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“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?

Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm