90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Secrets Of The Parthenon Present A Gripping ‘Enigma’

We go back to the future with a new look at the Parthenon of Ancient Greece, Athens, and the foundations of democracy.

A tourist walks in front of the ancient Parthenon temple at the Acropolis hill Athens, on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. (AP)

A tourist walks in front of the ancient Parthenon temple at the Acropolis hill Athens, on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. (AP)

Picture the Parthenon – on the Acropolis, rising stunningly in white marble above Athens in Greece – and for centuries now people have seen the open, august architecture of democracy.  The clean columns and potent symmetry of reason and an ideal of Western civilization.  We’ve copied it all over in pillared post offices and public buildings, suggesting an ancient root and endorsement of American democracy.  A deep, new reading of the splendor of the Parthenon says we may not fully understand what we’re embracing.  This hour On Point:  the full meaning of a powerful icon – the Parthenon.

– Tom Ashbrook


Joan Breton Connelly, professor of classics and art history at New York University. Author of “The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the World’s Most Iconic Buildling And The People Who Made It.” Also author of “Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece.”

William St. Clair, senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, the University of London. Author of “Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures.”

From Tom’s Reading List

American Journal of Archeology: The Parthenon Frieze – “The traditional interpretation, identifying the frieze as the Panathenaic procession, goes back to the eighteenth century travelers Stuart & Revett. It has two main points of vulnerability. First, some items are missing which would be expected: e.g. kanephoroi (women carrying reed baskets), allies shown as tribute bearers, hoplites, the sacred trireme. Second, the violation of convention (having a contemporary scene where there should be a mythological one) would be severe and anomalous. Some scholars have met these objections by supposing that we have an “original” Panathenaia retrojected into mythic time.”

Metropolis Magazine: The Top Architecture and Design Books of 2013 — “The Greek temple has held architects in thrall for centuries, and each generation, from Andrea Palladio to Le Corbusier, seems to find new reasons to deem it one of the best structures ever built by a highly rational civilization. Not so much, the historian Joan Breton Connelly says. Uncovering legends of serpent kings and rituals of child sacrifice, this gripping book offers a new understanding of the Parthenon and the Greeks who built it.”

New York Times: New Analysis of the Parthenon’s Frieze Finds It Depicts a Horrifying Legend — “Now the discovery of fragments of a lost play by Euripides, found on papyrus in the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy, and the diligent research of an American archeologist have produced a much different explanation. The scenes of the frieze do not depict a fifth-century procession, according to the new thesis, but instead evoke the Athenian founding myth of a king’s precious sacrifice to save his city from defeat.”

Read An Excerpt of “The Parthenon Enigma” By Joan Breton Connelly

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Jon

    This lady sounds like a poet or daydreamer.

  • Jon

    looks like the cool guy has just given the sentimental and democracy-religious lady a lesson of reasoning – what a cliche.

    • samuelpepys

      If by “cliche” you mean the time-honored routine of bringing a male wet-blanket with a British accent on to deflate the excitement of some female accomplishment (despite the fact that she’s a classical archeologist and he is NOT) then I’d agree, we are deep in the land of cliche. I heard the exchange: it sounded to me as though this scholar of “English Studies” didn’t understand what Prof. Connelly was saying. (Nor apparently does Mr. “coastghost”–the Parthenon has been examined far more than the Great Pyramid! His sense of history doesn’t go back more than 150 years, I’m afraid.)

      • Jon

        it’s a physiological fact men rational and women setimental in average. this applies to all accents.

        • samuelpepys

          Oh gosh, even German accents? Who knew?! Shame on all those physiologists and neurologists, spreading propaganda in the scientific journals about women’s and men’s brains being no different! Well, I stand corrected.

      • Coastghost

        Well gosh, sam, and I have an abridged edition of your own diaries on a shelf in front of me (however did you arrive at the arbitrary figure of 150 years?)! I’ve even read a few pages, tsk tsk, the company you keep . . . or kept, or whatever.
        Granted, I’m no classicist (in this, at least partially, I’m yet another victim of American public education, since Latin was dropped from the secondary curriculum by the time I came along), but I have just finished reading Juvenal’s satires in competing translations and plan to resume my reading and re-reading of Lucian one of these fine years, should I live so long.
        Don’t think I begrudge Connelly her enthusiasm: I was faulting her writing (or her editor’s editing: that first paragraph of hers could’ve been cut without injuring anything following it, I say with the benefit of not having read beyond the opening paragraph, off-putting as I found it).

        • samuelpepys

          You’re onto something there. But still, florid or not, it’s a fact, which you were quarreling with. People have been studying and examining the Parthenon far longer than they have the Great Pyramid. Let’s compromise with this: some facts are better left unspoken!

          It’s sorta gratifying to think you’re reading around in my diaries–I used to lock em up at night, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t secretly hope somebody would find em.

          And so to bed.

          • samuelpepys

            PS The 150 years was arbitrary, I admit–romantic archeology probably goes back 200 years.

