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The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon

Birmingham City Museums/DeA Picture Library/Art Resource
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends, 1868

Connelly pushes the significance even further, though. Taking the frieze and Euripides’ play together, she argues that they reveal an aspect of “Athenian core values” that has generally escaped our notice: namely, the importance of self-sacrifice in the ideology of democracy. Athena’s words at the end of the play, so close in theme to the subject of the frieze, “reverberated in the Athenian psyche, expressing the very essence of the people’s self-understanding.” The death of the daughters of Erechtheus offered a model of ultimate good citizenship. Everyone, even women, must be prepared to die “for the common good.”

When Connelly broached these ideas twenty years ago, many scholars (myself included) were quick to scoff. The Parthenon Enigma should cause us to hesitate a little. It is a careful, learned account and a good read, including some wonderful vignettes drawn from the modern history of the Parthenon—from the heroic achievements of Francis Vernon, who measured the building in the 1670s (before being hacked to death in Isfahan), to the feats of the young American Eugene Andrews, who in 1895 spent days perilously suspended from the building’s façade in a boatswain’s chair, in search of traces of a lost inscription. By pulling all the evidence together, the book makes clear that the arguments deserved to be taken more seriously than our first hasty judgements of them allowed. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced that she has solved the “enigma” of the frieze, or even that seeing it as a mystery to be decoded is the right way of approaching a monument such as this.

The first problem is that many of the individual pieces of evidence are much more fragile than she acknowledges. To be honest, it takes the eye of faith to see the tiny honeycombs that she manages to detect in a tray carried by one of the figures on the frieze (conveniently matching Athena’s instruction to honor the dead girls with honey). It is likewise hard to make out the shrouds supposedly piled on top of the stools of the two “sisters.” (“Sometimes a stool is not just a stool,” she writes hopefully; but I suspect that in this case they may be just that.) Nor are we any closer to being certain if the young person with the peplos/shroud is male or female. (Connelly’s reasoning is dangerously circular at this point: identification depends on the context, she insists, and if this is the story of Erechtheus, then it must be a girl.) Besides, as Garry Wills has observed,* since—as now seems certain—the frieze originally continued beyond the outer colonnade, into the main porch of the temple, and directly above the main door, it may be that the “peplos scene” was not the culmination at all; that final, sense-making scene may have been lost.

Connelly is, anyway, far too confident of the centrality of the Erechtheus myth, and its representations, “in the Athenian psyche.” The casual reader might easily miss the fact that not a single surviving ancient writer connects the Parthenon frieze with the myth of Erechtheus; in fact, not a single one mentions the frieze at all. Although it has become the main focus of modern scholarly attention (largely, I suspect, because it has been given pride of place at eye level, both in the British Museum and in the Acropolis Museum in Athens), it was ignored by the ancients themselves; that is perhaps because it was very hard to see from ground level, perched up high, just under the ceiling, within the colonnade. Pausanias, who visited the Acropolis in the second century CE and described the Parthenon in his Guidebook to Greece, mentioned a statue of Erechtheus close to the temple. But even this did not prompt him to make any remark on the frieze or (on Connelly’s view) its identical subject matter.

As for the importance of self-sacrifice in the ideology of democratic Athens, it is debatable how far there is anything specifically democratic in it (after all, antidemocratic Sparta was no less invested in the idea of the citizen being ready to give up his life for the sake of the community). And it is equally debatable that Euripides’ Erechtheus was, as Connelly tries to read it, any kind of charter for patriotism of that sort. It is true that one later writer does quote some lines from it in a self-serving, patriotic harangue, but we still have hardly enough of the text to be sure of the message of the play. Given what else we know of this ironic, subversive playwright, it is perhaps more likely (as some other critics have suggested) that he was calling the notion of such patriotism into question, or at least wondering about its cost in human life and suffering. Patriotic Praxithea appears bereft at the end of the play, her family wiped out.

Most of Connelly’s earlier work has concentrated on this mythic reading of the frieze. The Parthenon Enigma goes beyond that—particularly in its attempts to trace much more systematically an “Erechtheus theme” through the other parts of the temple’s sculptural decoration, and through the decoration of other buildings on the Acropolis—among them the small temple dedicated to Erechtheus. There is plenty of learned and intricate argument here (Connelly knows the archaeology of the Acropolis as well as almost anyone else on earth); but again much of it is more fragile than she would like. At one point, for example, she tries to prove that the scene on the lost base of the vast gold and ivory cult statue of Athena (the real ancient high spot of the decoration) echoes the frieze by showing the birth, or the “crowning,” of the sacrificed daughter of Erechtheus.

