Get out the dictionary and brush up on your Greek. Classical archaeologist Connelly’s (Classics/New York Univ.; Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, 2007, etc.) history and analysis of every square inch of the Parthenon requires close attention.
“Never before in human history has there been a structure that is at once so visible to the world, so celebrated, so examined, so invested with authority, and yet, at the same time, so strangely impenetrable at its core,” writes the author, who devotes the first third of the book to a deeply detailed history of the gods and myths of the Acropolis. The Parthenon is a portrait of the Athenians, their identity and perception of belonging. Greece had no sacred text and no culture media, but they stressed the importance of myth, landscape and memory. Myth and history were one and the same. When Connelly gets to the story of the founding family of Athens—Erechtheus, his wife, Praxithea, and their three daughters—the book picks up considerable speed. Much more than a sacred space, the Parthenon is the symbol of Athens’ democracy, and the East Frieze explains the meaning of that democracy, the language of images paralleling the language of text. It shows how Erechtheus and Praxithea were prepared, even willing, to sacrifice their youngest daughter to avert an impending siege. Unknown to them, their daughters had pledged that if one died, so would they all; thus, the two remaining sisters threw themselves off the Acropolis. When Erechtheus was swallowed by the Earth, Athena instructed Praxithea to build the two temples we now see. It is not their sacrifice that illustrates democracy but the fact that no life is above another or the common good. The carvings of the Parthenon, the greatest masterpiece of Greek art, teach us the meaning of democracy.
A book for all who seek direction and are capable of seeing the bigger picture—erudite if esoteric, edifying if somewhat exhausting.