An artwork is identified closely with both its creator and the period and the place in which it was created.  With a painting by Van Gogh or a novel by Burroughs, the place and person and the associations we make to place the work into a larger context are all fairly straightforward.  We have internalized information about life in nineteenth-century Paris and Amsterdam and an at least impressionistic feel for post-war Tunisia.  In the case of an ancient artwork, the discrepancy between our imagined knowledge of a society and the artist’s place in it and the reality of the situation is likely to be much greater.  What happens when our beliefs regarding the genealogy of a piece, as well as its physical history, distort the way we see it to the point that it would not be recognizable to the artist who made it?  Taking the Parthenon as an example, I would like to explore how our prejudices and social condition, combined with its physical history, affect our understanding of the Parthenon as opposed to the intentions and original sentiment of those who created it.

In the fifth century BC, Athens was at its pinnacle.  While the Parthenon was erected by the sculptor and architect Phidas under the instruction of Pericles, Sophocles and Socrates were coming into the height of their careers.  The polis was still engulfed by the euphoria of victory in the second Persian War.  The victory had a high cost though.  After initially resisting the Persian invasion which had conquered the rest of Greece, in 479 BC Athens was leveled to the ground.  Returning to the rubble, Athenian pride welled and the citizens vowed to rebuild the civic glory that had reached such heights the century before.  The vow included the line, “I will not rebuild any of the temples that have been burned or destroyed by the barbarians.”  These were to be left as a reminder of the vicious attack on Athens and of Athens’ ability to weather the storm.  

The ground swell that fueled the resistance to the Persians gave new life to the tradition of democracy in Athens, which had been plagued by a string of “tyrants.”  Democracy,  reason and art were developed to new heights.  The theater had grown out of the traditional epic poetry of Homer to be a popular new art form that was recognized as something new in the history of the world.  The word-play of the Sophists was being seriously challenged by Socrates and the teachings of the proto-mathematician Pythagoras.  Reason was seen as the way of politics, the voice of the gods, and the province of the Athenians.  It was in this atmosphere, less than forty years after the razing of Athens, that Pericles proposed the rebuilding of the temples.  

The Parthenon was the largest temple of its type ever built.  It is a reinvention of the Dorian style, which had been dominant in Greece for some time.  This reworking was mainly in scale, adding tall, slender columns to help the building reach a height of over sixty feet.  In the first chamber was the statue of Pallas Athena, built by Phidas himself.  The statue stood nearly forty feet tall and was adorned with gold plates bolted onto an ivory skin.  The exterior of the building was extremely ornamental, with each surface brightly painted.  Friezes encircling the building depicted the war with the Persians and mythological stories that proclaimed final victory over barbarism, brute force, and injustice.  Less than ten years after the Parthenon’s completion, Athens fell into twenty-seven years of war with Sparta largely brought about by aggressive, repressive Athenian cultural and military imperialism throughout Greece.

Over the next two and a half millennia, Athens and the Acropolis were passed from one conqueror to another.  At times sacked, at other times almost abandoned, Athens became more and more removed from its artistic and political glory.  The Parthenon was affected at each turn.  The building was repeatedly looted by Roman Emperors.  In 400 AD Phidas’ statue of Athena was taken to Constantinople after standing for over 800 years.  During the Parthenon’s period as a Catholic cathedral many of the pagan friezes were defaced.  In 1683 a round from a Venetian cannon, intentionally aimed at the Parthenon, hit and exploded a Turkish powder magazine.  The roof was blown off and 28 columns damaged or destroyed.  In the nineteenth century, following the neo-classicist interest of the enlightenment, archeologists swept the Acropolis clean of whatever past looters and armies had not already stolen and destroyed and began a restoration process with the remaining debris, giving the Parthenon the appearance that we recognize today.

