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Looking for the Lost Greeks


Because of the lack of original masterpieces from the Classical Age, the major surviving sculptures from the fifth century, though not in bronze, receive great appreciation. These are the figures in the extensive program of statues and reliefs from the Parthenon. Though the relief sculptures in that building’s metopes are of questionable quality, most of the frieze, and certainly the figures on the east pediment, deserve almost all the high acclaim they have received. There has been a desperate desire to count these as works of the leading fifth-century sculptor, Pheidias, since no other works from him survive. Indeed, Plutarch did call him the “overseer” (episkopos) of the Parthenon, but he wrote four centuries after the event, and the only Parthenon work attributed to Pheidias by earlier authors was the colossal statue of Athena inside the temple. Pheidias did one other great work on the Akropolis, but that was apart from the Parthenon—another colossal Athena, this one in bronze, the “Warrior Athena” that stood near the entrance to the high rock’s plateau (Pausanias 1.28.2).

While the Akropolis was being decorated, Pheidias was busy with many commissions for his specialty: freestanding statues, mainly outsize, bronze when not chryselephantine, i.e., plated with gold and ivory over a wooden core, which took protracted labor by his large team of helpers. In fact, at the very time when work was being done on the Parthenon pediments, the rounded statues closest to his attested work, he was elsewhere, completing his second-most-famous statue, the chryselephantine Zeus at Olympia. His workshop, containing a cup with his name on it, has been discovered there. As one scholar has written,

The pediments demanded fifty figures, all over life-size. If we read the accounts rightly, to get those fifty figures from quarried blocks into polished and painted forms in situ within the pediments took only six years. This means a carving staff of literally hundreds; who was their episkopos, if Pheidias was then at Olympia?7

The fact that the marble work on the Parthenon is not by Pheidias should not, of itself, count against the unquestionable beauty of some of its pieces. Yet Ridgway reminds us that we know even these in an impaired state, lacking the gilding, the metal additions, the colors that they originally wore. In the controversy over the issue of returning the half of the frieze that Lord Elgin took from Athens, we hear much of the reviled “cleansing” of some frieze figures in London. But no original surface was being lost. That surface had been mainly painted, and its colors, along with their priming, faded long before Lord Elgin moved them.

The reluctance of people to admit the evidence for the painting of temple figures lingers on, as people try to minimize or tone down the imagined pigments. But Ridgway shows that the whole point of the colors was to create “legibility” and “color scansion” of the building. Under a pre-pollution Mediterranean sky, with no sunglasses to look through, people would have found the glare of an all-marble ensemble hard to look at steadily or to “read” with ease. Even under a California sky, Richard Meier was told by those commissioning the Getty Museum in Los Angeles that he could not indulge his preference for white surfaces. Pastel hues, which some prefer to imagine on the Greek stones, would not have helped much, if at all, and besides, all the evidence is that the Greeks, like the Romans, preferred hot and vivid color. The colors on buildings preserved by inhumation come out of the ground flamboyant, though they fade quickly when exposed.

For the frieze sections within the Parthenon peristyle, i.e., the outer rows of Doric columns that surrounded the inner temple building, or cella, the problem posed was the very opposite of that encountered in the glare outside the peristyle. Color was even more necessary for the frieze which was so high and shadowed behind the outer entablature (the horizontal stone structures that sit atop the Doric columns of the peristyle, and upon which the roof structure sits). Today, in the British Museum, we look close up, and at almost eye level, toward the shallowly incised legs of horses that pull chariots in teams of four. The very tendons stand out but they would have been invisible from below. Ridgway says the tangle of sixteen horse legs to each chariot would have been “unreadable” without color—the vase paintings of chariots are a good clue here.

We might suppose that the first observers stepped within the peristyle to look almost straight up at the frieze over their heads, straining the necks intolerably for all but the briefest glances. But Ridgway shows that the most obvious vantage point would have been outside the peristyle, down off the stylobate, the stepped platform on which the entire structure rested, and several feet away on the ground. From there one could look comfortably at the frieze, moving slightly either way to see at an angle the parts of the frieze directly behind the columns, whose diameters had, in fact, been reduced for this very purpose. For such long-range viewing, color would have been a necessary aid to comprehension.

By bringing the Parthenon frieze down to eye level for close viewing, we see it better but understand it less. That could be taken as suggesting the modern viewer’s situation generally. Art historians are stymied not only by missing sculptures and paintings. Even what survives remains a mystery. One would think that the extensive sculptural program of the Parthenon would supply enough clues to make itself clear. There are more than 360 human forms, 231 horses, 88 of them pulling 22 chariots, as well as 14 oxen and 4 rams, along with cult paraphernalia, making it the most extensive sculptural addition to any Greek temple.8 Yet trying to crack the code of the Parthenon makes the historian resemble a fifth-century Greek trying to understand a relic of eleventh-century Mycenae. We do not know who carved the marbles, or what they had in mind. Even the building on which they were placed is a conundrum. We are in the dark about the meaning of its name (Parthenon means “Of the Virgins”), about its cult use (if any), about the point of its decoration. Was it even a temple? Perhaps it was just a treasury, like the pedimented treasuries at Delphi. Mary Beard, in her new book, The Parthenon, notes that it would have been “locked and bolted” to protect the imperial hoard inside.

