I’ve been continuing to indulge my re-awakened fascination with ancient Greece, raiding the library’s stacks for a variety of books to amuse and enlighten me. Today, a few brief reviews of my peregrinations.
After thoroughly enjoying Joan Breton Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma, which focused largely on the building’s religious function as that informed its civic presence, I went looking for a more general and historical overview. I found an excellent, readable, informative, and enjoyable short monograph in Mary Beard’s The Parthenon (Harvard, rev. ed., 2010).
What distinguishes Beard’s approach is that she begins, not with the Greeks, but with the Romans. To be more accurate, she begins in modern times, with a brief overview of reactions to the sight of the Parthenon by luminaries of the twentieth century, including Sigmund Freud, Winston Churchill, and Virginia Woolf. In doing so she sets up the importance of emotional response to the building that will inevitably lead to a discussion of the proper place of the Parthenon Marbles now resident in the British Museum.
But then she turns to the Romans, and looks as the earliest accounts of the Acropolis, from Pausanias and Plutarch. There’s a bit of kinship with Connelly here: the history of the Parthenon in many ways begins with a history of our responses to it and the reflections of ourselves that we find in its architecture. In the following chapter Beard charts the renovations the building underwent as it was turned first into a Christian church and then into a Muslim mosque and ends with the “big bang” (as she calls it): the reduction of the building to a ruin in the famous explosion of Ottoman gunpowder by a Venetian shelling in 1687. While most histories of the Parthenon include some information about the structural and decorative changes the building underwent through the Middle Ages, Beard provides plenty of well-chosen details that offer an enlightening portrait not just of aesthetic modifications but also a sense of how the building was used. The story becomes alive with the sense of people inhabiting the space in a way that I’d not encountered in previous studies.
Beard next traces the history of the reconstruction of the Parthenon from that 17th century ruination to the present day, recounting Elgin’s removal of the sculptures along with archeological attempts to piece together the confusion on the Acropolis. Each successive generation has had its own ideas about how to (or whether) to restore the ruins, and each has generally been horrified by its predecessors. The major reconstruction led by Nikolas Balanos in the early 20th century rebuilt sections of the main colonnade by deploying iron bars to hold sections of the columns in place; this turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation. The iron rusted and swelled over time, threatening to destroy the very elements of the building that it was intended to preserve. As a result, a new program of reconstruction was initiated in 1986 and is ongoing today. Reading this history made me realize that my first sight of the monument in 1984 pre-dated the current work (which I saw on a return visit in 1995).
About halfway through the book, then, Beard approaches the Parthenon for the first time from the perspective of its Greek builders and worshippers. Here again, her account, though brief, is full of interesting and unusual details. It addresses both the religious and the civic aspects of the building, as well as the dangers of projecting our own biases on so much of what remains lost and potentially unknowable. Although she does not explicitly address Connelly’s contentious thesis, it’s hard to believe that Beard’s own summary is not informed by it, while taking into account much other recent scholarship.
From ancient Athens, Beard turns her attention once more (she briefly glossed the subject in her opening chapter) to the British Museum and the disposition of the “Elgin” or “Parthenon” marbles—as your disposition would label them. She recounts the removal and the controversies, the question of the Universal Museum, and the issue of the broader dispersal of fragments of the Parthenon’s sculptural program. In a final chapter she offers an engaging history of the building of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens—again a subject that receives mention but scant attention in most other accounts that I’ve recently read. She takes no sides in the ownership controversy, but concludes that the intensity of the debate only proves how universally the Parthenon resonates in Western culture.
I can’t spend too much time reading about the Greeks without getting sucked back into Homer in some way. I’m slowly working my way through Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad for the second time. But I’m branching out as well and, in addition to Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead, have picked up Eric Cline’s The Trojan War (2013), which is part of Oxford University Press’s A Very Short Introduction series. These little books (7 x 4.5 inches in size, roughly 100 pages in length) offer just that—a brief account of an often broad topic. My experience with them has always been rewording, whatever the subject matter.
Many of the stories we associate with the Trojan War don’t appear in either the Iliad or the Odyssey. They come to us from the great tragedians, from Virgil, or from fragments of what is known as The Epic Cycle, a number of mostly lost epic poems, similar to Homer’s works, that circulated in the Greek world prior to the Classical period. In his first chapter, Cline provides a summary of all these ancient sources, neatly telling the story of the Trojan War, its genesis and its aftermath, while clarifying where each part of the tale originated. He then treats the historical context, supplying basic information not only about Greeks and Trojans, but Hittites and the mysterious Sea Peoples, whose travels across the eastern Mediterranean in the early 12th century BCE coincided with, and may have caused, the collapse of numerous antique civilizations.
The next section looks at the literary sources. Cline reviews the questions of Homeric identity and authorship, summarizing the various theories as to who might have composed the epics and when. He looks at the evidence of the poems and their correlation with what we know from other literary and archaeological sources to show how they combine both Bronze Age and Iron Age cultural references—pre-Homeric and Homeric, if we accept the usual date of c. 800 BCE for the written version of the poems that we possess today. In an unexpected twist, he then goes on to examine contemporaneous Hittite texts—of which there are many still untranslated—for what evidence they shed on warfare in northwestern Anatolia in the second millennium when the war might have taken place. He finds suggestions of several struggles that may have been a historical Trojan War, and even in some cases points to individuals and clans that may be models for the Homeric heroes.
The third and final part of the book looks at the archaeological evidence for an ancient Troy and a war at the site of Hisarlik, generally agreed to be the Homeric Troy. He documents successive excavations at this exceptionally rich site and discusses the various theories and dating schemes that have been devised over time as more work has been carried out and more of the extent of the ancient city revealed and dated.
It was only in this final section that I became restless. Cline follows the generally accepted tradition that the epics were recorded (and thus “Homer” “lived”) sometime in the 8th century and was relating events from about 500 years earlier. But sometimes this accepted dating of the epics becomes a kind of Procrustean bed that the archaeological —and even the literary—evidence must fit in order to be satisfying. The more I read about the Greeks, the less I am wedded to uncovering “the truth” about them in historical terms. I suppose that reflects my literary bent, and my willingness to believe that often art tells us more than facts do. (I suppose I’ve just horrified anyone who tends to the historical frame of mind.) But I find that I enjoy knowing more about the context and the background and have no need to pin Homer, the epics, a monument, or any other aspect to a board where it will sit quietly for my further dissection. The suggestiveness of the past in all its vagueness suits me just fine.
And for that end, Beard and Cline’s brief and readable introductions are highly recommended.