‘A story of human sacrifice from Athens’ mythic founding’

A review of ‘The Parthenon Enigma’

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The Parthenon Enigma

By Joan Breton Connelly

Western civilization has two poles, Jerusalem and Athens. As we have become more secular and more freedom-conscious since the Enlightenment, the latter has loomed ever larger in our historical imagination. “Even as an event in English history,” wrote the 19th-century British apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, the Battle of Marathon, where a small force of Athenian citizen-soldiers defeated a far larger Persian imperial army, “was more important than the Battle of Hastings.”

That idealization of ancient Greece has made the Parthenon, Athens’ 2,500-year-old civic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, perhaps the most iconic structure in Western culture, inspiring countless university and government buildings, including the Lincoln Memorial. The temple’s beauty, arising from its sublime proportionality, is only part of the reason. When the great statesman Pericles began constructing it in 447 BCE, Athens was at the height of its power and, women and slaves aside, a radical democracy in which the great majority of offices were filled by lot rather than election. Later, Western admirers have thus read the Parthenon’s narrative sculptural frieze as an inspiring story of rational thought, democracy and political engagement. All the more disconcerting, then, to see a fundamentally contrary story emerge from Connelly’s brilliant reading.

Understanding the 160-m frieze as a whole has been difficult for centuries: Venetian cannon fire destroyed some of it in the 17th century, and Lord Elgin carted off much of the rest to London in the 19th century. But it is also simply enigmatic in itself: a parade of gods, enemies and citizens who could be seen as taking part in some civic festival. But, guided by a long-lost play of Euripides—discovered a century ago wrapped around a 2,000-year-old mummy—Connelly finds a far more coherent meaning, a story of human sacrifice from Athens’ mythic founding, when King Erechtheus killed his daughter to preserve the city.

In view of our binary concept of our culture’s origins (Jerusalem for religion and morality; Athens for rationality, philosophy, ethics and politics), the depth of Athenian religiosity in the portrait painted by Connelly is revolutionary. Every year for five centuries, in just one of many ritual enactments, Athenians slaughtered 6,400 goats on the anniversary of Marathon, one for every Persian killed. Insofar as the Parthenon frieze told every citizen what being an Athenian truly meant, it transmitted a message of shared genealogy, shared religious faith and the supremacy of the tribe: No one, not even a king or princess, was above giving his or her life for the city. That’s how democracy could work in Athens: In the minds of its citizens, all were eligible for office, virtually at random, because all had the same life-and-death obligations. Athens, as Socrates was to learn, was no place for an individual.

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