since the Enlightenment, it has also come to represent our political ideals, the lavish temple to the goddess Athena serving as the model for our most hallowed civic architecture. But how much do the values of… See more details below
Built in the fifth century b.c., the Parthenon has been venerated for more than two millennia as the West’s ultimate paragon of beauty and proportion. Since the Enlightenment, it has also come to represent our political ideals, the lavish temple to the goddess Athena serving as the model for our most hallowed civic architecture. But how much do the values of those who built the Parthenon truly correspond with our own? And apart from the significance with which we have invested it, what exactly did this marvel of human hands mean to those who made it?
In this revolutionary book, Joan Breton Connelly challenges our most basic assumptions about the Parthenon and the ancient Athenians. Beginning with the natural environment and its rich mythic associations, she re-creates the development of the Acropolis—the Sacred Rock at the heart of the city-state—from its prehistoric origins to its Periklean glory days as a constellation of temples among which the Parthenon stood supreme. In particular, she probes the Parthenon’s legendary frieze: the 525-foot-long relief sculpture that originally encircled the upper reaches before it was partially destroyed by Venetian cannon fire (in the seventeenth century) and most of what remained was shipped off to Britain (in the nineteenth century) among the Elgin marbles. The frieze’s vast enigmatic procession—a dazzling pageant of cavalrymen and elders, musicians and maidens—has for more than two hundred years been thought to represent a scene of annual civic celebration in the birthplace of democracy. But thanks to a once-lost play by Euripides (the discovery of which, in the wrappings of a Hellenistic Egyptian mummy, is only one of this book’s intriguing adventures), Connelly has uncovered a long-buried meaning, a story of human sacrifice set during the city’s mythic founding. In a society startlingly preoccupied with cult ritual, this story was at the core of what it meant to be Athenian. Connelly reveals a world that beggars our popular notions of Athens as a city of staid philosophers, rationalists, and rhetoricians, a world in which our modern secular conception of democracy would have been simply incomprehensible.
The Parthenon’s full significance has been obscured until now owing in no small part, Connelly argues, to the frieze’s dismemberment. And so her investigation concludes with a call to reunite the pieces, in order that what is perhaps the greatest single work of art surviving from antiquity may be viewed more nearly as its makers intended. Marshalling a breathtaking range of textual and visual evidence, full of fresh insights woven into a thrilling narrative that brings the distant past to life, The Parthenon Enigma is sure to become a landmark in our understanding of the civilization from which we claim cultural descent.
Alternately a cathedral, a mosque, and an archaeological ruin, the Parthenon atop Athens’s Acropolis was constructed nearly 2,500 years ago (447–432 B.C.E.), on the site of an earlier temple, as a huge, “lavishly decorated” temple of Athena. Here, in contrast to tendencies to project upon it our modern “standards of what it means to be civilized,” archaeologist and NYU classics professor Connelly (Portrait of a Priestess) urges readers “to see the Parthenon and the people who made it as they were.” Using surviving snippets from a long-lost Euripides play, she argues that the Parthenon frieze isn’t a snapshot of contemporary fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians “marching in their annual Panathenaic procession,” but a mythological scene glorifying human sacrifice before a battle between followers of rivals Athena and Poseidon. Within the Parthenon sits a tomb shrine to those sacrificed heroines, whose associated cult was incorporated into the worship of Athena. Connelly’s persuasive reinterpretation of the frieze will spark controversy among academics, as will her advocacy of the return to Greece of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles. But this detailed, smart, and tantalizing study offers much to savor while immersing readers in a “spirit-saturated, anxious world” at the mercy of mercurial gods. Illus. (Feb.)
—Daisy Dunn, Literary Review (UK)
“A valuable argument about the purpose of the temple as a visual memento of the invisible past . . . Connelly’s theory is attractive and plausible, and is backed by a considerable breadth and depth of scholarship – archaeological, visual, and textual.”
—A. E. Stallings, The Weekly Standard
“Learned, ambitious, generously illustrated and pugnacious . . . up to date with the excellent theoretical work of recent decades . . . [Connelly] aims to address both specialist and general audiences simultaneously . . . The stakes are therefore higher than in most disagreements in classical archaeology . . . What we know of the operation of the institutions of the democracy . . . works strongly in favour of Connelly’s argument . . . Even those who have doubts must surely now recognize that Joan Breton Connelly’s ideas deserve to be taken into the mainstream . . . Personally I am convinced that, in her main claim, Connelly is right. She has not solved the “enigma” but dissolved it . . . It is time to change the textbooks and the museum labels.”
