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The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon

British Museum, London/Art Resource
The central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon. ‘The traditional reading of the frieze,’ writes Mary Beard, interprets it as ‘the presentation of a newly woven robe (peplos) to Athena,’ the high point of a festival celebrating the goddess. Joan Breton Connelly, in The Parthenon Enigma, instead argues that the frieze depicts a scene from early Athenian myth, in which King Erechtheus, as Beard writes, ‘has been told by an oracle that in order to save Athens from invasion he must sacrifice one of his daughters,’ and is not receiving the peplos but rather handing the material over to his youngest daughter, who will wear it as her shroud.

In March 1816 a Select Committee of the British House of Commons met to decide the fate of “The Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles; etc.” Whatever high hopes or greedy intentions had driven Elgin to take these sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis in the first place, the whole enterprise—with the huge cost of the excavation, the removal of some precious slabs from the Parthenon itself, and the transport back from Greece to England—had ruined him. He was close to bankruptcy and his only option was to sell his marbles to the government. The asking price was £74,000.

The Select Committee was, of course, concerned with fixing a good price (in the end Elgin had to accept just £35,000). But it was also worried about Elgin’s legal title to the collection. The government was not interested in acquiring stolen property, and so—as the published account of the proceedings shows—they quizzed him at length on whether he had proper authority to remove the sculptures and whether he had abused his public position as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to stitch up a private deal for the marbles. When they were broadly satisfied on that score, the committee members turned to the trickier question of artistic merit. Put simply, were the Parthenon sculptures worth buying at all?

To answer that, the committee proceeded with rather quaint nineteenth-century diligence, summoning a dozen leading artists, architects, and antiquarians of the day to give their verdict on the sculptures’ quality. Overall they were enthusiastic enough for the committee to recommend purchase for a bargain sum. But the transcript of their comments reveals that, when pressed hard by their parliamentary interrogators, many of these specialists were less confident about the quality of the whole collection than they at first appeared.

The sculptor John Flaxman, for example, was keen on the marbles becoming public property, but could not bring himself—when directly asked—to rank even the best pieces above the famous Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican (a perverse judgment by today’s taste). Richard Payne Knight, an antiquarian who was admittedly no particular friend of Elgin, judged even the “finest works in this Collection” to be no higher than “the second rank” of great art—and some pieces he considered decidedly inferior, probably later Roman additions and “of little value except from their local interest.”

These awkwardly tentative responses are a useful reminder that the Parthenon and its sculptures have not always been the object of our unquestioned admiration. In fact, it is not only the slightly perplexed artists of early-nineteenth-century London—still unfamiliar with “original” Greek fifth-century style—who have had their doubts about the quality. A hundred years later the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore is reputed to have wept at the sight of the Parthenon, not overcome with its aesthetic power, but horrified by its barbarity. And Peter Green hints at the love-hate relationship many classicists have with this hallowed icon of Western culture when he tells how in the early 1960s—after a long lunch with William Golding in downtown Athens—the pair decided to go up to “the bloody Parthenon.” They sat down on the Acropolis, their backs to the monument, firmly gazing at the cement works of Eleusis, just visible in the distance.

Joan Breton Connelly, in The Parthenon Enigma, has plenty of sensible things to say about modern appropriations of the Parthenon. Although she tends to take the “beauty” of the building for granted (there is no sign here of Green’s “bloody Parthenon”), she is shrewd enough to see that modern visitors and critics have projected all kinds of different values onto it. The Parthenon as a transcendent symbol of ancient and modern democracy—captured in the 1992 exhibition “The Greek Miracle,” in Washington and New York, with a gushing catalog introduction published under the name of George H.W. Bush—is just one version of this. For Cecil Rhodes, the Parthenon was a legitimation of (British) imperialism. For the leading lights of Hitler’s Germany, it was a high point of (Aryan) civilization, an association underlined by a series of chilling photo opportunities offered to prominent Nazis on the Acropolis.

Connelly’s aim is to bypass these anachronisms and “to recover the primordial and original meaning of the Parthenon” in the setting of fifth-century-BC Athenian culture and religion. What did this vast temple to Athena “Parthenos,” the “Virgin,” signify when it was erected in the 440s and 430s BC? What was the message of its lavish—some critics at the time said “vulgar”—decoration, largely subsidized, as Rhodes was well aware, by the profits of Athens’s empire? What does this say about the sacred meaning of the “Sacred Rock” (a term Connelly repeatedly uses for the ancient “Acropolis,” even though it is a nineteenth-century coinage, never used, to my knowledge, in antiquity)?

