The Parthenon Frieze

Joan B. Connelly's re-interpretation of the Parthenon frieze appears in the American Journal of Archaeology, AJA 100 [1996] 53-80. Here is an uncritical summary of her arguments, followed by a few questions.


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.

C's solution begins with the "peplos" panel on the east frieze. She holds that it represents the mythical king Erechtheus, together with his wife Praxithea and their three daughters. Our main Athenian source for this myth consists of the fragments of Euripides' play Erechtheus. One large fragment is preserved by the orator Lycurgus (Against Leocrates, 101) and another is preserved on papyrus (Sorbonne 2328 = Recherches de Papyr. 4, 1967, pp. 11-67). The myth can be reconstructed as follows: Erechtheus' new city is threatened by a rival, Eumolpus the son of Poseidon (whose gift of a spring was rejected in favor of Athena's olive). Delphi says Erechtheus must sacrifice his daughter to save the city. The three girls make a pact that if one of them must die they will all die. The youngest is sacrificed and the city wins the battle, though Erechtheus himself is swallowed by an earthquake; the other girls will die later. Athena directs the queen, Praxithea, to honor the dead girls with a sacred precinct on the Acropolis.

On the peplos panel, there are 5 figures. Left to right, we have two girls, a woman, a bearded man, and a smaller child of indeterminate sex. C first suggests that the woman, usually identified as the priestess of Athena, is Praxithea the wife of Erechtheus. She wants to identify the bearded man (traditionally seen as a priest or as the Archon Basileus) as Erechtheus himself, with the attributes of a sacrificing priest. She says the bearded man's tunic is ungirt like that of priests about to sacrifice; but in her parallels, the men are holding knives (and the bearded man on the Parthenon frieze is not). She maintains convincingly that the smaller child at the right must be a girl. There is no known role for a boy even in the peplos ritual. The traditional interpretation says this girl is one of the arrephoroi; but they always appear elsewhere in pairs. C argues, also convincingly, that a girl's nude buttock on display at the culminating moment of this sacred ritual (involving the peplos and Athena's statue) would be offensive to the Athenians. The nudity must be purposeful; it is not Athena's peplos but rather Erechtheus' youngest daughter changing her clothes to be sacrificed. But C does not want the Erechtheid daughter preparing to be sacrificed nude. Parallels for the sacrifice of the virginal daughters of kings are adduced: Iphigeneia, Makaria, Polyxena. C wants to argue that such victims should be clad in a special kind of robe which works like a straightjacket. A wrapped-up Polyxena (as she appears on a 6th century Tyrrhenian amphora) provides her strongest parallel for this form of dress of the human sacrificial victim.

The stools carried by the two girls at left are traditionally thought to be for the priestess and the Archon to sit on, but C adduces parallels for stools used as shelves for clothing. The gods and goddesses seated at right are turned away because it is unseemly for them to watch mortals die. The procession is "the first commemorative sacrifice in honor of Erechtheus and his daughters." The nine or ten men usually seen as the eponymous heroes or as the archons are generic elders. The chariots and the lack of hoplites in the procession accord with the idea that this is an army of the distant past, not a fifth century army. The cavalry evoke the distant past. The young men with horses evoke the sense of ephebes at the dokimasia. The Thracian caps are booty taken from the defeated Thracians in Eumolpus' army.

The Pandora whose birth was represented at the base of the chryselephantine Athena was not Hesiod's Pandora but rather a daughter of Erechtheus. C finds some parallels for the kosmos (or dressing scene) of Pandora; hence she suggests that the littlest girl on the Parthenon "peplos" scene is Pandora. However, the mythographic tradition was fairly confused about the names, numbers, and even sexes of the children of Erechtheus.

C further suggests that the west room of the Parthenon was believed to rest upon the tombs of the maidens, because in the papyrus fragment Euripides has Athena directing that a precinct be established where the girls are buried. So the name "Parthenon" is explained by C as a genitive plural ("the place of the maidens") rather than, as it usually explained, being formed from Athena's epithet Parthenos. Indeed, C thinks the local epithet Parthenos for Athena results from her being conflated with the Erechtheid girl. The Panathenaic festival was not originally a celebration of Athena's birthday, as is usually thought, but rather elaborate funeral games for the daughters of Erechtheus, who (she suggests) had a hero-cult on the Acropolis. Finally, she returns to the folded cloth. The usage of Athena's peplos in some ways suggests a funerary shroud; so the real peplos or peploi alluded to the one depicted on the Parthenon frieze, which however was not a representation of it but rather of the Erechtheid girl's bridal/funereal wrap. In fifth century ritual the arrephoroi weave the peplos; the pair of girls at left on the "peplos" scene thus evokes the arrephoroi.


The strengths of C's interpretation are evident. What are its weaknesses? First, conceiving of the procession as separated in time from the scene on the "peplos" slabs is perhaps a weak link ("the central scene may be read as a sort of flashback," p. 67). In the fragment of the play on papyrus, Athena instructs Praxithea to establish a ritual in honor of the girls. But are there parallels from architectural sculpture of the Classical period for this sort of temporal disjunction? Does it not seem more likely that whatever is depicted on the frieze, it all takes place at one time? Why not just suggest that the procession is somehow part of the same ritual event in which the sacrifice takes place? Second, is it reasonable to have a royal family so prominently celebrated by democratic Periklean Athens? C does not deal with this at length; she says that the Erechtheids in fact conform to "democratic" social ideology because they put the city's needs ahead of their own family (and she attributes this argument to R. Seaford, note 124).

Third, what about the clothing of the human sacrificial victim? It appears from Aeschylus Agamemnon, 239 that Iphigeneia is imagined as unclad at the moment of being sacrificed. Is she also unclad on the white-ground lekythos by Douris of c. 470 BC (ARV(2) 446.266, mislabeled as 226 in C's note 84)? Polyxena too tears off the top of her robe in preparation for the knife (Euripides Hecuba, 555-562 ). Polyxena is probably the weakest of C's three parallels for the royal virgin sacrifice, since she is not sacrificed to save a city (Troy has already fallen) but to appease the ghost of Achilleus. But it is Polyxena who (as she appear on the 6th century Tyrrhenian amphora) provides C's strongest parallel for the dressing up of the human sacrificial victim. Is there any inconsistency here? On the one hand, C wants the exposed buttock of the Erechtheid girl to evoke the nudity of the sacrificial victim. But at the same time she wants the moment depicted to be prior to the actual sacrifice. Erechtheus does not even have the knife in his hand yet. C focuses on bridal clothing and funereal clothing, invoking the "bride of death" paradigm; but this episode would be first and foremost a sacrifice. Does it make sense to assimilate the robe to bridal or funereal wear if "Pandora" is going to remove or tear it before she dies? Does it make sense to say the gods are turned away because it is unseemly for them to see humans being killed, when (as C reads the panel) the victim is not dying, but merely preparing to die?

© 1996 by David L. Silverman, all rights reserved.
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