And what does the famous frieze mean? Boardman himself advanced one of the better-known but not widely accepted hypotheses about the frieze’s subject matter—that its warriors, whether on or off the chariots, represent the Athenians who died at Marathon (who had no chariots). He based this on the claim that the relief figures exactly equal the reported number of Athenian dead.9 He had to discount some figures (chariot drivers) and include some others (boys), and to estimate the number of figures in missing parts of the frieze, to come up with this number.10

Mary Beard refers to Boardman’s “creative counting,” but she says that other interpretations of the frieze are also flawed. In her brief but compendious volume she 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, an “intervention” (as it is called) that will take almost twice as long to complete as did the original building process. The aim is to take the whole complex apart, almost stone by stone, and reassemble it in a more authentic (but less seemingly complete) way. When sections of the building were destroyed by a severe fire in the third century or by an explosion in the seventeenth century or when, in the interval between those disasters, the structure was restored after reconfiguration, first as a Christian church and then as a mosque, those trying to restore it reused drums in the columns and stones in the walls without always putting them back where they had been. Or they used material taken from other structures dismantled on the Akropolis.

In trying to restore, stabilize, and protect the original elements in their original places, the current restorers are learning many new things, confirming many known or suspected things, and rejecting many shaky assertions. They now believe the akroteria—ornaments, usually representing some kind of elaborate leaf or combination of leaves—at the four corners of the roof were not anthemia, or floral figures, as previously supposed, but “gigantic winged victories projecting daringly outward”—figures resembling in size and pose the Victory held on the palm of Pheidias’ statue inside the building.11 The restorers have learned much about the earlier temple, only partly completed, on which the Parthenon was built (and stones from which were used in its fabric). They are also uncovering details about the church and the mosque that were later built there, the changes made in converting the building to those uses, and the subsequent changes involved in reconversion. Beard refers to two of the most important discoveries about the building, but does not make the connection between them. The investigators have found that the frieze was not part of the original plan for the building and that there was an additional (now lost) frieze over the formal entrance to the inner structure (the cella).

All columns were composed of “drums” placed on top of one another. The decision to add the circumambient frieze made the builders remove the lower drums, the sections of columns already laid down for the building’s colonnade, replacing them with drums of smaller diameter to create greater visibility for what was being added. They also deepened the pronaos (porch) before the eastern entrance, showing the importance of the lost frieze above that entrance. The key to the entire surviving program may well have been what that place of honor held. Enough has been deduced to show that it was in deeper relief than the remaining frieze. It may well have been the climactic scene of the entire ensemble.

Until now, the climax seemed to be reached in the outer eastern pediment, which has aroused intense controversy. Is it the presentation of Athena’s new peplos (garment) at the end of the Panathenaic procession that was part of the quadrennial festival in honor of Athena?12 Or is it the sacrifice of the daughter of Erekhtheus, a legendary king of Athens whose daughters (except for one) were voluntarily sacrificed to save the city in a time of war?13 If the child with the peplos is a boy, is he Erekthonios,14 an Athenian cult hero, born of the earth when Idephaestus’ semen fell upon the ground as he was attempting to ravish Athena? Athena adopted the child, who became the legendary first king of Athens. There is a wide variety of other opinions. If the Panathenaic procession is accepted, what explains the anomalies? Are they introduced to suggest democracy? Some say the uniform faces imply that. Others think the nudity, the horsemanship, the exclusion of hoplites, make the frieze anti-democratic, elitist, and imperialist.15 Beard wisely tells us that we simply do not know, and that this is not an unusual situation where the Parthenon is concerned.

It is amazing how much of the Parthenon’s past and present and future Beard is able to crowd into such a short book. We are told how Alexander the Great placed triumphal shields on its façade, and how golden letters spelled out praise for Nero on its eastern architrave. The young American who first pieced out the traces of this inscription, at the end of the nineteenth century, was loath to reveal its “shameful secret,” and Beard does not quote the inscription. It ran this way:


That inscription should remind us that, in Beard’s words, “through most of classical antiquity, the Parthenon, our icon of democracy, was the jewel in the crown of autocrats.”

