BMCR 2003.07.33

The Parthenon

, The Parthenon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003. 209 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm. ISBN 067401085X $19.95.

During the last twenty five years the Parthenon, the quintessential symbol of Western Civilization, has been undergoing restoration, an immediate outcome of which is a quantity of new, fascinating information about its history.1 No less impressive is the new, instructive face of the building which has increasingly been revealing its architectural merits in a fuller form than that achieved in the questionable restorations of the past two centuries. Completely denuded of its original cloak of famous architectural sculptures, the building now stands at the center of a complex controversy over the fate of its expatriated, so-called “Elgin” marbles. Dispersed in space and time, the totality of the Parthenon as an object of experience challenges both laymen and academics to reconsider — or even perhaps redefine — the “classical” values it stands for. To this challenge, Mary Beard (henceforth MB) has responded with her usual clairvoyance, erudition, and sensitivity by producing a commendable and refreshingly thought-provoking account of this unusually charged structure. In less than two hundred pages of a pocket size book MB has managed to weave together a considerable amount of archaeological information, architectural and historical commentary, anecdotal narratives, literary quotations and images which make the book a sufficient introduction to the building as well as a manual for the contemplative, or simply curious non-specialist visitor of the Acropolis and the British Museum.

The book presumes only a very basic familiarity with the ancient world and the history of Athens. MB writes for a wide audience. Her text is lucid and admirably unencumbered by jargon or other esoteric terminology which often leads laymen and curious but uninitiated undergraduates to despair. When jargon does appear, MB is quick to gloss it. The organization of her material is straightforward as well. The illustrations complement the text harmoniously. Their commentary amplifies the range of MB’s ideas and positions in the text.

Chapter One, invitingly titled “Why the Parthenon might make you cry,” sets out to present the Parthenon as an object of extreme emotional and intellectual experiences, a source of marvel, emulation, and debate, a node of mental energy that consciously or unconsciously conditions our encounters with it. In doing so, MB clearly stakes out her approach: the Parthenon is not simply an art historical or archaeological object which she aims to reflect upon but a diachronic cultural phenomenon, fascinatingly complex and utterly unexplainable within the traditional limits of academic discourses. Her “uncomfortable conclusion…if it had not been dismembered, the Parthenon would never have been half so famous” (22) may sound provokingly dissonant, yet it is sure to make readers question the nature of Parthenon’s fame and value as an object of contemporary cognition.

In chapter Two MB travels back in time to present the ancient sources for the building and their informational value while assessing its sociohistorical context and its original function. MB rightly points out that this is no easy task but she nicely formulates numerous questions, not so much in order to answer them but to reflect on the limitations of the Parthenon as a bridge between the present and the distant past that generated it.

Chapter Three brings to the fore the long-neglected multidimensionality of the building by pursuing its various careers between the end of antiquity and the modern era. Since the ’70s restoration works have produced valuable information regarding its conversion to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and its subsequent function as a cathedral under the Franks, the Catalans and the Florentines, and then as a mosque under the Ottomans. Well aware of this information, MB combines it with whatever is known from contemporary sources to delineate the history of the medieval reception of the building. Thus we learn that in the twelfth century the Christian Parthenon resonated with the nostalgic rhetoric of a classically educated bishop. In the fourteenth century it became once more a subject of classicizing admiration, this time by an Italian traveler who marveled no less at the Christian ambiance of its interior than at the allure of its classical architecture. In discussing these texts with sensitivity and gusto, MB highlights the role of the Parthenon at the center of lost perceptual universes which are as valuable as the once intensely sought after “magic” of its Classical origins. This is especially the case when MB concentrates on the conversion of the Parthenon into a mosque through the marveling eyes of Evliya Celebi, a Turkish traveller who visited Athens in the seventeenth century (71-76). His account is extraordinarily unwestern, of course, and MB’s analysis of it will certainly point many a reader towards this largely unknown text.

