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.  

The myth is basically this: King Erechtheus sprang directly from the Attic earth. He had a wife, Praxithea, and three daughters. (The Athenian royal houses ran to daughters.) When Eumolpus, king of nearby Eleusis, threatened a siege of the city, King Erechtheus got an unpleasant oracle from Delphi: He must sacrifice one of his daughters to Athena to save the city. The queen, rather than cringing in horror at the idea, embraced it as patriotic duty. (Praxithea, whose name means “she who acts for the goddess,” delivers a rousing speech in the Euripides play.) Meanwhile, the three girls have vowed that if one dies, they all will—so the two who are not chosen insist either on being sacrificed as well or on killing themselves, possibly by jumping from the Acropolis. Athena then declares that the heroic girls are to be buried in a single tomb and that there should be a sanctuary and sacred rites established in their honor. Erechtheus, who dies in the battle, will have a tomb on the Acropolis and a sacred precinct. Athena makes Queen Praxithea her priestess, and Praxithea will be in charge of a single altar to serve both shrines.  

Suddenly, upon looking at the “enigmatic peplos incident” of the eastern frieze, Connelly felt that she understood it for the first time: This was a family unit—mother, father, and three daughters of different ages—the family of Erechtheus. The cloth that the father and the youngest child (who must, Connelly decides, be a girl; the gender of the semi-nude child in the frieze is a subject of debate) are handling is not the peplos but a sacrificial robe.

Furthermore, Connelly makes a valuable argument about the purpose of the temple as a visual memento of the invisible past—the trauma of the Persian invasion, for instance—and the centrality of the Erechtheus myth to Athens’s sense of itself, the willingness in a democracy to give one life for the good of the many, and for even the city’s leadership to make the supreme sacrifice.  

Connolly is also good on the Parthenon itself and the landscape that it both dominates and is integral to. To possess the Sacred Rock is to hold Athens, and all of Greece, under your sway. (This symbolism played out under German occupation in 1941, when two young Greeks, Apostolos Santas and Manolis Glezos, climbed the rock and tore down the Nazi flag, becoming national heroes.) The temple and its decoration are entirely of local Pentelic marble, prized for its pure whiteness and golden glow in sunlight. Like King Erechtheus, the building is autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth.  

Restorers of the Parthenon remark how, as the light moves over the structure, it seems almost to be breathing. The many small refinements of its architecture mean that the temple’s seemingly straight lines are all optical illusions: The side walls and peristyle lean slightly inward; the columns taper upwards and bow out at the middle (an adjustment called entasis); the corner columns are thicker than the central ones to give a sense of solidity; and so on. The chief Acropolis re-stor-ation architect, Manolis Korres, has discovered that the granules of marble in separate blocks of the temple have actually fused into one another. The separate pieces are, over time, becoming a single entity, masonry morphing back into mountain. 

It is consistent with the conventions of Greek temple art for a frieze to depict a foundational myth of the city and her cults. To me, Connelly’s theory is attractive and plausible, and is backed by a considerable breadth and depth of scholarship—archaeological, visual, and textual. Not everyone will be persuaded, and the absolute certainty of the author will be off-putting to some; but her ideas cannot be dismissed out of hand. At the very least, her explanation, though beset by the disadvantage of novelty, is no less problematic than the Panathenaic procession.  

As Samuel Butler put it when espousing his own contrarian classical theory, “Men of science, so far as I have observed them, are apt in their fear of jumping to a conclusion to forget that there is such a thing as jumping away from one.”

A. E. Stallings, poet and translator, is the author, most recently, of Olives: Poems