Ancient History & Civilisation



Every evening in Athens during the holiday season hundreds of tourists turn up to one of the longest running pieces of theatre anywhere in the world. It is the Sound and Light show on the Acropolis, inaugurated in 1959 and still well attended by enthusiastic audiences, who watch from a makeshift auditorium on a nearby hillside. As many as 1,500 spotlights are carefully choreographed to pour dazzling colours over the whole hill, or to pick out the individual ruins in turn; while the accompanying soundtrack combines history and fantasy to tell a story of the ‘Golden Age of Athens’. The plot is straightforward and dangerously economical with the historical truth: the ‘bloodthirsty’ Persians come and set fire to the Acropolis (swathed for a few minutes in eerie red light), but the ‘courageous’ Athenians eventually send them packing and settle down to rebuild their temples and to invent democracy. The hero is Pericles, and selections from his famous ‘Funeral Speech’, with its stirring slogans about political equality and cultural achievement, make the high point of the crackly voiceover. The whole show is a stalwart relic of one of the mid-twentieth century’s most characteristic forms of tourist spectacle, which once illuminated châteaux, cathedrals and castles across western Europe and beyond.

The production at the Acropolis originated in a deal struck between the Greek government and French private enterprise (in the shape of the Son et Lumière Company). Greece gained what was then a state-of-the-art tourist facility and important links with the political mainstream of Europe. The French made money, as well as reasserting their cultural connections with the classical world. On 29 May 1959, 2,500 French sailors marched through Athens on their way to watch the show’s première and André Malraux, French Minister of Culture at the time, turned up to give a rousing opening speech. It was a wonderful pageant of Cold War politics, with its celebration of Athens as a bastion of democratic freedom against the evil power of eastern tyranny. But almost 50 years later, the spotlighting of the Parthenon as a symbol of democracy, ancient and modern, still strikes a chord. For the radical (and idiosyncratic) form of popular government developed in fifth-century BC Athens is now more than ever celebrated as the ancestor of western political freedom: ‘our’ democracy, we have come to believe, has its ideological origins in Athens. And the Parthenon, as one of the acknowledged masterpieces of fifth-century culture, can stand as a visible guarantee of the virtues of democracy (both theirs and ours).

Like all such myths, this particular myth of democratic Athens is true in parts. During the fifth century, a series of reforms did progressively remove political privilege from the aristocratic elite of the city. Ultimate authority was vested in the assembly of all citizens who took the important decisions of state at open meetings and rigorously scrutinised the conduct of state officials. These officials were not elected; for elections, so the logic went, were always liable to be swayed by wealth or influence or training. The vast majority were selected randomly by lot to give every citizen an equal chance of political office. Frequent rotation of office made sure that anyone who was keen had plenty of opportunity to be involved; and financial compensation was provided (thanks in part to the profits of empire) so that no one was prevented by poverty from participating. The main exceptions to this rule were the generals, who continued to be chosen by election (and might even be elected, as Pericles was, year after year). Even an ultra-democrat would have been loth to entrust Athenian fortunes in battle to whomsoever the lottery happened to throw up; the democracy was not so narrowly ideological as to put its equal-opportunities policy before the state’s survival.

It was an extraordinary experiment in popular government. Predictably, all kinds of questions have been raised by modern historians about exactly how it worked. Every citizen could in theory participate in the political process; but how far did they? And what counted as participation? Some critics have pointed out that the place where the assembly regularly met was hardly geared to mass involvement, since it could only accommodate a small proportion, not much more than 10 per cent, of those eligible to attend. Others have interpreted participation more generously: if you take into account not just the assembly but all the different forms of political and public service (from the local government of the various city wards and outlying villages to the legal courts which brought in thousands of citizens as jurors), then the vast majority of citizens must have been actively involved. Some have stressed the effective power of the lottery in overcoming the discrepancies of birth, wealth and privilege. Others have cynically noted that, lottery or not, all the key political figures in the fifth century, those whose names we know, were rich – and many, like Pericles, came from the traditional landed aristocracy whose political privileges had ostensibly been removed by the democratic reforms. But, however you choose to resolve these particular debates, the fundamental principle that sovereignty lay with the people (the demos, in Greek) defined Athenian political identity in the fifth-century world: Athens was a demokratia.

That said, those who would now idealise it as a symbol of democracy for the modern world must turn a blind eye to some of its (to us) less congenial aspects. Crucially the demos, the group of citizens who shared in the democratic government of Athens, made up only about 50,000 of a total population that lay somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000, or so our best estimates for the mid-fifth century, immediately before the Great War with Sparta, would suggest. Completely excluded from political rights were women, children and perhaps as many as 100,000 slaves. So too was anyone, Greek or not, who was of non-Athenian blood (‘resident aliens’, as we might now call them). Pericles himself was responsible for tightening up the criteria for full citizenship, successfully piloting legislation in 451 BC to rule out anyone who did not have both an Athenian mother and an Athenian father; previously just an Athenian father had been enough. It would, of course, be perversely anachronistic to invest too much disapproval in the exclusion of women and slaves. On those terms almost every political regime before the mid-nineteenth century would be more or less deplorable (though the Athenian version of misogyny looks bad even by ancient standards). But the inescapable fact is that the Atheniandemocracy delivered political equality only to a privileged cadre of the city’s inhabitants, and one which was ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Seen in this light, it seems an unpromising model for today’s open, ethnically diverse and multicultural attempts at democratic government.