The economy of Beard’s book leads to some confusing organization and compression. Of the Parthenon architects, only two passing references are made to Iktinos and only one to Kallikrates, and neither man appears in the inadequate index. Beard is rather dismissive of their optical sophistication, shown in the curvature of the stylobate and in the entasis of the columns—the slight outward swelling of a column designed to counter the optical illusion of concavity, were the columns’ sides to be perfectly straight. Like many others, she doubts that Pheidias did more than the statue inside. She is perhaps too agnostic about the extent and intensity of the coloring. But her common-sense discussion of the dispute over returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece is refreshingly free of the cant used on either side. (“Like it or not,” she writes, “the case on both sides is powerful; otherwise it would have been resolved long since.”)

On one point even her up-to-date book is now out of date. She talks of the Akropolis museum designed to hold the returned Elgin Marbles as still scheduled for construction—but just this May the Greek government canceled it, as a threat to the stability of other structures on the Akropolis.17 Some think the Elgin Marbles debate may have been ended by the looting of treasures in Baghdad this year, and the relief felt that treasures were preserved in other countries. But for some the dispute will go on forever. Beard tells us that haters of Lord Elgin can now go on line to a video game that lets them throw simulated mar-bles (the children’s-game kind) at an image of the Seventh Earl. He only shudders at near misses, but is reduced to ruins by a direct hit.

  1. 7

    Nigel Spivey, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings (Thames and Hudson, 1996), p. 159.

  2. 8

    Manolis Korres, “The Sculptural Adornment of the Parthenon,” in Acropolis Restoration: The CCAM Intervention, edited by Richard Economakis (London: Academy Editions, 1994), p. 31.

  3. 9

    Boardman first offered this thesis in 1977. His paper “The Parthenon Frieze—Another View” appeared in Festschrift für Frank Brommer, edited by Ursula Höckmann and Antje Krug (Mainz: Von Zabern, 1977).

  4. 10

    Boardman had softened his arithmetic by 1985, saying only that “the number of males in the whole cavalcade hovers around 192”; see The Parthenon and Its Sculptures (University of Texas Press, 1985), p. 250.

  5. 11

    Korres, “Sculptural Adornment,” p. 31.

  6. 12

    This is the oldest interpretation (first offered by James Stuart in 1789), though it has had many critics. The peplos was not customarily offered at the Parthenon but at the Erektheion. The military element of the Panathenaic was made up of marching hoplites, not warriors in chariots. The “girl” offering the peplos may be a boy. The vase-bearers should be women, not men. Besides, temple sculpture elsewhere always showed mythical events, not everyday ones. “If the frieze represents the Panathenaic procession, as generally believed, its discrepancies with what is known about the religious festival are almost more numerous than the correspondences, thus forcing commentators to postulate symbolic groupings or specific circumstances to account for the anomalies”; see Ridgway, Prayers in Stone, p. 197.

  7. 13

    This interpretation, given a lot of recent attention, was first offered by Joan B. Connelly in 1996: “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 100, No. 1, pp. 53–80. It has been accepted by, for instance, Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlöf, in The Sculptures of the Parthenon: Aesthetics and Interpretation (Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 27–30, and tentatively by Ridgway, Prayers in Stone, p. 201. But if this is a sacrifice scene, why does it lack the iconography of such scenes—the altar, the knife? And is the “daughter” really a boy? Debate over the gender of the child in the pediment is confused by the imperfect state of the frieze’s preservation, details of child anatomy, styles in Attic clothing, and the role of children in various rituals. See Jenifer Neils, The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 169–170.

    Some doubt that a human sacrifice would be celebrated at this date on the Parthenon. Connelly rightly says that Euripides based a lost play on the story at an even later date; but Daniel Mendelsohn notes that sacrificed virgins were a favorite theme of Euripides and that “this mythological surfeit of doomed virgins” had a transgressive point, i.e., it was used by the playwright to subvert or raise objections to the dominant, patriarchal ideology of the democratic, imperial city-state. This is hardly appropriate for a state building. See Mendelsohn, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 90.

  8. 14

    So Chrysoula Kardara claims, in “Ho Archaios Naos kai to Thema tes Zophorou tou Parthenonos,” in Archaiologike Ephemeris (1961), pp. 62–158; see Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, pp. 175–178.

  9. 15

    Victoria Wohl, “Eusebeias heneka kai Philotimias: Hegemony and Democracy at the Panathenaia,” Classica et Mediaevalia, Vol. 47 (1996), pp. 25–88; Lisa Maurizio, “The Panathenaic Procession: Athens’ Participatory Democracy on Display?” in Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub, Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (Harvard University Press, 1998), pp. 297–318; and Robin Osborne, “Democracy and Imperialism in the Panathenaic Procession: The Parthenon Frieze in Its Context,” in W.D.E. Coulson et al., The Archaeology of Athens and Attica Under the Democracy (Oxbow Monograph 37, 1994), pp. 143–150.

  10. 16

    I take this reading of the inscription from Kevin K. Carroll, The Parthenon Inscription (Duke University Press, 1982).

  11. 17

    The New York Times, May 20, 2003.

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