BMCR 2006.08.23

The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present

, The Parthenon : from antiquity to the present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvi, 430 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521820936 £45.00.

Table of Contents

The Parthenon, that enduring icon of ancient Greece, has been the subject of numerous articles and monographs. These studies are now joined by this new volume of essays which aims to provide a comprehensive study of the monument from its construction in the fifth century B.C. to the present. The contributors are all well-known senior scholars who have previously written on this building: their participation raises one’s hopes that this book will mark a significant development in the scholarly sub-specialty of ‘Parthenon studies’. This luminous cast of participants are equally ambitious: in her programmatic introductory chapter, the editor Jenifer Neils writes ‘we hope that this volume will be useful to both students coming to this building for the first time as well as seasoned scholars … Most important, these new essays examine the Parthenon in context’ (5). I shall return at the end of this review to discuss how well the book fulfils these goals. In the meantime, I would draw the attention of those readers who feel that the Parthenon and fifth-century Athens in general are singularly over exposed to three essays: Robert Ousterhout’s discussion of the Parthenon between late antiquity and the beginning of excavations in the nineteenth century and Andrew Szegedy-Maszak’s and Richard A. Eglin’s essays on the reception of the Parthenon in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.

In her short introductory chapter, Neils stresses the iconic status of the Parthenon, the result of the building’s survival, extensive sculptural programme, location, and impact. She particularly emphasises the important work of Manolis Korres and the Committee for the Preservation of the Akropolis Monuments. As mentioned above, Neils also provides the book with its programme: to be ‘a comprehensive study of this complex and enduring monument’ and to provide ‘the most up-to-date analyses of … the Parthenon’ (5). Newness is an important theme here, both for interpretations provided and evidence used and for techniques of analysis, among which digital imaging is singled out.

After the introduction, the first two essays consider setting and context. Jeffrey M. Hurwit discusses the physical setting of the Parthenon. In what is very much a reprise of his 1999 book, he takes readers on a walkthrough of the Akropolis either at the very end of the fifth century or in the early fourth century (depending on how one dates the construction of the Chalkotheke).1 For him, ‘the Parthenon … stood squarely at the ideological center of a constellation of monuments that pronounced and continually reiterated both the venerability, the antiquity, of the Acropolis, and the power of Athena as goddess of victory’ (10). While I would agree that victory and the past are important issues in this sanctuary, these dynamics are not worked out here in any detail. Indeed, with the substitution of key words (Parthenon, Akropolis, Athena), Hurwit’s formulation would work for most sanctuaries which were not built all at one moment and were not used for only a very short period of time. Lisa Kallet continues the focus on setting with her historical overview of the period between the battle of Marathon in 490 and construction of the Parthenon in the third quarter of the century. Hers is a broad-brush approach, which occasionally leads to over-statements and the glossing over of a number of controversies.2 That said, Kallet very nicely emphasises that the Akropolis buildings all must have been approved and built by the demos, an important point often neglected by scholars working on these monuments.

From setting, we turn to architecture, the subject of Barbara A. Barletta’s and Lothar Haselberger’s contributions. Barletta’s account considers both the building itself and its relationship to the ‘Older Parthenon’ started soon after the Battle of Marathon. She is refreshingly willing to engage with Korres’ interpretations and she is particularly good at highlighting what we do not or can not know. Her discussion of the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates is less good; for Kallikrates, engagement with an important recent study of the western approaches to the Akropolis would have been particularly helpful.3 Haselberger’s discussion focuses on curvature and other refinements. A long introduction complete with the intentions of the various relevant architects leads to a very helpful section on the various elements subsumed under the (modern) term refinements: curvature, entasis, inclination, thickening of the columns, and corner contraction. Haselberger usefully brings out the ways in which these different elements had all become a standard part of temple architecture by the middle of the fifth century. He also places the Parthenon’s refinements in context by comparing them with the refinements of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Hephaisteion at Athens; the Propylaia and subsequent developments are also considered. The presentation of figures (e.g. 2 1/2 cm., 9 1/2 m., 190 cm. (128)) might be unclear to those not initiated in the details of architectural study, while some might regard Haselberger’s date for the Temple of Athena Nike (420s-410s B.C.) as rather late.4