Chapter Four covers the history of the building from the disastrous explosion of 1687 to the present day. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the ruined Parthenon was often visited by European travelers who helped themselves to architectural sculptures, thus initiating their dispersion all around Europe. This process of despoliation culminated in Lord Elgin’s infamous intervention, the legality of which lies at the core of the current debate regarding the repatriation of the Parthenoneian marbles. MB treats this sensitive issue with emotional restraint and judiciousness as she duly considers Elgin’s actions and his opponents’ reactions to them against the background of early nineteenth cultural practices. The same principle underlies her discussion of the subsequent history of the building during the classicism of the nineteenth century when everything in Greece was fabricated to fit the European vision of an ideal past. MB pursues her narrative all the way to the present, showing very nicely that the positivism and purism of the nineteenth century have only very gradually been supplanted by more moderate philosophies of intervention. As the building ages it is continuously altered to reflect our changing perceptions of the past and our relationship with it.

In Chapter Five the narrative returns to issues already introduced in Chapter Two. Here MB reflects on our idealization of the Parthenon as symbol of democracy vis-à-vis the unfavorable realities and the contradictions of the society that generated it. This pragmatic approach motivates her consideration of numerous questions pertaining to the materiality of the building and the ultimately unsolvable issues regarding the meaning of its sculptures or Pheidias’ poorly understood image of Athena Parthenos. I was happy to discover that she has reasonably spared us yet another interpretation of the Parthenon frieze. Instead she warns the reader that the recent discovery of evidence for a second frieze around the inner eastern porch of the building complicates even further any attempt to solve the riddle of the famous frieze (136).

The subject of Chapter Six, “Meanwhile, back in London…” is the museological history of the Elgin sculptures in London, which is brought up to date with an account of the current state of the oftentimes overheated controversy over their ownership and ultimate fate. The subject is certainly too complex to be fully treated in the few pages allocated to it (168-181) but the bare essentials of the two opposite points of view are clearly presented for those who want to pursue the inquiry even further. MB aptly reminds her readers that the debate (“… the longest-running cultural controversy in the world,” 21) is not simply between the Greek government and a highly prestigious British cultural institution. The issues involved invite one to consider the significance of the British life of the marbles for almost two centuries against the unique and irreducible relationship between the Greeks and the totality of the Parthenon and vice versa. It also prompts reflection on wider issues of cultural politics, collecting ethics, and the responsibility for the curating of a past common to all those who think of themselves as westerners. “Can a single monument act as a symbol both of nationhood and of world culture?” asks MB, and in doing so, she underlines the contradictions surrounding the contemporary life of the Parthenon (181).

The last section of the book titled “Making a visit?” offers suggestions and guidance for travelers to Athens and London who wish to pursue the study of the dismembered Parthenon in depth. MB recommends visits to the various museums and collections in Athens (Acropolis, Benaki etc.) among which I was surprised to see no mention of the important Center of the Acropolis Studies, housed in the historic Weiler Building since the eighties (2-4 Makrigianni St. SE. of the theater of Dionysus and adjacent to the site of new Acropolis museum). It houses the only set of plaster casts of the expatriated marbles one can study close to the Parthenon and a well-organized exhibit on the progress of the restoration works of the Acropolis monuments. In Duveen gallery of the British Museum MB gives very precise instructions for negotiating an exhibit designed “to efface what remains in Athens” (168). She also suggests ways to check contested issues of preservation on the surface of the marbles that are discussed in an important section of the book. The bibliographic section that closes the book is confined to essential and easily obtainable publications.

The book is a very welcome addition to the expanding literature on the Parthenon. It will be fruitfully read by specialists and non-specialists alike, and its overall style will certainly make it popular among readers at the introductory level. MB has achieved a happy and much needed synthesis of a building and its sculpture that “have come to stand for deracination, dismemberment, desire, and loss” (181).


1. Restoration works on the Acropolis are carried out by the Acropolis Restoration Service. As of May 2003 important interventions were taking place in the pronaos, opisthonaos, north face and the lateral walls of the cella of the Parthenon. For more detailed information see the well-maintained web site of the Acropolis Restoration Service.