The pivot of her argument is a reinterpretation of the sculpted frieze that once circled the entire building above the colonnade. With its array of galloping horsemen, charioteers, offering-bearers, and sacrificial animals, this has usually been identified as a representation of the procession that took place at the regular religious festival of the Panathenaia, making its way to the Acropolis in celebration of the goddess Athena. Connelly rejects this, to argue instead that the subject of the frieze is a myth of early Athens. What we see, she claims, are the preliminaries to a human sacrifice, when the daughter of one of the legendary kings of the city, Erechtheus, is sacrificed to ensure Athenian victory over an invading army. The procession depicts the celebrations that honored the girl’s noble act of self-sacrifice. It is not, in other words, a human scene at all, but a moment drawn from myth, and—to modern eyes—a shocking one at that.

Connelly’s interpretation centers on the puzzling scene (now in the British Museum) originally aligned with the main entranceway of the temple, apparently the culmination of the procession. It shows an adult male figure exchanging a large piece of cloth with a child, who may be either a boy or a girl. The clearest diagnostic feature for the sex of the child is its bare buttock protruding from a loose robe—and a large amount of art-historical time and energy has been fruitlessly expended over the past decades in comparing this buttock to those of other girls and boys in classical art, with (unsurprisingly) no definitive answer.

Next to the man, and with her back to him, stands an adult woman, facing two girls who carry stools on their heads. The traditional reading of the frieze, which goes back to the famous study of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett in the late eighteenth century, connects this with the presentation of a newly woven robe (peplos) to Athena—the high point of special, grander Panathenaiac celebrations, which took place every four years. This would mean that we are seeing the child (boy or girl) handing over the new peplos to some male religious official (perhaps the archon basileus, or “King Archon”), while behind him a priestess receives from other young cult servants the stools—on which she and her male partner will later sit.

Coherent as it may seem, this interpretation is not without its problems. In general, a scene drawn from human life and ritual, rather than from myth, decorating a Greek temple is absolutely without parallel (though one might argue that the Parthenon was unique in so many ways that it could well have broken the “rules” in this respect too). More specifically, while the highlighting of the peplos in pride of place seems appropriate enough, the stool-bearers are a strange element to be given such prominence. Besides, looking beyond this scene to the procession itself, there are awkward mismatches between what we see on the frieze and what we know of the Panathenaic celebrations from other sources. Why do we find no “basket-bearer” leading the procession, a figure clearly attested in literary accounts? Why does the cavalry have such a prominent place on the frieze, when the backbone of the celebrations in the democratic city must surely have been the Athenian foot soldiers, or hoplites?

There have been various attempts to meet these difficulties. Some art historians have tried to argue, for example, that the frieze is a flagrantly idealizing, rather than “real-life,” version of the festival (in which case, the prominence of the aristocratic cavalry is an interesting indication that even the radically democratic city was happy to see itself in aristocratic guise). Others have suggested that the sculptures depict the mythical first celebration of the Panathenaia, or some lightly “mythicized” version of the festival. This was the line taken by John Boardman in the last solution of the “enigma” to capture the popular imagination, though it has been largely forgotten and has been dropped by Boardman himself. Counting (more or less) 192 participants in the procession on the frieze, he hazarded that they were meant to represent the 192 Athenian warriors who died fighting the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490. This was, in other words, a memorial to the heroes of Athens’s most renowned—almost legendary—military victory.

Connelly has long argued that the scene is much more mythic than that (despite the liberal use of such adjectives as “new” and “revisionary,” she has been making this case in seminars and articles for over twenty years). For her, the “peplos scene” has nothing to do with any presentation of a robe to Athena. The adult male figure is King Erechtheus, who has been told by an oracle that in order to save Athens from invasion he must sacrifice one of his daughters. The sexually indeterminate child is therefore the sacrificial girl who is receiving (rather than handing over) the material (which is to be her shroud, not a robe for the goddess). The fact that her buttock is visible is a hint that “she is in the process of changing clothes,” swapping her ordinary attire for “funerary dress.” The woman with her back to Erechtheus is his wife Praxithea, facing her two other daughters, who in a nasty twist to the story are also about to meet their end; for the girls had vowed that if any one of them were to die, the others would kill themselves. On top of their stools, we must imagine that they too are carrying their shrouds.

The details of this interpretation rely heavily on a fragmentary play of Euripides, the Erechtheus, which dramatized the myth for performance in the late 420s BC, not long after the Parthenon was completed. We possess some 250 lines of it in all (roughly a fifth of the total), some quoted by later authors, but some key passages known only from a papyrus that was part of the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy and was first published in 1967. Connelly puts great emphasis on what appears to be a speech by Athena herself, near the end of the play, in which—after the Athenian victory against the invaders, but also after the death of Erechtheus in the fighting—the goddess appoints Praxithea her own priestess, and ordains a variety of honors for the dead girls and the king. It is these honors (choruses of maidens, honey offerings, cattle sacrifice, and so on) that—according to Connelly—provide a much better match than the Panatheneia for what is represented on the rest of the frieze. The cavalrymen fit better too; for they can now be seen as the heroic, aristocratic troops who won victory for their city under King Erechtheus.

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