From architecture, the volume moves to sculpture with essays on the metopes, frieze, pediments and akroteria, and the statue of Athena and other treasures. Katherine A. Schwab leads off with the metopes. After a useful introduction discussing colour, scholarship, present location and state of preservation, and mythological themes (it is all about war and triumph, but also marriage), Schwab treats each side in turn. The cognoscenti will note with interest that she sees the south metopes as having a unified theme and that she accepts the opponents on the west metopes as Amazons. Despite the emphasis placed by both Schwab and Neils on digital imaging and other sophisticated forms of analysis (5, 164, 190), they do not make a significant contribution to this essay. From the metopes, we move to the frieze, discussed in a second essay by Jenifer Neils. The description begins on the east side (the last section which viewers would have seen when the frieze was on the Parthenon), proceeds down the flanks, and ends up on the west side. Neils’ discussion is very much a summary of her 2001 book; consequently, if readers liked the book, they will like this shorter version (and vice versa).5 One of the few new additions is the suggestion that the matrons on the east side of the frieze represent the eponymai (208); for this interpretation to have any purchase, the existence of these (mysterious) eponymai in fifth-century Athens needs to be demonstrated before the title is applied to figures on the frieze. Neils emphasises the themes of marriage and the family and she identifies the frieze’s subject as ‘the city’s grandest celebration of its eponymous goddess, and …. the ultimate offering to the patron deity of craft and wisdom’ (221).6

Continuing its progression from the bottom of the building to the top, the book next turns to the pediments and akroteria, the subject of an essay by Olga Palagia who very much presents an up-date to her earlier book.7 As in that volume, Palagia restores the centre of the east pediment with a standing Zeus flanked by Athena and Hera; the overall pediment she describes as the aftermath of Athena’s birth. Particularly interesting are the parallels which she notices between groupings of figures in this pediment and those in other parts of the sculptural programme. The west pediment showing the contest between Athena and Poseidon for control of Athens is identified as ‘the consequences of Poseidon’s wrath and Zeus’ intervention’ (244). More specifically, Palagia believes that the pediment shows an earthquake which Poseidon caused in his rage at losing the contest; that such a reaction is not attested in the literary sources might perhaps be food for thought. In her very brief discussion of the akroteria, she identifies the corner akroteria as probably being flying Nikai, as restored by Korres. Discussion of the Parthenon’s decorative programme is rounded off by Kenneth Lapatin’s essay on the gold and ivory statue of Athena (alias the ‘Athena Parthenos’) and the treasures of the goddess. Lapatin’s focus is on discussing the techniques by which the statue was made rather than on ‘reading’ it, but he does helpfully list the various different interpretations. He usefully stresses the amount of time which constructing the statue would have taken Pheidias who was, therefore, almost certainly not personally involved in carving the marble sculpture. Pheidias, he further emphasises, was not a lone genius, but the leader of a highly skilled team employing major resources. After the statue, Lapatin turns to Athena’s treasures, now known from the inscribed accounts of her treasurers. In this rather general discussion, he helpfully illustrates some of the objects discussed with similar ones now held in various museums.

At this point, the volume leaves the fifth century B.C. and jumps ahead to late antiquity and the beginning of Robert Ousterhout’s essay on the post-antique history of the Parthenon. Focusing on the period between late antiquity and 1843, when the small mosque inside the temple was removed, he brings together much information about the various transformations of the building from temple to church to mosque to the surroundings for the small post-explosion mosque. Strikingly, as Ousterhout observes, none of these changes and renovations are documented in the literary sources. This lack of references poses interesting questions about the memory of the Parthenon and the remembrance of its history which are (obviously) beyond the scope of this essay. These discussions of the Parthenon’s various later periods are helpfully situated in the larger context of contemporary Athens, material which may not be especially familiar to all readers.

