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 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