Making Sense of the Parthenon Frieze?

Construction began on the Parthenon as we know it today in 447 B.C. The original temple was destroyed by the Persians in the sackings of 480 and 479 B.C. and the Athenians decided to leave the ruins as a reminder of the evil of the invaders. However by 450 B.C. peace had been struck and it became apparent that Athens needed a grand monument to represent its great new status. This is the backdrop against which the Parthenon frieze was built. The frieze is exceptional in Greek art because nowhere else are humans depicted alongside the gods. The exact story behind the frieze is unknown as no antiquities still exist on the subject from that period. For centuries archaeologists have tried to decipher its meaning and there are many theories as to what inspired it but still there is division among experts about what it means. In this essay I will attempt to evaluate these different viewpoints but to do so one must first understand the origins of the frieze.

As already mentioned construction of the Parthenon began in 447 B.C. and the sculpting of the frieze commenced five years later in 442B.C. although the construction no doubt involved many sculptors, we only know of the general overseer, Phidias. It is reasonable to assume however that Phidias sculpted little or none of the actual frieze as his attention would have been focused on the statue of Athena which adorned the interior of the temple. However he would have had overall control so he is usually attributed with authorship of the work. The narrative of the frieze begins in the southwest corner of the Parthenon and develops in both directions (see diagram 1). The first published attempt to describe the story was by the Cyriac of Ancona in the 15th century. He described the story as the “victories of Athens in the time of Perikles.” This was disregarded in the 18th century in favour of the view that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic festival procession. This festival took place every four years to honour the goddess Athena, protector of the city. The festival encompassed contests, sacrifices and most importantly of all the procession to the temple at the top of the acropolis which culminated in the presentation of the peplos. This was a garment woven by the ergastinai and presented to an olive wood statue of Athena believed to have fallen from heaven. This scene predictably forms the focus of the frieze (see diagram 2). It is located above the main entrance on the east side of the temple. Here a man (possibly a magistrate), and a woman (possibly his assistant), are helped by three children (two girls and one unknown)as they prepare the peplos. The gods sit on either side in groups of six. Their importance is illustrated by their size. Eleven of them are seated on stools and Zeus is enthroned. The nest scene on either side of the gods is one of much contention. There are twelve figures in all. One can view them as two procession marshals and the ten eponymous heroes who gave their names to the ten tribes of the classical period or as three marshals and the nine archons, or officials, of the procession. Neither of these can be proven though because of a lack of evidence. The north and south sides of the frieze depict the lead up to the procession as well as chariot races (possibly from the festival) and some battle scenes. There are some aspects that are of importance to this evaluation also to be noted. The southernmost slab of the western side features the image of a rearing horse (see diagram 3). It is unique as it is the only image on that side facing south. Another point of interest is that the faces and expressions of all the types of figures are identical. This is a theme in Greek art but it was taken to an extreme on the frieze. Both of these aspects form part of some of the arguments that will now be discussed.

To understand and interpret the frieze is by no means an easy task. The fractured past of the building and the lack of any conclusive records have the left the argument unresolved. Although the opinion that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession held as the orthodox view for many years, there are significant problems to be dealt with. The scenes are scattered in relation to what we know the procession would have looked like. Many key members are missing from the frieze. The representatives of the allies and the colonies, the skiaphoroi (parasol carriers), the diphrophproi (stool-bearers) and the Athenian maidens are all missing and perhaps more significantly the ship which carried the peplos to the Areopagus is also absent. The Greek archaeologist Chrysoula Kardara proposed the idea that the frieze represents the first Panathenaic procession. To back up this argument she identifies the man in the peplos scene as the mythical king Kekrops receiving the peplos from his heir Erichthonious (see diagram 2). This explains the lack of the ship and of the ally and colony representatives because the first procession pre dates these traditions.

Joan Connelly proposed a more drastic idea suggesting that the girl in the central scene is the daughter of King Erechtheus and that she is being presented with the sacrificial garment before she sacrifices her life. Her evidence for this is contained in the papyrus scarps of Euripides’s Erechtheus. It suggests that her life is forfeited to save Athens. This in turn indicates that the gods have their backs turned so as not to stain themselves with the sight of death. This is in no way a definitive answer however.

John Boardman suggested in his publication, “The Parthenon and its sculptures” (Austin,1985), that the frieze shows the 192 Hoplites who fell at Marathon in 490 B.C. The total number of horsemen, chariot passengers, marshals and grooms on the frieze equal 192. This does not include the charioteers however, and so poses questions about the validity of the argument.

Other scholars have presented the idea that the different sides of the frieze correspond to the procession in different time periods. On the south side the number ten is predominant with six groups of ten horsemen and ten bulls. This could signify the ten tribes of the classical period. Similarly the number four on the north frieze may relate to the four tribes of the archaic period.