Two essays on the reception of the Parthenon round off the volume. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak uses nineteenth-century photographs to trace the ways in which the Parthenon evolved as a symbol of Hellenism. The story is very much one of the establishment of canonical views of the Parthenon and of the ways in which certain innovative photographers broke away from this cannon. By the early twentieth century, all these different photographs had established the Parthenon ‘as the exemplary monument of ancient Greece’ (354). This status is already clear in Edward Steichen’s famous 1920 photography of Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon, the image with which Szegedy-Maszak ends his essay. The reception of the Parthenon in the modern era is further traced by Richard A. Etlin in a discussion beginning in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and continuing until about the middle of the twentieth century. Etlin is particularly interested in the architectural influence of the Parthenon and the ways in which it served as an icon for modern architecture. The building’s influence on such structures as the Second Bank in Philadelphia and the United States Customhouse in New York are discussed. The reception of the temple by the architects Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto is also a particular focus of this piece.

In short, this volume is a compendium of what might be deemed the current scholarly opinio communis. All fine and well, and yet, and yet … at the end of the day, I was left unsatisfied. I wanted this book to be bold and exciting, to set the discourse in ‘Parthenon studies’ for the next fifty years. Instead, perhaps because many contributors are summarising their previous work, this volume seems to look backward, to what is already known; that, the contributors will probably tell me, was their mandate. At the same time, there are several striking absences in the material presented. The overall decorative programme is never fully discussed, even though various authors refer to parallels elsewhere on the building, and the relationships between the Parthenon and other buildings on the Akropolis are not explored in detail. Most surprising of all, however, is the absence of any discussion of the religious context of the Parthenon, of its role in the sanctuary, and of its relationship to the rituals and cults of this particular sacred space. In this vein, it is disappointing to see Palagia describe the Panathenaia as the celebration of Athena’s birthday, a statement not supported by our ancient sources which always connect the festival with the defeat of the Giants.8 In short, despite the promises of the introduction, context does not play a particularly noticeable role in these essays and several important contexts are omitted.

The introduction brings us back to the issue of audiences. For those scholars engaged in ‘Parthenon studies’, Athenian topography, Greek sculpture, or Greek architecture, this volume is unlikely to tell them much which they do not already know. Indeed, they are not mentioned in the introduction. For ‘seasoned scholars’ not fully au courant with the latest developments in ‘Parthenon studies’, these essays will provide a useful point of departure and much bibliography. They will, however, need to consult other studies beyond this particular volume and they are unlikely to benefit very much from certain essays. What about the ‘students coming to this building for the first time’? Hurwit’s piece (with its cute nickname ‘Center Street’ for the processional way between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion) seems aimed at this audience, as does Kallet’s essay. These students will probably also be able to manage the contributions of Barletta (with her commendable effort at explaining architectural terms), Lapatin, and Etlin. I remain less confident, however, about the accessibility of the other essays because they tend to assume quite a lot of knowledge. A glossary of terms and a drawing showing the location of the different architectural elements would certainly help less experienced students. Readers of the BMCR who teach an (American) upper level undergraduate seminar on the Parthenon should take a good look at this volume because it would probably work very well for just such a course.

In a book of this size, typos seem inevitable; many of them will not cause problems.9 More worrying are the items missing from the bibliography because non-specialists are not likely to be able to identify books or articles or essays from the author’s name and the date of publication.10 The decision of the Cambridge University Press to place the notes as endnotes at the end of each essay does not make for easy reading and serious scholars and students must continually flip from page to page. Particularly disappointing is the quality of the images. Since a significant number of these images have been published elsewhere without fuzziness, the problems appear to lie in the production of this volume. Manolis Korres’ drawings and Alison Frantz’s photographs deserve better treatment!


Jenifer Neils, ‘Introduction: A Classical Icon’

Jeffrey M. Hurwit, ‘Space and Theme: The Setting of the Parthenon’

Lisa Kallet, ‘Wealth, Power, and Prestige: Athens at Home and Abroad’

Barbara A. Barletta, ‘The Architecture and Architects of the Classical Parthenon’

Lothar Haselberger, ‘Bending the Truth: Curvature and Other Refinements of the Parthenon’

Katherine A. Schwab, ‘Celebrations of Victory: The Metopes of the Parthenon’

Jenifer Neils, ‘”With Noblest Images on All Sides”: the Ionic Frieze of the Parthenon’

Olga Palagia, ‘Fire From Heaven: Pediments and Akroteria of the Parthenon’

Kenneth Lapatin, ‘The Statue of Athena and Other Treasures in the Parthenon’

Robert Ousterhout, ‘”Bestride the Very Peak of Heaven”: The Parthenon After Antiquity’

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, ‘”Well Recorded Worth”: Photographs of the Parthenon’

Richard A. Etlin, ‘The Parthenon in the Modern Era’.