It is also an inescapable fact that democracy was bitterly contested within Athens itself. The popular romantic image of the Athenian Golden Age pictures a community united in its struggles against the barbarians and in its eagerness to forge a new political order; it is an image of democratic consensus. But the reality was nothing of the sort. There were always a few Athenians tempted to throw in their lot with the Persians (and, ironically, by the last decades of the fifth century both Athens and Sparta saw Persian financial backing as the key to victory in their Great War). There were even more to whom the democracy seemed a pernicious mistake. The reforms which devolved increasing power to the demos were not passed without a fight, and there were times in the fifth century when the democratic system survived only by the skin of its teeth. Indeed, at a low point in the war against Sparta, pressure from the opposition led to the temporary suspension of democracy, and its replacement by an oligarchy which gave political rights to just 5,000 men. Pericles, as we have seen him on stage in the ‘Funeral Speech’, must have needed all the spin he could muster in support of his democratic principles. In fact, what may well be the oldest work of Greek prose literature to survive (we have poetry from much earlier) is a ranting political pamphlet from fifth-century Athens written by an implacable, if rather muddled, opponent of the democracy; and Pericles’ most influential political partner was actually assassinated in the late 460s after he had contrived the removal of one of the last bastions of aristocratic privilege. This seedier side of Athenian political life is rarely glimpsed in such rosy-tinted visions of democracy as are projected in the Sound and Light show, and in other popular celebrations of what has been called the ‘Greek Miracle’.

In order to understand the classical Parthenon, we need to bridge the gap between the familiar reconstructed ruin – floodlit on the Acropolis, visited by millions, celebrated across continents – and its ancient prototype; and to think more carefully about the relationship of the fifth century’s most famous icon to the politics, culture and religion of the society that created it. There is, as we shall see, a world of difference between the glamorous allure of ‘Periclean’ Athens that dominates our vision of the monument and the sometimes surprising history of the temple that is revealed by archaeology. It is a history that starts with the ambitious building schemes of the mid-fifth century, but continues in a whole series of repairs, adaptations and ‘improvements’ through the hundreds of years of Greek and Roman antiquity that followed.


The Acropolis was crammed with sculpture, dedications, memorabilia and bric-à-brac of all sorts. Pausanias himself confessed to be spoiled for choice in picking out the highlights for his readers’ attention. By contrast, his description of the Parthenon itself seems strikingly spare: focusing on the gigantic statue of the goddess Athena, he notes only the sculpture in the pediments and a couple of portrait statues inside. But we should not be misled by Pausanias’ silence. As soon as it was built, the interior of the Parthenon was an Aladdin’s cave of treasure – and junk.

The plan of the building gives no hint of this at all (Figure 5). It shows the familiar simple design of Greek temple architecture: an outer circuit of columns surrounding a plain internal chamber (in fact here – and this was an unusual feature of the Parthenon –twointernal rooms). The main entrance at the east led into the larger room, where the great gold and ivory statue loomed. Around the room on three sides ran a two-storey colonnade, one tier of columns supporting another. At some point after the building was finished (we do not know exactly when) a shallow pool of water was installed in front of the statue. Referring back to this feature at another point on his travels, Pausanias explains that the idea was to increase the humidity and so prevent the ivory drying out. But the pool must also have served to reflect the light entering the room from the east, through the main door and through the room’s only two windows which were set high up on the east wall. It was from this end too that you could get access to the roof, by a stairway hidden in the thickness of the wall. Architectural historians have wrangled for almost 200 years about how this roof was constructed (almost nothing was left in place after the 1687 explosion). One favourite nineteenth-century theory was that it was open to the sky at the centre. They had not yet realised that there had been windows in the east wall, and this was a convenient solution to the problem of how these rooms were originally lit. Convenient it may have been, but, as every modern study now agrees, it was also wrong. There was, it seems, a full roof of marble tiles, supported by wooden rafters.


Figure 5. Plan of the ancient Parthenon.

There was no connection between the eastern and western rooms; not, at least, until the three doors were opened up by the Christians to give access between what became their foyer (or narthex) and the main sanctuary of the church to the east. During the classical period the western chamber could be entered only by its own external door. Its main feature was the group of four single columns rising in the centre – and, in contrast to where the statue stood, the murky gloom. This smaller room really does seem to have had no windows at all.

But the outline plan is only part of the story. We can fill in many other crucial details thanks to some of the most revealing documents ever found on the Acropolis. These are fragments of a series of inventories of the Parthenon’s contents, originally drawn up by the Treasurers of Athena (the state officials who managed and audited the goddess’s property), then inscribed on stone and put on public display. They were intended presumably not only as a record of the temple’s holdings, but also as a guarantee of the probity of the men who managed them. The surviving texts start just after the Parthenon’s construction and run to the end of the fourth century BC (when the administrative system seems to have changed). They give us a vivid picture of the building piled high with sacred property of all kinds, dedications rich and humble, the city’s heirlooms and the wealth of the goddess herself. In 434/3, for example, when the temple was only just being finished, in the front porch alone were stored 113 silver bowls (plus one in gold) for use in sacrifices, three silver drinking horns, three silver cups, a silver lamp and a small goblet in a box. The eastern chamber itself, alongside the statue of Athena, could boast three golden bowls (large ones, to judge by their recorded weights), a golden statue of a woman and a silver basin. The dark western room was the most crowded storehouse of all, counting among its much longer list of treasures six Persian daggers, one gilt lyre (plus three in ivory and four in wood), an ivory inlaid table, a silver-gilt mask, 10 couches from Miletos, six thrones, two large silver-gilt nails, and over 70 shields. Some of this looks like war booty or state valuables; some like the religious paraphernalia that any cult might need. But some must have been the result of private offerings. Later records in fact sometimes note the name of person who gave the object in question. These range from a small ivory figurine of a cow dedicated by a woman called Smikythe in the 370s, or a simple gold ring offered by Dorkas, ‘a foreigner living in Piraeus’, to the no doubt much more splendid (and pricier) golden drinking horn presented to Athena by Roxane – none other, as the text insists, than the wife of Alexander the Great.