We know very little about this base except for some scarcely legible miniature replicas and brief descriptions given by Pausanias and Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. Both identify the scene as the birth of Pandora, the very first woman, who was specially constructed by a large group of gods to be a punishment for mankind (a neat fit with some of the overtly misogynistic iconography of other parts of the Parthenon). Connelly claims that both these authors made a mistake and got the wrong Pandora, presumably because they did not realize that this was also one of the names sometimes given (not so far as we can tell by Euripides) to Erechtheus’ youngest daughter. But if so, why on earth does Pliny, in an admittedly corrupt passage of Latin, refer to the “twenty gods and goddesses” being present (these must surely be the divine consortium who put Pandora together)? And in any case, neither author makes any mention of the more convenient “crowning.”

But for Connelly more hangs on the thematic unity of the Parthenon’s decoration than at first appears. By the final chapter of her book, it has led into an impassioned argument for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles in Athens, and the return of Elgin’s collection from London. “The wholeness of the Parthenon demands our respect and warrants our every effort to reunify it.”

There is one basic rule about the “Elgin Marble Controversy”: it is not straightforward (if it were, it would have been solved decades ago). There are bad arguments and woeful oversimplifications on both sides, and the whole question raises some of the biggest dilemmas of heritage and cultural property. It pits the desirable notion of the Universal Museum against the desirable aim of seeing a coherent ensemble of sculpture (whether or not united by the Erechtheus theme) put together again. Any serious historian who enters this controversy needs to recognize its complexity, at many different levels, and at every period. Sadly Connelly does not appear to.

In her account Elgin comes across as a fairly run-of-the-mill grasping villain who took “an expansive view” of what he was allowed to remove from the Acropolis under his permit, while at the same time being beastly to his wife. The contemporary voices raised in protest at his actions are taken at face value. These include not only the famous polemic of Lord Byron (“Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/By British hands”) but also the lamentations of an eyewitness, Edward Daniel Clarke, the Cambridge mineralogist, who deplored the removal of some of the sculpture from the building (even the Turkish overseer shed a tear, he claims). Of course, this is powerful testimony.

In fact, the standpoint of these nineteenth-century observers is never quite as simple as it seems. Connelly does not mention that the same Clarke was himself an avid “collector” who a few years earlier had stolen what he (wrongly) thought was an original statue by Pheidias from Eleusis, to howls of protests from the locals, though there were exuberant celebrations when he got it home. It is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, modestly identified as a Roman caryatid. Even Byron (whose verse attacks on Elgin proved a useful commercial success) was not above hitching a ride out of Athens on one of the ships carrying Elgin’s marbles.

But it is with modern attitudes that Connelly’s account descends almost to caricature. In the final pages she compares the British view of the Elgin Marbles to their view on foxhunting (“that most quintessential of elite British pastimes”). Attitudes toward both are changing, she claims. “To many [in Britain], the Elgin Marbles, like foxhunting, represent an overbearing past, one not worth hanging on to in a changing world.” She goes on to drag in the House of Lords.

Once upon a time the Lords led the opposition to returning the marbles (and she quotes the admittedly preposterous lines of Lord Wyatt of Weeford in 1997: “My Lords, it would be dangerous to return the marbles to Athens…. The volatile Greeks might easily start hurling bombs around again”). But as the House of Lords is modernized, and hereditary peers are phased out and replaced by life peers, including such experts as the archaeologist Lord Renfrew, even there—she assures us—views happily move on. She does not appear to realize that the wicked Lord Wyatt was himself a life peer: the ex-Woodrow Wyatt, once a left-wing radical, later a maverick, self-ironic, and mischievous Thatcherite (“Lord Wyatt of Weevil” as the satirical magazine Private Eye used to dub him).

I am afraid that the diligent and canny parliamentarians who debated the Elgin Marbles in 1816—under no illusions about the issues at stake in the sale, careful to interrogate Elgin on both his motives and paperwork, and foxhunters (I’d guess) to a man—would be dismayed to see how low the arguments have sunk here.


‘The Parthenon Enigma’—An Exchange May 22, 2014

  1. *

    The New York Review, October 9, 2003. 

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