archaeology, history, monument in antiquity
The paper mainly focuses on what the Parthenon frieze may represent. It explores different interpretations formed by numerous post-critique scholars; what they think the frieze may represent or convey. This paper aims to discuss probable representation(s) of the south and east side. In addition, it is also aimed to compare views on specific themes and scene on these two sides.
Among scholars, there have been questions posed about the purpose and function of the Parthenon frieze. These questions may include what is the frieze for, what was it meant to depict and why it depicts certain elements1. While some scholars suggest the frieze served a political function, perhaps propaganda, others argue that most convincing explanation and interpretation is that the frieze merely depicted a religious ritual or service. Such ritual service refers to the Panathenaic festival2. This festival was celebrated by the Athenians in honor of Goddess Athena annually in June3. However, as there were not many written records4, resulting in fewer primary5 sources found. For instance, there was little specific documentation directly mention the purpose and function of the frieze. Therefore, it is difficult to confirm the ancient views of the frieze. In other words, there is no strong evidence to know what sculptors, guided by the Greek Phidias sculptor intended to convey, or what the ancient people feel was conveyed. By default, this allowed modern interpreters to reconstruct meaning or purpose according to their findings and beliefs6. This led to various opinions and interpretations on what the frieze represents and symbolizes.
This paper explores several themes on south and east side of the frieze. In particular, it zooms into the different scenes within these themes. These themes include the existence of Gods, handing over of peplos, and the horsemen scene. To do so, the paper is structured theme by theme and discusses different views that post-critiques have on these themes. Moreover, the discussion contains what the themes may depict. The essence of studying the meaning of frieze may enable scholars and curious readers to capture the Greek societal living.
This paper draws on a variety of sources including journal websites, academic books7, and literature review. This paper does not discuss all four sides of the Parthenon frieze individually, instead, it exclusively discusses the east and south sides. This is because the south and east have been disputed in greater depth and more information is available, particularly the peplo scene and the horsemen scene. The outcome of the paper concludes that despite there are differing interpretations of the frieze, the entire frieze may not be represented by a single theme, rather, interpretation differs and changes when one takes a different approach to understand the frieze with the help of their own gathered of sources. Furthermore, two sides of the frieze overlap in terms of the meaning.
The construction date of the Parthenon frieze is affirmative based on the building bill8 accounts, constructed between 445 and 438 BC9, which began upon the Persian Empire. Figures are displayed on all four sides such as Gods, riders, chariots, animals10. The frieze, though its meaning and representation are yet vague. In the eighteenth century, the traditional interpretation of the sculptural work of Pheidias’ Parthenon frieze favors the association with the Panathenaic festival11. However, other different interpretations are also formed by numerous scholars, with some disagree with the nature of this connection. Nevertheless, questions have brought to the surface that yet remain an enigma: what does the frieze depict and what may it represent, for instance, what might the people in central east frieze symbolize. This topic is essential as the deciphering of the meaning and interpretation of the Parthenon frieze is still ongoing and a division is created as a result among post-critique scholar. The paper provides the different views that scholars have on the scenes of the frieze, specifically on the south and east side for they are the most debated. A theme by theme is presented throughout the paper, where the theme is defined as scenes of the frieze. It aims to compare those views on the themes of those two sides. Section one is a discussion on the first theme, the “peplos scene”. Section two is a discussion of the seated Gods. Then, section three takes a look at the cavalry and finally a summation of the perspectives.
On the East block V31-35, known as the “peplos scene” on the one hand it has been claimed to be a representation of the Panathenaic festival, on the other hand, it is a depiction of a family. V31-35 is composed of five figures interact with each other. John Boardman argues that the scene is within the Panathenaic procession context and that the peplo is intended for Athena. The main reason he believes the east frieze depicts a Panathenaic procession is that because, the movement of figures from all sides seemingly directed towards the east,
specifically towards the center. Lagerlof sides with Boardman, agreeing that it starts at the southwest corner and culminates at the center east as it is above the main temple entrance12 as this is the most visible view for anyone when looking up. Other proclamations on the procession are by James Stuart and Nicholas, that a clear depiction of procession elements are present, such as water jars and baskets, sacrificial animals13. Peplos are woven for three great occasions in Greek life: funeral purpose, marriage and swaddling birth clothes. If think critically, Athena was worshipped as a virgin warrior goddess and thus cannot represent her swaddling clothes given that she was born in full garment, or her wedding dress given her “perpetual virginity”14.