The Parthenon was, as one archaeologist has recently put it, a ‘strongbox’. It held the treasures owned by the goddess, which in practice were not always easy to distinguish from the property of the state. Certainly, towards the end of the Great War against Sparta some of the precious dedications were melted down in aid of the war effort, and it was presumably with such circumstances in mind that Pheidias is said to have ensured that the gold panels on the statue of Athena were easily detachable (the Athenians resisted this particular temptation throughout the fifth century, but the gold plates are supposed to have been used to pay troops during civil war in the third century BC). The presence of all these valuables makes a huge difference to how we envisage the appearance of the Parthenon, its day-to-day use and, inevitably, its policing.

Storage and security must have been near the top of the agenda. The bare walls shown on the plan were covered with cupboards and shelf-stacks (each carefully numbered, so the inscriptions suggest), and chests littered the floor. To protect the treasures kept in the porches, barriers or grilles were fixed between the inner row of columns at both east and west ends; the cuttings for these are still clearly visible. Far from our usual image of an open building, what actually faced visitors as they walked up the steps towards the doorway of the main eastern chamber was a metal fence. How their access into the building was controlled we do not know. Pausanias mentions no difficulty in getting inside when he visited in the second century AD. But it is impossible to imagine that such a store of valuables could have been accessible to the general public without a substantial presence of warders and guards (much like today); and when the staff were off-duty, the Parthenon – maybe even the whole Acropolis – must have been securely locked and bolted. It is also impossible to imagine, given the clutter of contents, that the Parthenon could have been used for anything much other than the display of the goddess’s statue and the storage of valuables. That would not make it unusual among Greek temples. These were not, in general, designed to hold a congregation and were not seen as places of communal worship. In ancient Greece, religion was much more of an open-air event; the key ritual of animal sacrifice took place around an outdoor altar. The temple’s principal job was to house (the statue of) the deity. It was not for centuries, until the Parthenon became a church and then a mosque, that it functioned as a religious building in the sense with which we are familiar. Indeed, those who later so admired the single golden dove circling over the altar of Our Lady of Athens, the everlasting lamp and St Luke’s icon of the Virgin would never have believed what treasures had once been crammed into their church.


No less remarkable was the sheer quantity of sculpture which originally decorated the Parthenon. Greek temple architecture is a classic combination of rigid conservatism and subtle innovation. All temples did look broadly the same (they were presumably intended to be instantly recognisable). Yet, at the same time, their architects were always improvising, or bending the conventions, to create something new; no one temple is, after all, exactly identical to any other. The Parthenon bends many more conventions than most, and none more strikingly than in its repertoire of sculpture. True, there were plenty of precedents in older temples across the Greek world for a frieze running around the building, for sculpted metope panels and statue-laden pediments – as well as for the skyline figures (probably, in this case, huge statues of the goddess Victory) that perched at the four corners of the roof. But no designers had ever before deployed all these together on the same building; no designers had ever produced a temple quite so heavily decorated. Indeed, even here, the sculpted frieze seems not to have been part of the original plan. Architects working on the recent restoration programme have found clear evidence that in its first design the building featured just a row of metope panels over the east and west entrances, where the frieze now runs; only later in the project was this replaced by the much more ambitious complete frieze. It is a telling indication of how the building scheme must have developed ‘on the job’. It is also a hint of some of the other surprises about the Parthenon’s design and original appearance which have been sprung, as we shall shortly see, by the restorers’ minute analysis of every cubic millimetre of the building’s fabric.

Of all the sculpture that once loaded the building it is the frieze that is always the most keenly discussed, largely because (unlike much of the rest) it survives reasonably intact; about 128 metres of its original length of 160 are preserved in either London or Athens (plus Choiseul-Gouffier’s fragment in the Louvre). It shows a procession, which starts out at the south-west corner of the building and makes its way, in two halves (one down the south side, one round the west and then down the north), to the main entrance into the Parthenon. Horsemen, charioteers, musicians, water-carriers, animals for sacrifice all converge, from their two sides, on a strikingly enigmatic climax which is shown directly over the eastern door itself (Illustration 14): a piece of cloth is held up by, or passed between, a man and a child (male or female, it is not clear); behind the man, a woman seems about to take more cloth, or perhaps padded stools, from a pair of girls; on either side a group of deities, 12 in all, sit with their backs to the scene – recognisably superhuman, because even seated they equal the height of the standing mortals.