To understand the nature of these theories and interpretations one must also analyse the frieze within the context of the Parthenon as a whole. The frieze’s positioningat the top of the inner columns means the view is obstructed by the outer columns. The sheer size of the Parthenon also means that the frieze is almost too high to be viewed. There are several opinions as to why the Athenians may have done this. A. W. Lawrence proposed in “Greek and Roman Sculpture” (London, 1973) that it was a display of wealth.

“…the city could lavish richness even on beauties which remain almost invisible”
The sentiment that the Parthenon itself was believed to be a show of wealth by the Athenians to other Greeks was shared by Bernard Ashmole in his book “Architect and sculptor in Classical Greece.” (London, 1972).

Some also believed that the positioning of the frieze indicated that it was a display to the gods. E. Langlotz said in “Phidias und der Parthenonfries” (Stuttgart, 1965) that the frieze was not intended for the eyes of the antiquarian, but (loosely translated)

“only for the eyes of the gods.”
This theory is unlikely though as the relief is inclined towards the ground to aid the observer.

Robin Osbourne goes so far as to suggest that the position of the frieze helps to propel the viewer through the narration.

“the sculpture of the frieze engages the viewer in an active capacity.”

This idea that the sculptor was actively conscious of the viewer is quite possible. This however contradicts Lawrence and Ashmole by suggesting that the frieze was designed for its viewers rather than as a brash show of wealth to other Greeks. This idea lends itself to the notion that the images display the procession, as it invites the viewer to accompany the procession by drawing them along to see the next part of the narration and eventually the culmination of the festival, and subsequently the magnificent statue of Athena. One could then assert from this assumption that Phidias perhaps designed the frieze to lead viewers to his personal work, the statue in the interior. Almost as a director of sorts? This cinematic approach is portrayed by the rearing horse on the western side.. It presents the viewer with a choice. They can either choose to proceed past the horse and with the procession or they can turn the other direction and watch the procession go past them.

Osbourne is of the opinion that when one is presented with the final scene of the frieze they are to be disappointed. He criticises the climax,
“…here the exchange of a folded cloth is off-centre, and the particular figures involved do not correspond closely to those we know to have taken part in the ceremony.”

I disagree with this. As previously mentioned, the characters in the frieze are all identical and thus assume an anonymity that helps the viewer to identify with what they are witnessing. This coupled with the almost banal sculptural quality of the scene help to lure the viewer inside as yet unprepared for the awe inspiring sight of the statue of Athena. There is also the opinion that the procession depicted is not of any particular Panathenaia but is ideological in nature. Brommer describes this idea as,

“…a timeless representation of a recurrent event…”
This is another idea that confirms the opinion that the frieze was designed with the viewer in mind.

The fact that the gods were portrayed here with mortals is exceptional. And yet directly after this the observer sees the ten metre statue of Athena. Osbourne suggests that this sight would cause Anathenian to question their collective and individual identity. This is a fine observation, but one could also suggest that the sight in question would leave the viewer with a renewed respect and vigour for their gods. Most importantly of all though is the fact that Osbourne recognition of the frieze as part of the Parthenon as a whole is an extremely important step towards unveiling its true meaning.

One aspect which is not fully appreciated is that the frieze that we study is a shadow of its former self. It has suffered two and a half millennia of wear and tear, seen countless wars and fires and has eventually been split up between different cities. We even have to rely on plaster cast for several of the images because the originals have been destroyed. Most of the frieze formed part of the controversial Elgin marbles and now resides in London, while other portions may be found in Athens and Basel. This does not account either for the erosion of the beautiful paint work that would have originally adorned this masterpiece. Although no theory can be conclusively proved and there will probably always be tension as to which is correct, one can make the point that scholars are missing the point. That rather than merely searching for the “correct” answer, that it is their responsibility to present the facts to the best of their knowledge. Jennifer Neils perfectly captured this sentiment in her publication, “The Parthenon Frieze” (Cambridge, 2001). She says,

“Many of these approaches have been neglected in our preoccupation with finding the one single overriding theme that manages to reconcile all the inconsistencies we suspect in the religious procession.”

Perhaps one should view the frieze as more of an idea than a documentation of a genuine event. In that sense one might grasp its full meaning rather than glimpsing its inconsistencies.

-F, Brommer, The Sculptures of the Parthenon, London, 1979.
-E. Langlotz, Phidias und der Parthenonfries, Stuttgart, 1965.
-A.W. Lawrence, Greek and Roman Sculpture, London, 1972.

-J. Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, Cambridge, U.S.A. 2001.

-R. Osbourne, The Viewing and Obscuring of the Parthenon Frieze, in “The Journal of Hellenic Studies”, Vol.107, 1987.

-R. Osbourne, The Viewing and Obscuring of the Parthenon Frieze, in “The Journal of Hellenic Studies”, Vol.107, 1987.