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,
Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham
New Yorker at Sea. Nick’s reviews are available
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.