Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.19

T. Leslie Shear, Jr., Trophies of Victory: Public Building in Periklean Athens.   Princeton:  Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University, in association with Princeton University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxiii, 475.  ISBN 9780691170572.  $65.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Wendy E. Closterman, Bryn Athyn College (wendy.closterman@brynathyn.edu)

Table of Contents

In this book, T. Leslie Shear, Jr., Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, examines twelve Athenian architectural monuments constructed in the 2nd half of the 5th century BCE, and mostly in the third quarter of that century, as parts of a public building program in the era of Perikles and its aftermath: the Parthenon, Propylaia, Nike Temple, and Erechtheion on the Acropolis; the Hephaisteion and Odeion in Athens; the Telesterion at Eleusis; and five temples originally built in the suburbs or countryside of Attica. Since many of these buildings are among the most iconic monuments from ancient Athens, many have been the subjects of numerous monographs and articles. One of the valuable contributions this volume makes is its emphasis on the inter-relationships among the structures in this expansive list, shown through explorations of similarities in architectural features as well as a detailed investigation of the logic and the logistics of what Shear describes as a building program. This volume considers, as one of its central strands, how these buildings served as expressions of thanksgiving for victory in the Persian Wars and of Athenian religious imperialism. Another important thread emphasizes the ways in which the architecture of these buildings was ambitious and complex, resulting at times in delays and adjustments, but also producing remarkable and innovative architectural achievements. Throughout, Shear presents a meticulous examination of a wide variety of evidence related to each of the structures and their historical context—architectural, epigraphic, literary, archaeological, and sculptural.

The first three chapters introduce the book’s focus and consider the context in which the construction of these buildings took place. Chapter 1 sets the stage by examining the literary evidence for a Periklean building program, highlighting the perspectives of 4th century BCE authors and the questions raised by Plutarch’s account. This chapter also considers the chronological gap between the end of the Persian Wars and this spate of building that began after the mid 5th century, and argues that a dearth of available skilled labor may have played a significant role. Chapter 2, “The Development of the Periklean Program,” examines the Athenian commemorations of the Persian Wars that pre-date the Periklean-era building, especially the Stoa Poikile and the Great Bronze Athena, as well as the epigraphic and other evidence for the finances, civic mechanisms, and ideology the Athenians utilized for administering construction on the Acropolis and at Eleusis. Chapter 3, “The Builders of the Parthenon,” discusses the people involved in all aspects of the project, including the necessary quarrying and road construction, pulling together epigraphic evidence to reconstruct the project’s “elaborate…administrative apparatus” (48) and financing.

The next eight chapters examine the twelve buildings that constitute the heart of the study. In addition to evaluating and weighing in on numerous items of scholarly debate related to the buildings and their accompanying evidence, the analysis emphasizes how specific architectural features and the chronology of each building relate to the other buildings, as well as how each structure commemorated the Persian Wars and communicated Athenian religious ideology. Shear begins with the Parthenon in chapter 4, emphasizing both the Parthenon’s relationship to its predecessors on the Acropolis and the innovative modifications to the Doric order found in this elaborate showpiece of the building program. The Parthenon’s sculpture, too, receives considerable attention as an expression of Athenian ascendancy. Chapter 5 turns to the Hephaisteion, the “foil to the Parthenon” (137). Shear supports the idea that shortages of skilled labor might account for the building’s long construction history, which started before the work on the Parthenon began but was delayed, probably due to that effort, with the result that the Hephaisteion ultimately echoes features of the Parthenon.

Chapters 6 and 7 look at the Telestereion at Eleusis and the Odeion in Athens. Shear uses a combination of epigraphic and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the complex building history of the Telestereion, suggesting that, as was the case with the Hephaisteion, the construction begun in the mid-5th century was interrupted by the labor needs of the Parthenon project. He sees as plausible the idea that the Telestereion plan drew on the architectural form of the Persian apadana, proposing that Persian palace architecture could have alluded to the palace setting that was part of “the special imagery of the Eleusinian myth and sanctuary” (193). Like the Telestereion, Shear positions the Odeion as a building that evoked Persian forms while serving to glorify an Athenian religious festival, in this case the musical contests in the Panathenaia. After an interesting investigation into evidence for the magnificent appearance of Persian royal tents and their political significance, Shear concludes that, by using the captured tent of Xerxes as a model, the Odeion expressed “the symbolic passage of power from conquered to conqueror” (226).

Chapter 8 turns to four Attic temples: the Temples of Poseidon and Athena (which was subsequently taken to the Athenian Agora in the Roman era) at Sounion, the Temple of Athena Pallenis (also later moved to the Athenian Agora and dedicated to Ares), and the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous. Shear explains that, because of the timing and style of the construction of this large number of temples, including the Ilissos temple discussed in chapter 10, “it seems best to regard them as part of the systematic aggrandizement of Athenian cults and sanctuaries that is so characteristic of the Periklean age” (229). In chapter 9, Shear analyzes the evidence for the numerous changes in design that took place during the execution of the Propylaia, and he concludes by exploring reasons for the building’s unfinished condition. Chapter 10 highlights the notable similarities between the Ionic temple on the Ilissos River and the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis. It also wrestles with the evidence for dating each structure. Based on topography and literary evidence, Shear affirms the identification of the temple at the Ilissos as dedicated to Artemis Agrotera, noting the importance of the cult of Artemis in Athenian commemoration of the battle of Marathon. This makes it a fitting counterpart to the Temple of Athena Nike, with its sculpture celebrating Athenian military victory.

The last chapter, “The Periklean Legacy,” takes up the important question of the functions of the Parthenon and Erechtheion and proposes a thought-provoking answer. Based on an analysis of the terminology used for the cult of Athena on the Acropolis in the 5th and 4th centuries, Shear argues that there was only one cult and that the original function of the Parthenon was to be the temple for that cult. It was, Shear asserts, intended to house the both the ancient wooden cult statue and the new chryselephantine one. Shear cites several examples of temples with multiple statues as parallels: the Argive Heraion, and those of Hera on Samos and Artemis at Brauron. If the Parthenon housed the statues for the cult of Athena on the Acropolis, why, then, was the Erechtheion constructed? To answer this question, Shear considers chronology and historical context. Based on analysis of a fragmentary inscription, he proposes a date of 425/4 for the beginning of the Erechtheion’s construction. Shear argues that the Erechtheion was not part of the initial plan for the building project on the Acropolis. Instead, he contends, it was built as a replacement for the cultic function of the Parthenon, motivated by a desire to appease the gods in response to a series of calamities that befell Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian War—the plague and other natural disasters, particularly a severe earthquake in 426 that caused damage to the Parthenon. Although Shear is careful to note that his date for the Erechtheion “cannot be conclusively demonstrated” (381), nevertheless, the argument he puts forth is an intriguing one that offers new ideas about the significance of the Erechtheion and its relationship with the Parthenon.

The book is nicely illustrated, with 123 figures of photographs and plans. Several helpful materials appear in the back matter in addition to the usual indices and bibliography, including the full Greek text for a number of key inscriptions, a timeline of dates relevant to the buildings, and useful discussions in the form of endnotes. These endnotes evaluate the history of scholarship on several particularly knotty issues: the subject matter of the Parthenon frieze and the dates of the earlier naiskos of Athena Nike, the Parthenon podium, and the construction of the Hephaisteion.

In sum, this book is a valuable addition to the history of scholarship on Athenian public architecture in the second half of the 5th century. The study’s scope and detail are impressive. Trophies of Victory will no doubt serve as a vital resource because of its thorough examination in a single volume of a wide array of varied evidence related to these very well-known structures.

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