Scholarly discussion on the Parthenon frieze, Athenian archaeology, and funerary sculpture

Attic attitudes


The Parthenon frieze is one of the most significant monuments to have survived from fifth-century Athens, and its iconography has attracted much scholarly discussion. Jenifer Neils has competently assembled the salient testimonia, and argues persuasively for the frieze having been part of a victory monument. Her insights are, however, limited by an implicit belief that the Parthenon frieze was the most significant monument in classical Athens. Not even mentioned by Pausanias—the Baedeker of classical antiquity—and scarcely visible in its original position atop the Parthenon’s cella wall, the frieze is held by Professor Neils to have been the model for similar renditions of cavalrymen or apobatai (charioteers) on painted pottery and elsewhere (she actually envisages potters climbing scaffolding to get a closer look!).

Better perhaps to regard the frieze as but a small part of what Cyriac of Ancona (the earliest modern recorder of the Parthenon) called “the vast treasure house of antiquity”, most of which is lost. A parallel which escaped her is the exquisite Attic silver bowl in Plovdiv, Bulgaria with an apobates scene in gold-figure; but those who wish to impoverish the past are blind to its riches.

What then was the purpose of the frieze? The victory being celebrated in the Parthenon sculpture is—as Professor Neils rightly observes—that of the Athenians over the Persians, but—as she does not—different elements of the Athenian body politic are commemorated in different ways.

The most prominent decoration, immediately visible to the visitor to the Acropolis, was on the west pediment. Here was the quarrel between Poseidon and Athena over the land of Attica, where Athena was victorious: for this reviewer’s money an allusion to the battle of Salamis of 480, insofar as the Phoenicians, whose fleet formed the basis of the Persian navy, reckoned their descent from Poseidon, and Poseidon is shown as a barbarian in the pediment. This was Pericles’ tribute to the navy, the largely plebeian force to which he owed his position of influence.

The imagery of the frieze is distinctly aristocratic (look at all those horses; the girls who wove the annual peplos for Athena came from noble families). The Athenian aristocracy had to be represented somewhere on the victory monument, but in a less than prominent position.

John Camp looks at the ancient world through the other end of the telescope from Professor Neils; he devotes eleven lines to the Parthenon frieze, but nearly three pages to the gold and ivory statue, and to the contents of the “huge treasury” the temple was built to house.

Professor Camp is fully aware of the complexities of Athenian archaeology, of how patchy the evidence is, and how controversial its interpretation. Nevertheless, he has written the perfect book for anyone planning a visit to Greece who requires a readable and authoritative overview of Athenian history as illustrated by the monuments. Students, too, will benefit from the crisp and informative accounts of such topics as the design of the Propylaea, silver mining, the shrines and forts of Attica, the Piraeus ship sheds, the Sacred Way, or the patronage of Herodes Atticus, all accompanied by clear plans and good photographs. One might quibble with details: the decision to build the Nike Temple now seems to have been taken in the mid-420s; the Erechtheum was probably begun around 410, the long inscription describing the state of the work on 409/8 reflecting the interest of a new cost-conscious democratic regime, rather than resumption of work after abandonment; the post-Persian war date for the layout of the classical agora pioneered by the late Homer Thompson has much in its favour. Professor Camp has an interesting discussion of the sudden change in Athenian funerary practice brought about by Demetrius of Phalerum between 317 and 307 BC.

Alarmed at the conspicuous consumption involved in funerals of the rich, he introduced sumptuary legislation. An immediate consequence was that “an entire branch of Athenian art was brought to a halt”. The grave reliefs that had become increasingly larger and more elaborate throughout the fourth century ceased to be made.

The Getty Museum’s collection of Greek funerary sculpture consists in large part of such reliefs, or fragments of them. They are the subject of an exemplary catalogue by Janet Grossman, illustrated by the best museum photographs one has seen in a long time.

Jenifer Neils, The Parthenon frieze (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001), 288 pp, 180 b/w ills, £45, $65 (hb) ISBN 0521641616

John M. Camp, The archaeology of Athens (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001), 352 pp, 257 b/w ills, 19 col. ills, £29.95 (hb) 0300081979

Janet Burnett Grossman, Greek funerary sculpture: catalogue of the collections at the Getty Villa ( Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2001), 162 pp., 125 b/w ills, £42.50 (hb) ISBN 0892366125

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Attic attitudes'