The Parthenon Enigma

Editor’s Note: Completed in 438 BC as a memorial to temples burned in battle with the Persians, the Parthenon remains one of the more indelible feats of architecture in Western civilization, at once a monument of artistic and civic excellence. Yet a new work of historical research challenges our standard view of the structure that crowns the Acropolis in Athens as a gorgeous relic and prime tourist attraction.

Joan Breton Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma explores its subject as a model of the Athenian view of democracy, in which individual life takes its meaning in for a perceived greater good of the collective, and as a concrete manifestation of the struggle against Persia. But Connelly’s quest for understanding extends to take in the incredible true story of a lost work by the playwright Euripedes, a passage from which lines the top of the Parthenon frieze — as if a future historian, living on earth thousands of years from today, set out to explicate for the first time in centuries the inscribed Gettysburg Address found upon the Lincoln Memorial.

A former MacArthur Fellow and current professor of classics and art history at New York University, Connelly has emerged as an iconoclastic writer and renowned excavator of ruins throughout Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus. Among her devoted readers is Star Wars and Indiana Jones mastermind George Lucas, who writes: “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 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.”

Readers of The Parthenon Enigma are likely to find themselves peering out over the ancient landscape of cultural and political change revealed by Connelly’s narrative, and meditating on how our own democracy might evolve in the years to come. — Nick Curley

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), 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.
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.
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.”
This sentiment was robustly embraced during the Greek War of Independence (1821–1830) 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.
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.
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.
Klenze’s vision of a barbarian-free Acropolis was fully realized in his “ideal view” of the Acropolis, painted in 1846 and acquired by King Otto’s father, Ludwig I, some six years later.
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.
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.”
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.” Not long thereafter, the neo-Gothic architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc proclaimed the cathedral at Amiens to be “the Parthenon of Gothic Architecture.”
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.”
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 postantique interpreters have eagerly rushed.