          • Coastghost

            Sleep well but know I quibble with you still: perhaps the most notable compiler of any list of “the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”, Antipater of Sidon (fl. c. 140 BC and a figure represented in the LCL ed. of the Greek Anthology on my desk) took pains to include the Great Pyramid on his list but neglected to include the poor Parthenon in any of the remaining slots.
            Separately (not to invoke Antipater anachronistically), you seem not to want to appreciate that the Pyramid was a marvel to the ancients long before Pericles was even born. Conversely, I appreciate that the Pyramid is not congenial to Connelly’s interests, but she also seems to lack the more ancient context to the understanding she strives to elucidate, beset as she is with an unwieldy prose style.

          • samuelpepys

            Yes of course, it was long admired, just as you say. But Connelly claims the Parthenon was EXAMINED for much longer, and that’s true, for various reasons. (One of which is surely that the Parthenon’s easier to get into than a royal tomb!)

            Bedtime for Bonzo.

          • Coastghost

            Again, more contention and assertion on your part in defense of Prof. Connelly: yet, even if Thales of Miletus did not actually himself measure the height of the Pyramid based on the shadow it cast, the feat was being ascribed to him by Hieronymus of Rhodes and attributed to him by both Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. Numerous ancient folk seem very much to have been EXAMINING the Pyramid in some earnest. (I refer you and Prof. Connelly to Kirk, Raven, and Schofield’s 2nd ed. of the Presocratic Philosophers, 83ff.)

          • samuelpepys

            Uncle! I’m in the midst of moving and have run out of time. But I do think the study and examination of the Parthenon (which has had to be rebuilt many times) has been more consistent across time than that of the Pyramid, which is a tomb, and closed. My guess is that Prof. Connelly, a classicist and at least as interested in these matters as we are, has read the Presocratics. But I haven’t read her book, so can’t defend her thesis–which I’d have to read to do. Just didn’t like the way people outside the discipline (or any) were jumping on her for ignorance and stupidity. On the writing issue I concede: you’re a much better stylist! (-;

  • Jon

    the ultimate massage – keep dreaming!

  • brettearle

    The notion of the greater good, in its relationship to an idyllic vision of Democracy, is lost on current Right Wing Propaganda in Washington and in Media.

    The notion of `greater good’ is butchered by the Right when the Right assails the idea of the redistribution of wealth and marginal tax rate policy.

  • BrynMawrJP

    The most accurate modern depiction of what an ancient Greek pediment would have looked like is on the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the largest Greco-Roman building in the world and a true masterpiece. The first glance of this pediment, with its riot of color, does indeed shock our modern eyes!

  • Mary Paul

    A question/comment I would have liked to make was about the word “idiotes” (accent on the “o”.) At Kent School I took four years of ancient Greek — mostly forgotten, but some things stick, like the way our professor took great pleasure in explaining how that word (meaning roughly for or by one’s self) was the root of our word “idiot”. In ancient Greece, he said, it was so much the norm to be actively engaged in civic society, that to stay at home, to not discuss the latest issues in the marketplace, got you labeled as a non-participant. To whatever extent the Parthenon was religious, I conclude that engaging in society was a religious act.

  • Dennis George Sparling

    Hi Tom / Joan and William; This is Dennis Sparling-New Haven, Vt. The modern mind thinks in such absolutes; and mostly misses the play of our bi-polar / bi-sexual primal mind—the one that came from the struggles of our Consciousness Rising—from the Migrating / hunting-gathering / Matriarchal and tribal Intact ascents; being challenged by settled agriculture and domestication of the wild peoples, and spoiled uninitiated and Kingly Brats like Gilgamesh–who was one of the founders ( mythologies ) of our modern syndrome of geniciding everything in our way to personally become Big, Important, and powerful–to avoid our responsibilites to the original / Mythological Agreement and Mutual Indebtedness to the Wilderness and Mystery that Feeds US.

    Your guests this morning were a fabulous reminder that this history that Joan described is visual poetry; a variation of the Oral Story Telling World, that would be a good idea to re- hydrate in our modern societies–like the frieze poem on the Parthenon. Your guest were a wonderful example of our own inner dialogue searching for dignity and belonging. All Empires eventually colapse when everything revolves around Me, I, and who wronged me! Most long term civilizations did not emphasise the verb TO BE!

    • Coastghost

      “The ontology of the frieze-dried” has not yet been hydrated, arguably. (Where’s Deucalion when you need him?)

  • Coastghost

    Professor Connelly’s first paragraph above looks wildly overwrought, a breathless conclusion serving as preamble to her monograph: “Never before in human history has there been a structure, et cetera . . . “.
    As far as enigmatic structures go, I’d say the Great Pyramid at Giza qualifies at least as equally, and it antedated the venerable Parthenon by some two millennia. Certainly, the Great Pyramid is just as visible, just as celebrated, subject to just as much examination and reverie, invested with just as much authority and mystery. –Of course, the Pyramid doesn’t lend itself as readily perhaps to Connelly’s exercise in reading democracy out of or into an architectural relic, but modern notions of “inclusive” participatory democracy were likely as remote from ancient Egyptian minds as from latter-day ancient Athenian minds.

