The Magazine

Deep Frieze Meaning

What is the Parthenon telling us?

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By A.E. STALLINGS
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The Parthenon represents, for many, a golden age in human achievement: the 5th-century b.c. Greek flowering of democracy, sciences, and the arts. But what if its chief ornament, the Parthenon frieze, turned out to be not an embodiment of reason and proportion—of stillness at the heart of motion, quiet piety, and enlightened civic responsibility—but (or, rather, also) something darker, more primitive: a representation of the critical moment in an ancient story of a king at war, a human sacrifice, and a goddess’s demand for virgin blood? 

What is the Parthenon telling us?

What is the Parthenon telling us?

That’s the argument at the heart of The Parthenon Engima. The plot involves not only ritual murder and burial, but fragments of a lost play of Euripides found on mummy wrappings. Even the title suggests a Dan Brown thriller. 

Joan Breton Connelly’s theory is not so much far-fetched as it is heretical. Art history and classical civilization courses tend to teach us that the frieze represents the “Panathenaic procession.” The Great Panathenaia occurred, like the Olympics, every four years; it was a festival of athletic games and poetry and music competitions, culminating in a procession to the temple of Athena, goddess of weaving, war, and wisdom. Her statue was then presented with a new peplos, a robe woven by the women of Athens.  

Thus, the frieze, with its horses and horsemen, youths and elders, men and women, and animals being led to sacrifice, represents Periclean Athens and a cross-section of 5th-century Athenians. The central panel on the eastern frieze, which depicts three women of assorted heights and a man and a child handling a bundle of cloth, is read as the culmination of the festival. The tallest woman is seen to be Athena’s priestess.

Interestingly, this theory is not as old as you might think. It was proposed, tentatively, only in the late 1700s by the Englishmen James Stuart (an artist) and Nicholas Revett (an amateur architect) after an expedition to Athens for the Society of Dilettanti. We have no ancient accounts whatsoever of what the frieze represents. For much of the common era, during which the temple was repurposed as a Christian church and then a mosque, observers have been uncertain what they were looking at.  

The Stuart-Revett proposal has, over time, calcified into received wisdom, even though this would be a singular and unheard-of case of Greek temple art depicting a present-day moment rather than a mythological or legendary event. Indeed, the rest of the sculptures on the Parthenon, the pediments and metopes, depict myths from Athens’s founding and prehistory, from the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the city’s patronage to the battle of the Lapiths against the Centaurs. A. W. Lawrence, brother of T. E. and chairman of classical archaeology at Cambridge, wrote in 1951 that if the frieze did depict a contemporary event, “this must have verged on profanation.”  

Many of the elements we might expect to see in a typical Panathenaic procession are conspicuously missing. Why so many horses but no hoplites, the backbone of the 5th-century Athenian Army? What’s with the anachronistic chariots, a relic of Bronze Age warfare? Where is the wheeled ship-cart that transported the peplos, which was rigged to it like a sail? Why is a man handling the peplos in the climactic panel? (The peplos was woven by female hands for a virgin goddess.)

In 1991, Connelly was working on a book about Greek priestesses and reading up on myths of early Athens. She was electrified by the strange tale of Erechtheus, an early king of Athens. (There is a temple to him known as the Erechtheon on the Acropolis. It’s the one with the caryatids.) At the same time, Connelly realized that whole new passages of Euripides’ lost play on the subject had, in recent decades, come to light from Hellenistic mummy wrappings.