August 2014 Features

Rethinking the West’s Most Iconic Building

The Parthenon Enigma has stirred up passions in the scholarly community. Here, a distinguished Classicist takes a closer look at the controversy.26_27_READING ROOM_Parthenon

By Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, M.A. ’54, Ph.D. ’58

 In September 1953 I arrived at Bryn Mawr College fresh from my Italian doctorate (Laurea) in Classics and, like all European-trained students, ready to follow the dictates of my professors. At the Archaeology Department I ran straight into Rhys Carpenter, who challenged me with the question, “Can’t you think?”—thus launching me on the exciting adventure of using my own mind and eyes, giving priority to the evidence of monuments rather than to the pronouncements of traditional scholarship. What Professor Carpenter did not tell me was that this approach was dangerous. I soon discovered, at my own expense, that archaeologists and classicists are a conservative breed, reluctant to embrace new ideas.

My first extensive publication (1967) was on a well-known bronze statue of a youth in the Louvre. Previous scholarship had labeled it as Greek and from the end of the 6th century BCE, but it seemed to me different from the other kouroi (a type of male nude figure widespread in the Archaic Period). After careful research, I pronounced it as being at least five centuries later.

Reactions were, by and large, negative.

Two major experts on Greek sculpture assigned the bronze to 480–470 BCE and to the Magna Graecian area—an opinion repeated as late as 1990 by a German archaeologist. Happily in 1977, excavation within a Roman house in Pompeii unearthed a bronze so similar to the one in Paris that association was inevitable. Yet, it took until 1998 for Carol Mattusch ’69, an expert on ancient bronzecasting, to write about my dating: “Now it is difficult to see how we ever thought otherwise.”

In 1981–82, I gave the Thomas Spencer Jerome Lectures at the University of Michigan and the American Academy in Rome. I spoke on Roman copies, arguing against the traditional theory that behind each Roman ideal sculpture was a known (or still unknown) Greek original by a “Great Master.” That copies were inherently inferior, I suggested, was a modern conceit, and even the “Great Masters” of Greece, known to us primarily through literary sources of the Roman Imperial period, were either less “original” than we assumed or almost unknowable on present evidence. Most of the so-called copies were actually Roman creations. My audiences were cordial but mostly skeptical.

My book, an expansion of my lectures, appeared in 1984 and the ensuing battle is still on, but some of my theories are gradually being accepted, especially by the younger generations. In 2008 a splendid volume by Miranda Marvin ’63 traced back through the centuries the sources of our traditional understanding, thus demonstrating its shaky ground.

Connelly resizedJoan Breton Connelly, M.A. ’79, Ph.D. ’84, is another Mawrter currently experiencing the dangers of contradicting common opinion. The process began with her dissertation (published in 1985) on votive sculpture from Cyprus. Some heads in her
corpus had been identified as Ptolemaic royal portraits from the period of Egyptian supremacy on that island. But when studying them in the context of other temple offerings, she saw that they were instead generic types; she even identified individual workshops producing variations on the votive formulas through the centuries.

Some of those Cypriot sculptures held priestly attributes; almost logically, Connelly’s next book (2007)—favorably received—was on Greek priestesses. In the course of that research she had to confront an ambiguous figure on the Parthenon frieze, which inspired in her the idea that the traditional interpretation of the frieze as a rendering of the Panathenaic festival was erroneous. She conjectured that a mythological subject was shown instead: the imminent sacrifice of a daughter of the Athenian king Erechtheus who had to die in order to save the city from impending enemy attack.

Connelly first presented her theory in public lectures (1991–1993) that met with widespread disbelief—for two centuries we had been taught what the Parthenon frieze showed and that was not it! But no written rebuttal was offered until Connelly’s extensive article appeared in The American Journal of Archaeology (1997), the primary organ of the Archaeological Institute of America. Eventually, after years of research during visiting fellowships at various colleges in England and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Connelly deepened and refined a conception of the total Parthenon sculptural program as a culminating religious statement of a city that venerated its mythological ancestors—that had, in fact, created its own history and claimed self-generation (autochthony). Her understanding of a citizenry that saw gods and divine agency in trees and rivers, rocks and caves, and earthly manifestations could not be discussed within the compass of a single article. The Parthenon Enigma (2014), therefore, starts with Athens’ prehistoric past, uses early remains and ancient sources, and stresses a concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good made legible—in her theory—on that most famous of all Athenian buildings, echoing contemporary dramas, ephebic oaths, and funerary orations for all to see.

A few scholars had attempted partial mythological readings of the frieze, but always within the overarching compass of a Panathenaic procession. Connelly’s theory is so far the only coherent explanation for every form of architectural sculpture on the temple, in a quasi-chronological, generational series of depictions. In addition, it involves other buildings on the Akropolis, sees later monuments elsewhere (the Pergamon Altar) as intellectual imitations, cites Near Eastern cultures as precedents, alludes to Christianity and its Crucifixion for dramatic depictions of self-immolation.

