The Parthenon and its sculptures in Roman times (Part one)

The Parthenon
The Parthenon

A few months ago when George Clooney was in the news for saying that he thought the so-called Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece it looked rather as though he had been unwittingly drawn into a quarrel he knew little about. He had simply given a frank and spontaneous answer to a question by a Greek reporter during an interview to promote his new film The Monuments Men, a film about soldiers working to return stolen Nazi art to its rightful owners at the end of the Second World War. Now that the new Mrs Clooney, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, has begun advising the Greek government on their campaign the whole business is starting to look rather more orchestrated. It turns out that the firm Alamuddin works for had taken up the case three years ago in 2011. Was George really as surprised by the question about the marbles as he seemed to be?

Whatever the truth of the matter thanks to the Clooneys the Parthenon Marbles are back in the limelight and receiving considerable media attention. The debate surrounding the best place for the marbles has been going on ever since Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon, brought them back to Britain and sold them to the British museum in the early 19th Century. Recent opinion pieces in the British national press arguing both for and against the return of the sculptures to Greece retread familiar ground: the legality or otherwise of Elgin’s actions, the condition the building was in when he took the marbles, whether they would have been looked after by the Greeks, whether they have been looked after by the British Museum, whether the claims of a nation state to ancient cultural treasures made within what is now its territory should outweigh those of a supposedly universal museum, whether the sculptures would look better seen in the light of Greece.

One thing that both sides of the debate agree on, however, is the outstanding artistic beauty of the sculptures themselves. Reading some of the praise heaped upon the Parthenon sculptures I can’t help wondering whether the author is really giving their own opinion or simply repeating what everyone always says about them. The problem is that the Parthenon sculptures – like the Mona Lisa or Hamlet –are now so entrenched in their position at the pinnacle of the canon of western art that it is near impossible to approach them with an open mind. The sculptures are undoubtedly masterpieces but I am not so sure that they are really in a completely different league to all the other surviving pieces of sculpture from the ancient world, as is often suggested.

I believe we need to recognize the extent to which our attitude toward these sculptures has been shaped by their recent history and, most importantly, by the debate about where they belong, which encourages both sides to talk in superlatives. To challenge our preconceptions about the Parthenon marbles it is worth thinking about how they have been viewed and thought about in other periods in history. In this and my next blog piece I’d like to discuss what we know about how the Parthenon was thought of at the time of the Roman Empire.

The fullest ancient description we have of the Parthenon actually comes from a Roman period author called Pausanias. A Greek from Asia Minor, he made a sort of cultural pilgrimage to Greece in the mid 2nd Century and spent a couple of decades travelling around visiting the cities and sanctuaries and writing a description of the places he saw. His main interests were in buildings and monuments that were either already very old or were of great religious significance. As such, it is not surprising that he discusses the Parthenon, a temple that was by then already six hundred years old. What is possibly surprising to modern readers is what he decides to focus on. This is what he says:

“As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx—the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia—and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief. These griffins, Aristeas of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins. The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits (around 1.8 m –CD) high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates, who accomplished many remarkable achievements.” Pausanias (1.24.5-7)

It is clear that for Pausanias the Parthenon was mainly remarkable because it contained the colossal, twelve meters tall, chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos (the virgin), from which it took its name. The statue had been made in the 5th Century BC when the Parthenon was built, by Pheidias, the same artist who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. We know from other ancient sources that such statues could cost many times the amount it would have cost to build the temples in which they stood. Estimates have been made that more than 1000kg of gold would have been needed to have made the statue that stood in the Parthenon and that it would have cost twice as much to make as it did to build the Parthenon itself. The statue has long since disappeared. A slightly gaudy reconstruction, based on the description and on ancient small-scale replicas that do survive, can be seen in the reconstruction of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee. It gives an impression of the imposing scale of the statue if possibly not the religious awe that it must have inspired.

