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The Shadow of the Parthenon
Studies in Ancient History and Literature
By Peter Green
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 1972 Peter Green
All rights reserved.
The Shadow of the Parthenon
One gusty March afternoon, a few years ago, I found myself trudging up the approaches to the Acropolis in the company of a well-known British novelist whose habits were more convivial (to say the least of it) than one could ever have guessed from his published work. After an excellent and discursive lunch in the old quarter known as the Plaka, I asked him what he would like to do next. 'See the bloody Parthenon, I suppose', he said. His voice was an interesting blend of helplessness and suppressed resentment. So we plodded our way to the summit of that vast outcrop, eyes half-closed against the stinging, dust-laden wind, passed through the Propylaea, and began picking our way across a wilderness of jumbled marble blocks towards the huge and too-familiar temple, outlined now against a sky of grey scudding clouds. The air was mournful, oppressive; occasional rain-drops plopped heavily groundwards. It was all very different from the travel posters.
A curious expression came over my companion's face. He stopped, blew his nose with a loud trumpeting sound, and stared, briefly. 'Aaargh,' he said. Into that curious noise he injected all the censorious impatience produced by years of peddling Greek culture to lymphatic schoolchildren. Then he found a comfortable block, and settled himself down on it with his back squarely turned to the ostensible object of our visit. Little by little he relaxed, beaming euphorically as he took in the hazed industrial gloom of Piraeus, the squalid proliferation of sugar-cube houses creeping out to embrace the lower slopes of Mount Parnes, the big jets whining down past us on their approach to Ellenikón Airport. His eyes focussed, briefly and mistily, on the middle distance, where a dirty white mushroom cloud ascended from the Eleusis cement-works, symbol of Demeter's final capitulation to the deus ex machina. 'Ah', he said at last. 'Now this is what I call the right way to look at the Parthenon.' He paused, then added: 'Did you know who invented that phrase about "the Glory that was Greece"? Edgar Allan Poe.'
I knew exactly what he meant. The Parthenon is not only the Western world's biggest cultural cliché; it also casts the longest and most influential shadow. This, I may say, has very little to do with its purely historical or technical aspects. What Professor Broneer discovered about the Mycenaean Acropolis leaves most people as cold as the architectural and financial details of the temple's erection: the kind of sober survey, I mean, which is now provided (along with numerous splendid photographs to leaven the academic lump of a serious text) by Professor R. J. Hopper. Not even Professor Rhys Carpenter's engagingly offbeat theory that there were two Parthenons seems to have caught many readers' imaginative fancy. What they see in the Parthenon is a symbol of Greek culture at its apogee: the symmetry, the harmony, the proportion, the splendid creative achievement, the possession for ever. The Taj Mahal and the Pyramids may be just as familiar, and at least as impressive to look at (was it not Rabindranath Tagore who found himself reduced to tears by what he regarded as the barbarian ugliness of the buildings on the Acropolis?) but they do not pressurise one with such an overwhelming assumption of moral and aesthetic superiority.
The essence of that superiority, however, tends to be somewhat elusive, and has a trick of vanishing, like the Snark, if investigated too closely. The editorial manifesto for a new series of classical monographs entitled 'Ancient Culture and Society' contains one very intriguing statement about the contributors: 'In examining the inter-relations of the institutions and thought of the ancient world, the kind of question they ask themselves, is not "What was the Parthenon?" but "What was the Parthenon for?"' Quot capita, tot sententiae: consult any six scholars, independently, as to what the Parthenon was for, and the answers, one suspects, will surprise by their variety. The first might say it was for the worship of Athena, the second for the cultural glorification of Athens, and the third for the safeguarding of tribute. The fourth might describe it as a piece of political propaganda to impress foreigners and mop up domestic unemployment. For the fifth it might be the embodiment of Periclean idealism, for the sixth a symbol of imperial hubris. Several might well object that the word 'for', in itself, implied a utilitarian concept which they were not prepared to accept.
The most remarkable thing about what we may loosely term the 'Parthenon myth' has always been its remarkable ability to stifle really damaging criticism. Yet one need only—even with the soberest and most academic scholar-raise an issue like the war in Vietnam, or the present regime in Greece (or Czechoslovakia, depending on temperament) to see impartiality go up in a blaze of angry and committed liberalism—or harden into quite ferociously reactionary conservatism: the twin poles of contemporary classical studies (see below, pp. 47 ff.). The same is true when we back-project our own contemporary concerns, and begin to analyse so thorny a· subject as, say, the popularity of the Athenian Empire (that particular row has been sputtering on for over a decade now) or government by the 'best people'. It is virtually impossible for any Western scholar not to let his attitudes regarding democracy, freedom of speech, and the whole totalitarian spectrum affect his judgments when writing history. Yet so overwhelming is the mana distilled by the Parthenon and everything it stands for, that until very recently fundamental objections to its cultural and political antecedents tended to be stifled at source or buried under a mass of emotionally charged special pleading.
