Blog Week 6: The Parthenon Frieze


More scholarly ink has been spilt over the long band of relief sculpture running around the upper
part of the outside face of the Parthenon than perhaps any other work of art from Greco-Roman antiquity, and scholars continue to disagree as to the correct “interpretation.”  I’ve given you three of many points of view (and these authors describe some of the other scholarship).  What meaning do you think lies behind the Parthenon frieze?  What do you think about Margaret Root’s thesis? Is it plausible?


5 responses to “Blog Week 6: The Parthenon Frieze

  • Lili Dodderidge

    In Margaret Root’s essay, the Parthenon frieze is suggested to be reflective of the Persepolis Apadana reliefs. She writes, “I propose to demonstrate that there are indeed critical points of similarity between the Parthenon and the Apadana reliefs, and that these similarities imply not only Athenian awareness, but also conscious emulation, of the Persian programmatic vision” (104). This thesis is, for the most part, pretty plausible, especially when focusing upon the proposed thematic attributes of each piece; however, I think that there is much too great uncertainty with the true interpretation of the frieze for a true parallel to the Apadana reliefs to exist.

    One important similarity between the Persian and Athenian states calls back to an apparently shared ideology on imperialism that is depicted in both the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze. The Persian empire, known for their embrace of diversity and tolerance of foreigners, used the reliefs at Persepolis to, “project a message of harmonious imperial order richly shaded to suggest a divinely sanctioned and piously applied covenant of rulership” (Root 113). This imperial ideal seems to be shared by the people of Athens. Research suggests that this can be seen in the varying dress of Athenian people from the north, west, and south, alluding to the diversity in the population of the city. The accepting nature of Athens could also be interpreted through the central panel scene on the east side, depicting a folding of an old peplos. Here, an older, honorable figure folds the peplos with help from a young child. This scene could symbolize, “the interdependent aspects of preparation for the future…and the care for the traditions and values of the past” (Root 107). Embrace of a new chapter while maintaining a respect for history insinuates Athens’ imperial ideology similar to the Persians—that new people and experiences are welcome, but a care for tradition must remain in place. Essentially, the frieze is an idealization of Athenian culture and societal living. By being a “flattering Athenian self-portrait” (Hurwit 225), the frieze sends a message to its citizens of how Athenian people should live—in a tolerant, accepting, respectful, and reverent manner. This tactic was used by the Persians as well; with an empire as large as the Persians’, the political art of the empire, including the Apadana reliefs, all gave the diverse sects of citizens lessons in imperial culture and motives.

    In the sense that both the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze depicted imperial ideology, both pieces of art are very similar; with that idea in mind, I would agree with Root. However, I would not go as far as she does to say that this is the correct interpretation of the frieze—that the frieze and the reliefs share an integral relationship for each other’s interpretation. I personally enjoyed Hurwit’s chapter on interpreting the frieze in which he explains the possible ways in which to view the frieze, either through a mythical, historical, or generic context. I found his discussion of the “generic” interpretation to be the most engaging interpretation. While Hurwit, as well as Stewart in his own article, find fault in this suggestion in the lack of certain characteristic features of Athenian processional culture, the potential in the generic interpretation takes hold with me. I like the idea that the Parthenon frieze was the first piece of architectural art of its kind, the original precedent for exploring contemporary society in architecture. In creating this contemporary image, Athenians could gain a better grasp of their society, find home in the depictions of their culture, recognize the connections between themselves and their diverse fellow citizens. This interpretation of the frieze not only works with the then-contemporary citizens of Athens, but gives future generations a sociological map to explore on one of the most prominent ancient pieces of architecture in the world. Furthermore, this perception of the Parthenon frieze sets Athens apart as a creative and forward-thinking society, open to all, while remaining reverent to its roots.

