BMCR 2002.06.14

The Parthenon Frieze

, The Parthenon frieze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xix, 294 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm + 1 computer optical disc (4 3/4 in.). ISBN 0521641616 $65.00.

Neils takes on the daunting subject of the Parthenon frieze — a monument that has become a scholarly industry in and of itself. Yet in this thorough, thoughtful, and well-illustrated book she shows why the topic needs to be revisited ‘yet again.’ Rather than approaching the frieze from a purely iconographic standpoint she takes a comprehensive approach, examining it as complete unit. The first four chapters consider its historical and religious background, plan and design, technique, use of time and space, and place within Classical style. The next two chapters discuss the identification of the figures in the frieze and offer a new interpretation of its subject matter. Throughout the work the emphasis is on the visual language of the frieze. The last two chapters detail the historiography of the frieze, offering a compelling argument for its repatriation. The book also provides two invaluable study aids — a fold-out, numbered drawing of the entire frieze and a virtual reality movie of the Basel casts on CD-Rom — both of which allow the frieze to be viewed as a continuous band. The text also incorporates copious illustrations (photographs and drawings) making it easy to follow arguments based on stylistic analysis and visual comparanda.

The first chapter — “The Framework of Ritual” — discusses the background of the building program. Neils emphasizes the importance of the Acropolis and Agora as foci for religious activity, in particular the Panathenaic procession. She questions the role of Perikles, suggesting that we rely too much on Plutarch’s account of his involvement while ignoring the silence of more contemporary writers such as Thucydides and Plato. She would instead see the building as a monument to Athenian piety sponsored by the demos. Design features such as the width of the temple and the cella indicate that Pheidias worked closely with the architects to design the sculptural program. The earlier Parthenon provided the impetus for the mixture of Doric and Ionic elements found in the Parthenon, although there is not enough evidence to indicate whether or not it contained a frieze.

“Paradeigma: Designing the Frieze”, the second chapter, poses a number of important questions about the relationship between the frieze and the design of the building and the design problems facing the artists in creating the frieze. Was the frieze a factor in the conception of the building from the beginning or was it an afterthought? Neils argues that the frieze was not part of the original conception of the building but that it became important enough to cause modifications in the building to accommodate it. What design challenges were overcome to make the frieze a successful composition? She points to the use of an ABA rhythm, hiatus figures, and figures shown in successive phases of the same action as design features which successfully eliminate monotony. An even greater challenge was situating the actions depicted in time and space. She carefully elucidates formal details which provide spatial and temporal indicators including the parallelism of the north and south groups. Design problems are the basis for one of the most puzzling iconographic aspects of the frieze — the fact that the gods face away from the central scene. Neils revives the 1892 suggestion of A.H. Smith that the gods should be considered as sitting in a semi-circle with the ‘peplos’ incident taking place in front of them. A computer simulation graphic clearly illustrates the proposed arrangement. While ingenious, it is not completely convincing since even in this arrangement the gazes of the gods still do not appear to focus on the main scene but rather on something more distant (perhaps the procession itself?).

In “Techne: Carving the Frieze” Neils traces the steps in the creation of the frieze from quarrying to completion. Based on her thorough analysis of the blocks Neils pays particular attention to the question of whether or not they were carved in situ and the extent to which planning rather than improvisation was involved in the design. Using evidence such as guide marks found at the tops and bottoms of the frieze blocks, she concludes that the frieze could only have been carved in situ. The slab lengths work to hide divisions indicating that skilled planning was involved.

“Mimesis: the High Classical Style” defines and traces the origin and evolution of High Classical Style. While Neils does see forerunners, she sees the commission of the Parthenon as the major catalyst. The special demands of the project required new methods and ideas.

“Iconographia: Identifying the Players” and “Iconologia: Interpreting the Frieze” deal with the area most often treated in discussions of the frieze, namely its subject matter. Iconographia serves as a prequel to a discussion of the meaning of the frieze as a whole. Rather than theorizing about this, Neils identifies as closely as possible the frieze figures in the frieze by using comparanda, especially from vase painting. She stresses that they are arranged in groups, each of which can be connected to Athenian ritual. Identifications are aided by our increased knowledge of Athenian cultic practice from inscriptions and of the iconography of cult from such sources as the LIMC. Her identifications are based on various attributes such as dress and age. Neils deftly discusses previous explanations of the iconography of the frieze including Connelly’s recent identification of the scene as the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus. She rejects that explanation by identifying the pivotal figure of a child as a boy, based on her iconographic evidence that females are not shown with their ankles uncovered. Neils prefers a more generic explanation than those usually advanced. She follows the lead of Cyriacus of Ancona and considers the frieze a monument to the victories of the Athenians in the time of Pericles. The frieze is then a Theoxenia in honor of the major gods whom Neils sees as arranged in two groups reflecting land and sea. The youth of the participants in the procession is an allusion to the future of the polis.

The final chapters discuss the legacy of the frieze. “Kleos: The Impact of the Frieze” focuses on the frieze’s artistic legacy, which Neils admits is sometimes difficult to pin down with certainty since so much of Greek art is missing. Despite this she feels that its legacy was significant. The final chapter examines the controversial topic of where the frieze belongs — England or Greece. Neils reviews international laws on repatriation, recognizing that both sides have valid claims, and decides that the issue must finally come down to “where they [Elgin marbles] would best fulfill their noble mission of belonging to everyone” and finds Greece’s claim to be the greater.

This handsomely mounted, comprehensive, and persuasively argued book is a joy to read. It is engagingly and clearly written as well as precisely documented. Scholars, students, and interested general readers will all find this book a valuable addition to the literature on the subject.