In consequence, when the criticism does appear, it is liable to overstate its case with exaggerated vehemence. Just as Kingsley Amis—a by no means insensitive writer—was goaded into snarling about 'filthy Mozart', for much the same reasons, so there are quite a few classicists around today who seem determined to jettison the fifth-century Periclean experiment in toto. Such iconoclasts will dismiss the Funeral Speech as a hair-raising collection of frigidly paternalistic apophthegms laced with the worst sort of unthinking self-conceit, to be compared unfavourably, as a summing-up of Athenian aspirations and mores, with that rebarbative little pamphlet on the Constitution of Athens by an anonymous author most commonly known as the 'Old Oligarch'. For them the Periclean mystique is not only hubristic but also hypocritical, resting on a basis of intellectual and political despotism sanctioned by the vote-catching illusion known as Athenian democracy. Some are even prepared to assert that Attic drama, far from being an unmatchable 'possession for ever' which can only be elucidated, never subjected to criticism, is in fact a wildly over-rated phenomenon, stuffed with the grotesque platitudes pilloried by A. E. Housman in his famous parody, and given its proper due by Aristophanes, who never took kindly to sacred cows of any description. Having gone so far, the extremist may well round off his commination service by concluding that the Parthenon resembles nothing so much as an overblown city bank (which, among other things, it in fact was) and that Athenian philosophy from the late fifth century onwards became a minority creed activated by increasingly extreme political totalitarianism and idealized homosexuality.
Scholars who go apoplectic over such heresies have only themselves to blame for them. For years they had fenced in the whole complex of Greek culture with a kind of all-embracing cordon sanitaire, which effectively blinkered their judgment when it came to evaluating ancient history, art, literature or philosophy. Indeed, one of the odder features of the whole classical tradition—seldom accorded the attention it deserves—has always been its special immunity from criticism. For the Middle Ages Aristotle possessed quasi-Scriptural authority; it was not some towering Christian saint or patriarch, but Virgil who guided Dante through Hell. As late as Shelley's day educated Europeans were still so brain-washed by the legend that they unquestioningly accepted the ancient Greeks as supermen, giants of a lost Golden Age. The phenomenon has by no means been altogether eradicated today. The number of books which actually criticize classical authors or institutions, though larger than it was, still remains extraordinarily small. The special value of The Greeks and the Irrational was, precisely, that it blew one aspect of the myth sky-high; yet even so Professor Dodds felt obliged to apologize to his classical colleagues (would he, one wonders, do so today, twenty years later?) for presuming to import the alien tools of anthropology and psychology. The most radical reappraisals are often written by outsiders: Professor Popper's dissection of Plato in The Open Sociery and its Enemies is one obvious example.
Reading a classicist on Homer or Thucydides is, all too often, uncomfortably like listening to a Jesuit expounding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception—but with one important difference: the Jesuit knows his opponents' arguments, if only for purposes of refutation, whereas the classicist (with honourable exceptions) tends to pride himself on sticking to his own narrow last, rather like the vociferous ultra-in-the-street· who damns Communism while priding himself on never having read a word of Marx. In these circumstances it is not surprising that serious criticism of Greek and Roman literature (as, say, Dr Leavi.s or Professor Trilling might conceive it) scarcely exists at all. One notable exception is provided by the American classical quarterly Arion. But Arion is, at most, a bridgehead. The classics have nearly half a century of revolutionary critical development to catch up on: the thing cannot be achieved overnight, and many traditionalists will argue that it should not be achieved at all. One of the most broadly read and civilized classical scholars of this century, the late Sir Maurice Bowra, who read Pindar and Pushkin, Sophocles and Mallarmé with equal zest, still tended to write as though time, critically speaking, had come to a stop about when T. S. Eliot published The Sacred Wood. (Even so, this represented a distinct advance on most of his colleagues, who were still trusting hopefully to Mackail and John Addington Symonds.) Modern comparisons, it is argued, are invariably misleading: classical literature can only be studied, if not sub specie aeternitatis, at least in its own context and on its own terms. There is a good deal of truth in this thesis, but all too often it is made an excuse for abandoning criticism altogether. Behind the reasoned apologia the myth of perfection still exerts its lure.