On the contrary, Burkhard rejects the link between the procession and the frieze. Instead, he recognizes are presentation of the ideal Athenian oikos(house), whose members are involved in some kind of cultic activity. Subsequently, the central scene illustrates “the correct behavior of members of the community within the democratic system15”. In such a way that it presents an exemplum of an ideal family unit because there is a mother who trains her two daughters in textile production and, the father shows his son with mantle, the symbol of citizen status16.
He further utilizes a parallel for to back up his argument which is the Samian Geneleos group whose family consists of a married couple, three children. Moreover, the youngsters could not be slaves or servants as they do not have any of the attributes that characterize female servants. As well, the master would never lend a hand with anything a servant is doing17. Other disagreements, namely the missing key members such as the Athenian maiden, allies and the peplo ship. A Greek archaeologist Chrysoula Kadara views in a more holistic analysis manner as she considers the east side alongside the metopes and pediments. Based on the fact that as per practice on Doric temple depicts mythological events, Ionic frieze display both mortals and Gods, usually considered as scandalous. Kardara softened this by claiming that this central scene is the first inauguration, set in mythical times18. Her evidence for this was from a relief under the rule of King Kekrops with his family, whose explanation would account for the absence of these elements, as the first procession predates the original practice of the sacrificial traditions19. Similarly, Connelly proposed that the scene shows the story of human sacrifice,
specifically King Erectheus sacrificing his children, Lagerlof too accepts such belief20. She holds that these figures are mythical King Euretheus, his wife Praxius and their three daughters. To back up her argument, she identifies the figures as the royal family because of the presence of the girls and greek families have at least one treasure son ( pg165). Furthermore, her thinking of the subject matter as the preparation for human sacrifice is based on parallelism, in both the east pediment21, the myth of Oracle and Kassandra of Troy. she connects to the story in which Princess Cassandra is dressed as a bride for Agamemnon and to be murdered at hands of Clytemnestra22 whom she had been oppressed as a prize of war.
The strongest iconographic tradition behind the slabs IV 24-27, V29-30 and VI36-41, it is the seated assembly of Olympian gods but the role of the gods remain puzzling to scholars. In the work of “Reconfiguring the Gods on the Parthenon Frieze” Jennifer Niels establishes that the group of seated figures are the Olympian gods23, illustrated by their sizes on the east side of the frieze. Compared to mortals, the seated gods would be approximately 35 percent taller than the humans24. This can be explained as the frieze is isocephalic for both riding, standing, and seated figures; hence if the Gods were to stand up, their heads would stick out of the frieze itself. The identification of the Gods can be aided by the elements and belongings of the Gods. For instance, boots of Hermes and torch of Demeter and the throne of Zeus, shown by the elaborate design patterns on the chair. Additionally, she notes that the gods appear to be distant from the rest of the occurrence, being placed with their backs to the procession. It seems that Apollo turns to Poseidon, Dionysos to Hermes, Hera to Zeus, and Hephaistos to Athena. According to Niels, their behavior may allude that fact the deities sit in an invisible semicircle around the peplo scene, also an idea articulated by A.H.Smith25. In sitting around the peplo, they are then able to greet the processions and “watch the manipulation of the cloth”26. The problem with this idea is that why would the sculptor not present the gods sat facing in because it is obscure positioning27 the gods in a semicircle outwards like this.
Meanwhile, Connelly shares the same premise of gods are looking away from the procession. But she offers a different interpretation where she makes a link with gods’ gazing away behavior and divinity. It may have been that because human is improper for gods to watch and it also defiles their divinity. To explain this phenomenon, Connelly brings Euripides's play in and makes interpretation from there. An excerpt from one of Euripides’ plays in which Apollo must leave before Alketis die as it “lest pollution taint me in the house”. Another play by Euripides which she uses is Hippolytos, where Artemis must not watch son of Theseus die, Artemis said: ‘It is not lawful for me to gaze upon the dead nor to trouble my eye with the dying gasp of mortals’.
Again, this provides Connelly context and evidence that pollution back in the Athenian 4th century is inappropriate. The gods are essentially not permitted to witness such activity as it has a negative and degrading of the deities connotation.