—William St. Clair, Times Literary Supplement
“Exciting and revelatory…the subject of this matchless narrative is a matter of extraordinary significance for understanding the ancient people we so admire…The Parthenon Enigma serves as a bracing reminder that first-rate scholarship not only takes no visible fact for granted, but also digs deep into the unknown unknowns…Her book is that rare thing: the exposition of a truly great idea, and a reminder of what a thrilling subject the past, that foreign country, can be.”
—Caroline Alexander, The New York Times Book Review
“A careful, learned account and a good read … There is plenty of learned and intricate argument here.”
—Mary Beard, The New York Review of Books
“The thrilling notion that a great monument has been decoded, that centuries of misunderstanding have been put to flight, will captivate many readers…one of the most original theses of modern classical scholarship.”
—James Romm, The Wall Street Journal
“A detailed portrait of the Parthenon as seen through what Connelly calls “ancient eyes.”
—Eric Wills, The Washington Post
“Engaging and intensely interesting . . . [makes] a thoughtful, stimulating, and unquestionably valuable contribution to our understanding.”
—J. J. Pollitt, The New Criterion
“Usually recognized as a symbol of Western democracy, the Parthenon emerges in Connelly’s bold new analysis as a shrine memorializing myths radically alien to modern politics…An explosive reinterpretation of a classical icon.”
—Booklist, starred review
"This detailed, smart, and tantalizing study offers much to savor while immersing readers in a 'spirit-saturated, anxious world' at the mercy of mercurial gods."
“Joan Connelly's groundbreaking work will forever change our conception of the most important building in the history of western civilization. By cracking the hidden code of the Parthenon, she reveals the classical world in a radical new light that will reorient how we all view its legacy for the 21st century.”
—Tom Reiss, author of The Black Count, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“Joan Connelly's learned and elegant study makes a powerful case for a new understanding of the Parthenon, its original meaning as a religious object and for the fullest possible restoration of its many parts still scattered far and wide.”
—Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History, Yale University, and author of The Peloponnesian War
“I so admire the historical approach of this luminous book: courageously and intelligently starting from scratch, Joan Connelly reconstructs the meaning of the Parthenon from the perspective of Perikles and his contemporaries in Classical Athens. The unfamiliar picture that emerges gives us all a sharper vision of what this timeless monument can still mean to our own troubled world.”
—Gregory Nagy, Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature, Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University
“Readers born before 1960 may be reluctant to break with some long established “truths” about the meaning of the Parthenon frieze but Joan Connelly’s book is one for the 21st century, full of new finds and fresh insights.”
—Angelos Chaniotis, Professor of Ancient History and Classics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
“We are a species of storytellers whose tales have shaped our reality since ancient times. Joan Connelly’s brilliant study of the Parthenon shows how a myth can reveal as many secrets as a rock or a ruin, and how rethinking what we know about antiquity can help us better understand ourselves today.”
—George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga
In this masterly volume, Connelly (classics, New York Univ., Portrait of a Priestess) delves into the significance of this Athenian wonder and presents a different interpretation of the frieze that encircles it. For centuries, scholars have interpreted the frieze as being of a Panathenaic procession seeking to honor Athena—the city's most important deity. Connelly's exhaustive inquiry into the intricate nature of the artwork, through a deep understanding of fifth-century Hellenic myth, history, and religion leads her to believe that the frieze seeks to tell the tale of King Erechtheus's three maiden daughters who willingly sacrificed themselves—as decreed by an oracle—to save the city-state of Athens from the approaching Eleusinian army. Connelly expertly re-creates the world engendered by the efforts of the great statesman Perikles, one in which the city-state was worthy of any sacrifice. The author suggests that the misreading of this "mirror in marble" has obscured the didactic message the edifice was intended to imbue in Athenians. VERDICT Connelly's depth of knowledge and scholastic effort shine through brilliantly. Her thorough research presents a convincing argument for newly comprehending the Parthenon's frieze and potentially reevaluating long accepted research on the subject. Enthusiastically recommended for all readers interested in ancient Greece.—Brian Renvall, Mesalands Community Coll., Tucumcari, NM
Get out the dictionary and brush up on your Greek. Classical archaeologist Connelly's (Classics/New York Univ.; Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, 2007, etc.) history and analysis of every square inch of the Parthenon requires close attention. "Never before in human history has there been a structure that is at once so visible to the world, so celebrated, so examined, so invested with authority, and yet, at the same time, so strangely impenetrable at its core," writes the author, who devotes the first third of the book to a deeply detailed history of the gods and myths of the Acropolis. The Parthenon is a portrait of the Athenians, their identity and perception of belonging. Greece had no sacred text and no culture media, but they stressed the importance of myth, landscape and memory. Myth and history were one and the same. When Connelly gets to the story of the founding family of Athens--Erechtheus, his wife, Praxithea, and their three daughters--the book picks up considerable speed. Much more than a sacred space, the Parthenon is the symbol of Athens' democracy, and the East Frieze explains the meaning of that democracy, the language of images paralleling the language of text. It shows how Erechtheus and Praxithea were prepared, even willing, to sacrifice their youngest daughter to avert an impending siege. Unknown to them, their daughters had pledged that if one died, so would they all; thus, the two remaining sisters threw themselves off the Acropolis. When Erechtheus was swallowed by the Earth, Athena instructed Praxithea to build the two temples we now see. It is not their sacrifice that illustrates democracy but the fact that no life is above another or the common good. The carvings of the Parthenon, the greatest masterpiece of Greek art, teach us the meaning of democracy. A book for all who seek direction and are capable of seeing the bigger picture--erudite if esoteric, edifying if somewhat exhausting.
