The Parthenon, that ancient wonder built to honor the goddess Athena, has a history of making visitors swoon. “The repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art,” Le Corbusier called it. Its architectural echoes can be seen in our modern-day democratic institutions: the Supreme Court and Treasury building, for instance. The Parthenon, writes Joan Breton Connelly, “has become the icon of western art, the very symbol of democracy itself.”

But it’s that very conventional wisdom that Connelly, a professor of classics and art history at New York University, aims to subvert with her new book, “The Parthenon Enigma.” Her theory revolves around the meaning of the original 525-foot-long frieze, located on the exterior colonnade of the temple. For centuries, scholars have argued that the frieze’s grand procession of soldiers and chariots, musicians and maidens, and figures bearing offerings for sacrifice depicted the Panathenaia, a yearly festival of games and religious rites in ancient Athens.

In her radical reinterpretation, Connelly argues that the frieze in fact celebrated a mythical tale of human sacrifice. That may come as a surprise to those who have projected an idealized, post-Enlightenment version of democracy onto the Parthenon, Connelly argues — a version mirroring our current preference for the primacy of individual rights and of reason over belief. The Parthenon’s frieze broadcast a much different message to the battle-hardened citizens of ancient Athens: Democracy, she writes, is “no mere political arrangement but ultimately a spiritual one.”

Connelly developed her theory after happening upon a mention of a long-lost play by Euripedes when she was researching a book on Greek priestesses. “Erechtheus,” as the play was titled, had languished for centuries before it was unearthed in fragmentary form by archaeologists in a Hellenistic cemetery in Egypt. Republished in 1967, it attracted little attention before Connelly concluded that the myth acted out in the play served as the basis for the frieze.

When Erechtheus, the mythical king of Athens, faces an impending siege, he consults the oracle of Delphi. The response is chilling: He must sacrifice his daughter in order to save the city. Connelly’s interpretation hinges on the frieze’s final scene, in which a child and man are depicted holding a piece of cloth. It is not, she argues, the sacred dress of Athena, a gift presented at the culmination of the Panathenaia. Rather, it is the funerary dress that the youngest daughter of Erechtheus will wear when she is sacrificed.

"The Parthenon Enigma" by Joan Breton Connelly (Courtesy of Knopf)

Unfortunately, Connelly does not delve much into how the Parthenon remains a relevant symbol for our current age. Given how polarized and fractured our nation seems at the moment, it’s worth remembering how fragile democracy is. The Parthenon, which was reinvented as a church and then a mosque before becoming a cultural site, stands as a potent reminder of history’s ever-changing tides.

The book succeeds most when it remains grounded in sketching a detailed portrait of the Parthenon as seen through what Connelly calls “ancient eyes.” She marshals that scholarship to call for the temple’s original sculptures, more than half of which are scattered across Europe — displayed most prominently in the British Museum in London — to be restored to their original context on the Acropolis. The sculptures, she writes, are “part of a complex network of meanings in which geology, landscape, topography, memory, myth, art, literature, history, religion, and politeia are intricately interwoven.” They should not be “fetishized as masterpiece objets d’art.”

Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.


By Joan Breton Connelly

Knopf. 485 pp. $35