The view of Ira Mark respect to the assembly of Olympian gods equates with both Smith and Niels. Mark similarly suggests that slabs with the deities are a representation of the Olympian assembled for a specific event or simply social gathering for their own entertainment28 . He puts forward that this representation mirrors the essential institutions of civilized society. To cite this part of the interpretation, Mark substantiates his idea based on the vases: a pyxis potted by Nikosthenes in Florence, Sosias' cup in Berlin, a cup by Oltos in Tarquinia, and an amphora in black-figure by Exekias in Orvieto. They usually depict the deities gather for a specific event, either religious or battles. It has been that gathering of gods always pictured on the east end of temple in Greek sculpture29. Another piece of evidence can be found from Iliad, in which gods gathered to watch mortals combat the Trojan War from Olympos30. The vases are different in two aspects from the east frieze, one how the seats are arranged and second, and two who sits next to whom. Nevertheless, seating of Hera and Zeus in east frieze is comparable to the vases; invariably kept simple and unchanged but as for other deities in the frieze, it is more complex. Clues were provided by the mentioned vases of which are the gods sit either one behind the other, in pairs one facing the other, or in pairs side by side31.
The horsemen, particularly those on the south side which is similar to that of the north had triggered several commentators to touch upon the concept of a cavalry “uniform”32 and citizen soldiers.
The concept of uniform discusses those horsemen are either from different tribes or different fest33. In Tom Stevenson's publication, he argues that the horsemen on the south frieze are not shown in cavalry uniform, rather was the responsibility of each cavalryman to dress properly34. He posited the non-uniform cavalrymen based upon literature and vases, as well as supports Ian Jenkins’ view on the 10 units composed of varying horsemen. As a consequence, he strongly believes that if these sources did not mention or address horsemen being organized together at the tribal level, then it is not worth to state that they are. With Xenophon’s hipparchikos, he derives that Athenian cavalry not as a standing unit35 of professional soldiers but more a mobilized force of upper-class volunteers, in times of emergency. This is to say the elements of horsemen are not easily distinctive as a whole. Steveson does, however, concur with the traditional explanation of the subject of the frieze as an idealized Panathenaic festival. In his article, he mentions Jennifer Niels who analyzed the same slab as him and reveals that 60 riders are divided into 10 groups and each being marked by its own distinctive dress36. Each individual tribe thus have variations; the first group is alone with Thracian cap, the second group being only one not wearing chiton and fifth group the only group wears metal body armor37. Stevenson, solely refer this as variations, that the tribes itself is uniformed. however, can this not be partially uniformed when stepping back and looking at a bigger picture?
Boardman, on the other hand, develops a different thesis with the connection of peplo scene on the east side and the calvacade scene on the south side. He draws attention to the heroic meaning by identifying the riders as who died at the Marathon, are led into the presence of the gods as an acknowledgment their debt that Greece owed them.pg325
Although he had to omit the charioteers as "no more important than their horses”, the number of men in the cavalcade on equaled the number of Athenian soldiers to have died. He had calculated that in total there were 192 soldiers served in the battle and that there are sixty riders on the south side. As a consequence, there had been objections to his observation on the number of horsemen as selective choosing was involved which figures to count to achieve that number of 192.
A completely different angle approached by Margaretha, she focuses on the horsemen’s glazes
by contrasting to those of on the north side. In short, she discerns that only one man is looking
back on the south in contrast to the north, where numerous men are glancing back38. This leads
her to think that men are coherent by the fact all its members are behaving in the same way.
Hence, linking back to the uniform theses postulated by Tom Stevenson and Ian Jenkins. In
Lagerlof's view, this tribal uniformity reflects aspects of the community spirit. It encourages a
few opportunities for inappropriate actions. This then, in turn, may represent the bravery and
strength of the elites because of the unity of leadership. She also proposes that the horsemen
may be escorts, participants or members in the calvary or just ideal figures combining
democratic and aristocratic qualities with some kind of political relevance. Most notably they are
just citizens because they appear to be very young 18-20 normally involved in military exercises 39.
This paper has highlighted different perspectives and interpretation on the south and east side of the Parthenon. It began with the peplo scene and closed with the calvary scene. The most dominating reading of the frieze combined exclusively with the south and east has been a depiction of the procession of the Great Panathenaic festival. This theory was first suggested by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, there a number of variations and responses ever since. A large number of scholars have looked at the same scenes, particularly the ones discussed throughout the paper and yet many come to different conclusions about their meaning and representations. Overall, some provide interpretations that saw the two sides as depicting myth, history, family, and generic festivity. Regardless of the variations within interpretations, it is still difficult to confirm any of these with ancient sources, as the majority in the absence or destroyed. Nevertheless, these interpretations are relevant and useful making better sense of the Parthenon frieze depiction.
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