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For all fans of the Classical Age in Greece...
on March 11, 2014
This was an amazingly good book. I am a fan of Classical Greek culture with some background, having taught an interdisciplinary course on The Classical Age 9 times over a period of 20 years at Virginia Tech. I know a good deal about Classical sculpture and architecture, and was pleased to find that I haven't been misleading my students about anything, except...the Parthenon frieze. While this book is incredibly wide-ranging, its real contribution to scholarship is a reinterpretation of the frieze. It is traditionally thought to represent the Panathenaic Procession, an annual event (though more significant every 4 years) staged for several centuries from the 5th Century BCE until a Roman emperor outlawed pagan celebrations in the 4th Century CE. The author does a very respectable job of questioning and marshaling evidence for interpretations. Her theory is that the frieze represents the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, required by the Oracle at Delphi for an Athenian victory pitting Athena and her allies against Poseidon and his allies (who had wanted to be the local god). This general conflict between Athena and Poseidon is known from the West Pediment. The story of the family of Erechtheus and his daughters is only known from a fragmentary play by Euripides named "Erechtheus." She apparently first put forward this hypothesis over 20 years ago, and has been building her case ever since. That mythical event was apparently the origin of the Panathenaic Procession, so the traditional interpretation is not wildly off. But she argues, for instance, that the Procession was a contemporary event, and no other art on the Parthenon (or really anywhere on temples) depicted contemporary events. I had always assumed (because tradition had always assumed) that the Parthenon was so named after the Virgin (Parthenos) Athena. But it turns out that Parthenon is plural, meaning of the Virgins. In the story the sacrificed daughter had 2 sisters and they had once agreed that if one had to die, all would die, so it is really 3 virgins who are commemorated by the building and in the frieze. There is a lot in the book, covering broad sweeps of Greek history and culture. (The 80 pages of end notes insure that this is not meant as a popularization, but a scholarly work. Yet it does not read like a scholarly work.)
Not being an expert on these matters, I'll be interested to know what the scholarly reaction is. She marshals considerable evidence for all her claims, but I can't really know if she is "cherry-picking" evidence, and ignoring counter-evidence. It does seem odd (here is one objection) that the mythical story behind the frieze could be so little-known that it appears in only one fragmentary play. It seems that something so important to the Athenians would have had wider distribution. We, eons later, are of course at the mercy of historical contingencies that affect what documents and artifacts from the ancient world survive to our times. But it just seems surprising that it could have worked out this way and been so hard to discover. Another issue (perhaps another objection) is her use of the term "democracy." She takes the frieze and much of Athenian culture to reinforce the democratic spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole community. This is a fine goal, but it is not specifically democratic. In the late 5th Century there was an on-going political conflict between democratic and oligarchic rule in Athens. Plato specifically enrolled himself among the enemies of democracy. But that in no way undermined his support for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. So I'd say her use of democracy is misleading.