The Nashville Athena Parthenos
The Nashville Athena Parthenos

Pausanias does mention the sculptures that decorated the building’s two pediments, or gables, but he is more interested in the stories they portray than in their quality as works of art. A lot of the pedimental sculpture was destroyed or lost long before Elgin ever arrived in Greece but most of the pieces that have survived are to be found among the other “Elgin Marbles” in the British museum. Pausanias’ description is important because it is actually our best guide to working out who the sculpted figures of various gods, most of them now headless, actually are. Pausanias strikingly says nothing of the metopes, the panels that decorated the outside of the temple, and depicted scenes of mythical battles, some of which are also in London. His most glaring omission for anyone familiar with the building or its sculptures, however, must be that he says nothing whatsoever about the famous ionic frieze that ran around the top of the cella, or main building. The frieze has often been claimed to be the high point of ancient, or even western art, and yet Pausanias remarkably appears not even to have noticed it. In fact no ancient author describes the frieze, which is one of the reasons that archaeologists and art historians have had such a hard time agreeing on what it depicts. It clearly shows a procession but which one? The procession of the four yearly Athenian festival, the Great Panathenaea? A particular Panathenaic procession? A mythical procession? A celebration of the Athenians killed at the Battle of Marathon? These and other suggestions have all been made.

Part of the Parthenon Frieze - in the British Museum
Part of the Parthenon Frieze – in the British Museum

Seen in the British Museum at eye-level or reproduced in a book it is easy to forget that the frieze when mounted on the building was in fact rather difficult to see. It was high up on the outside of the cella wall so that viewing it from beginning to end would have meant either continual interruption by columns if standing outside the building or quite some neck craning if standing within the colonnade. The frieze would also have been permanently in shadow. It is hard to imagine that Pausanias or any ancient visitor could have gazed on it with quite the same leisurely awe as modern tourists. Its inaccessible position does not, of course, diminish its artistic quality. If anything it is all the more remarkable that the sculptors went to such great lengths to achieve such artistry for a frieze that could not easily be seen. The reason they did so must have been because the Parthenon was built to honour the city’s most important goddess. This also explains Pausanias’ response to the building. He saw it not as a magnificent architectural or artistic achievement but rather as a place of veneration.

Religion had not stood still in the half millennium since the Parthenon had been built and Rome had been responsible for important changes. Perhaps the biggest of these was the introduction of the Imperial Cult, the worship of the Emperor. The presence of Hadrian’s statue inside the Parthenon suggests that that particular emperor – famous for his love of Greek culture and a great benefactor to the city of Athens – might have been worshipped there. It was not uncommon in the Greek speaking half of the Empire for emperors to have their cult alongside that of one of the Olympian gods in the same temple. However, as Pausanias’ lavish description of Pheidias’ statue suggests, Athena was still the most important goddess in Roman Athens. She was the reason that the Parthenon remained a deeply sacred building.

Pausanias’ focus on the statue and his lack of interest in the metopes and frieze does not necessarily mean that he didn’t recognize them as great works of art. Historians are actually rather fond of drawing conclusions based on what Pausanias doesn’t tell us and I don’t want to go too far down that road. Pausanias also fails to mention the Caryatids, the six sculpted women who serve as architectural supports for the porch of the nearby Erechtheion, one of which was also brought back to Britain by Lord Elgin and it is very hard to imagine how these statues could not have caught his eye. He might have been impressed by the Parthenon sculptures but simply have chosen not to write about them for some reason. We also cannot assume that all Roman period viewers would have looked at the Parthenon in the same way as Pausanias. Even if he wasn’t too taken with them it is possible that they might have made a much bigger impression on other visitors. At the very least, however, Pausanias’ description of the Parthenon challenges our modern ideas about what was important about this building and suggest that in ancient times, and more particularly in the Roman period, priorities might have been rather different than our own. Pausanias’ description does not provide our only insight into the way in which the Parthenon sculptures were thought of in Roman Athens.

Next time I will consider some intriguing architectural sculptures from other buildings in Athens which were set up very close in time to Pausanias’ visit to Athens and which deliberately copy pieces from the Parthenon.


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