“The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It” by Joan Breton Connelly (Alfred A. Knopf, 485 pages, $35)
The glory of Periclean Greece is best exemplified by the Parthenon, Athens’ famous temple, lavishly reconstructed after the Persians destroyed a prior temple in 480 B.C. during the culmination of a decades-long war between the Persian Empire and a loose confederation of Greek city states. A large, flat-topped hunk of rock, the Acropolis (“the high place of the city”), had always been the site of the holiest places of the city, notably a shrine to Erechtheus, one of Athens’ mythical founding kings, and Athena, the goddess and patroness of the city. When the Persians burned the old shrines, they also killed countless citizens, priests and slaves, toppling all the sacred statues.
Joan Connelly’s new book about the Parthenon argues that this technically astonishing and ornately decorated temple, completed in 438 B.C. at Athens’ height of influence and power, was actually designed to commemorate human sacrifice. This controversial thesis is one of many that have been advanced over the years. Connelly is an influential classical archaeologist, MacArthur Fellow, and a member of a number of distinguished institutions, including the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. She holds a professorship in classics and art history at New York University.
The focus of this new book is on an interpretation of the friezes that garland the Parthenon. The friezes represent an enormous spectacle featuring more than 600 participants, cavalrymen, parade marshals, elderly dignitaries, maidens, musicians playing their instruments and many others. For years, there has been a lively scholarly debate about the meaning and function of these sculptures. Classicists have long agreed that the friezes represent a grand ceremonial procession. The question has always been, what kind of procession? Theories abound about the friezes and include the notion that the panels represent victory parades celebrating battles and wars, that they celebrate the Panathenaea (a parade involved in “games” undertaken every four years), and, given the preponderance of horsemen, a celebration of the new cavalry units created by Pericles during the temple’s construction.
Based on fragments of a long lost play by Euripides called “Erechtheus,” Connolly concludes that the frieze represents the mythical founding king’s sacrifice of one of his two daughters, a sacrifice to propitiate the gods and sanctify the city. Following this argument along, Connelly concludes that the one rear room of the Parthenon was a tomb for the sacrificed daughter.
Needless to say, the argument has caused considerable controversy, arousing skepticism and doubt among scholars. Lavishly produced and beautifully written, the book also contains some difficult sledding for lay readers. On the other hand, some chapters contain dotingly beautiful descriptions of the art and architecture of the building, the religious and life habits of the Athenians, construction methods, and the cost and the political significance of the building through time. It is, thus, a challenging book, but one that will pay the dedicated reader enormous benefits.