1. J. M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, Cambridge, 1999.

2. Over-statements: inscriptions were not erected in civic space until the very end of the fifth century (51); the Agora was not rebuilt in the third quarter of the fifth century (52); the temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous is now dated 430-420 B.C. (52). I would also have said that the creation of public archives at Athens (47) was a phenomenon belonging to the last decade of the fifth century. Controversies: e.g. the problems of dating fifth-century inscriptions and the peace of Kallias.

3. I. M. Shear, ‘The western approaches to the Athenian akropolis’, JHS 119 (1999), 86-127.

4. The unwary might further be confused by the characterisation of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi as a shrine (119) and the description of the Eleusinian Mysteries as destroyed in the second century A.D. (150, n. 26). Engagement with the relevant parts of I. M. Shear, JHS 119 (1999), 86-127 would also be beneficial.

5. J. Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, Cambridge, 2001.

6. A number of references seem inadvertently to have slipped out. On 211, for the ten ranks of horsemen, see I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze, London, 1994, 99; S. Bird, I. Jenkins, and F. Levi, Second Sight of the Parthenon Frieze, London, 1998, 18-19; and, too recently for this volume, I. Jenkins, ‘The Parthenon Frieze and Perikles’ Cavalry of a Thousand’, in Periklean Athens and its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives, eds. J. M. Barringer and J. M. Hurwit, Austin, 2005, 147-161. On 213, for the apobatai as identifying the frieze’s subject, add J. L. Shear, Polis and Panathenaia: The History and Development of Athena’s Festival, Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2001, 746. On 223, n. 31, for the apobatic race, add J. L. Shear, Polis and Panathenaia, 299-310.

7. O. Palagia, The Pediments of the Parthenon, Leiden, 1993.

8. Arist. fr. 637 (Rose); quoted by the schol. Aristid. Or. 1.362 (Lenz and Behr) = Dindorf 3.323 = Jebb 189.4; cf. schol. Ar. Knights 566a (II); repeated by Suda s.v. πέπλος; F. Vian, La guerre des Géants: Le mythe avant l’époque hellénistique, Paris, 1952, 246-259; G. F. Pinney, ‘Pallas and Panathenaea’, in Proceedings of the 3rd Symposium on Ancient Greek and Related Pottery, eds. J. Christiansen and T. Melander, Copenhagen, 1988, 465-477; P. Siewert, ‘Zum historischen Hintergrund der frühen Panathenäen und Preisamphoren’, in Panathenaïka: Symposion zu den Panathenäischen Preisamphoren, Rauischholzhausen 25.11-29.11.1998, eds. M. Bentz and N. Eschbach, Mainz, 2001, 4-5; J. L. Shear, Polis and Panathenaia, 31-38, 42.

9. Note, however, the following: 37: Aeschylus’ Persians belongs in 472, not 462; 135 caption: Tanulas 1994, not Tansulas 1994; 138: the date of the Nike Temple is presumably intended to be 420s-410s, as elsewhere in this essay, and not 420-410s; 222, n. 17: eponymoi, not eponymai; 223, n. 29: dokimasia, not dokimajia; 223, n. 31: Bentz 1998, not Bentz 1988; 289, n. 24: Fornara 1983, not 1938; 278: ichthyokolla, not ixthyokolla; 291, n. 62: Fornara 1983, not 1938; 408: Jenkins, I. D. 2004 should be Jenkins, I. D. 2005 … 147-161; 421-422: the entries for Westlake 1988 and Westervelt 2004 need to be reversed.

10. Missing from the bibliography: 147, n. 2: Lawrence 1983; 147, n. 6: Borbein in Heilmeyer 2002; 148, n. 10: Hoepfner 1997; 191, n. 1: Rose 2003; 192, n. 7 and n. 16: Rockwell 2004; 254, n. 1: Burford 1963a; 327, n. 101: Benko 1994.