In my last post I sketched out the basic argument of Joan Breton Connelly’s book The Parthenon Enigma. Using the famous frieze as a focal point, Connelly interprets the Parthenon as temple, as a site of religious experience, and not—as we have been accustomed to do in recent history—a celebration of democracy and civic pride in action. Connelly does posit a political message to the frieze: the welfare of the city-state of Athens must always take precedence over individual welfare. But she derives this from myth and seeks to demonstrate that the political and the mythic (or the religious) are inextricable from one another.
Most of the reviews of the book focus on the central reinterpretation of the frieze as depicting a mythic sacrifice by Erectheus and Praxithea, the first king and queen of Athens, of their youngest daughter to insure a military victory. This mythic interpretation of the sculptures, Connelly believes, is more appropriate to its place on a temple than a secular celebration of the procession that is a major part of the Panathenaic Festival held annually (with a “Great” festival every four years). But the re-interpretation of the frieze is only one piece of Connelly’s story, and in some ways, the least compelling part of the entire book.
She opens with a powerful evocation of the importance of the Acropolis as place, skillfully using an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus to invoke Socrates enjoying the pleasure of the Greek landscape while he debates a fine point of myth with his companion. The debate about the exact location near the hill where Boreas abducted a nymph serves as a first demonstration of how the landscape is imbued with mythic resonances even in historical times. She goes on to catalog the Sacred Rock’s geography and history in some detail, expanding on this initial vignette to great effect.
In her second chapter, Connelly recreates for us the cosmology of the ancient Greeks, recounting the battles between successive generations of gods and monsters, demonstrating how each successive battle represents yet another victory for the forces of civilization over brute barbarism, showing how these battles are reflected in the landscape and in the stars of the cosmos overhead, and how in turn, those stars—the first keepers of time and the calendar—informed the lives of the Athenians. She describes a world shot through with mythic significance, with the presence of the divine that is honored and feared and that provides the framework for the rounds of human life.
Having done so, she then turns her attention to the historic period of Perikles. She chronicles the wars against the Persians, the rise of Athenian civil power and empire, and the desire of the Athenians to rebuild the destroyed Acropolis not simply as a victory monument, but also as an object lesson about the importance of Athenian solidarity and Athenian exceptionalism. Only having established this context does she turn her attention to the newly discovered fragments of Euripides’ Erechtheus and to the frieze itself to advance her new interpretation. (I should say in passing that Connelly has been developing this line of argument in published articles for two decades, and the book represents the marshaling of all her evidence from those years into a panoramic statement.)
Her reading of the frieze itself is not terribly detailed or extensive, and like most other commentators I have read recently, she can skip with grace and agility over puzzles that don’t sit well with her interpretation . No single interpretation to date comfortably accounts for the entirety of the action and iconography of the frieze: the past is too far distant, our knowledge still to fragmentary, the context still incomplete. In the end, I was less concerned with whether Connelly is right than I was impressed by the amount of knowledge from disparate arenas that she brings together to build her argument. For me, what was important about this book was all that it had to teach me about art, religion, politics, economics, social organization, and history in the Athenian world. The breadth of her scholarship is impressive, and if she fails to sway other classicists with equal training and insight, I am unconcerned. What she tells the non-specialist in her lucid, readable, and vivid prose makes this book worth reading by anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject.
Having presented her thesis regarding the sacrifice, she broadens the scope of he gaze to look at ceremonies of “war, death and remembrance” in ancient Greek society, drawing upon funeral monuments and funeral games, temples as sites for the spoils of war, and the evolving political relationships among Greeks to develop a fuller portrait of the Acropolis and the Parthenon’s place in the social order. Another chapter deals extensively with the nature of the Panthenaia and its relationship to the sacrifice of the young girl. Throughout, Connelly circles back over and over again to the founding myths of the city, to the contest between Athena and Poseidon (the subject of the west pediment of the Parthenon) for patronage of the city and the ways in which that tension between land and sea, the olive and the spring, between Athens and Eleusis, is played out in the construction of sacred space on the Acropolis.
A final chapter looks at the legacy of the Parthenon in history since classical Greece. Connelly offers the case history of the Attalid dynasty at Pergamon and their emulation of the Periklean building program as a means of legitimizing their own ascent to power. She presents this story as representative of the ways in which generation after generation has looked back to the Parthenon to bolster their own ends. In doing so, she reminds us of the point she made early on in the book: that we are accustomed to seeing and reading the Parthenon through our own cultural prejudices, and see in its myths our own.
In her concluding pages, Connelly makes an argument for the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece and the new Acropolis Museum. There is not a single book I’ve read that doesn’t address this undying issue, and my own responses have always been ambivalent. Certainly, until the opening of the new Museum in Athens, I gave great weight to the question of proper artifactual preservation (though I’ve come to learn that the British have a miserable history in this regard, even if every generation despairs of the conservation techniques of its predecessors). And I guess that I’ve always, anglocentrically, thought London to be more accessible than Athens. But now, finishing The Parthenon Enigma, I find myself firmly in favor of repatriation. And I think that apart from the issues of conservation and political appropriateness, it is the achievement of Connelly’s arguments for placing the sculptures firmly in a Greek, rather than a “universal,” cultural context that swayed me. In other words, it is not the particular arguments that Connelly marshals on the question of repatriation, but the compelling understanding of the Parthenon she models, that tilted the balance.
In this respect, there is one small irony that struck me as I read the book, most powerfully in the early chapters when she treats of the Athenians belief in their own exceptionalism and their battles against and triumph over the marauding eastern armies of the Persians who set siege to the Greek mainland repeatedly in the decades before the building of the Periklean Acropolis and its glorification of Athenian might.
Connelly is a professor of classical archaeology and art history at New York University in lower Manhattan, where she has been based since 1982. As such, she no doubt witnessed first hand the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and has lived through the tumultuous aftermath of that ruination, the debates about American exceptionalism, and the fears of a new threat rising from the very part of the world whence the attacks upon the “cradle of democracy” arose. Did these experiences in turn color Connelly’s own perceptions of the Greek response to the wars fought on their land, and their need to respond by reasserting foundational myths of their city in their celebration of his survival? Perhaps. If nothing else, such a question reveals how abiding the influence of the Parthenon and the society that erected it remain to our most fundamental notions of the relationship between the individual and the state and how the interplay of politics and religion shapes us all, no matter where in space and time we exist.