This is not a conventional book. It is a cross between a scholarly discussion (albeit not polemic in tone) and a personal account of literary discoveries and thought processes, refreshing in its candor and enthusiasm, vivid in its writing. Connelly’s Archaic Akropolis is full of monsters, their colors, and, yes, even their sound and fury. Straight chronological narrative is interspersed with vignettes of recent events and personages—Isadora Duncan seeking inspiration for her dances amidst the Parthenon columns; Lawrence Alma- Tadema recreating a polychrome classical architectural sculpture in his paintings. Numerous and unusual photographs and drawings were obtained through Connelly’s many years of friendship with international and Greek excavators and architects now working on the Akropolis. Concurrently, her knowledge of modern Greek allowed her to consult publications usually hard for students to read or even find, her wide-ranging bibliographical abbreviations supplemented within the extremely detailed and often
lengthy endnotes.

Since its appearance (simultaneously in England and the United States) the book has generated a two-pronged reaction: colleges and universities, cultural entities, and even embassies have invited Connelly to present her views, to general acclaim. But numerous reviews by established scholars, in newspapers and magazines, have attacked her vigorously, seldom politely, often without taking the entire argument into account. This is the penalty for promoting a new and daring theory about “the West’s most iconic building.” If my own experience (and that of other scholars I could cite) is any example, it might take another decade or two before Connelly’s argument is examined dispassionately and objectively—perhaps by today’s and tomorrow’s students.

Do I personally believe that Connelly is right? I become progressively more convinced that she is, even if some details may still have to be worked out. But I repeat what I have always said: archaeological knowledge is an imperfect science; any new evidence may force us to revise what we took for granted. But any new theory, whether we like it or not, has the immense value of making us review what we thought we knew, yet with civility and open-mindedness always.



I argue that we are looking not at contemporary Athenians marching in their annual Panathenaic procession but at a scene from the mythical past, one that lies at the very heart of what it means to be an Athenian. A tragic saga unfolds, revealing a legendary king and queen who, by demand of the Delphic oracle, are forced to make an excruciatingly painful choice to save Athens from ruin. This choice requires nothing less than the ultimate sacrifice. Based on the lives of the founding king and his family, the charter myth manifest on the Parthenon frieze suggests a far darker and more primitive outlook than later cultures and classicists have been prepared to face. This harrowing tale provides a critical keyhole into Athenian consciousness, one that directly challenges our own self-identifications with it.


Bibliographic References:

  • “The Bronze Apollo from Piombino in the Louvre,” Antike Plastik VII (Berlin 1967) 43-75. Reviewed by Margarete Bieber, American Journal of Archaeology 74 (1970) 85-88. Gisela M. A. Richter, Kouroi, Archaic Greek Youths, 3rd Ed., (1970); more opinions and bibliography cited in B.S. Ridgway, Hellenistic Sculpture III, The Styles of ca. 100-31 B.C. (Madison 2002) 147-48 and n. 12, Pls.58a-c. The early date is still held by D. Kreikenbom in Polyklet 1990 (Exhibition Catalogue, Frankfurt am Mainz) 38 and notes 84-85.
  • Bronze kouros from Pompeii, House of C. Julius Popilius: see Ridgway, Hellenistic III, 148 and n. 13, pl. 59. C. C. Mattusch, Classical Bronzes (Ithaca 1996) 139-40 with bibl. and col. pl. 5; her quote is from “Rhodian Sculpture: A School, a Style, or Many Workshops?” in O. Palagia, W. Coulson, Eds., Regional Schools in Hellenistic Sculpture (Oxford 1998) 152, fig. 5.
  • Ridgway, Roman Copies of Greek Sculpture: The Problem of the Originals, (Ann Arbor 1984),
  • M. Marvin, The Language of the Muses. The Dialogue between Roman and Greek Sculpture (Getty Museum Publication, Los Angeles 2008), esp.”The argument” pp. 2-9, and Ch. 7 , “The modern copy myth.” On the issue of the Great Masters, see  the 1997 comments by M. Fullerton (BMC PhD ’82), reviewing O. Palagia, J.J. Pollitt, (Eds.), Personal Styles in Greek Sculpture (Cambridge 1996), in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.22.
  • J. B. Connelly, Votive Sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus (Nicosia/New York 1988).
  • Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton 2007).
  • Early lectures: see., e.g., “”The Parthenon Frieze and the Sacrifice of the Erechtheids. Reinterpreting the ‘Peplos Scene’,” Abstracts, Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, American Journal of Archaeology (1993) 309-10.
  • Extensive article: Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of he Parthenon Frieze,” American Journal of Archaeology 100 (1996) 53-80.
  • Book: The Parthenon Enigma. A new understanding of the West’s most iconic building and the people who made it (A.A. Knopf, New York 2014), 3rd printing; paperback forthcoming.
  • Some reviews of Connelly’s book: J. Romm, The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 24, 2014); J.J. Pollitt, The New Criterion 32 (March 2014) 66; D. Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, (April 14, 2014) 34-39.


Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, M.A. ’54, Ph.D. ’58, is the Rhys Carpenter Professor Emerita of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology. She taught at Bryn Mawr College from 1957 to 1994 and served as visiting professor at numerous other institutions in the U.S. and abroad. For eight years she was editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Archaeology. She has published extensively: 17 books on Greek sculpture and architecture, and over 100 articles. In 1988, she was awarded the Gold Medal of the Archaeological Institute of America.