The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the World’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It

Joan Breton Connelly. Knopf, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-307-59338-2
Alternately a cathedral, a mosque, and an archaeological ruin, the Parthenon atop Athens’s Acropolis was constructed nearly 2,500 years ago (447–432 B.C.E.), on the site of an earlier temple, as a huge, “lavishly decorated” temple of Athena. Here, in contrast to tendencies to project upon it our modern “standards of what it means to be civilized,” archaeologist and NYU classics professor Connelly (Portrait of a Priestess) urges readers “to see the Parthenon and the people who made it as they were.” Using surviving snippets from a long-lost Euripides play, she argues that the Parthenon frieze isn’t a snapshot of contemporary fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians “marching in their annual Panathenaic procession,” but a mythological scene glorifying human sacrifice before a battle between followers of rivals Athena and Poseidon. Within the Parthenon sits a tomb shrine to those sacrificed heroines, whose associated cult was incorporated into the worship of Athena. Connelly’s persuasive reinterpretation of the frieze will spark controversy among academics, as will her advocacy of the return to Greece of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles. But this detailed, smart, and tantalizing study offers much to savor while immersing readers in a “spirit-saturated, anxious world” at the mercy of mercurial gods. Illus. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/09/2013
Release date: 01/28/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
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