Destruction and Memory on the Athenian Acropolis

Article excerpt

The Parthenon, constructed between 447 and 432 BCE on the Athenian Acropolis, stands as the most lavish, technically refined, and programmatically cohesive temple on the Greek mainland, a fitting commemoration of the Athenians' spectacular and unexpected victories in the Persian Wars (Fig. 1). The immense, all-marble structure was designed around a colossal statue of Athena Paithenos, depicted by the sculptor Pheidias fully armed, and with an image of the goddess of victory, Nike, alighting on her left hand (Fig. 2). In its architectural sculpture as well, the Parthenon repeatedly alluded to the Greeks' struggle against the Persians, for instance, through famous mythological contests: battles between men and centaurs, Athenians and Amazons, Greeks and Trojans, gods and giants.

An intriguing but rarely noted feature of diese batde narratives is that they combine images of effortless victory with those of valiant but unmistakable defeat. The Parthenon's south metopes, for example, included not only scenes of men triumphing over centaurs but also images of these human protagonists caught, wounded, or trampled to death by their bestial opponents (Fig. 3). So, too, on the west metopes and the shield of Athena Parthenos, we see dead Athenians as well as dead Amazons (Figs. 4, 5). These scenes of loss, although neglected by scholars, were in fact critical to the Parthenon's visual program; they represented, through the distancing guise of myth, the price paid in human suffering for the achievement of Greek victory.

Scholars have often stressed the thematic importance of the Persian Wars of 490 and 480-479 BCE for the art of Classical Athens, above all, for the Periklean building program on the Acropolis.1 But they have not paid sufficient attention to the Athenians* most direct experience of the wars: the destruction of their city's major sanctuaries by the Persians in 480 BCE^sup 2^ and the sack of the entire polis in 479.3 The visual program of the Parthenon, shot through with scenes of suffering and loss, suggests the merit of reexamining the temple in diese terms. So does the building's site, on the Acropolis - indeed, on the very foundations of an earlier temple destroyed by the Persians.

It is thus heuristically useful to consider the Parthenon as a response to the ancient world's most famous - and notorious - act of iconoclasm. At the same time, it is important to show how this response was neither inevitable nor easily achieved. It was instead the culmination of a lengthy process, one that is rarely studied, but worth our attention, because it helps to illuminate the end result. This process includes a series of Athenian responses to the Persian sack, from the reuse of architectural fragments in the citadel walls to the sculptural program of the Periklean Parthenon. As the display of damaged objecLs gave way to reworkings of the story within the timeless world of myth, the memory of the sack became increasingly divorced from its historical foundation.4

This analysis of the Parthenon and its antecedents has also a broader significance as part of the history of Orientalism, a topic of much recent interest for scholars of Classical Greece. Philologists have researched the use of Orientalist tropes in various literary genres,5 while art historians have analyzed such topics as the depiction of Persians in Greek art,6 the reception of Achaemenid material culture in Athens,7 and representations of the Persian Wars in public Athenian monuments.8 One hitherto neglected area of inquiry has been the interconnections between Orientalism and iconoclasm. The destruction of an enemy's sanctuaries was commonplace in ancient warfare, and had been practiced by Greeks as well as Persians. Yet following the Acropolis sack, such iconoclastic activity came to be seen as a paradigmatic example of "Orientar impiety and violence. This consistent and highly influential theme of Orientalist discourse originated in the Early Classical period and culminated in the Periklean Parthenon. …