The Meaning Of The Parthenon

Camels With Hammers regular (and my former student at Fordham), Evangelos has revived his blog and has a fascinating post which weaves together all the various things that Greece has stood for, both to Greeks and to the rest of the West at various times and places, and which explains how the competing attempts to co-opt Greece into these various narratives are in tension with each other in numerous ways.  He does all this as part of discussing a controversial film which the Greek Orthodox Church alleged depicted reenactment of Christians vandalizing the Parthenon hundreds of years ago.  Evangelos writes,

What is at stake is the understanding of the Parthenon which is a symbol not just of Greece, but of Europe, humanity, reason, and the desires and whims of mankind. How does the 21st Century comprehend a building that spent most of its life as a Church rather than the building it was intended to be (a great monument to an even greater ego)?

But here again the confused narrative of Greece, specifically the one that alternates between Classical Antiquity and Modernity, clashes once more. It’s a confusion that has extended into the West and that I, as a Classics student, encounter very regularly. The Classicist wants to see Classical Greece in Modern Greece while cleansing it of what it’s inherited from the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Industrial Revolution. The humanist likewise wants to see the ideals of Classical Greece (specifically a few decades of Athenian history)in the same nation cleansed of it’s pagan, folk, and Christian traditions. Such were the attempts of the well-meaning folks who ventured to tried to find Pericles’s Greece in the 18th century and instead found countless ruins and villages.

And, ironically, the humanists’ symbol of their return to pre-Christian classicism was actually a structure that gained its prominence not during the classical era but during the reign of Christendom, he quotes Anthony Kaldellis:

It was not even an especially important religious site in the classical age, and seems to have been used as a treasury.

The Parthenon, it seems, was a more important and revered monument in Byzantium than it was in antiquity. Only then did it elicit religious enthusiasm; only then was it associated with a “divine light,” a theme that would continue through the Latin period and on to the early travelers, to finally climax in the outpourings of literary light-worship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So it is possible that we owe to the Byzantines not merely the survival of the monument itself but also the devotion to it that has been secularized and aesthetized in our times. Again, the story’s polarity has been reversed. Modern classicism present itself as a return to pure ancient ideals and an overcoming of medieval superstition and barbarism, but it is found, at least in this case, to be a secular extension of Byzantine piety.

Finally, Evangelos weighs in on the ultimate significance of the Parthenon and to whom exactly it belongs:

The history of the Parthenon, for better or for worse, is the history of Greece. This is why the Elgin marbles are so important for the Greek ethos. There is something salient about that building which was treated with such honor by the Greeks, centuries after its prime, that it rivaled Hagia Sophia. It may not have been a marvel Before the Common Era, but then again, neither were the Greeks. It has survived with the Greeks and it has been through what the Greeks have been through, and its fate will be that of the Greeks. It is definitely our most prized ethnic treasure.

Be sure to read his full treatment of the subject and to see the short film which occasioned his essay.

And while at Evangelos’s blog, leave him Your Thoughts.

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