  • Sarah Murphy

    While the author of every article we read makes valid and supported points, they all seem to concur, and I agree, that it is impossible to state conclusively what the frieze of the Parthenon depicts. That being said, the authors each make their own arguments about the frieze’s potential depiction and message. I found some arguments more believable than others, and I was able to find flaws with every explanation. For example, Andrew Stewart’s asserts that the frieze awakens a “homoerotic relationship between the spectator and the youthened demos” (Stewart 82). Although I found the repetition of nudity throughout the frieze interesting, I find it difficult to believe that this frieze had the purpose of causing homoerotic desire; the height of the frieze and the scarcity of nude figures relative to all the figures demonstrates that the main focus of the artist was not to arouse any sort of sexual passion.
    Margaret Root makes some valid points in her argument. She establishes that Greeks would have known about the Apadana Reliefs and that some specific figures on the frieze echo the relief. The reliefs both at Persepolis and on the Parthenon are clearly processions, and probably not meant to be seen as purely historical. I would also agree with her statement that the Parthenon frieze depicts a procession about to begin. Root’s analysis of the figures’ positions and their roles in the procession make this point understandable. Root’s thesis, however, relies on the fact that the procession is celebrating the Great Panathenaia. She does not lay sufficient foundation to this assumption, nor does she address inconsistencies between knowledge of this festival and the depiction of the procession. Hurwit’s chapter addresses these inconsistencies; he states that hoplites, an integral part of the festival, are nowhere to be found on the frieze (Hurwit 226).
    Although i do not completely buy Root’s theory, I do have difficulty coming up with my own. This is obviously some sort of religious procession, since the gods are in attendance and animals are being brought for sacrifice. The depiction may have a military aspect to it, especially since there are a great many horsemen and charioteers. I would agree with the statements of scholars that it is probably not a specific procession and probably idealizes figures and the ceremony, since there are no distinguishing features on the particular figures that would indicate their identity (with the exception of the gods). In order to more accurately determine what the frieze depicts, I would have to know more about the clothing of the figures and the religious and military festivals of 5th century Athens. Perhaps scholars will never be able to gather enough information to pinpoint the reasoning of this frieze. It is clear, however, that whatever was depicted was important enough to the Athenians to place in such a prominent, special location.

  • Danny Rivera

    That scholars agree that it is difficult to come to a conclusion on the true meaning of the Parthenon frieze does not stop them from trying. Each author presents their own, and several other, conclusions, and while they all have their own level of credence, that level begins to decrease the more and more specific they get. Each scholar has a thesis, and they provide evidence to support that thesis, obviously, but the way this comes across to me is that they have read other work on the Parthenon frieze, have come to a conclusion about its meaning, and now seek to find evidence to support that claim, as opposed to looking at the frieze, hypothesizing, and doing research to see whether or not that is true. The formula seems to be, “I have this theory, look at how you can see that it’s true in the frieze”, as opposed to, “This part of the frieze looks like it could be such and such. I researched, and found that this much was true, and this much was not true.”
    I bring this up because the most vague statements about the frieze, the ones that the scholars seem to agree on, have convincing evidence.
    Stewart’s claim the the male bodies on the Parthenon could evoke homoerotic desires is pretty compelling when you consider the previous appearances of the “eromenoi” in art, and the dialogues of Plato that Stewart references. However, notice that I said they could evoke homoerotic desires, not that they do. It is practically impossible to conclude that it indeed did happen, and that that was the intention of the designer.
    Additionally, Hurwit mentions that some scholars attempt to achieve “unity of place” on the frieze, and claim that it is set in Agora. This strikes me as something of a metaphor for the scholarly need to find a “unity of theme”, if you will. Hurwit says other scholars “more flexibly distribute the action over different parts of Athens”. If we can distribute the action that way, why not distribute the theme over several aspects of Athens? Why must it be a single Panathenaic precession, and not aspects of several? Why must it not, like Hurt suggests, present various ideals of Athenian society? My point is, it is impossible to verify specific claims about the frieze, so if certainty is so important, why not make claims that can be verified?

