Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston, your guide on our journey across the Ancient Mediterranean World. Last time in Episode 11, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2, we continued to inch toward our understanding of the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze. We discovered that Ionian Greek artisans played a significant role in the construction of the Persian imperial cities of Persepolis and Susa. We also looked at further evidence for the employment of Ionian artists in the Ancient Near east, in particular Asia Minor, like at Xanthos in Lycia. So, in this cultural melting pot of the Persian Empire, we see a significant exchange of artistic, iconographic, and social ideas, some of which shape Persian and Near Eastern art, while other ideas make their way over from Persia to Greece.
In this episode, we’ll begin with a brief history of the Ionic frieze before diving headlong into the Persian influences on the Parthenon Frieze of the Athenian Acropolis. It’s not absolutely necessary to trace the history of the Ionic frieze, but since the Parthenon Frieze participates in this history, it’s important to isolate what’s traditional and what’s new and innovative, so we can more easily identify the various influences.
The early Ionic frieze was basically just a continuous decorative band running around the perimeter of sacred structures, like temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. It’s called the Ionic frieze, because it develops in Ionia, which we learned last time means the Greek nations along the western coast of what’s now Turkey. You typically see animals and human figures on the Ionic frieze engaging in hunting, horse and chariot races, feasting, and ritual processions or parades, but there’s really no attempt at representing specific identifiable stories … not at this early stage. Also, there’s seldom a clear beginning, middle, or end to the scene and we see a strong sense of repetition among the figures, creating a sense of rhythm as one passes by. As we’ll see more closely later on, many of these subjects and themes are also found on the Parthenon Frieze, coming together under a grand artistic and civic vision.
While the early Ionic frieze had a largely decorative function, with little mythological or historical narrative context, there seems to have been a change towards the end of the Archaic Period as the Ionic frieze regularly began to depict mythological stories. One of the earliest examples of this transformation is seen on the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi from about 530 to 525 BC.
The Siphnian Treasury was a small sacred structure, like a chapel or shrine, dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built by the island city-state of Siphnos in the Aegean among the Cycladic Islands. It’s called a treasury, because it was where many devotional offerings dedicated to Apollo were housed, mostly statuary given by the people of Siphnos. This was a common practice by Greek city-states, especially at the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia. Dedicating a treasury was a form of national marketing, so other city-states could gawk at its lavish splendor and be jealous of your wealth and power.
The east face of the frieze on the front of the treasury is divided into two panels of equal length. We see an assembly of the Olympian gods to the left of center and a battle scene from the Trojan War to the right. The organization of the figures is very balanced and thoroughly planned. Even though the left and right panels are architecturally one single unit, they are perceived of as being separate. For one, they represent different narratives. They also, quite literally, have their backs to one another. Also, notice how within each of the two panels, the figures change directions? This helps create a sense of momentum in the figures and draws the attention of the viewer to the centers of each panel where just beneath stood the Caryatid columns, which we see here in a beautiful reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury at the Delphi Museum. Unfortunately, the original center of the Olympian panel is now lost, but in the Trojan War scene we see what’s thought to be the lifeless body of Sarpedon lying in a crumpled pile, over which the warriors are contesting. So, we see two interesting changes to the Ionic frieze taking place on the Siphnian Treasury. First, there’s the introduction of narrative or stories, no longer just a repetitive meander of galloping horses and flittering birds. Second, further abandoning the traditional repetitive ornamental meander that stretched the entire span of the architrave, we see that the frieze is broken up into different segments with different stories and even subplots as groups of three or four figures interact more closely with each other. These innovations—the introduction of narrative and breaking up the frieze into isolated segments—directly carry over to the Parthenon Frieze.
If you’re looking for more nitty-gritty details on the Siphnian Treasury, check the article “Notes on the Development of the Greek Frieze” and other publications by one of the modern pioneers of Greek art history, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Also check out Richard Neer’s article “Framing the Gift: The Politics of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi” in Classical Antiquity. You can find these references in the bibliography of the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com.
We see another transformation to the Ionic frieze taking place in the Classical Period directly on the Parthenon Frieze itself. For the first time in the history of the Ionic frieze, an immediately contemporary ritual practice is alluded to or directly represented, what you might call the history of the now. As I briefly mentioned toward the beginning of this episode, the traditional Ionic frieze could represent ritual processions and cavalcades of horses. Here on the Parthenon Frieze, however, we see the Athenians representing not anonymous figures or mythic characters, but themselves. Sort of a civic self-portrait of the Athenians high above their heads as they parade alongside below in ritual procession.