In Forster's novel The Longest Journey Rickie complains to his friend Ansell that 'Cambridge has lost touch with the times'. To which Ansell retorts: 'Was she ever intended to touch them?' This must sum up the attitude of many classicists, even today: the 'possession for ever' stands above and beyond all changing fashions, and thus cannot be criticized, only expounded, since aesthetic judgments rest, ultimately, on mere personal preference. Facts are sacred, opinions suspect. Stick to the knowable, young scholars are told; leave opinionative fancies to the littérateurs. A. E. Housman, a unique combination of poet and textual critic, remarked in his Introductory Lecture of 1892 that no right-minded man would go to a classical scholar for judgments on literature, and the situation has not radically changed since then. Truly dissentient critics, such as E. R. Curtius, tend to produce shock as well as disagreement. Professor Lesky, in the preface to his History of Greek Literature, alludes sorrowfully to 'those utterances on the sinking light of Hellas which many must wish that he [Curtius] had kept to himself': it is rather like some old-fashioned parish priest discussing the Bishop of Woolwich's Honest to God. Are we really so poverty-stricken that only the exceptional maverick (George Thomson, a Marxist, in Aeschylus and Athens, Eric Havelock with The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics, Dodds and Popper with the works mentioned above) can shock us into any radical rethinking of fifth-century Greek literature and history?
For the matter of that, what impulse was it drove generations of humanists to idealize those chilly authoritarian figures Pericles and Plato? Why have we romanticized their aims and achievements, just as Droysen and Tarn romanticized those of Alexander? Oh, those impossible, white-draped, too-noble Greeks of one's schooldays, living (one unconsciously assumed) in small replicas of the Parthenon—that insidiously all-pervasive symbol—healthy-minded and physically fit, their thoughts far above such mundane things as money, work, or self-advancement, moving through sunlit colonnades talking for ever of the True, the Good and the Beautiful! In this ideal Greece there was never any bad weather (a notion which permanent residence there soon dispels in !he most brutal fashion). Somewhere, hazily in the background, women, a lesser breed, would be busy about life's menial tasks, assisted by slaves—who of course were treated with every consideration, if not as friends. In time of war a shining patriotism was expected and freely given. The whole earth was the grave of famous men, who, Spartan and Athenian alike, returned home either with their shields or on them (rhipsaspists like Archilochus and Alcaeus were, after all, only poets, and allowances therefore had to be made for them; besides, what could you expect from two antisocial oddballs of whom one was illegitimate and the other queer?).
Exceptions, as MacNeice reminds us in Autumn Journal, nagged at the mind, to be dismissed hastily—raving cannibal Maenads (but that was a Thracian import, which never really came closer home than Thebes), brutal treacheries and cold-blooded massacres, on Corcyra and Melos and elsewhere, Athens' ruthless exploitation and coercion of her subject-allies (but didn't the democratic end justify the means? and wasn't it for their own good in the long run?). Temples built with sweated tribute, noble platitudes masking greed and famine and unemployment, the cut-throat competition for export markets, the average Athenian's strident anti-intellectualism—somehow these things never really registered in one's mind. All one remembered, finally, was the trumpet-call (but not the double-dealing and collaboration) of the Persian Wars, the lofty radical idealism of Pericles, the Golden Mean as exemplified by Sophoclean tragedy, the silver intellect that was Plato; muscular male torsos in marble, steatopygous warriors swooping (rather like Groucho Marx) round too-well-proportioned red-figure vases. No dirt, no stink, no real cruelty or treachery, no irrational passions except in myth, and surprisingly little sex, which was something, as they say, to be risen above; blue skies, eternal sunlight, nothing in excess—the popular romantic fairy-tale of which our big coffee-table art-books are no more than the last and glossiest apotheosis.
The myth of a Golden Age is endemic to humanity. Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today; if man is not looking forward to the millennium he is looking back to some lost Eden. At least as early as Hesiod's day men spoke with wistful longing of the fabulous reign of Kronos—and perhaps with good reason: a pastoral nomadic existence, in an under-populated world, was vastly preferable to scratching a living, tied to the soil the whole year round, from the barren hillsides of Boeotia. The Greeks did not romanticize their own harsh daily life. 'We live a wretched sum of years, and badly, too', declared Semonides, and his was a common opinion. Better never to be born, and if born, then to die quickly. Tough, unscrupulous fifth-century reaiists such as Themistocles, Cleon, Alcibiades or Critias—all of whom died violent deaths—might have derived a certain ironic pleasure from the thought that posterity would look back on their century as the Golden Age, and on Athens as the summum bonum of intellectual, moral and aesthetic achievement.
Excerpted from The Shadow of the Parthenon by Peter Green. Copyright © 1972 Peter Green. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface and Acknowledgments, page 7,
The Shadow of the Parthenon, 11,
Clio Reviewed: a survey of progress and reaction in Greek historiography,
1 The Conservative Romantics, 47,
2 Thucydides and the Lure of Empire, 75,
Athens and Jerusalem, 94,
Myths and Symbols, 126,
The Individual Voice: Archilochus and Sappho, 152,
The First Sicilian Slave War, 193,
Juvenal and his Age, 216,
Appendix: The Date of Archilochus, 268,