Art historians are almost unanimous in their admiration for this frieze and, especially, for its brilliant handling of depth and perspective. The carving is extraordinarily shallow, never more than six centimetres from the front surface of the marble to the back; and yet the sculptors have still managed to represent convincingly teams of horses sometimes as many as four deep. They also seem to have taken account of the awkward position of the viewer, who would necessarily be standing a good 12 metres below the sculpture and looking up at a very sharp angle. The carving is consistently deeper at the top of the panels than at the bottom so that the figures actually lean outwards; the idea was, presumably, that this would make them clearer to see from below. But the unanimity ends with the technique. When it comes to the subject matter, there are any number of different views about how we should understand the scenes depicted on the frieze and how they relate to the rest of the monument and to Athenian culture more generally. In this sense, it has become one of the longest running puzzles in the whole of classical art history. A wry reflection might put this down, paradoxically, to its excellent state of preservation. For here (as elsewhere in the history of classical art and culture) the more that survives, the more we are forced to face the sheer complexities of interpretation.


14. The puzzle at the centre of the Parthenon frieze. Is this the ceremonial presentation of the new robe (or peplos) for Athena? Or the eerie preliminaries to a tragic human sacrifice?


15. Part of the calvacade of young cavalrymen who are so prominent in the frieze. These two riders are busy reining in their horses; the holes where metal harnesses would originally have been fitted are still just visible on the horses’ heads.

Few people can resist projecting their own version of fifth-century Athens on to this particular work of art. For some, the youthful naked riders key into the well-known homoeroticism of classical Athenian culture (Illustration 15). For others, uncanny similarities between the frieze and the sculptures from the palace façades at the Persian capital of Persepolis hint at an aggressive attempt to appropriate the artistic forms of the enemy. Others have struggled to relate the frieze to the city’s democratic ideology. Assuming that the procession is an image of the Athenian polity itself, they see the striking uniformity of the faces and expressions as an idealising version of the city’s democratic principles, subordinating individual distinction and prestige to the common good. Yet they puzzle over the unexpected and disproportionate prominence of the cavalry. In the mid-fifth century the cavalry made up only a tiny proportion of the city’s fighting force (perhaps little more than 1,000); it was one of the few surviving bastions of the aristocratic rich. So why do these heroic and gloriously youthful horsemen dominate this flagship monument of the democracy? It is a hint perhaps of the elitism that (paradoxically to us) lay at the heart of the Athenian democracy’s self-image.

The bitterest arguments focus on what are apparently the simplest questions: what does the frieze show? what particular occasion, idea or myth, is here cast into stone? The earliest travellers to Athens made some brave conjectures. Cyriac of Ancona, for example, reckoned it was a display of Athenian victories at the time of Pericles (fine for the cavalry and chariots maybe, harder to align with the water carriers and cows, let alone the decidedly unmilitary central scene). But most modern discussions of the theme of the frieze kick off from an inspired guess by James Stuart, published in the Antiquities of Athens in 1789. His clever idea was that it showed the procession of the so-called ‘Panathenaic festival’, which came up to the Acropolis every year, bringing with it a new robe (orpeplos) for the ancient image of Athena; not the gold and ivory version in the Parthenon (which played, so far as we can tell, no part at all in the city’s regular rituals), but a much older and plainer sacred image of the goddess, made of olive wood, and by the end of the fifth century housed just opposite the Parthenon in the shrine known as the Erechtheion (see Figure 3). This offered an irresistibly neat solution to the puzzling scene at the climax of the procession, for, if this was the Panathenaic procession, the strange bundle of cloth was obviously the peplos for the statue. Even 200 years later, some version of Stuart’s explanation of the frieze still seems the best on offer to many people.


16. One guess at how the east pediment might have been arranged. In this relatively sedate version Zeus (who has just given birth) stands in the centre, flanked on the right by his wife Hera and on the left by the new-born Athena. The horse of the moon (Illustration 16) is to the far right; the figure of Theseus/Hercules (Illustration 20) reclines on the opposite side, next to the horses of the sun.


Figure 6. Position of the second frieze (shaded).

Yet there are problems. If this is meant to be the Panathenaic procession, then why are some of its most characteristic features missing? Where, for example, is the distinctive ship-on-wheels which transported the new peplos through the city, spread out like a sail? And why so many horsemen, when the literary accounts stress the ranks of foot-soldiers who marched with the procession? Besides, how do we explain why the Athenians broke what seems otherwise to have been an iron rule of Greek temple sculpture – that only mythological scenes, and never events from real life, were represented? Enough doubts have always been raised to keep open the whole question of what exactly the frieze was about. And occasionally entirely new ‘explanations’ are touted, which often enjoy a few years of scholarly favour in turn before fading away. The most celebrated (or notorious) include an ingenious exercise in numerology, which made the frieze a memorial to a glorious Athenian victory against the Persians by calculating that the total number of participants in its procession was equal to the number of Athenians killed at the Battle of Marathon (the trouble was that it required some rather creative counting to reach the magic figure of 192). Most recently, and no less ingeniously, it has been argued that the frieze has nothing to do with the Panathenaic procession at all, but depicts a famous incident in Athenian mythology, when the legendary king Erechtheus sacrificed his daughter to save Athens from invasion. On this view the indeterminate child at the climactic scene must be a girl; she is holding not the goddess’s peplos, but her own shroud, and the other girls are her sisters, shrouds in hand, all ready to follow suit.