A brief side note. Some of the images used here are modern replicas of the Parthenon Frieze. You’ll find these replicas of the original frieze decorating the front entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and also on the north and south sides. You’ll also find them inside the Art Institute high above the grand staircase in the large day lit atrium officially known as gallery 200. These replicas look back to the early tradition and origin of the Art Institute as an art school rather than art museum. The galleries were once filled with plaster casts of great Classical and Renaissance sculpture to serve as models and teaching aids for the art students. But over the past century, the Art Institute has gotten rid of nearly all examples to make room for original works of art from throughout the world. One fun little thing I want to point out can be seen on the north side of the building. Here high above your head, you’ll see not only a replica of a portion of the east west [sorry … I meant to say “west” in the podcast] frieze of the Parthenon although the figures on the Art Institute aren’t actually in the same order as the current generally accepted reconstruction), but you’ll also see two of the three pivotal artists involved in the construction of the Parthenon. We have Pheidias, sculptor of the frieze and overall designer of the Classical Acropolis, and Ictinus, architect of the Classical Parthenon itself. Not present here is Callicrates, co-architect with Ictinus. Instead we have Praxiteles, famed Hellenistic sculptor of many well-known works, including the Aphrodite of Knidos, of which you’ll find a Roman period copy within the Art Institute. Perhaps we can take a closer look at this fabulous statue in a later episode of the podcast.
The traditional interpretation of Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Grand Panathenaia, a parade held every four years in Athens that celebrates the birth of Athena and foundation of Athens with the offering of a new peplos or robe to Athena along with a hefty offering of tribute from all the different city-states within the Athenian Empire—technically still called the Delian League. The Delian League was a union of Greek city-states that came together as allies under the threat of Persian invasion and subjugation. It was formed after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, an early monumental victory for the Greeks over the Persians. The Delian League gets its name from the little island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea where the treasury was kept for the money contributed by each city-state. Later on in 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens supposedly to keep it better protected, but that solidified Athens’s control of the finances and political dominance of the Delian League. With this turn of events historians often begin referring to the Delian League as the Athenian Empire, and Athens really starts to behave in a manner befitting an empire, which we start to see reflected in the arts. One of the many new purposes Athens assigned to the finances of the league was construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and with that the Parthenon Frieze. It makes sense, then, that we see the Parthenon Frieze depicting the offering of tribute at the Grand Panathenaia—a portrait of the very civil practice by which the frieze was conceived. Thereby the Parthenon Frieze could also be seen as a form of propaganda—a justification or legitimization of the offering of tribute to Athens by cloaking the tribute in the context of a traditionally mythic, sacred, and even heroic context. As a side note, there are a few other interpretations of what the Parthenon Frieze might depict. If you’re interested in exploring some alternate theories, like the representation of the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, check out for starters Joan Connelly’s 1996 article “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in the American Journal of Archaeology, volume 100, pages 53-79.
So, why the big change? What caused this shift from an anonymous, almost generic representation of procession on the traditional Ionic frieze to a very specific Athenian parade on the Parthenon Frieze during this new Athenian imperial age? And I kinda just gave away the answer there. This is where we come to the Persian influence. Persepolis and the Athenian Acropolis show a pretty similar function when you look a little more closely. Both sites were ritual centers for their civic festival processions, both sites functioned as bureaucratic and administrative capitals of empires, and both sites served as treasuries to house the tribute given by subject nations of their empires.
These functional similarities could have led Athens to emulate the architectural model of Persepolis and the programmatic vision of Persia, her imperial forebearer, whose government Athens oddly enough came to parallel more and more in the wake of the Persian War. Similarly, it’s probable that Athens chose to model the Parthenon frieze in part after the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis to demonstrate a similar sort of civic pride and to pay respect to their national and now imperial godhead, Athena.
For over a century before beginning the new Classical Period Acropolis in 447 BC, Athens built little major, monumental statuary or sacred architecture. Pheidias was the artistic director of the building program on the Acropolis under the auspice of the great Athenian democrat Pericles. Pheidias gets credit for the general design and layout of the Parthenon’s frieze and sculptures and most likely for the initial models of the sculptures, but numerous artists and craftsmen from Athens and the many subject nations of the Athenian Empire were employed to execute most of the actual carving on the Parthenon.
By employing Ionian craftsmen, Athens sought to create an artistic style immediately relevant to and representative of this age of Athens as the new cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean and leader of a panhellenic empire. Under the administration of Pericles and artistic genius of Pheidias, Athens carefully designed a new monumental architectural tradition, incorporating the local Doric order and the now more so than ever relevant Ionic order. Thus, the Ionian artists brought with themselves to Athens their traditional frieze design, and along with that their recently acquired ideas of Persian imperial propaganda.
We already mentioned some of the functional similarities between Persepolis and the Acropolis. Let’s look at some of the artistic similarities and perhaps some similarities in the way one might experience the two architectural wonders. The Audience Hall at Persepolis, called the Apadana, was the building used at the capital of the Persian Empire to received the tribute-bearing ambassadors of the subject nations. Emphasizing this function, the Apadana prominently displays extensive reliefs depicting the dignitaries with Persian and Median escorts lined up in a huge ritual procession paying honor to their ruler, patron, and protector, the Persian King. Similarly, the Parthenon frieze depicts a great assemblage of Athenians in festive, ritual procession to honor their protector and patron goddess, Athena. There’s no sense of domination or malevolent subjugation in the Apadana reliefs by some tyrannical, oppressive super-power. The ambassadors are peacefully guided by Persian and Median escorts holding hands with each other and with the lead dignitaries of each foreign party. Similarly, on the Parthenon Frieze the Athenians leading sacrificial victims and bearing gifts for their goddess are, themselves, being led by Athenian marshals. With Athenians guiding themselves in a ritual procession to the deities of the east façade, the implication here seems to be that Athens is divinely sanctioned to rule themselves, which is befitting of the placement of mortal Athenians at the culmination of the ritual procession on the east side of the frieze, the holiest external location of the Greek temple. The Olympian gods are actually pushed from the center of the Parthenon Frieze and mortal Athenians, engaging in an offering to Athena, take their place. With this, Athens effectively elevates herself to a sort of divine status, or the closest there is among Greek peoples. Similarly, at the center of the Apadana reliefs was the king—the closest human being to the divine, if not himself a living god—and around him the king’s court, where dignitaries present tribute to their patron. The event is so ritualized, so emblematic, as to become, in effect, the offering of sacrifice to their deity.
