BMCR 2013.02.46

Becoming Good Democrats and Wives

, Becoming Good Democrats and Wives: Civil Education and Female Socialization on the Parthenon Frieze. Hephaistos. Kritische Zeitschrift zu Theorie und Praxis der Archäologie und angrenzender Gebiete / New approaches to classical archaeology and related fields. Berlin; Münster; Wien; Zürich; London: Lit Verlag, 2011. xv, 179. ISBN 9783643999009 €59.90.


In this book, Burkhard Fehr presents his research and interpretations about the Parthenon frieze. According to him, the Parthenon, and especially its frieze, represent the first comprehensive discourse on democracy known to us. He argues that the long pictorial narrative of the frieze illuminates the guiding principles of democratic practice, the significance Athenian citizens attributed to their democratic constitution, and the close connection between oikos and polis. The core of his arguments is already clearly expressed in the title of his book, that the frieze’s imagery depicts the education of Athenian boys and girls to become good democrats and wives. The other sculptural parts, even the Parthenos statue itself, are being read under the same notion of demonstrating the strength of Athenian democracy based on its nomoi.

For ancient historians, the book first of all provides a detailed introduction of how to read this marvellous piece of Classical art in Athens. Although Fehr follows his main argument closely through the whole book, he provides a wealth of information on the Parthenon in general, giving alternative interpretations in the text and in well- documented footnotes. In following an iconological approach, Fehr tries to unearth the meaning of each image with help from literary evidence, most of it in this case unfortunately later than the Parthenon, as he acknowledges. How Fehr reads the images in their socio-political context in democratic Athens is convincing. On the other hand, however, the question of whether the Athenians used their most important temple to Athena for something coming close to political propaganda unrelated to veneration of their city goddess remains to be discussed. Yet, Fehr’s argument is thought-provoking, even if one does not follow him in all its details.

Fehr summarizes earlier interpretations of the Frieze, which have usually read it as connected to the festival of the Great Panathenaia. He maintains that these interpretations are flawed in that the relief cannot be seen as an ‘objective’ documentation of the Panathenaic procession in general or even that of a specific date as figures and details differ from the written sources. Even the central scene, typically taken as representing the offering of the Panathenaic peplos, remains open to discussion. Fehr’s interpretation consequently takes another direction and connects the imagery on the Parthenon with the socio-political order of the Athenian polis and not with her most important festival.

From the start, Fehr explains his methodology of reading ancient images as “exemplifications of patterns of action” related to ethic values and social status (a method coming close to Erwin Panofsky’s third level of interpreting art, iconology). As a person’s ethos (character) was described by ancient authors as referring to patterns of action either harmonizing with or contradicting generally accepted values, so the ancient viewer was able to perceive statues or figures on vases as embodiments of such comprehensive patterns of action. Within a narrative scene, several schemata could be linked together in order to signify such patterns contrasting with or complementing each other. Thus, an important aspect of narrative representations in Greek art of the Classical period was the reference to comprehensive value-related patterns of action by means of pictorial codes.

Starting the tour from the west front, the ancient viewer watched the preparations for the cavalcade. Associated with Athenian democracy, the scenes on that side can be read as depictions of the dokimasia, the regular inspection of the horses of those young men who were enlisted in the cavalry. Problems arising from this reading, Fehr admits, are that written evidence is considerably later and whether we actually deal with a representation of the Athenian cavalry, since almost no weapons are shown and only very few helmets. By the fact that the riders are all dressed in different manners, Fehr believes that the cavalry cannot have been the main subject. According to him, it was rather the exemplification of a fundamental socio-political pattern of action, the principle of checking qualifications and abilities on its various occasions. The figures known as ‘watchers’ consequently represent the public supervision of the social and political life of the democratic polis.

Accordingly, the rider formations on the northern and southern frieze would illustrate two aspects of democratic egalitarian participation in disciplined collective actions: In the north, the countless number of equals stands for an organized crowd acting as a whole, following the model of the democratic demos. In the south, it is the subdivision of this gathering into equalized groups. The four-horse chariots following the cavalcades on both the north and south frieze are interpreted by Fehr as allusions to the Athenian apobates contest exemplifying friendship to the ancient viewer. Set into a socio-political context, both the cavalry and the apobates contest are read as instruments of civic education. The overtly sacral procession on foot is seen by Fehr as a demonstration of self- control by the newly qualified young citizens and the Athenian maidens. They display arête (skill) and sophrosyne (self-control).

Coming to the east frieze, to its left and right side, the several male standing figures usually identified as the ten phyle-heroes are seen to behave in two different patterns of action: dialogues on the left, an individual speaking to a group on the right. Fehr succeeds in reconciling the interpretation as heroes with that of democratic citizens communicating in that the heroes have committed themselves during their lifetime in an exemplary and just way to the needs of the polis while after their death they are enjoying well-earned leisure, their happy rest enabling them to concentrate on thinking and discussing.

