Ancient art, but what does it mean?

Classical scholars are all of a twitter over a reinterpretation of the events in the Parthenon frieze If our sons must die for Athens, why should our daughters not do so as well?

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An American scholar called Joan Connelly has come up with a theory that completely overthrows the traditional view of what the Parthenon frieze is about. Not surprisingly, she has met opposition, and a kind of patronising indifference, although every classicist with whom I have discussed the matter has taken the theory seriously and in some cases greeted it with enthusiasm. One could hardly imagine a more prestigious achievement in classical studies than a reinterpretation of the frieze. Ms Connelly has yet to publish her theory in full, but she has lectured on it, and been answered in print, and I believe modified it a little. Here is a summary of the state of play so far.

One supposes that the Parthenon, which was designed as a whole, would make sense as a whole, in its sculptural programme. In classical times, the main attraction was the colossal statue of Athena by Phidias, which is described in detail by Pausanias in the second century AD but has long since disappeared. Pausanias also gives the subjects of the east and west pediments (which are so damaged as to be hard to decipher): the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus, and the struggle between Athena and Poseidon for the land of Attica (which is where Athens lies).

The other elements of the decoration of the Parthenon are the metopes (the square panels) and the frieze. The metopes represent scenes of struggle between gods and giants, Greeks and centaurs, Greeks and Amazons and Greeks and Trojans (with scenes from the sack of Troy). Pausanias does not mention either these or the great continuous frieze itself, and we have no earlier account of either element.

The frieze was originally 524ft long. Of this, 420ft survives, 60 per cent of which is in the British Museum. Most of the rest is in Athens, with bits and bobs in Paris, Rome, Palermo, Vienna and Heidelberg. Apparently the best, most complete reconstruction in plaster cast is in Basel, but short of going to Basel you can buy a new book by Ian Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze (British Museum Press, £17.99).

This book puts together all the visual information from every available source (including some important 17th-century drawings) so that you can see exactly how much we know of what the frieze was like, and how much must be left to conjecture. The answer is that, as far as the general appearance of the figures is concerned, there is very little left to conjecture. But as to detail, and as to the significance of any individual figure, there is room for conjecture everywhere. Ms Connelly's theory depends on a figure known in Mr Jenkins's schema as E35 being female. Mr Jenkins believes it to be male. On the evidence he presents, it seems to me at least as likely to be female.

As to the significance of the whole frieze, the traditional view, I learn from an article by William St Clair in this week's TLS, dates back to 1787. This is the theory that the frieze depicts the Great Panathenaic festival, which took place every four years and involved a great procession to the Acropolis where a newly woven garment, or peplos, was presented to Athena - that is, to Phidias's statue in the Parthenon.

Mr Jenkins's book subscribes to this theory, but it also sets out the major objections to it, of which the chief is this: if the frieze depicts the festival, then it is the only temple frieze in ancient Greece to depict a non-mythological event. Furthermore, things that we know were characteristic of the festival are surprisingly absent from the frieze. Most notably, the peplos, which was huge, was transported to the Acropolis on a ship on wheels, and that it billowed out like a sail as it went.

But the peplos only features on the Parthenon frieze as resembling a folded sheet or blanket (or, to my eye, a double duvet cover) that is being handed to the young boy or girl (the crucial E35). This child stands next to Athena, but the seated goddess has her back to the scene. If the point of the frieze is to record the ceremonial presentation of the peplos to Athena, then it seems very odd that the peplos gets given only to a temple servant, and that Athena has her back to the scene.

The revolutionary theory says forget about the Panathenaic festival. Think instead about the mythical war between Athens and Eleusis, in which Eumolpus (the son of Poseidon) brought a large force of Thracians to assist the Eleusinians, and laid claim to the throne of Attica in the name of his father. Erechtheus was the king of Athens at the time. An oracle said that he must sacrifice his youngest daughter Otionia to Athena. Otionia willingly agreed to this, whereupon her sisters (who had once vowed that if one of them died violently, they would all go together) submitted to death. Athens defeats Eleusis and Attica is saved from Poseidon (reflecting the subject of the west pediment).

Now the central group of the eastern frieze takes on an enormous significance, appropriate for the focal point of the frieze. What we see is Erechtheus giving his youngest daughter, E35, her sacrificial shroud. To his left his wife, Praxithea, is in conversation with her older daughters, Protogonia and Pandora (not the one with the box), who come with their own shrouds balanced on trays above their heads, ready to die together for the preservation of the city. On either side of this scene, the gods sit watching the preparations for war.

You can find this story in Robert Graves's Greek Myths, which is based on three ancient sources. But Ms Connelly was prompted by a text Graves couldn't have known - a papyrus used as a mummy-wrapper in the Louvre, which turned out to contain extracts from a lost play by Euripides, his Erechtheus. In this extract, as quoted by Mr St Clair in the TLS, Praxithea says: "I hate women who, in preference to the common good, choose for their own children to live." If our sons must die for Athens, why should our daughters not do so as well?

The Parthenon stands next to the Erechtheum, which housed the tomb of Erechtheus, and the two buildings, unusually, shared a common altar. The Parthenon honours Athena, on whom Athens depends for its survival and its hold over Attica and its subjection of Eleusis. The Parthenon frieze pays homage to the sacrifice of Otionia and her sisters in securing the common good of Athens. And you and I could have worked this out with a trip to the British Museum and a copy of Graves's Greek Myths. Sickening , isn't it, and yet, seen in another light, also somewhat inspiring.

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