And then we come to the similarities between the Apadana reliefs and Parthenon Frieze that may function more so on a subconscious level—the common experience one might have had when participating in a ritual procession at Persepolis and on the Acropolis. What we’re looking at here on the Parthenon Frieze are different scenes of a long parade from beginning to end marching through Athens. Riders at the west end mount their horses and strap on their sandals, getting ready to take off. Horses, riders, and chariots speed along the north and south sides of the temple with the parade in full swing. Participants carry gifts and present sacrificial victims to the divine assembly at the east, with the ultimate culmination of the festival and parade being the presentation of Athena’s new peplos. Athenian and allied participants walking alongside the Parthenon in the Panathenaic procession would look up at the frieze through the intermittent breaks of the colonnade and see a familiar representation—the same thing that you’re doing right there—participating in a religious procession. And to help you engage with the frieze further, the occasional figure even looks out to the participants below. So the real life participants in a ritual procession are invited to associate themselves with the event of the Parthenon Frieze, the Parthenon itself, and the whole Acropolis.
And at Persepolis on the Apadana reliefs, the same technique is used to encourage onlookers to identify with the figures represented in the artwork, and also with Persepolis itself. The Apadana reliefs are thought to represent the annual festival of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s celebration, when dignitaries of the subject nations were obliged to present their annual tribute, not entirely unlike the Panathenaic festival during the Athenian Empire. So, just as the figures in the Apadana reliefs are shown lined up marching to their king in a ritual parade, so too would the real-life dignitaries and soldiers be parading during the festival of Nauroz. And those aren’t just any figures in the Apadana reliefs. Their different styles of dress and the items they carry help us identify them as emissaries of the various nations subject to the Persian Empire, those very same tribute-bearing dignitaries and those very same Persian and Median soldiers, who themselves once long ago walked along these quote-unquote portraits in relief as they brought tribute to the king. The Apadana reliefs even help to channel the tribute bearers in procession as they climb the staircases to the Apadana terrace proceeding inward towards the king. And when seen in its entirety, all the hundreds of figures on the Apadana reliefs directly face the figure of the king, where he’s already receiving a Median marshal and spear-bearers, as seen here in this reconstruction drawing of the northern terrace of the Apadana from Margaret Cool Root’s 1985 article in the American Journal of Archaeology “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”
So we’ve seen how the Acropolis of the new Athenian Imperial Age and the audience hall at Persepolis share a functional similarity as imperial treasuries and centers for tribute from subject nations. They were also both festival grounds for annual parades when the tribute was received. And they both served to unite a diverse group of cultures under a singular figurehead, in one case, the divine maiden and protector of democracy, Athena, and in the other, the Persian King, a living god.
We also explored a similarity in the experience of these sites by their respective festival participants in that the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze both demonstrate the same effect of connecting with the viewer, having him or her identify with the religious and imperial function of the site. We don’t see a lot of formal or stylistic similarities between the two sites, and that makes sense when you think that Athens wouldn’t directly and literally want to mimic the Persian government. Instead, by metaphorically associating themselves with their most immediate imperial forebearers, the Athenians justify their ascent to the role of emperor over the Eastern Mediterranean. By employing similar themes of tribute and the patriotic festival parade, Athens further manages to justify its claim in the eyes of the Ionian Greeks, who had long been familiar with these themes under Persian rule. And to bring it all home, Athens does all of this in the distinctly Ionian sacred artistic tradition of the Ionic frieze. How could the Ionians have possibly rebuffed their obsequious Athenian compatriots building bridges towards a new, allied, democratic Greece? Yeah, right.
Well, that concludes our long haul from Persia to Athens. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to visit SCARABsolutions.com where you’ll find the image library from the podcast and the ever-expanding bibliography in the Additional Resources section. And as always you can also read the transcripts for each episode plus search them, in case there’s something you know we covered previously, but don’t want to go back and listen to each episode until you find it. Plus the transcript helps to figure out how to spell all these strange ancient names I’m spouting. Also found among the transcripts is a list of links to more great Parthenon and Persepolis resources online. If you’d like to email me, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’d like to help me out, please consider offering your review of the podcast on iTunes. You’ll find a link at SCARABsolutions.com to visit the podcast in iTunes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.
©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org