    • Richard Conrad Anderson

      True, the great pyramid at Giza is a wonderful, iconic and very old monumental structure but how many pyramids do you see as modern public buildings? There are some (and obelisks too) but they are devoid of cultural significnce apart fom being monumental. The Greek Revival in architecture sought to emulate an architecture founded under the Athenian Democracy, the Parthenon (Doric) and the Erechtheion (Ionic) being the foremost examples.

      • Coastghost

        Seen the back of a one-dollar bill lately?
        I’m no more an architect than a classicist, but someone clever (with or without astigmatism) could make the case that our monumental skyscrapers are closer to being attenuated pyramids than high-rise parthenons (id est: I cannot readily identify any Doric-, Ionic-, or Corinthian-order skyscrapers).
        Skyscrapers seem to fulfill the Prime Directive of ancient pyramids: to impress and to intimidate.

        • Richard Conrad Anderson

          Art and architecture today are up for grabs. Nothing has any significance except for “originality”. The pyramid on the Dollar bill is, I admit, astonishing. It shows our Masonic heritage but ancient egyptians would have thought it ill-proportioned.

          • Coastghost

            Though they might have envied the floating apex . . .

  • david ascher

    I found myself wanting to shout “sacrificing for the greater good of the whole’ is a concept found in all the ‘isms’ that were defeated in World War II as well as any nationalist movement and/or religious movement that has swept people into participating in activities that have brought destruction and havoc as well as peace and harmony. The Spartans surely understood ‘sacrifice for the greater good of the whole’ as well as the Athenians – or the Nazis or anybody who joins a religious order. Professor Connelly’s insistence that this belief is the essence of what makes a democracy possible and unique to democracy seems completely unsupported by history.

    Her repeated claim that the Athenians had no separation between State and Religion – as if this somehow made Athenian society different than other societies. I would like to hear how this lack of separation differs from the situation in any other nation, modern or ancient with the very few exceptions found in a few nation states starting in the 20th century.

    Ruling myths are promulgated by people with state power. They are taught to children and repeated in state rituals in order to ensure a compliant citizenry. The basic story is generally the same – this social arrangement is the way it should be because it is the “natural” way of things (The tautology is obvious to anybody who takes the time to THINK about it, which is why intellectuals can be so dangerous to the state.) The reasons … “because (the) god(s) made it so, or because it is this way “for the greater good”. “Job creators” ought to run our society because it is for the “greater good”. (Dare I include “Ask not what …” ?) I don’t see any connection to ‘democracy’ – because there IS not connection to democracy.

    It is when the citizens decide that the rulers are not doing a good job carrying out their part of the implicit social contract that the myths start to fall apart and social unrest ensues.

  • Richard Conrad Anderson

    Thermopoli, the Hot Gates in “300″, the film, was a delaying action in 480 B.C. The Persians, as we saw, at great cost overcame the heroic Spartans and marched into Attica, and quickly occupied Athens. The Athenians had mostly abandoned their ciry trusting in their “wooden walls”, the fleet . Western Civilization was saved at Salamis, the decisive naval engagement where the Athenian fleet defeated the Persian fleet, leaving the Persian land army unsupported.

  • marygrav

    It always boggles my mind when I hear educated White people who claim that they have lived overseas in foreign lands. This people were not rapid tourist, but lived almost cheek and jowl with the people observing the culture and listening to the people. Tom Ashbrook is one such White person.

    Yet when I heard him say that the T-Party was a grassroots uprising it makes me question his intelligence. How can the T-Party be grassroots when it is sponsored by the Koch Brothers; Coors, and other billionaires and Think Tanks, some of which contain War Criminals.

    It is because of people that the American people hold as authorities that the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe seems to be on fire.

    We lost our Democracy when the T-Party using Mafia tactics and gerrymandering took over the House of Representatives and allowed AIPAC and other Lobbys take over American foreign policy.

    Knowing other peoples’ history and being ignorant of your own is nothing more than ignorance.

Sep 18, 2014
Flickr/Steve Rhodes

After a summer of deadly clashes between Gaza and Israel, we talk to Jews on the left and right about the future of liberal Zionism. Some say it’s over.

Sep 18, 2014

Billionaires. We’ll look at the super super rich, and their global shaping of our world.

Sep 17, 2014
Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

Sep 17, 2014
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Talking Through The Issue Of Corporal Punishment For Kids
Wednesday, Sep 17, 2014

On Point dove into the debate over corporal punishment on Wednesday — as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson faces charges in Texas after he allegedly hit his four-year-old son with a switch.

More »
1 Comment
Our Week In The Web: September 12, 2014
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

In which you had varied reactions to the prospect of a robotic spouse.

More »
Beverly Gooden on #WhyIStayed
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Beverly Gooden — who originated the #WhyIStayed hashtag that has taken off across Twitter — joined us today for our discussion on domestic violence.

More »
1 Comment