The image we have of the Acropolis, especially as Americans, is one of purity.  The simple, undisturbed appearance, the lack of ornamentation, the off-white of the marble almost growing naturally out of the barren mound rising from the city.  An oasis of calm in a manic metropolis.  This is the image emulated in the stark white uniformity of the monuments of Washington, D.C., just as an emulated ideal of democracy and the credo of reason fueled the formation of the United States.  In our democratic system, we claim the legacy of Greeks.  The politics of the founders of the United States were drawn from a long line of logic-based philosophy that claims a direct decent from Aristotle and Plato.  Just as the Greeks had triumphed over the barbarians using reason and intellect, and the Renaissance lifted Europe out of its “Dark Ages” with scholarly classicism, we have, by virtue of our superior reasoning, established the greatest nation the world has ever known.  As Americans we claim to follow the Athenians in our rational adherence to the virtues of individuality, education and free speech, among others.

The discrepancy between the art and values of the Greeks and Americans is in large part due to our development as imitators.  We are in fact imitators of imitators, the Renaissance and the Romans offering a string of interpretations that distort the original picture of Greek life and art.  Our image of Athens as a rational, individualistic utopia is as distorted as our image of the pristine, white Acropolis as a minimalist masterpiece.  The Acropolis was, as stated above, brightly painted, each surface finished with an “almost baroque clutter, hubris sanctified by religion and justified through art.”  It served not as an oasis of serenity but as the active heart of the polis, through which all the blood of art and thought and religion pumped.  The intent of the builders was an inseparable blend of civic glorification and deity worship.  In Athens, the concept of reason did not stand on its own or in connection to a system of science, it existed in an intimate relation to the gods.  The gods permeated daily life in a way that is not reflected in the modern Judeo-Christian religions.  The individualistic spirit of Athens, as in Socrates’ statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” can only be understood in relation to the equally intense civic spirit.  This spirit verges on hubris, as Green points out, and was foremost on Socrates’ mind as he drank hemlock in a prison cell rather than flee his beloved polis.

To claim a connection or understanding of the Greeks based on this fading neo-classicism is one-sided at best.  The framing of a roofless, skeletal Parthenon against the metropolis of modern (and nineteenth-century) Athens distorts the original meaning of the artwork as much as the gunpowder and weathering have distorted its original form.  And yet, standing in the streets of modern Athens and staring at the Acropolis through alleyways and suspended trolley lines, I see the most moving artwork I have ever experienced.  I spent every summer of my childhood in Athens and each of the thousands of glimpses and stares have moved me.  The Acropolis has been one of the most studied and written about of ancient sites in the modern era.  Only the Great Pyramids carry the same esteem, but do it with size and mystery.  The Parthenon does it with art.  But are we looking at the same work of art erected by Pericles?  Art is judged largely on our experience in its presence.  Does our experience as Americans echo that of the Athenians of the late fifth century BC?  I think the answer to this is apparent.  We feel a sense of awe and possible distant connection.  The Athenians felt a sense of achievement, an experience of integration and individual identification with the Acropolis that itself goes back eons before the Golden Age.  We see simplicity and stark uniformity while the Athenians saw elaborate decoration and empire.  If our experience is not the same and the physical appearance is not the same, then how can it be the same artwork?  Just as the stones that had fallen with the Old Parthenon were lifted to build the new Parthenon, the stones of the latter have been lifted and reset in the great restorations between 1833 and 1930.  In 441 BC, the architects intended to establish a great monument in their own image, one that would signify and enhance their integrated values of reason and religion, individualism and intimate society.  In the last century and a half, the archeologists and scholars intended to (re)build a classic monument in the name of the values thought to be derived from the original culture but in reality were derived from their own: starkness, uniformity, imitation, and isolation of art from life.

The Parthenon is, as it stands today atop the Acropolis in the center of chaotic downtown Athens, a work of art.  It has all the makings of one: intention on the part of the artists, skill, social importance, public display.  In fact, it has all these twice.  Two separate sets of intentions, meanings and even forms, one that no longer exists, and one which is known throughout the world.  It is this second one that is the artwork with which we are familiar, the first is one of Herodotus’ Seven Wonders of the World, a fantastic image in the imagination, but nowhere to be found.  

Excpert from The Ancient and Modern Parthenon by Michael Giotis (1998)