These bright new ideas for the subject of the frieze are often proposed with tremendous verve and learning. Yet none of them has ever quite succeeded in burying the theory of James Stuart. More to the point, it is hard not to feel that ‘spotting the theme’, in this narrow sense, is something of a dead-end. How, after all, would we recognise the correct ‘solution’ if we found it? Is the absence of the ship-on-wheels, for example, or the foot-soldiers, conclusive evidence that we are not dealing with the Panathenaic procession? Do we really expect an artistic representation of any event to be a literal transcription of it? How could we ever prove that the child with the ‘shroud’ was meant to be a girl, not a boy?

In fact, a salutary warning of the fragility of the whole exercise has been sounded by what is perhaps the most surprising discovery of any made in the course of the recent restoration. For we now know that there was not just one, but two, friezes on the fifth-century Parthenon, a second whose existence no archaeologist had ever before suspected. ‘Our’ frieze ran above the inner columns at east and west, and around the outside walls of the two interior rooms (Figure 2). This ‘new’ frieze ran at the same level around the inner eastern porch and directly above the main eastern door (Figure 6). It was much shorter and only faint traces survive; it seems to have been largely destroyed by a devastating fire in the third century AD and then almost completely removed in the repair work that followed. But just about enough has survived to show that it was in deeper relief than the outer frieze and that, at one point, it featured a row of standing female figures. The implications are tantalising. Whatever this frieze depicted, it would have been clearly visible, beyond the outer frieze, to any visitor climbing the steps to the main entrance of the building; it is almost bound to have been seen as the continuation of the narrative which ended (or so, up till now, we have believed) at the scene with the peplosor shroud. Nothing more can be known (though it is a fair bet that the next 50 years will see a whole range of imaginative ‘reconstructions’). But it is an unsettling thought that the premise on which almost every explanation of ‘our’ frieze has always been based – that the strangely low-key incident with the cloth marks the climax of the story – is now called into question.


Much of the rest of the original sculpture is pitifully ruined. Leaving aside the great statue of Athena, which we now know only as a wonderful fantasy (pp. 28, 40–41), loosely based on Pausanias’ description and the multitude of ancient ‘replicas’ and souvenirs, archaeologists are still hard at work piecing together the sculpture from the pediments and the metopes; and significant fragments are still turning up on the Acropolis and in museum basements. For modern visitors to the British Museum or to Athens, the sculptures from the pediments require the eye of faith. Only a few have survived well enough to give some idea of the original quality of the work. The head of the exhausted horse (Illustration 17) which once nestled into the far right-hand corner of the east pediment (featuring the birth of Athena) has always been a popular favourite. The extreme angles of the pediment triangle were a tricky challenge for the classical sculptor. How could you fill this tiny cramped space with any figure that was plausibly in scale with the characters who occupied the centre-ground? Dead bodies were, predictably perhaps, a common choice. Here the design offers something quite new. This tired horse drives the chariot of the Moon down below the horizon, as it sinks beneath the pediment floor, while in the other angle the horses of the Sun are just rising. Athena’s birth, in other words, finds its place in a cosmic scheme: it happened at dawn, just as the moon was setting and the sun coming up, and it was a new dawn, in all kinds of other senses, for Athens and for humanity. By and large, however, the battered, eroded and, for the most part, headless figures tend to baffle, rather than excite, most viewers.


17. The horse of the Moon from the east pediment. Generations of visitors to the British Museum have enthused over this brilliant representation of sheer weariness: its flaring nostrils and jaw drooping over the edge of the pediment. Others, more recently, have wondered quite how much damage was done to its delicate surface in a notorious programme of cleaning in the 1930s (pp. 168–76).

The game of restoration consists in trying to match up Pausanias’ identification of the subject matter of the pediments (east: birth of Athena; west: contest between Athena and Poseidon) with the drawings produced before the explosion of 1687 for the Marquis de Nointel and with the fragments of sculpture that still survive. Without the drawings, it would now be next to impossible to get any overall idea of how the pediments were arranged. But even with them, crucial problems remain. We have no idea at all how the birth of Athena itself was depicted, for the central figures over the main east entrance had disappeared long before the Marquis de Nointel arrived, when the building was first converted to a church. Was she really shown literally popping out of Zeus’ head, as the myth had it – and as is sometimes found in smaller-scale depictions of the story? Or was it, as many scholars now guess, a more prosaic, less obstetric rendering, with Athena calmly standing next to her father Zeus (though hardly a ‘birth’ in Pausanias’ terms) (Illustration 16)? There has also been, and still is, tremendous disagreement about who all the other figures in each pediment were meant to represent. The gamut of Olympian deities and local Athenian heroes has been canvassed, as well as a good number of more unlikely candidates. In fact, in the eighteenth century, two of the figures that still survived on the west pediment were widely assumed to be later additions: portraits of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina, strategically inserted, so people then assumed, into a group of bona fide Greek gods (much as Nero’s name had been blazoned across the façade). It was, almost certainly, a crashing misidentification; they are now usually thought to be some mythical Athenian king and his daughter. But it was a misidentification that kept them in Athens; for Elgin’s agents did not consider a pair of Romans to be worth all the trouble of removing and transporting back to England.