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Read an Excerpt
Never before in human history has there been a structure that is at once so visible to the world, so celebrated, so examined, so invested with authority, and yet, at the same time, so strangely impenetrable at its core. After centuries of study and admiration, the Parthenon remains, in so many ways, an enigma.
The past three decades have brought perhaps the most intensive period of scrutiny the Parthenon has seen since its construction nearly twenty--five hundred years ago (447–-432 b.c.). The monumental work of the Acropolis Restoration Service in the conservation and analysis of the building has revealed a wealth of new information about how the Parthenon was planned, engineered, and constructed. Surprises, like newly revealed traces of bright paint on architectural moldings set high within the west porch, hint at the original, radiant decoration of the temple. At the same time, freshly emerging evidence from Greek literature, inscriptions, art, and archaeology has broadened our understanding of the world in which the Parthenon was built. The myths, belief systems, ritual and social practices, cognitive structures, even the emotions of the ancient Athenians, are now under rigorous review. But much of what has been discovered in recent years does not fit into the sense we have had of the Parthenon for the past two and a half centuries. Why?
Our contemporary understanding of the Parthenon and the symbolism that has been constructed for it from the Enlightenment on has everything to do with the self--image of those who have described and interpreted it. There is a natural tendency to see likeness to oneself when approaching a culture as foreign as that of Greek antiquity. How much more so this is when looking at a monument that has become the icon of Western art, the very symbol of democracy itself. With these labels comes a projection onto the Parthenon of all our standards of what it means to be civilized. In looking at the building, Western culture inevitably sees itself; indeed, it sees only what flatters its own self--image or explains it through connection to the birthplace of democracy.
This association has been reinforced again and again by the adoption of Parthenonian style for civic architecture beginning with the neoclassical movement and culminating in the Greek Revival. From the early nineteenth century on, financial and governmental institutions, libraries, museums, and universities have reproduced classical architectural forms to communicate a set of values, implicitly aligning themselves with the flowering of democratic Athens. One need only look at the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1811–-1824), the British Museum (1823–-1852), the U.S. Custom House on Wall Street (1842) (page 341), Founder’s Hall at Girard College in Philadelphia (1847), the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (1836–-1869), the Ohio State Capitol (1857), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1928), or the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1935) to recognize quotations from the iconic form of the Parthenon.1 Ironically, these unequivocally secular civic structures have appropriated what is, fundamentally, a religious architectural form. Preoccupied with the political and the aesthetic, we have become all too comfortable with the constructed identity of Parthenon as icon, neglecting its primary role as a deeply sacred space.
Any views that depart from the well--established contemporary understanding of the Parthenon, and its association with civic life as we know it, have been effaced, like the traces of paint and intricate detail that once adorned the surface of the temple itself. Criticism of the conventional creed is taken as an attack on an entire belief system. The long--standing association of the Parthenon with Western political ideology has, indeed, caused new interpretations to meet with enormous resistance. But there is much more to the Parthenon and the people who created it than flatters and corresponds to our sense of ourselves. To recover it, we must begin by trying to see the monument through ancient eyes.
