Book review (nonfiction): The Parthenon Enigma

02 02 2014 The Parthenon Enigma by Joan Breton Connelly

Think of the Parthenon. You know, the iconic, colonnaded building that dominates the Acropolis in Athens.

Are you visualizing it? OK. So what did you think of when it popped into your mind? Chances are, you experienced proud, happy thoughts about the powers of freedom and democracy.

You’re not alone. People have associated the Parthenon with modern Western ideals since the Age of Enlightenment.

“Viewing the Parthenon as synonymous with the Western democratic system of government began in the eighteenth century, when the art historian Johann Winckelmann first linked the emergence of individual liberty to the development of high classical style,” Joan Breton Connelly writes in her groundbreaking book, “The Parthenon Enigma.”

Even today, we associate Greek Revival architecture with important civic buildings. (Imagine trying to count all of the Greek columns on monuments and federal government buildings in Washington— a Herculean task, for sure.)

Advocates of democracy aren’t alone in offering interpretations of the Parthenon. “Cecil Rhodes viewed the Parthenon as a manifestation not of democracy but of empire,” writes Connelly, a classical archaeologist and MacArthur Fellow. Likewise, “the fascist regime of Hitler’s Germany … readily appropriated it in the service of its ideological, cultural, and social agendas.”

But none of our various readings of the Parthenon are historically accurate, Connelly argues.

To understand the ideas behind the Parthenon, which was built nearly 2,500 years ago, we need to see it from the perspective of ancient Greeks because it is “first and foremost a religious building,” she writes, with intricate ties to Athens’s own foundation myths and its earliest history.

In a radical reinterpretation, for example, Connelly suggests that the Parthenon’s frieze illustrates the story of how a legendary royal family of Athens sacrificed its daughters in order to save the city. (Previous interpretations suggested that it depicts an annual civic celebration.)

Sure, it extols the virtues of democracy, but not quite the way we think of it these days (unless you expect the Bushes or the Clintons to sacrifice their offspring to bolster the nation).

“We must not lose sight of the fact that the Parthenon celebrates demokratia in ancient Athenian terms, not those of our time,” Connelly writes. “Where democracies today pride themselves on the separation of religion from the state, no such distinction could have existed in ancient Athens, where myth, religion, and politeia interwove seamlessly. And while modern democracy claims its superiority to other systems on the basis of being a guarantor of individual rights and freedoms, in the classical version emphasis fell solidly on the common good and the sacrifice of individual interests for its sake.”

Connelly’s copious notes and lengthy bibliography will satisfy classical scholars (or at least mollify them, in the face of her more radical suggestions). But general readers with an interest in Greek history and architecture will find “The Parthenon Enigma” fascinating as well.

At times, with its eagle-eyed, puzzle-solving examinations of Greek art and literature, it reads as if it’s a scholarly, supremely intelligent riff on a Dan Brown novel. (Care to read a grown-up version of Robert Langdon without Brown’s intervention, anyone?)

No secret treasure awaits readers who follow Connelly through her elaborate decoding efforts — other than the vision of a more historically accurate Parthenon, of course — but they’ll never think of the world’s most famous building in the same way again.

Doug Childers is a Richmond writer and edits WAG, a literary website, at

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