The Parthenon by Mary Beard

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The Parthenon by Mary Beard

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Flipping
Reviewed by Sue Flipping
Summary: A tightly and fluently written history of one of the most recognisable icons of the ancient world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846683497

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Despite the proliferation of populist historians in print and on television, Professor Mary Beard continues to be a voice apart. Her conversational style of writing belies the academic research at its heart. This is serious history written as engagingly as a detective story.

The Parthenon is not what you might expect. It is not a description of how the ancient Athenian edifice was built, not a verbal reconstruction of what went on there in the fifth century BC, not a guidebook (although there is a short guide at the end). Instead, it is a witty and accessible discussion about the building's downfall from glorious classical temple to controversial tourist attraction.

Beard begins the journey by making us question our own feelings about the Parthenon. Sigmund Freud, it appears, was quite surprised to find that 'it really did exist, 'just as we learnt at school'.' The classical scholar, Werner Jaegar, was less prepared to take the risk and, despite visiting Athens, did not climb the Acropolis to the temple fearing that it might not live up to his expectations. Whether we have seen the Parthenon or not, it appears to inspire such awe that some of us cannot bear to have our dreams shattered. On the other hand, Lord Elgin, according to some, just saw it as a convenient site from which to pinch some impressive friezes.

Mary Beard does go back briefly to Ancient Greece to try to tease out from the few sources that remain the look and purpose of the original building. We know the dates of building, 447/6 – 433/2, and it seems almost certain that the most impressive feature was a massive wooden statue of Athena faced in ivory and gold. We also know that the statue, at least, was considered worthy of copying in many forms.

It seems certain that the classical temple only remained standing because it was, over the centuries, appropriated first by Christians as a church then by Turks as a mosque. Then in 1687 Athens came under attack from Venetian forces in a Holy League against the Ottomans. Women, children and, bizarrely in retrospect, ammunition were sheltered in the Parthenon. Under bombardment, the inevitable happened, the ammunition exploded and, after being admired for 2000 years, the Parthenon was left a ruin.

Like all ruins, it was exploited. Which is why Beard refuses to condemn Lord Elgin's removal of the marble friezes that now rest, controversially, in the British Museum. When Elgin visited the Parthenon, he found a 'ruined affair: it was colonised by a mosque, encroached by a garrison shanty-town and for more than a century had been despoiled by locals and visitors alike'. According to Beard, it would not have been difficult for him to convince himself, and others, that the sculptures that remained would be better protected by removal to a safe place rather than left 'in situ'.

Just a couple of decades later, he was almost vindicated when plans were drawn up to plant a new royal palace on the Acropolis. The plans never came to fruition but what then happened was almost as controversial. The Greek government began a campaign of 'restoration' that systematically removed every vestige of 'barbarian' influence on the Parthenon.

By modern standards, this was almost as much a crime as razing the whole thing to the ground. Again, Beard is even handed in her approach. Yes, much was lost, but there were also successes in the discoveries they made.

So to the modern day. If you have visited the Parthenon recently, you will know that visitors are unable to see little more than the scaffolding required for essential restoration work. The building itself is so damaged and 'trashed' to quote one reviewer, that it is difficult to understand why visitors still search for superlatives to describe it. Yet they do.

Beard ends her book by revisiting the debate about what should happen to the various parts of the ancient building that are now spread across the globe – not least, the so-called Elgin Marbles. For all her even-handedness, she is clear about the right way forward. Read the book to find out what that is!

Beard's historical knowledge and understanding is only surpassed by her ability to tell a story. The main body of this paperback version of The Parthenon is just 208 pages of fairly large print. It is certainly possible to read at a single sitting and you will come away with a sense of having spent a rather pleasant few hours, not simply learning about a classical building, but sharing an expert's enthusiasm for it.

I leave you with one of the quotes that Beard includes at the front of the book. I think the fact that she has chosen it says much about her non-misty eyed approach to history.

Reporter: Did you visit the Parthenon during your trip to Greece?

Shaquille O'Neal (US basketball star): I can't really remember the names of the clubs we went to.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading:

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft

The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere

It's A Don's Life by Mary Beard

Booklists.jpg The Parthenon by Mary Beard is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2010.

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