The ancient Greeks could not tell just how ancient they were. Other cultures—Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese—had continuous written records descending from the Bronze Age. They were able to read and arrange these records in their chronological order. The Greeks, too, had writings from their indirect (Minoan) and direct (My- cenaean) forebears, but they could not read them. The intervening Iron Age had, in Hamlet’s phrase, “wiped away all trivial fond records.” The records that remained were not read for three millennia, until the Mycenaean (early Greek) part of them was deciphered in the 1950s. The Greeks themselves were left with, mainly, oral poetry as a bridge to the distant Bronze Age, and this poetry was then set down in a Semitic alphabet, which seemed to have nothing to do with the “Linear” syllabary language of the past. A great gap existed, then, between classical Greeks and their presumed “heroic” ancestors. Compared to the ancient civilizations they knew, the Greeks were newcomers. As Herodotus (2.53) put it:

Where specific gods came from, or whether they were always there, or what kind of form they took—these things they learned just the day before yesterday, as it were. For Homer and Hesiod, contemporaries who lived no more than four hundred years ago in my opinion, first gave them an account of the gods, distinguishing their titles, prerogatives, and special powers.

Hesiod, the very poet who (according to Herodotus) gave the Greeks their past, shows how uncertain he was about that past by the use he makes of a chronology of four metallic eras, a chronology derived from the East. He turns the eras into races, and lists them as the golden race, the silver one, the bronze one, and the iron one. His scheme is embarrassed by the fact that he cannot assign the Homeric poems to any of the four races, and has to insert, clumsily, a “heroic race” between the bronze and iron ones, producing a fivefold scheme with an anomalous (nonmetallic) era insecurely attached to the chronology of myth (Works and Days, 108–201).

Herodotus thought Homer lived “the day before yesterday” because he belonged to what we call the eighth century. But modern scholars have been moving “Homer” down to the seventh century or even the sixth. The renowned Oxford scholar John Boardman places him in the seventh, but followers of the Harvard professor Gregory Nagy prefer the sixth, though all now think of the date when the epics took their surviving shape as the culmination of a long evolution of oral performance.1 How vast and old that performance material was can be gauged from the fact that the earliest depictions of heroic myth (on Greek pottery) tend not to follow the versions given in the two major epics, but draw on some other traditions.2 It used to be said that these variants came from the Cyclic Epics—the cycle of six epic poems, apart from the Iliad and Odyssey, tracing the story of the Trojan War from the Judgment of Paris up to the fate of Odysseus’ son by Circe, Telegonus. Only fragments of the cycle survive, though there are many ancient references to their contents and some have argued that the epics were later confections to fill in the omissions of Homer, sometimes with variants. That is no longer thought plausible. The date of the old vase paintings shows that the variants were already available to artists in the eighth and seventh centuries. If these alternate versions were present in the Cyclic Epics, then the sources of those poems were pre-Iliadic, irrespective of when the Cyclic Epics took their final shape.3

These problems of charting the Greeks’ past give John Boardman the starting point for his new book. He thinks that the Greeks’ insecure purchase upon their founding legends led to an “archaeology of nostalgia,” a desire to establish as many points of contact with that distant past as they could contrive. This involved an energetic search for, and ingenious analysis of, any surviving physical stuff of that past—or what they could interpret as such. The search began with Homer himself, who tried to give a local habitation and a name to features of his story—the burial mound of Myrhine, for instance (Iliad, 2.814), or the cave where Odysseus stored his treasure (Odyssey, 13.366–367). Post-Homeric authors also showed a concern for physical evidence of the epic past—its topography, artifacts, tombs, and supposed monuments. The greatest example of this concern is Pausanias, the second-century-CE author who visited and described the major Greek sites, attaching them wherever possible to legendary figures and events. He says, for instance (1.21.3), that one side of Mount Sipylos is shaped like a human face, and rain or rivulets on it reveal the weeping Niobe turned to stone.

Boardman cites another passage in Pausanias (1.26.5) referring to the mark of Poseidon’s trident in the rock of the Akropolis in Athens. This triple cleft was so revered that it was enclosed within the Erekhtheion that housed the most sacred symbol of Athena. Such naturalia not only verified myth but gave the local residents a claim on the miracle. This resembles what Mark Twain encountered in his trip to Palestine. Clerical guides explained that a white cave in Nazareth showed that the Virgin Mary must have nursed Jesus there, since a drop of her milk could whiten the whole cavern. “The old monks are wise. They know how to drive a stake through a pleasant tradition that will hold it to its place forever.”4


Even more intriguing than natural features must have been artifacts surviving from the heroic age. Boardman tries to imagine classical-era Greeks’ reactions when they opened up Bronze Age tombs. They no doubt found strange utensils, exotic jewelry, obsolete armor, bronze weapons, indecipherable inscriptions. The most intriguing illustration in Boardman’s book shows a small clay sculpture (circa 800 BCE) from Crete, part of a find first published by Boardman himself. It seems to represent a mound-tomb (tholos) with two men kneeling on its round top and peeking down into it through a hole in the mound’s center. They are accompanied by a dog, and their gestures suggest surprise. Boardman plausibly argues that it depicts the discovery of an ancient tomb. (Was it the dog who came upon it?)