Not all the metope panels are in such a frustrating condition. A group of around 20 from the south side of the building are, for some unknown reason (p. 57), well preserved. They show scenes from the famous mythical brawl at the wedding feast of the King Pirithous, which was rudely interrupted by a gang of monstrous centaurs who had come to carry off the girls. Some of these surviving panels are virtuoso displays of artistic expertise (Illustration 18). But others, including several in Elgin’s collection and Choiseul-Gouffier’s prize possession, have fascinated art historians precisely because they are frankly second-rate. Take, for example, the panel shown in Illustration 19. Despite the occasional valiant attempt to defend its extremely awkward rendering of both centaur and Greek, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the sculptor was really not up to the job; that he did not leave himself enough room to give the centaur even the hint of a neck; and that he produced a feeble Greek fighter with one leg demonstrably longer than the other.

These rather clumsy efforts hint at the problems that must have faced those who were managing the Parthenon project as a whole. We have no idea who exactly these managers were. Many modern scholars have been tempted to follow Plutarch and to see the famous sculptor Pheidias as the artistic (and organising) genius behind the whole sculptural programme; though others have thought it more realistic to imagine that he was involved only with the great statue of Athena. But one thing is certain: even if Pheidias did devise the grand plan, he could not possibly have had the time to lay his chisel on more than a tiny proportion of the marble. Huge numbers of trained sculptors would have been needed to get through the work on what was clearly a tight schedule; on the frieze, for example, as many as 80 different hands have been detected. Where was this workforce to be found? In the schedule of operations, the metopes were the first sculptures on the list. It seems very likely that, at this stage, the project manager (Pheidias or not) was forced to turn to the untrained, the time-expired, the less-than-talented or the young. Later, perhaps, training and recruitment went more smoothly. Certainly neither the work on the frieze nor (so far as we can tell) that on the pediments shows any such variety of style or skill, despite the numbers of sculptors involved.

For most of the metopes, however, quality is no longer an issue; as we saw (p. 55), they were defaced almost beyond recognition when the temple was converted to a church. To judge from what was left after this chiselling, they all seem to have shown scenes of mythical battles: the northern side, Greeks versus Trojans; the west, Greeks versus the legendary women fighters, the Amazons; the east, gods versus the giants who once upon a time tried to usurp their position on Mount Olympus. In many ways, this is the standard repertoire of Greek temple sculpture; but the sheer insistence here on these myths of Greek victory, and the repeated variations on the theme through different legendary cycles, key into the idea of the Parthenon as a monument of Athenian triumph. The defeat of the Persians, whose shields and daggers were to be found amongst the war booty in the storeroom below, is here figured in terms of the most powerful cultural axioms of the Athenian fifth century: men defeat women, Greeks conquer foreigners, gods triumph over their enemies, civilisation prevails over monstrosity. Several of these motifs were picked up and replayed inside the building too (part of an elaborate ‘Pheidian’ design, as some would see it). The edges of Athena’s sandals paraded another version of Greeks versus centaurs, battles of Greeks and Amazons were found again on the outside of her shield, while painted, or perhaps inlaid, on its inner surface was the victory of gods over giants. In fact, as if to assert the links between sculpture and ritual, that victory of gods over giants also formed the standard motif of the elaborate woven peplos made each year for the ancient image of Athena, the peplos which itself may (or may not) have been cast in stone in the frieze above the entrance of the Parthenon.


18. One of the most spectacular of all the metope panels. A centaur tries to escape (putting his hand to a wound in his back), while the young Greek prepares to deliver a fatal blow. This metope stretches the idea of relief sculpture to its limits. The figure of the Greek stands almost entirely free of the background marble.


19. Frankly second rate? The contrast with Illustration 18 (which would have been its neighbour on the Parthenon itself) is striking. Perhaps the juxtaposition was intentional and the designer was trying to parade different versions of bestiality with this awkwardly neckless centaur. More likely it was a less competent job by a less competent sculptor.


But the Parthenon was not a sculpture gallery. True, many of the sculptures that once decorated it have long taken their places in the roster of museum masterpieces. Right back to antiquity they have been admired and discussed as ‘works of art’. And the building itself has been equally lionised in the story of world architecture (thanks in part, no doubt, to the self-advertising treatise by its designer Iktinos). Yet it was also a highly charged piece of sacred space. It makes a tremendous difference to the way we understand the fifth-century monument if we put religion – and specifically Athena – back into the frame.

Jewish and Christian polemic worked hard and very successfully to ridicule ‘paganism’ (as Christians called it). Even now we tend to picture the different gods and goddesses that defined Greek and Roman polytheism in the terms that their opponents chose: a range of larger-than-life characters, with dubious morals, family tensions worthy of a soap opera and a range of mythical powers usually used (like thunderbolts) irresponsibly and to the disadvantage of mankind. This was a wilful misrepresentation. Polytheism was much more nuanced and complex than its monotheistic critics saw, or wanted to let on. Good romping stories of divine peccadillos were only part of the picture. The point was that the range of divinities, their different characteristics, responsibilities and family relationships represented an ambitious attempt to classify the world, to explain (and dispute) the nature of power and social relations, to understand the universe and humanity’s place in it. Athena, for example, was not simply ‘the goddess of wisdom’ as she appears, briskly defined, in modern encyclopaedias; she embodied a particular kind of ‘cunning intelligence’ (the word metis in Greek has no easy English translation) that played a part in such varied activities as carpentry, warfare, statecraft and weaving. The lurid story of her birth directly from the head of her father Zeus, who had swallowed her mother, the goddess Metis, was one way of picturing how that quality was controlled, shared and passed down in the divine order of things.