Viewing the Parthenon as synonymous with the Western democratic system of government began in the eighteenth century, when the art historian Johann Winckelmann first linked the emergence of individual liberty to the development of high classical style. In his influential book, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of the Art of Antiquity, 1764), Winckelmann argued that the rise and decline of artistic styles followed developments in the political sphere. The peak of Greek art, he maintained, coincided with the democratic form of government.2 Nine years later his student Johann Hermann von Riedesel took this model a step further, proclaiming the Parthenon to be “the supreme product of Athenian democracy.”3
This sentiment was robustly embraced during the Greek War of Independence (1821 to 1830) and the period that immediately followed it. As the modern Greek nation was forged, the European powers that helped to shape it constructed narratives through which they could trace their own political systems back to the epicenter of the Athenian Acropolis. On August 28, 1834, the newly designated king of Greece, Otto, son of King Ludwig of Bavaria, officially inaugurated the Parthenon as an ancient monument. In a carefully orchestrated pageant conceived in the very image of Periklean Athens, King Otto rode on horseback with his regents, court, and bodyguards while soldiers from the National Guard led a procession of citizen elders, teachers, guild officers, and other notables.4 Sixty Athenians marched with olive branches in hand, while on the Acropolis, Athenian maidens, dressed in white and carrying bows of myrtle, unfurled a banner displaying the image of Athena.5 Upon reaching the citadel, King Otto was presented with keys to its gate and escorted into the Parthenon by the neoclassical architect Leo von Klenze. There, the king was enthroned upon a chair covered in laurel, olive, and myrtle. Klenze delivered a rousing patriotic address, advocating the restoration of the Parthenon and the obliteration of every trace of Ottoman Turkish building on the Acropolis. “All the remains of barbarity will be removed,” Klenze proclaimed. He then bade King Otto to sanctify the first marble drum to be restored to the “reborn Parthenon.” The king obliged, tapping three times on the white marble column segment set before him.6 Klenze’s vision of a barbarian--free Acropolis was fully realized in his “ideal view” of the Acropolis (following page), painted in 1846 and acquired by King Otto’s father, Ludwig I, some six years later.7
In the century that followed, the growth of archaeology and an ever--increasing recognition of classical Greece as the cradle of Western civilization elevated classical cultural production to a whole new level.8 In 1826 work began on a replica of the Parthenon atop Calton Hill just east of Edinburgh. Designed as the National Monument of Scotland to memorialize Scottish soldiers and sailors lost in the Napoleonic Wars, it would become, people hoped, the final resting place for a host of Scottish notables. The structure was never completed, and the single façade that stands today is marked with an inscription that reads, “A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroes of the Men of Scotland.”9 Meanwhile, just above Regensburg in Bavaria, King Ludwig I built his own Parthenon (1830–-1842), designed by the same Leo von Klenze of the ceremony on the Acropolis. Named Walhalla, “the Hall of the Dead” (facing page), the Bavarian Parthenon was furnished with portrait busts and inscribed plaques commemorating more than a hundred famous individuals across eighteen hundred years of German history. By 1897 the United States could boast of its own Parthenon, built in Nashville, Tennessee, for the state’s Centennial Exposition of 1896–-1897. The wooden structure was rebuilt in concrete in 1920–-1931 and remains a prized landmark of the city to this day (page xiv).10
By the twentieth century, Ernst Gombrich would hail the “Great Awakening” in Greek art as a product of the dawn of democracy. He viewed the “summit of its development” in the high classical period as a direct reflection of the “new freedom” experienced by artists working within the new political system.11 This positivist construct was perpetuated in a blockbuster exhibition of Greek art that traveled across the United States in 1992, celebrating the twenty--five hundredth anniversary of the birth of democracy. The show, titled The Greek Miracle: Classical Sculpture from the Dawn of Democracy, treated viewers in Washington, D.C., and New York City to the very finest of surviving Greek art.12
The tendency to see oneself in ancient artistic masterpieces is not, however, limited to the adherents of any particular political ideology. Cecil Rhodes viewed the Parthenon as a manifestation not of democracy but of empire. “Through art, Pericles taught the lazy Athenians to believe in Empire,” he maintained.13 Karl Marx, also attracted to Greek art, preferred to understand classical monuments as products of a society not at its peak but in its infancy. “The charm of [Greek] art,” Marx argued, “was inextricably bound up” with “the unripe social conditions under which it arose.”14 The splendor of high classical art in general, and the Parthenon in particular, would hold irresistible attraction for the fascist regime of Hitler’s Germany, which readily appropriated it in the service of its ideological, cultural, and social agendas.15
Should we be surprised that Sigmund Freud’s response to the Parthenon was one of guilt? He was tortured by the fact that he had been privileged to see a masterpiece that his own father, a wool merchant of modest means, could never have seen or appreciated. Indeed, Freud was riddled with guilt at the thought of having surpassed his father in this good fortune.16
In 1998, the editor Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, published in The Daily Telegraph an interview with a senior curator at the British Museum. Johnson quoted the curator as saying that the Elgin Marbles are “a pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples.”17 Thus, the Parthenon serves as both magnet and mirror. We are drawn to it, we see ourselves in it, and we appropriate it in our own terms. In the process, its original meaning, inevitably, is very much obscured.
