The Parthenon Marbles -- Past and Future

By Evans, James Allan | Contemporary Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Parthenon Marbles -- Past and Future


Evans, James Allan, Contemporary Review


I first saw the Parthenon in 1954 from the deck of an elderly liner named the Nea Hellas as she approached the dock at Piraeus. Two weeks earlier she had departed New York. After seven days at sea we touched at Lisbon, and then on to Naples where the view of Mt. Vesuvius from the harbour was not yet clouded in smog, and we took on a group of English tourists in search of the sun, for 1954 had been a year of almost continuous rain in Britain. They sprawled on the Nea Hellas' deck in various states of undress, while their white flesh seared bright red. But they were on the deck, sore but game, to watch the old liner enter harbour. The atmosphere was limpid, with the marvellous Mediterranean light which once bathed Athens. Rising above the city in the distance was the Acropolis and on it, the Parthenon.

Distance hid its scars, and it had many, for it was almost two and a half millennia old. It was begun in 447 B.C. when Athens was the leader of an alliance put together thirty years earlier to check the ambitions of the Persian Empire. By mid-century, it was clear that Persia's expansionism was well in check, and Athens redirected the revenues of her alliance into a building programme in Athens. As the history textbooks put it, the 'Delian League' which began as an ancient version of NATO, matured into the Athenian Empire, and the income from it financed the Parthenon. The cicerones who guide the hordes of tourists around the Acropolis nowadays like to refer to the Parthenon as the symbol of Athenian democracy. In fact, it is a monument to profitable imperialism.

But great works of art and architecture transcend the motives of their founders. Imperial Athens became a model for the ancient world. Less than two decades after the Parthenon was begun, Athens and her empire were plunged into a life-and-death struggle with her rival, Sparta and her allies, and when it was over, Athens had lost her empire, her navy and much of her prestige. But not all: Athens' reputation as the heartland of classical culture was something that Sparta could not take away. The Parthenon helped guarantee that. It may not have symbolized democracy, but it did come to symbolize what the classical heritage was all about.

The building remained more or less intact until the fifth century anno Domini. The Emperor Augustus had built a round shrine in front of it to put a Roman hallmark on Greece. The Emperor, Hadrian, had treated it kindly: it was he who restored the gold-and-ivory cult statue of Athena Parthenos -- Athena the Virgin -- for the original by the great sculptor Phidias had been damaged by fire beyond recall. Athena still had her followers long after Emperor Constantine I united the Roman Empire's future with the Christian religion. In Athens, paganism took a long time dying. When the cult statue of Athena was removed at last from the Parthenon in the fifth century, the head of the Neoplatonic Academy, whose house is now underneath Dionysios the Areopagite street, dreamed that Athena appeared to him and told him that since she had been ousted from her house, she must now move in with him. The Neoplatonic Academy remained faithful. Its philosophy had only a tenuous connection with Plato, but it kept the faith until 52 9, when the Emperor, Justinian, closed it down. For those who love lost causes, 529 is a notable year.

When Athena the Virgin vacated the Parthenon, the Virgin Mother of God moved in. An apse was built at the east end, and the sculptures of the east pediment, which showed the birth of Athena, were probably destroyed at that time. The west pediment's sculptures, which depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the land of Attica, were more fortunate. The Turks took Athens in 1456 and built a mosque in the Parthenon and added a minaret, but the transformation did no great damage. In the 1670s, the French ambassador in Constantinople, the Marquis de Nointel, had his artist, Jacques Carrey, draw the Parthenon.

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