It was a religious system that dealt in questions, myths and metaphors rather than in creeds and the tenets of belief (hence, perhaps, the puzzlement of so many Christian critics). One of the questions at the very top of the religious agenda was the nature of divinity itself: what were the gods like? How did they intervene in human affairs? How would you recognise them? In what ways were they different from, or similar to, humankind? All kinds of answers were improvised in philosophical treatises, in myth, and in drama; but artists had a particularly privileged role in (literally) making likenesses of the gods for their community. The most loaded and influential images of all were those images which stood as the gods inside their temples. Different kinds of statues played to different versions and interpretations of divine nature and appearance.

So far, we have written off Pheidias’ enormous gold and ivory version of Athena as a rather vulgar creation, extremely precious but difficult to admire (frankly better lost, some have thought). But we will think of it differently if we take it not just as an extravagant piece of display, but as an attempt to capture the nature of divinity. For, as well as an expensive masterpiece, it was also a way of seeing the goddess. Some of the commonest claims made by Greek writers were that deities were much larger than humans and shone with a dazzling radiance. Pheidias here has instantiated just those ideas, with his colossal, shiny, polished image of Athena. It was an image that was so precious that it must have been mostly off-limits, visible yet untouchable to all but the favoured few.

But Pheidias devised this image of Athena in close (and significant) proximity to a quite different representation of the goddess. The old statue of Athena kept next door in the Erechtheion and dressed each year in the new peplos was, it seems, little more than an olive-wood plank – albeit decked out with all kinds of jewellery. Its sacred status came not from the immense skill and cost with which some first-rate artist had conjured up for humanity a likeness of the deity, but from its extreme antiquity, its resolute refusal to ape human form in any detail and the story (as retold at least by Christian critics) that it was not made by human hand at all, but had fallen miraculously to earth from the heavens. It was a divine creation, surrounded by mystery – but at the same time old and familiar, lovingly cared for, washed, tended, adorned and dressed (with the peplos) by groups of women in the city.

These are two radically different ways of imagining the goddess. And the Parthenon prompted its visitors to notice and to compare them. Anyone who entered the temple to marvel at Pheidias’ version of Athena must necessarily have passed directly beneath the scene in the frieze which alludes (on many interpretations, at least) to the cult of the old olive-wood image; that is to say, as they were about to enter the inner room and to wonder at the colossal gold and ivory goddess, they would have seen above them the preparation of the peplos for the other statue. Meanwhile, another recent discovery made during the restoration programme may reinforce the importance of these two different versions of sacrality. The north colonnade of the Parthenon turns out not to have been, as was once thought, a clear open walkway. Half-way along its length the builders preserved a small shrine, together with its altar, which seem to have pre-dated the temple. We do not know why, or what the shrine once contained. But it is a very tempting thought that the old statue of Athena might have lodged here while the temples of the Acropolis lay in ruin after the Persian invasion, and before the new Periclean building programme was under way. If that is correct (and it is only a guess), it underlines the sense in which the sculptural and architectural scheme of the Parthenon is reminding its visitors of different versions of the sacred, prompting them not merely to admire Pheidias’ Athena, but to reflect on the contested nature of sacrality which it represented.


In the long history of the city of Athens, democracy turned out to be a relatively short-lived experiment. It was restored after the end of the Great War with Sparta. The Athenian democrats, not surprisingly, took great pleasure in sending the Spartan-imposed junta packing and restoring their old political institutions. The execution of Socrates in 399 BC was one of the first, most notorious and – it must be admitted – uncharacteristic acts of the revived democracy (Socrates was not only a fearsome and irritating intellectual, he had also been closely associated with some of the most vicious antidemocrats). But, as the power politics of the Greek world were transformed by the rise of Macedon under Philip, then Alexander, Athens became increasingly outmanoeuvred, diplomatically and militarily. The final blow came in 323 when a Macedonian warlord defeated the Athenians in battle, sent in an occupying garrison and got rid of the democracy, in favour of a puppet oligarchy. Between this point and the Byzantine empire, almost a millennium later, the Athenians saw a series of nabobs, dictators, quisling governments and (eventually, from the second century BC) the new superpower of Rome in overall control of their city. Most of this control was relatively ‘hands-off’; even the richest superpowers of antiquity did not have the resources to keep a particularly tight rein on their satellites. For centuries, under different regimes, Athens thrived as a university town, cultural centre and tourist magnet. There were even occasions when the forms of democracy were revived for a time, and the Romans made much of the ‘freedom’ they lavishly (and largely honorifically) granted to Athens in recognition of its special historic status. None the less, the radical form of popular government that had developed in the fifth century was gone for good. Through most of classical antiquity, the Parthenon, our icon of democracy, was the jewel in the crown of autocrats.

There are occasional stories, as we have already seen, of the Parthenon becoming the victim of some despicable tyrant: the thuggish Demetrios moving in with his lady friends for a short (and, no doubt, rather uncomfortable) time at the very end of the fourth century; or his rival Lakhares who is reputed to have stripped the statue of Athena to pay his soldiers. By and large, however, kings, generals and emperors preferred either to leave the building alone or to throw money at it – taking advantage of the kudos that benefaction to such a prestigious and sacred building might bring. It was almost certainly Alexander the Great, for example, who had the 14 shields blazoned across the building’s eastern façade, as well as dedicating 300 suits of Persian armour to Athena. In fact these particular shields did not last long, for they were also picked off by Lakhares in the early third century. Replacements were soon fitted by some other grandee, and more shields (or perhaps metal wreaths) added down the north and south sides of the building.

