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Vol. 13, No. 4, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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mystery and human sacrifice at



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available at

For 32 years I have been teaching a seminar in Ancient Greece to my students from Pace University. Each year in late May we travel to Greece and try to account for the cultural explosion of the 5th century B.C. and contemplate what meanings this has for us 2500 years later. We spend a few days in Athens and then cruise the Greek islands reading Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato while referencing other thinkers and creators i.e. Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, Dioscorides, Herodotus, Myron and many others.

The students always use superlatives describing their experiences of Greece (the physical beauty, climate, and social scene alone is enough to cause tearful regret when they have to fly home) so that after so many years there is a crushing demand for participation in the course.

For me there is satisfaction in seeing the enthusiasm of the students but each year I leave there with restlessness. After 32 years, lots of scholarship, endless discussion, and constant inquiries so many mysteries and questions about the ancients remain. The myths alone with their labyrinthine tales, versions and contradictions leave students frustrated as they demand some simple, straightforward accounts of what ‘really’ happened. And no matter how much revisionist thinking on matters historical ushers forth, one is usually left endlessly speculating.

The great Parthenon is a case in point. Each year we hike up to the Acropolis and I begin to drone on with my lectures on Phidias, Pericles, golden ratios and the extraordinary history of this incredible edifice. But just as the students gasp when they discover that the building is constructed with curved lines to account for the optical illusions and admire my knowledge of the construction, I inform them of my ignorance of the remaining mysteries: to date no one has discovered what precise mathematical formulas dictate the arc of the curves. Why are the ends of the Stylobate 12cms lower than the center? What has dictated the dimensions of entasis bellies in the famous Doric columns? How many have noted that entasis is also featured in Egyptian, Chinese and even Incan columns? Why do Parthenon columns lean toward the center by 7cms? If these numbers varied by a centimeter or so would the optical illusion be disturbed? Will researchers ever discover architectural plans for the edifice? Why are the metopes and frieze so carefully wrought if onlookers are a huge distance away?

Countless books and articles through the millennia have been written about the world’s most famous building. Many have contributed large chunks of knowledge about the aforementioned subjects and speculations. But the most frustrating feature of much scholarly writing is that, suffering from the egos of the writers, it often purports to totally solve issues in one magical fell swoop. And the vast writings that occur annually usually contain pedantic quarrels and accusations among the authors that take up hours from hopeful readers who often wind up with little to show for time invested.

Recently, a book by Joan Breton Connelly entitled The Parthenon Enigma poses a new thesis of the building’s theme as represented in its frieze. As most students know, the frieze on the inside of the structure is a 524 foot long multi- paneled sculpture of an event held annually in ancient Athens dubbed the Panathenaic procession. The frieze sculptures record the pageantry of the event depicting the festival participants -- maidens, cavalrymen, musicians, elderly dignitaries, cows and sheep awaiting sacrifice and parade marshals orchestrating the procession. Since there is no extant ancient guide or description of the frieze, history has seen various attempts to explain its meaning. Over the millennia a more or less general consensus has developed: the frieze represents the entire gamut of the cultural, aesthetic, scientific, political (democratic) and social achievement of classical Athens. Many scholars have gathered around this notion and written reams discussing its implications.

However, after focusing on a central panel in the frieze which depicts an ancient mythical king Erechtheus, his wife Praxithea and their three daughters just before one of the children is sacrificed to appease a God, Connelly fashions a new theory: the building was constructed to commemorate a human sacrifice. She states that in view of the traditional interpretation of the procession as an expression of the high attainment in Athenian culture, her theory represents something “unbearable to imagine on a building regarded as the icon of Western art.”

Connelly chose to write her tome after visiting Oxford some 20 years ago and encountering some newly discovered papyrus fragments of Euripedes’s play Erechtheus first produced about a decade after the Parthenon was completed. The fragments include a speech by Erechtheus’s wife Praxithea extolling the importance of making sacrifices on behalf of the city. It is this story of Erechtheus sacrificing his daughter that is portrayed in the aforementioned frieze panel. Connelly quickly published an article (which is the basis of her present book) maintaining that the principal theme of the Parthenon was concerned with human sacrifice and not the cultural glory of classical Athens.

Although the Erechtheus family frieze panel in question can certainly be interpreted metaphorically, it cannot be more important than the metopes and their metaphorical meaning: the Greeks throughout their history have conquered barbaric opponents (Amazons, Centaurs, Giants). These themes on the metopes can and should be interpreted as metaphors for the Greek ideals of reason, science and art epitomized during the time of the Parthenon’s construction – 447 B.C.

In addition to propounding her controversial theory, Connelly spends some 500 pages reviewing the past scholarship and retelling some of the mythology and history associated with the building. She accomplishes this with energetic revisionist expertise providing fresh fodder for contemporary students and specialists.

Predictably, Connelly’s book and its thesis was meat for a contending academic to challenge and such was the case in a recent New Yorker article by Bard University Professor Daniel Mendelsohn. He maintains that her initial article in 1996 has “over time failed to persuade art historians and archeologists” but does not mention even one such objector. He compares her to other popularizers whose main purpose is to sell books. He accuses her of “questionable methods and wobbly evidence.”

Mendelsohn also states that most of the book is devoted to “generously padded descriptions of Athenian topography, history and mythology.” And yet he spends much of the time in his article also going over such well-trodden paths.

As I noted above, dealing with the contending egos and pedantic insult-trading of academics eager to outdo one another in the never ending struggle for intellectual notoriety is, to say the least, tiresome. In my lifelong encounter with ancient Greece it is the very mysteries and questions I mentioned initially that provide the endless excitement as I prepare to travel each year and share my wonder with the Pace students. And the frustrations of still not being certain as more and more is learned turn out to be the principal source of each year’s romantic anticipation. Returning each year to the scene of the miracle of ancient Greece with fresh expectancy of finding some new knowledge or insight is the greatest prize an academic can receive.

As Robert Louis Stevenson noted in his work El Dorado the reward is not the discovery of gold at the end of long journey; the reward is the journey itself.


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