When H and I first traveled abroad together, thirty years ago, our chosen destination was Greece. Out of all that the world had to offer, what I wanted to see most was the Athenian Acropolis, with its Parthenon and Erectheion. When we arrived, we had a distant view of the Acropolis from the window of our hotel room–just enough to tease my expectations ever higher. We quickly set out in a taxi, arriving with perhaps an hour to spare before a Christmas Eve closure. I remember climbing the steps to the Propylaea with a mixture of impatience and excitement, trying to absorb the experience properly but wishing more than anything to lay eyes upon the Parthenon. When we emerged at the summit and the temple stood before me, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Even my first visit to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum five years before had not prepared me. It was grander, more beautiful, more luminous even on an overcast, wintry afternoon, than any photograph I had ever seen. I was in love.
A few months before my last visit to London in May 2014, I saw the announcement of Joan Breton Connelly’s new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf). The cover promised “A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it. The reviews focused mostly on what they claimed was the shocking thesis that the building that has served as the model and the receptacle of our dreams of humanistic democracy was in fact a monument to human sacrifice and primitive superstition. The message, depending on the reviewer, was that we have been tricked: either by the last two centuries of Enlightenment thought, or (the more common perspective among early reviewers) by Connelly, a scholar out to shock with a dubious thesis.
I was put off by the hype for a good six months and more, but as I read more and more about the Parthenon and especially about the frieze that was claimed to be at the heart of Connelly’s argument, I found myself unable to resist investigating The Parthenon Enigma. When I finally cracked the covers, I suddenly found myself transported in an entirely unanticipated way: the book was not a dry or contentious scholarly exercise: it was engrossing. I would say almost page-turner, but I don’t want to suggest that it is a popularization or a sensationalization. It is scholarly and learned; it is also compellingly written—a pleasure, not a chore, to read. I can hardly recommend it highly enough for its wealth of knowledge, and find that whether or not I agree with its thesis is of somewhat secondary concern.
The most generally accepted explanation of the subject matter of the Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Great Panathenaic Procession, held every four years, during which a new peplos, or woven wool garment for the cult statue of Athena, was presented and a hundred animals scarified to the city’s patron goddess. This celebration of the city and its people, memorialized on a monument to both the Greek victory over the Persians and the Athenian “invention” of democracy is given visual form and record in the frieze. As the people process to the Acropolis, they are finally greeted with a vision of themselves honoring their goddess as well as their city.
Although widely accepted, this thesis has its problems of interpretation. (No contemporary documents describing the creation of the Periklean monuments atop the Acropolis have endured. The earliest account of the Parthenon, from Pausanias, written five centuries after its construction, doesn’t even mention the frieze.) While the sculptural program of the Parthenon altogether is without parallel in ancient Greece, the frieze is the only sculptural decoration on a temple for which a non-mythological subject has ever been suggested.
This example of “Athenian exceptionalism” has been pushed aside in large part by arguing that the Parthenon’s construction itself is exceptional, an argument bolstered by the fact that Athenian exceptionalism is a fairly well documented phenomenon: fifth century Athenians saw themselves as unlike and superior to other Greeks of their times. That we have come to accept the Athenian invention of democracy as the foundation of Western civilization only furthers acceptance of this theory.
Other iconographic inconsistencies, for example the presence of charioteers in the procession and the absence of hoplites (foot soldiers)—both at odds with fifth century Athenian military custom—have led to the alternate explanation that the frieze depicts the foundational Panathenaic procession of a much earlier time. But neither story illuminates the ambiguity and mystery surrounding the carving over the main entrance to the Pathenon’s sanctuary: the so-called “peplos incident” in which the procession culminates. In this section of the frieze, at the most important architectural place, and occupying the largest single slab of the frieze, shows a man and a young girl or boy (interpretations vary) folding the peplos, while a woman faces two girls with fabric-laden stools atop their heads. To either side, twelve Olympian deities sit facing away from the five central figures.
While this reading is consistent with known details of the Panathenaic celebrations, there is much that it fails to explain clearly. The identities of the five central figures are impossible to pin down with any certainty. The attitudes of the gods, facing the arrival of the procession but seemingly ignoring its culminating action in the presentation of the peplos, are problematic.
Connelly’s radical interpretation is that the central scene represents preparations for the sacrifice of the youngest daughter of Erectheus and Praxithea, the king and queen, founders of Athens, to insure their victory in the upcoming battle against Eumolpos, the son of Poseidon and instigator of the Eleusinian mysteries. Their other two daughters had pledged to die with their sister; it is this family of five we see on over the east entrance to the Parthenon; the cloth Erectheus and his daughter hold is not the peplos, but the young girl’s funeral shroud, in which she will be wrapped prior to her sacrifice; her sisters carry their own shrouds on the stools atop their heads.
Connelly draws her interpretation from fragments of a lost play by Euripides known as the Erectheus. While portions of Euripides’ tragedy were quoted in other surviving classical texts, a mere 55 lines were all that we had until just fifty years ago. In 1967, the first transcription of significant new fragments of the play were published for the first time after having been recovered from cast-off papyrus that had been used to wrap a Hellenistic mummy. Taken together with the original 55 lines, the 120 new lines of the play present Praxithea’s arguments that the sacrifice of her daughter for the sake of the city, as other mothers willingly send their sons off to battle, is the right and proper duty of an Athenian. The good of the city and off its entire population takes precedence over individual grief and loss. Connelly sees in this perspective a foundational ethic for Athens allied to its foundational myth of a city that traces its lineage back to an earth-born son of the goddess herself, Erectheus.
Connelly argues that our fixation with Athenian society as the birthplace of modern democratic civilization has made us want to view the Parthenon as a secular, civic monument (hence the interpretation of the frieze as a Panathenaic civic celebration). Rather, she suggests, the entire program of building on the Acropolis and the sculptures that adorn its monuments, need to be read as the Athenians must have intended them: as celebrations of the divine appropriate to the building’s nature as a temple. We have imbibed the myth (if I may use the word in this context) of Athenian nobility and rationality to such a degree that we are unwilling to countenance the mythic quality of the Parthenon’s sculptural frieze. The notion that something as barbaric as a human sacrifice could be the keystone of the Parthenon’s decoration offends our image of the Greeks as the supreme and foundational rationalists of our civilization.
Whether or not Connelly’s interpretation withstands critical analysis, the notion of human sacrifice commemorated on the Parthenon need not be as scandalous as critics and reviewers have made it out to be. Similar stories of maidens sacrificed to insure military success are abundantly familiar, the most famous perhaps being the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon that allowed the Greek fleet to set sail for Troy (and admittedly set the stage for the tragedy of the Oresteia).
And indeed, although Connelly marshals her evidence around the fixed point of this sacrifice, her chief goal seems rather to be a coherent interpretation of the Parthenon and its associated monuments on the Acropolis as a unified and organizing program that solidified Athenina political and military thought in the decades after the great victory over the Persians, in what was truly a golden age—if not necessarily in the sense that we usually use that phrase—of Athenian power, military, political, and artistic.
Next time I’ll have more to say about the substance and the argument of Connelly’s book, and why I think it is among the best texts I’ve ever read about classical Greece. Whether or not one agrees with the thesis and Connelly’s interpretation of the frieze, there is a wealth of information, interpretation, and perspective on ancient Athens to be gained from reading her book.