Indeed, our understanding of the Parthenon is so bound up with the history of our responses to it that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two. When the object of scrutiny has been thought so matchlessly beautiful and iconic, a screen for meanings projected upon it across two and a half millennia, it is all the more challenging to recover the original sense of it. What is clear is that the Parthenon matters. Across cultures and centuries its enduring aura has elicited awe, adulation, and superlatives. Typical of the gushing is that of the Irish artist and traveler Edward Dodwell, who spent the years 1801–-1806 painting and writing in Greece. Of the Parthenon he declared, “It is the most unrivaled triumph of sculpture and architecture that the world ever saw.”18 This same sentiment inflamed Lord Elgin, less a man of words than of action. In fact, during the very years of Dodwell’s stay in Athens, Lord and Lady Elgin and a team of helpers were busy taking the temple apart, hoisting down many of its sculptures and shipping them off to London, where they remain to this day.
Even the removal of its sculptures, however, could not dull the building’s allure. In 1832, the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine, last of the Romantics, declared the Parthenon to be “the most perfect poem ever written in stone on the surface of the earth.”19 Not long thereafter, the neo--Gothic architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet--le--Duc proclaimed the cathedral at Amiens to be “the Parthenon of Gothic Architecture.”20 Even the great arbiter of twentieth--century modernism Charles--Édouard Jeanneret, later known as Le Corbusier, upon first seeing the Parthenon proclaimed it “the repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art.”21
And so the Parthenon’s larger--than--life status has had a profound effect on the ways in which it has been scrutinized, what questions have been asked of it, and, more interesting, what questions have been left unasked. Too revered to be questioned too much, the Parthenon has suffered from the distortions that tend to befall icons. The fact that so few voices from antiquity survive to tell us what the Athenians saw in their most sacred temple has only enlarged the vacuum into which post--antique interpreters have eagerly rushed.
it has not helped the effort to recover original meaning that beginning in late antiquity, long after Athens had lost its independence, the Parthenon suffered a series of devastating blows. Around 195 b.c., a fire consumed the cella, the great room at the eastern end of the temple. At some point during the third or fourth century a.d., under Roman rule, there was an even more ruinous fire. Some scholars have pointed to the attack by the Germanic Heruli tribe in a.d. 267 as the cause of this destruction, while others have attributed it to the Visigoth marauders under Alaric, who plundered Athens in 396.22 Whatever the cause, the Parthenon’s roof collapsed, destroying the cella. The room’s interior colonnade, its eastern doorway, the base of the cult statue, and the roof had to be entirely replaced.23
The Parthenon’s days as a temple of Athena were now numbered. Between a.d. 389 and a.d. 391, the Roman emperor Theodosios I issued a series of decrees banning temples, statues, festivals, and all ritual practice of traditional Greek polytheism. (It was Constantine who legalized Christianity, but it was Theodosios who outlawed its competition, making it the state religion.) By the end of the sixth century and possibly even earlier the Parthenon was transformed into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This conversion required a change in orientation, with a main entrance now smashed open at the western end of the structure and an apse added at the east (page 337). The westernmost room became a narthex, while a three--aisled basilica stretched toward the east in what had been the temple’s cella. A baptistery was introduced at the building’s northwest corner.24 By the late seventh century this church had become the city’s cathedral under the name of the Theotokos Atheniotissa, the “God--Bearing Mother of Athens.” When, in 1204, Frankish forces of the Fourth Crusade invaded, they converted the Greek Orthodox cathedral into a Roman Catholic one, renaming it Notre-Dame d’Athènes. A bell tower was added at its southwest corner. With the fall of Athens to the Ottoman Turks in 1458, the Parthenon was rebuilt once again, now as a mosque, complete with a mihrab, a pulpit, and a soaring minaret on the very spot where the bell tower had stood.