Boardman poses hypothetical problems in interpretation for such Schliemanns avant la lettre. What would they make of exotic burial procedures known to modern archaeologists that would look foreign to them? When they found, let us say, clay coffins shaped like bathtubs, did they imagine murders committed in the bath—giving them the non-Homeric detail that Agamemnon was killed that way? Some children were buried in large jars. Could that be the source of the story of the boy Glaukos, who drowned in a honey jar? (Glaukos was the son of Minos and Pasiphaë, and hence brother to Ariadne and Phaedra. After drowning in the honey jar, he was brought back to life by a seer who had been shut up in the tomb with the dead boy’s corpse—a story shown on a fifth-century Attic vase reproduced by Boardman.) Adults, on the other hand, were sometimes buried in large cauldrons, which might be the source of Medea’s boiling of Pelias in her witch’s pot. If there were rotting clothes around entombed skeletons, that could be the origin of Nessos’ shirt, which consumed the demigod Herakles when he donned it. These are all interesting guesses, but the conjectural finds he describes may simply have confirmed or exemplified already-existing tales rather than “inspired” them (the word Boardman uses of these examples).

A parallel line of inquiry Boardman borrows, with ample acknowledgments, from Adrienne Mayor, an independent scholar in Princeton who has also written about Native American fossil-related legends. As Boardman imagines archaic and classical men speculating over tomb finds, Professor Mayor imagines them confronting the bones or fossils of outsize, extinct, or rare animals.5 Bones from mammoth vertebrates may have been taken for relics of the giant heroes of the past or of the monsters they fought. One of Mayor’s spectacular examples is a Corinthian vase painting of a monster’s head protruding from a cliff face, a configuration in line with accounts of animal skulls bared on eroding cliffsides of the Aegean coast. Herakles is fighting the monster on the vase, and Mayor thinks that the creature’s large jawbone corresponds with the skull of a Miocene Age giraffe, but Boardman doubts that it had so specific a model. He says that any horse or cattle skull would offer a sufficient prototype. He finds many sources for the monsters in Greek art, from scrambled bones, combined animal parts, or freakish fossils, though he admits that some of the creatures came from stylized Eastern art.

Whatever the strength or weakness of Boardman’s particular hunches, he certainly makes one aware of two things: the need of the Greeks to seek every way of connecting with their heroic but largely vanished past, and the obvious recourse that would have been offered them by physical realia (objects from everyday life), naturalia (objects from the natural world), and artificia (art objects and technological artifacts) surviving from that past. Their condition in an aggravated state is similar to the milder form of it to be found among modern art historians looking back toward classical Greece. Though no lapse from literacy cuts them off from fifth-century-BCE Athens, there is a gap that resembles, if only partially, the one dividing fifth-century Athens from eleventh-century Mycenae. This was noticed by Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, a professor emerita at Bryn Mawr, in her 1996 Sather Classical Lectures, published in 1999: “Finally, in our starved desire for Greek originals, we romanticize and exaggerate the artistry and beauty of extant architectural sculpture—that is, of something that might occasionally have rated, in antiquity, at the level of a glorified molding.”6


Though she was talking only of architectural sculpture, she was echoing a common plaint about classical Greek art. The best and most famous sculpture from that time has disappeared because it was cast in bronze, a material easily and regularly melted down. For the most famous Greek statues all that remains are copies made in a different medium by indifferent artists—the Roman versions made in marble. A few ancient Greek statues have been retrieved from under the waves, where they could not be found to be melted in the intervening time. They impress us as miraculously good, but none is an anciently famous work by a famous artist. They still do not tell us what we would see if an original Praxiteles or Polykleitos were to be fished up tomorrow. The same is true of ancient Greek painting, of which we get only a distant approximation in the paintings of Pompeii or those on Greek vases. The aesthetic oohing and aahing over Greek pots is a good example of what Ridgway was talking about. They are important historical documents for learning about Greek myths, social customs, theater history, and chronology, but no ancient writer claimed that these illustrated utensils were examples of high art. They have to serve us faute de mieux.


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.

This Issue

October 9, 2003