  • Danielle Lee

    It is widely agreed upon that there is no agreement on the meaning of the Parthenon’s extensive frieze. It also seems to be the consensus that the ambiguity of the frieze’s depicted figures and actions is rather unique and unprecedented.

    I wonder, however, if the frieze is not purposely ambiguous. I know that sounds almost too simple, but the more I read Stewart, Hurwit, and Root, the total lack of clarity in the images became more and more evident. And, at least in my experience, this was not usually the case in ancient Greek art. From what I remember from previous classes, Greek artists would label the figures they were depicting so as to clearly denote the scene being portrayed. While my memory can only recall such labels in paintings on vases and such, it only makes sense that artists would try to be as clear as possible when creating images of the divinities or heroes. Therefore, it puzzled me to think that the Greek artists working on the Parthenon could allow such ambiguity when sculpting the frieze. Though, of course, there may simply be a gap in current knowledge that the contemporary Greeks were privy to. Nonetheless, as scholars have identified fragments of friezes and such throughout the years, I feel it is hardly likely that they would not be able to identify clearly defined figures in the Parthenon frieze if they were thusly depicted.

    Now that I have somewhat established that the frieze’s ambiguity was purposeful, I would propose that the images of the Athenians lining the temple roof are simply that. Athenians, as is clearly signified by their name, are the people of Athena. So while some of the scholars seemed confused as to why there were so many soldiers on horseback, I felt that it was the best way for the artists to communicate Athena as the goddess of war. Although the cavalry was only a small portion of the current Athenian army, from the viewer’s perspective far below the frieze, it is much easier to distinguish the civilian from a cavalryman rather than a civilian from another foot soldier.

    Moreover, Athena, of all the Greek divinities is one of the most ambiguous figures of all. She is one of few goddesses who remains a virgin—an unlikely characteristic among gods and among men. Unlike any other god or goddess, Athena was born from Zeus’ head. And because of the unique circumstances of her birth, Athena, at least in the tradition of the Oresteia, almost sees herself as a son, siding with the male perspective. I was constantly reminded of Athena’s masculine loyalties despite her female identity while reading Stewart’s claim of the frieze’s homo-eroticism. While this was also a constant feature of ancient Athenian culture and life, the men’s lack of facial hair and generally feminine body types and language seemed, to me, an allusion to Athena’s own lack of a clearly defined identity.

    All types of citizens were represented in the frieze—leaders, soldiers, women, and youth; but, the overall theme seems to be an identification with the patron Athena.

    In the end, of course, this is all speculation after reading a few articles and glancing at portions of the actual frieze. I feel that the scholars writing about the frieze are trying so hard to pinpoint an exact event or an exact identity that they forget that the same ancient Athenians (well not the exact same ones) were the geniuses who gave history lasting philosophies and governmental framework. It seems hardly likely that they would not be smart enough to make a clearly defined frieze if that was their goal.

  • Ryan Day

    I think a lot of thought has gone into the meaning behind the Parthenon frieze, and while such thought is necessary, many may go too far in assuming the Parthenon’s importance to the Greeks. This was not the culmination of Greek society as a whole. My thoughts on the Parthenon frieze is that, since it was conceived during the systematic quadrupling of Athens’s cavalry, it is fairly easy to explain the large presence of horses.This increase in the strength of their cavalry should have been rather important to the Athenians since Athena was regarded as the goddess of horses and inventor of the chariot.

    The images are not those of a full cavalry, however. The riders are young and without weapons and there are several scenes where they are not in full control of their mounts. This could signify the beginning of the increase in cavalry forces, before they had fully understood the way in which to train and equip the larger number of cavalry. The Olympians look on in approval because they see Athens gaining strength. This is more of a militaristic theory, obviously, but I see Athenian cavalry becoming a point of pride for Athens, and the Parthenon became an expression of that pride.

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