Empty bird cage on a rock

The Parthenon
August 16, 2002

John Boardman learns how Pericles was the Ken Livingstone of his day.

This is a good book, written in the best new-Cambridge-classics tradition of journalistic scholarship. The journalistic in it only occasionally jars; the scholarship (for a distinguished Roman historian such as the author) can hardly be expected to keep up with all the detailed observations that continue to be made about the Parthenon, but it goes deep, is eminently sensible and covers much ground that will be new to most readers.

What this really amounts to is a civilised account of how the Parthenon has become a high classical nationalist icon, rather than a monument of and to a very long and chequered multicultural history, virtually all elements of which have now been swept away in the interests of cultural and racial purity. The general reader of this book (initiating a series on Wonders of the World) will be enlightened about aspects of Greek art and history generally concealed in the handbooks, while the student or scholar will certainly find here much that may have escaped the attention of the usual sources.

We start with the naked Nikolska dancing before the columns in 1929, a young lady who has been rather over-exposed in this cause in recent years. Modern reactions to the Parthenon are entertaining and pungent. I took another Cambridge Romanist (Martin Charlesworth) there once, for a first visit in his old age, and recall his total non-response. While Ian Richmond, the best Roman archaeologist of his day, told me that on his first visit he sat down and looked around to find out what all this classicism was about, and found it, to his great satisfaction and admiration, in an absolute finesse of design and execution, unrivalled in his experience of antiquity. Ancient reactions are not recorded; the Parthenon was largely ignored by writers as a building and only the showy (but surely magnificent) gold and ivory statue within it excited comment. At the time of its construction there were clearly many in Athens with misgivings about this use of public money, with Pericles the Ken Livingstone of his day.

Mary Beard describes the circumstances and process of its building and decoration very well - so have others. The Athens that built it was very far from being the model of freedom and democracy that many would wish it; it was probably the most hated and imperialist state in Greece. Where this book scores, even over a major source such as the 1994 volume edited by Panagiotes Tournikiotis ( The Parthenon and its Impact in Modern Times ), is in the description and commentary on its later fortunes - at the hands of Macedonian and Roman philhellenes in the first instance. The building enjoyed a very distinguished career as a Christian church, without too much destroyed or reconstructed, for nearly a millennium (for about as long as it had been a pagan temple), then as a mosque until the explosion of a Turkish arsenal in 1687, thereafter as a ruined centrepiece to a Turkish/Greek village until the interests of collectors and art historians were actively aroused, followed by Greek independence and the beginning of its new symbolic role. Literate visitors from Italy, western Europe and Turkey have left their descriptions and impressions, even some drawings, of its state in earlier years; then architects and scholars, whose sole concern has been the appearance and significance of the temple when it was built, rather than its subsequent history. Modern Greece's destruction of all her non-pagan heritage has been very thorough. The only period that seems neglected is that of the German occupation during the second world war and the Nazi reclamation of their Aryan heritage: Hitler as successor to Ludwig of Bavaria and his son Otto, modern Greece's first king. I would have liked to have read Beard on this. Ludwig left a bid for the Parthenon marbles in London, in case the British government did not buy.

The question of Elgin and Britain's stewardship of "the marbles" is not shirked, but properly taken as the latest episode in the history of the building and its decoration. Some of us find the marbles in London fortuitously but effectively placed, while the building itself seems now over-restored, a bit like a monumental, empty bird cage on a bare rock, as remote in spirit from its original setting as it could be, rather than a dignified ruin. What it now needs is the gardens, if not also the palace, planned for it in the 19th century. And there is already, close to the Acropolis, an excellent museum of casts of all the sculpture from all museums, well displayed together with drawings and models of the history of the site; but it was closed by the Greeks in 1999 and is generally never mentioned nowadays.

As for the question of giving "the marbles" to Greece, Beard writes: "The self-righteousness of some of the British Left (who have found a comfortably armchair-radical cause in this particular brand of philhellenism) can be pretty hard to stomach. Not to mention the vulgar nationalism of some of the Greek arguments, with their optimistic assurance that the inhabitants of modern Greece are the spiritual, if not literal, heirs of Pericles and his friends." She sensibly has little time for either the luvvies or the jingoists, both of whom are patently wrong-headed, and she remains neutral, it seems, about so-called restitution. It is high time that more attention was given to the interests of the marbles themselves and their continuing role in enlightening the widest possible public, while one can but sympathise with Greek archaeologists patiently trying to reconcile the interests of scholars, tourists and their politicians. This may not be a book that will advance anybody's cause, but it might help to replace cant and prejudice with cool facts.

Sir John Boardman is emeritus professor of classical archaeology and art, University of Oxford.

The Parthenon

Author - Mary Beard
ISBN - 1 86197 292 X
Publisher - Profile
Price - £15.00
Pages - 209

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