Visitors to the Central Library often comment on the frieze in the main reading room that runs along the perimeter of the room just below the ceiling. It’s a partial reproduction of the friezes on the Parthenon, one of the finest surviving buildings of Classical Greece and a symbol of Western civilization. Ever since this building opened a century ago, library staff have been telling anyone who asks that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, which concluded the annual festival of the same name held in honor of Athens’ patron deity, the goddess Athena.
Why have we been telling people this? Because everybody knows it, everybody in this case being Classical archaeologists and art historians.
But everybody might be wrong.
New York University archaeology professor Joan Connelly takes issue with this interpretation. First, if the Parthenon friezes do depict part of an annual religious festival, they would be unique. All other known Greek temple art depicts mythical events. In her latest book, The Parthenon Enigma, she sets out an alternative theory that many other scholars find plausible.
First she calls our attention to the so-called “peplos panel,”* which is central to the notion that the frieze represents a religious procession. All we really know is that it shows a bearded man and a younger person of undetermined gender folding a cloth. Traditionally experts have maintained we are seeing the unfolding of the peplos, the new woolen robe draped over the statue of the goddess Athena when the procession arrived at the temple.
However, Connelly points out that the younger person is partly undressed. Partial nudity at such a sacred moment–the culmination of the Panathenaic festival–would have been considered sacrilegious. She also notes that if the frieze does depict the Panathenaic procession, key elements are missing, such as the woman carrying a reed basket who traditionally led the procession, a fake ship bearing the peplos as if it were a sail, and representatives of Athens’ allies bearing tribute.
Connelly thinks the frieze depicts something else entirely, a horrific event from Athens’ early mythic history, retold in Euripides’ play Erechtheus. Athens is at war with Eleusis. The title character of the play, the king of Athens, consults the Delphic oracle, who tells him Athens will be saved if he sacrifices one of his daughters. He returns home and tells his queen, Praxithea, who replies, “This city, though it bears a single name/Holds many people in it. Should I then/Destroy all these, when it is in my power/To give one girl to die on their behalf?” She’s saying yes, our daughter must die, for everyone’s sake.
So what we are seeing in the frieze, according to Connelly, is the imagined procession to a human sacrifice. And the so-called “peplos panel” depicts a young girl changing into the ritual garments she will wear when she dies.
Praxithea’s statement has been considered the most uncompromising expression of Athens’ nascent democratic ethos: no one, not even a princess, can stand in the way of the common good. Or to put it more brutally, a mother should not value her own child’s life over that of others.
Whether Connelly’s right or wrong, her argument opens the way to clearer thinking about the Ancient Greeks, a people that those of us in the West usually think of as our cultural forbears. A professor at my undergraduate school taught a survey course on the ancient world. He always began his lectures on Ancient Greece with the words, “And now we are coming home.” In other words, those Egyptians and Babylonians–their art, their architecture, their ways of thinking–they’re just all so different. But the Ancient Greeks, these are people of the past in whom we can see ourselves.
But only if we close our eyes to much of Greek life. We live in an optimistic society, where we expect a certain fairness in the world, and we tend to shield ourselves from many ugly facts, whether by turning our heads or turning off the news.
But the Greeks believed that cruel, capricious gods governed the world and they stared directly at the most hideous realities. They knew everything comes at a price. For example, one man’s leisure is bought with another man’s enslavement. They glory of a soldier like Achilles comes from the deaths of the men he slaughtered. And in the case of a foundation story of the most iconic Greek city, that community’s existence and all that followed–democracy, art, literature–comes at the most senseless of prices, the murder of a little girl.
The past is a country more foreign than we can ever grasp.
*Not included in the Central Library frieze.