Having survived largely intact for more than two thousand years, the Parthenon suffered a catastrophic explosion on September 28, 1687. A week earlier, the Swedish count Koenigsmark and his army of ten thousand soldiers had landed at Eleusis, just fourteen kilometers to the northwest. There they joined the Venetian general Francesco Morosini for the siege of Athens, but one front in the larger Morean War, also known as the Sixth Ottoman--Venetian War, which lasted from 1684 to 1699. As the Venetian army advanced upon Athens, the Ottoman Turkish garrison defending the city barricaded itself on the Acropolis. The Turks had, by now, torn down the temple of Athena Nike at the western tip of the citadel and replaced it with a cannon platform. They stockpiled live ammunition within the walls of the Parthenon itself. Over six days, the Venetians blasted an estimated seven hundred cannonballs at the Parthenon, shooting from the nearby Museion Hill. Finally, Count Koenigsmark’s men scored a direct hit. The Parthenon erupted in a violent explosion that sent its interior walls, nearly a dozen columns on its north and south flanks, and many of its decorative sculptures flying out in all directions. Three hundred people died that day on the Acropolis. The battle would rage on for another twenty--four hours before the Turkish troops capitulated.25
The sacred space of the Acropolis was thus forever changed, now acquiring a new iconic status as “ruin.”26 By the early eighteenth century, a small square mosque was built within the rubble of what had been the Parthenon’s cella. Made of brick and reused stones, the domed structure (with a three--bayed porch facing northwest; see page 338) sat within the fallen framework of the Parthenon’s colonnade until it was damaged in the Greek War of Independence and subsequently removed in 1843.27
in some sense our bias toward seeing the Parthenon in political terms can be put down to a success of scholarship: the political sphere of Athens in the fifth century b.c. is the one we know best. The survival of a relative wealth of literature and inscriptions by, for, and about classical Athenians provides access to the world of Perikles, the general and politician who so shaped what is known today as the golden age of Greece, with which the flourishing of democracy is very much bound up. Yet there is much more to Athenian culture than democracy and more to its conception of democracy than what can be perceived by viewing it through a modern lens. For one thing, the Athenian notion of politics transcends our own. Politeia is difficult to translate in English; in fact, the word embraces all the conditions of citizenship in its widest sense. Ancient politeia extended far beyond the parameters of modern politics, embracing religion, ritual, ideology, and values. Aristotle intimates that the primacy of the “common good” played a definitive role in politeia, observing that “those constitutions that aim at the common good are in effect rightly framed in accordance with absolute justice.”28
At the very core of Athenian politeia lies the culture’s fundamental understanding of itself and its origins, its cosmology and prehistory-a nexus of ideas that defined the values of the community and gave rise to a complex array of ritual observances of which the Parthenon was the focal point for nearly a thousand years. Until now, the Parthenon has received relatively little consideration in this light. And yet without such understanding it is impossible to say satisfactorily just what the Parthenon is beyond a supreme architectural achievement or a symbol of a political ideal as understood by essentially foreign cultures in the remote future. If we are to recover the primordial and original meaning of the Parthenon, we must endeavor to see it as those who built it did. We must see it through ancient eyes, an effort that involves the archaeology of consciousness as much as of place.
This aim of discovering the ancient reality of the Parthenon has been advanced by recent archaeological and restoration efforts on the Acropolis as well as by fresh anthropological approaches that are ever widening our understanding of the ancient past. Concrete archaeological discoveries made by the Greek Ministry of Culture’s Acropolis Restoration Service in its meticulous autopsy of the building have revealed new information on the materials, tools, techniques, and engineering employed in the Parthenon’s construction.29 We now know many changes were introduced in the course of building the Parthenon, which may have included the pivotal addition of its unique and magisterial sculptured frieze. It has now been established that this frieze originally wrapped around the entire eastern porch of the temple. Two windows, on either side of the Parthenon’s east door, allowed extra light to flood in upon the statue of Athena. Traces of a small shrine with an altar have been discovered in the temple’s northern peristyle, marking the place of a previously unknown sacred space that predates the Parthenon.30 This opens the way for a new understanding of pre--Parthenon cult ritual and raises questions concerning the continuity of sacred space from deep antiquity to the age of Perikles.
The last decades have seen much more than the proliferation of new data on the design and evolution of the Parthenon as a building. They have also brought sweeping shifts in scholarship that allow us a view of the Parthenon in its more immaterial dimensions. New questions are being asked of the ancient evidence, with new research models and methods deployed to ask them, drawing on the social sciences and religious and cultural history. These have generated a fresh approach to monuments viewed within the fullness of a whole variety of ancient contexts.31 The study of Greek ritual and religion has burgeoned over the past thirty years.32 The embeddedness of religion in virtually every aspect of ancient Greek life is now fully recognized. The study of ancient emotions and also cognition is under way, revealing the effects of language, behavior, and multisensory experience on feeling and thinking in the ancient world.33 We are in a better position than ever before to get inside the heads of those who experienced the Acropolis in Greek antiquity.
Ongoing studies of reception, projection, and appropriation have exposed the ways in which aesthetic, ideological, and nationalist agendas have shaped interpretative frameworks over the past 250 years.34 Modern Western nostalgia for a link with the classical past, one that affirms the West’s own political and cultural aspirations, is now recognized as a controlling force in the construction of narratives that have long dominated our understanding of the monuments. An awareness of an “other Acropolis” is emerging, one that seeks to build a multi--temporal and multisensory appreciation of the site and its buildings, including the Parthenon itself.35 Both of these forces—-the discovery of new evidence and the development of new questions and methods through which it can be examined—-are at work in forging the new paradigm for understanding the Parthenon that is proposed in this book.