In the early second century, one of the fabulously rich Attalid dynasty, based at Pergamum (in modern Turkey), went even further. The Attalids, who had come from nowhere to be big players among the competing powers of the eastern Mediterranean, looked for cultural respectability by lavishing money on Athens. Their best known memorial is the vast stoa (the ancient equivalent of a shopping mall) that they foisted on the Athenian city-centre; a replica now stands there, reconstructed at vast expense in the 1950s, to house the finds from American excavations. On the Acropolis they were responsible for a famous group of sculptures that picked up the themes of the Parthenon with a tableau of defeated giants, Amazons and (to reflect the Attalids’ own victories) Gauls. Most eye-catchingly of all, though, they sponsored a huge memorial to one of their dynasty that practically abutted the right-hand corner of the temple’s front steps. This took the form of a huge pedestal, reaching up almost to the level of the Parthenon’s roof, with probably a bronze chariot on the top. For anyone standing near by, it would almost certainly have blocked the view of the adjacent metope panels, with their battles of gods and giants.

Years later, in 31 BC, when the Attalids were a thing of the past and all sensible cities were giving public backing to the brash young victor in Rome’s civil war, who was shortly to become the first emperor Augustus, this monument was deftly rededicated to him. This speedy gesture was itself quickly followed, in 27 BC, by a new temple dedicated jointly to Rome and the emperor himself, erected just 25 metres from the Parthenon’s front door, and on a direct axis with it. Whether this was an aggressive intrusion of RomanMachtpolitik into the Greek sacred landscape, or represented an elegant incorporation of new sources of Roman power into the Athenian cosmos, depends (as it always did) on your point of view.

The fate of Pheidias’ cult statue through this period is something of a puzzle. If Lakhares really did remove her gold plates (and it would be hard to make sense of ancient accounts in any other way), then some kind of replacement must have been fitted – but maybe not necessarily in solid gold. Assuming no other major damage and repair, it would have been this restored version of the statue that Pausanias saw in the second century AD. It cannot have been this statue, however, that demanded house-room with our fifth-century philosopher to escape Christian destruction (pp. 54–5). For, probably sometime in the mid-third century AD, the Parthenon suffered a devastating fire that did almost as much damage to the building as would the explosion of 1687. No gold and ivory statue could possibly have survived it. Whatever the image of Athena was in the final pagan phases of the temple, it had no more than a nominal connection with Pheidias’ creation.

No ancient writer mentions the fire or the subsequent restoration. But the archaeological evidence is absolutely conclusive. The roof was destroyed, along with almost all the interior fixtures and fittings. The marble cracked, dangerously, throughout. The colonnade in the eastern chamber was ruined, as were both main doors and the second frieze. If there were any dedications still kept in store (and we have no idea how long that tradition lasted) they would certainly have been consumed by the heat and flames. The restoration that followed did not attempt to recreate all that had been lost. A roof of terracotta was fitted over the interior rooms alone; the outer colonnade was now left open to the sky (which would, at least, have had the advantage of making the outer frieze easier to see). The two tiers of columns in the eastern room were replaced by a similar structure, although this was not purpose-built. To judge from the architectural style of the replacement, the restorers must have turned to a couple of abandoned buildings of the second century BC, where they found enough columns of the right size to fit the gap. It was this re-used colonnade that featured in the Christian church and the mosque – though with a floor inserted at first-storey level, between the tiers, to make a gallery.

That much is clear. Much less certain is the date of the fire or of the repair. The best guess is that the fire was in some way connected with one of those classic invasions of northern barbarians – in this case the Heruli, who did considerable damage at Athens in 267 AD. Whether the restoration followed immediately after the fire, we do not know. But some archaeologists have suspected, on the basis of some of the material (re)used in the repair, that it may have remained more or less ruined for up to a hundred years. Whenever it took place, it was the start of a long tradition, enthusiastically carried on through the Middle Ages and later, of patching up the Parthenon with the remnants of other classical monuments from either the Acropolis itself or elsewhere in the city. The temple was to become the final resting place of some of the most notable antiquities of Athens.

This has been the theme of some of the most impressive detective work carried out by the recent restorers. They have carefully tracked down the original site and function of the blocks used by those who repaired the west doorway after the fire. Many were taken from the bases of all kinds of sculpture. These include six blocks that formed the setting for a huge group of horses and chariot dedicated by ‘Pronapes’ in the middle of the fifth century (the cuttings for the hooves and chariot wheels are still visible) and the base of what was almost certainly a group of bronze warriors that was seen by Pausanias not far from the temple. In fact, this offers one answer to the puzzling question of what happened to all the monuments Pausanias noted on the Acropolis. The bronze will have been melted down; the bits of marble likely as not ended up in the Parthenon itself. But the most ironic twist of all comes with some of the inscribed texts which were cannibalised to make up the new door jambs. Three of the blocks used by the repairers are none other than fragments of those fourth-century BC inventories of the treasures that had then filled the building. They make a memorable image of what had changed between the fourth centuries BC and AD; and an apt symbol of the complex history of the Parthenon.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!