Next comes the central scene and here Fehr diverges entirely from older interpretations. According to him, we see an Athenian family, the father clad as a priest who shows the handling of his civic himation to his son, the wife and two daughters carrying trays with wool on their heads, all preparing for a cultic ceremony. This scene basically displays a model Athenian family, parents dedicated to the education of their children, the future of the polis. This scene being flanked by two groups of parthenoi marching at the head of the right and left branch of the pedestrian procession, is supposed to show that marriage and oikos are the final destinations for Athenian parthenoi. According to Fehr, the fundamental message of the whole frieze is centred on the interdependence of polis and oikos, whereby on the east frieze, the female side of the oikos is emphasized: mother and daughters are virtually at the centre, the women’s way into the oikos with all stages of female socialization organized around it.

In between the parthenoi and the oikos is the assembly of Olympians divided into two groups. The six gods on the right symbolize certain traditional patterns of action such as nomoi regulating social and political life. The left half of the assembly celebrates the divine charis essential for the fertility of women, fields, and herds. The immortals display an easy communication according to rules of freedom, thus offering the Athenian democrats a model by which they could justify their own behaviour in social life.

Apart from the frieze, Fehr integrates all sculptural decoration into his interpretation. The Parthenos statue in the cella is seen in her role as teacher of young women. The scene on the statue base representing the Pandora myth is taken by Fehr as Pandora being the first woman taught by Athena how to work and how to spin colourful fabrics. The sandals of the Parthenos were adorned with a battle scene between Lapiths and centaurs, representing the mythical paradigm of how to defend reputable women against rapists. As brides were given a pair of sandals before the wedding, the Parthenos’s sandals would have been a strong symbol for the protection of the future wife. In interpreting the Parthenos’s Nike, Fehr gives emphasis to the female aspects of Nike as bringing presents in wedding scenes. The Amazonomachy on the shield is read as a paradigm of what happens to women who refuse to accept the institution of the oikos and its rules. The Gigantomachy on the inside of the shield can possibly be explained as Gaia representing a woman revolting against the divine universal order and being punished by the killing of her children.

The west pediment with the conflict of Poseidon and Athena being solved via a legal process is supposed to represent the demonstration of Athens as a polis based on nomoi. For his interpretation of the east pediment, Fehr draws on his 2004 publication, where he argued that the Olympian deities represented a flourishing community whose permanent existence is sustained by the birth of glorious descendants, worthy of their parents. Fehr considers this an analogy to the Athenian civic community portrayed in the west pediment and on the frieze. The 92 metopes depicting dramatic mythical battles (east: Olympians fighting the Giants; west: Athenians defending themselves against the Amazons) are related to the laws governing the human and the divine world like the scenes on the pediments above. The north and south metopes (south: Lapiths battling the Centaurs; north: Greeks destroying Troy), like the east frieze, comment on the oikos : the scenes on the metopes represent the safeguarding of the oikos, the east frieze the socialization of the young maidens destined for marriage and motherhood.

In chapter eight, Fehr concentrates on the qualifications required of a citizen in democratic Athens; first the education, then the citizenship law of Pericles. According to Fehr’s interpretation, the completion of the Parthenon’s sculptural decoration as well as the erection of the colossal statue in its cella are the first instances in which a Greek polis initiated monuments that addressed the role and function of the citizens’ women explicitly and programmatically as an issue of extraordinary importance. Fehr, however, is cautious in seeing the citizenship law as the only explanation of this phenomenon. He assumes that there had been more discussion among the Athenians about the rigid assigning of an increasing role to women. To my mind, if one follows Fehr’s interpretation of the Parthenon as being a monument giving emphasis to the role and purpose of women for preserving the polis by raising children and being good wives in augmenting the oikos (the latter was much featured by Xenophon in his Oikonomikos up to two generations later), then Pericles’ citizenship law cannot be underestimated. In regulating that Athenian citizenship depended on both the father and mother being Athenian citizens, the importance of Athenian wives increased. If one can accept that both education to citizenship for both gender as well as the oikos as the fundamental element of the polis are central themes on the main temple of the city goddess, then there is something to be said for Fehr’s reading. But this is exactly what makes one wonder: Can it be true that the Parthenon is so entirely oriented towards the political order, without any association with the Panathenaic festival although the Parthenon was the destination of the procession?

Fehr has produced a book full of thought-provoking arguments. Ample illustrations (drawings and mostly older photographs, whose quality is not excellent, but appropriate) and full annotations make them easy to follow. Fehr has made a good case for reading ancient Greek visual art in a socio-political context.