The more we have discovered, the more enigmatic the Parthenon has come to seem, and the more inadequate appear the simplistic meanings ascribed to it by later cultures. As a vastly complex world of cult ritual and spiritual intensity reveals itself, it still remains to be asked of the structure at the very heart of so much strange, dark practice, “What exactly is the Parthenon?”
Of all the physical remains surviving from the classical period, the Parthenon’s sculptured frieze is the largest and most detailed revelation of Athenian consciousness we have. This virtuosic triumph in the carving of marble, this moving portrayal of noble faces from the distant past, this “prayer in stone,” the largest, most elaborate narrative tableau the Athenians have left us, provides a critical and essential way in. Just what is represented by the nearly four hundred figures carved upon it is a question of the utmost importance.
Since the fifteenth century a.d., the Parthenon frieze has been viewed as a snapshot of fifth century b.c. Athenians, and, from the seventeenth century, they have been understood to be marching in their Panathenaic, or all--Athenian, procession, a key event within the annual festival of Athena.36 But this reading places the frieze outside the standard conventions for Greek temple decoration, which regularly drew its subject matter not from contemporary reality but from myth. And so this astonishing ring of stone carving presents us with an enigma within that of the Parthenon itself.
In the pages that follow, I argue for a new interpretation of the frieze, one that stands in sharp contrast to what has become the orthodox view.37 My interpretation starts with religion, not politics, and through pattern recognition within the iconographic, textual, and ritual evidence I propose an understanding that challenges how we see both the Parthenon and the people who built it.
I argue that we are looking not at contemporary Athenians marching in their annual Panathenaic procession but at a scene from the mythical past, one that lies at the very heart of what it means to be an Athenian. A tragic saga unfolds, revealing a legendary king and queen who, by demand of the Delphic oracle, are forced to make an excruciatingly painful choice to save Athens from ruin. This choice requires nothing less than the ultimate sacrifice. Based on the lives of the founding king and his family, the charter myth manifest on the Parthenon frieze suggests a far darker and more primitive outlook than later cultures and classicists have been prepared to face. This harrowing tale provides a critical keyhole into Athenian consciousness, one that directly challenges our own self--identifications with it.
The Parthenon thus leads us toward an understanding remote from the Renaissance and Enlightenment stereotypes of philosophers and rhetoricians that we have become accustomed to imagine. In fact, Athenians were a far more foreign people than most feel comfortable acknowledging today. Theirs was a spirit--saturated, anxious world dominated by an egocentric sense of themselves and an overwhelming urgency to keep things right with the gods. Much of each day was spent asking, thanking, and honoring gods in an attempt to keep balance, reciprocity, and harmony with the all--powerful beings who could play with human fate. After all, Athenians were continuously threatened by war, violence, and death.
Spirit shadows, divinities, and heroes from the mythical past were a constant presence, fully inhabiting the landscape at every turn. Life was fragile, uncertain, never consistently happy, and full of surprises, except for the looming certainty of death.38 Calendars and the timing of cult rituals, religious festivals, athletic games, and theatrical performances were set by long--established tradition and regulated by the observance of the movement of celestial bodies in the night sky. Cosmology, landscape, and tradition bound ancient Athenians together within an ordered cycle of religious observance, remembrance, and ritual practice.39
The profound, compulsive religiosity of the Athenians, an aspect that earned them a reputation for being among the most “deisidaimoniacal,” or “spirit--fearing,” people in all of Greece, stands in contrast to our idealizing vision of a city inhabited by philosophical rationalists.40 That some Athenians might call out the name “Athena!” upon hearing the hoot of an owl, avoid stepping on gravestones or visiting women about to give birth, and kneel to pour oil on smooth stones at crossroads to avert their power may come as a surprise to the modern reader.41 That he or she might stick pins in dolls fashioned from wood, clay, wax, or lead to place curses or erotic spells on rivals, legal adversaries, or love targets may be more surprising still.42 Perikles, an avowed rationalist, was not beyond tying a charmed amulet around his neck when he fell ill with the deadly plague.43 Riveting accounts of Athenians engaged in love magic, the casting of spells, the inscribing of curses, and the consulting of oracles, dream interpreters, and bird--omen readers (remaining ever vigilant for signs that might portend the future) bring us closer to the experience of actual lives lived. Our own separation of the philosophical from the spiritual greatly obscures our comprehension of the Athenians as they were.
Notwithstanding dark practices, the Athenians aspired, above all, to be “the most beautiful and noble,” to kalliston, a concept that dominated their worldview. This ideal motivated them toward heightened excellence but, at the same time, reveals a certain unease, an apprehension of the possibility that fortunes can suffer sudden reversals. The conviction that they must be “the best” utterly governed the Athenians’ sense of their own being, absolutely and in relation to everyone else. It also profoundly informed their relations to one another.
Engaging with a new paradigm, we aim for a deeper, more authentic realization of the ancient Athenian experience of the monument than we’ve had for the past two hundred years, seeking an answer not only to the question “What is the Parthenon?” but to the larger one: “Who were the Athenians?” That question’s answer has also been rendered obscure and reductive by the effort of subsequent peoples to seize the ancient mantle. Above all else, the Parthenon—-the epicenter of an urgent and spiritually charged civic life—-is the key to how Athenian identity was shaped and sustained.
At the same time, the Parthenon was first and foremost a religious building, a temple among temples. Its status as a masterpiece of Western art has long discouraged questions that have been asked of other temples built in places and at times that we know less well than those of Periklean Athens. In this book, I examine the Parthenon in relationship to sacred buildings on the Acropolis and elsewhere throughout the Greek world. I focus on foundation and genealogical succession myths that define local identity and on the signs and symbols that communicate a common origin for the Athenian citizenry. I look at local heroes and gods, at the relationship between their tombs and temples, and at the rituals that built bridges between the two. Such monuments enabled citizens to come into direct contact with their ancestors, reminding them of the values upon which their communities were founded. For a culture without media, without a sacred text, the centrality of a great architectural work in forging this solidarity cannot be overstated. For the Athenians, the Parthenon was a very special nexus in which sacrifice, ritual, memory, and, yes, democracy were closely intertwined.
We shall begin with the natural environment of the Acropolis, its cosmology, and the myth tradition that so shaped Athenian consciousness. We’ll consider the ways in which local myth grew out of local landscape, examining the inseparability of the Parthenon from its natural surroundings, memory structures, and belief systems that derive from its unique setting. We’ll go on to track the transformation of the Acropolis from Mycenaean citadel to sanctuary of Athena, focusing on the shrines and temples that preceded the Parthenon and the cosmic myth narratives of their sculptural decoration. We then turn to the Persian devastation of the Acropolis in 480 b.c. and the comprehensive Periklean rebuilding program that followed some thirty years later. Here, we’ll take a close and culminating look at the Parthenon sculptures, above all the frieze, which provides such a critical aperture into the core meaning of the building.
In later chapters, we shall examine the implications of this reading for our understanding of the Athenians themselves, through a better sense of their rituals, festivals, and games and the legacy of the Parthenon and Acropolis cults. Central in this is the relationship of dead heroes and heroines to rites of remembrance at the Panathenaic festival, the preeminent and defining celebration of Athenian identity, when the Athenians were, so to speak, most intensely, consciously, ecstatically Athenian. Finally, we’ll consider the Athenians’ earliest self--styled imitators, to take an oblique look at the Athenians through the eyes of those who observed them contemporaneously. Though hardly more immune to the sort of distorting reverence that shapes impressions of Athens in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the princes of Hellenistic Pergamon were at least not so separated from their ideal by the alienating effect of two millennia. As we consider the legacy of the Parthenon in the invention of heroic narratives and founding myths at the sanctuary of Athena Polias Nikephoros at Pergamon, we shall endeavor to keep close to the ancient experience, especially to the landscape that shaped local memory and to the narratives of earth, water, and the heavens that dominated local sensibilities. In the evocative words of Christopher Wickham, “Geography, like grace, works through people.”44 This is especially true of the Athenians, who were first and foremost a people of sea and land, of trade and agriculture—-in short, of Poseidon and Athena.
But let us start at the beginning, the scene upon which the great, mysterious, and ultimately defining building of the Athenians was created. Then, as now, location was the key to appreciating all real estate, and so let us first explore the Acropolis and its environment.
Meet the Author
JOAN BRETON CONNELLY is a classical archaeologist and the author of two previous books, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece and Votive Sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus. She received her A.B. in classics from Princeton University and Ph.D. in classical and Near Eastern archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, where she now serves on the board of trustees. In 1996, Professor Connelly was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She received the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award in 2007 and held NYU’s Lillian Vernon Chair for Teaching Excellence in 2002–2004. She has held visiting fellowships at All Souls College, Magdalen College, New College, and Corpus Christi College at Oxford University, and at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Professor Connelly has excavated throughout Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus where she has directed the Yeronisos Island Excavations since 1990. She is currently a professor of classics and art history at New York University.
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Dr. Connelly provides a captivating, comprehensible interpretation of the Parthenon frieze in this book. Her research is fascinating and eloquently presented. A pleasure to read!
Wish i could give it no stars