The Parthenon frieze in recent scholarship: problems and interpretations

Tom Stevenson

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Modern scholars have tended to approach the Parthenon frieze as a monument beset by interpretive 'problems'. Questions have surfaced more readily than answers. What is the subject of the frieze? Under what circumstances was the frieze viewed and interpreted by fifth-century BC Athenians? What do the horsemen in the cavalcade symbolize, and what is their relationship to other groups of figures on the frieze? Would an interpretation based upon gender or sexuality improve our understanding? What is the solemn event commemorated in the central panel of the east frieze, located directly above the doorway on that side? Certainly, a field of study which continues to throw up questions might appear to be in a relatively healthy state, but it is noticeable that most debate has focused upon the subject of the frieze - and that commentators are intent upon solving 'problems'. It is doubtful that fifth-century Athenians experienced the problems of interpretation which have perturbed modern scholars for so long. My own view, which I hope to argue in detail elsewhere, is that the frieze represents an idealized, contemporary celebration of the Great Panathenaia (the festival as a whole, not merely the procession). This is close to the traditional interpretation, which has been challenged strongly in recent years. One result of the energy put into these challenges is that development into other fields of investigation has been inhibited. The function of the frieze, even its style and antecedents, and whether or not it supports the metopes and pediments as part of a sculptural 'programme', are topics which deserve greater attention in future. In this paper I would like to survey the most influential interpretations of the Parthenon frieze (Part I below) and offer a few comments on methodological underpinnings and possible future trends (Part II).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-67
Number of pages26
JournalAncient history : resources for teachers
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2000

Bibliographical note

Publisher version archived with the permission of the Editor, Ancient History : resources for Teachers, Macquarie Ancient History Association, Macquarie University, NSW, Australia. This copy is available for individual, non-commercial use. Permission to reprint/republish this version for other uses must be obtained from the publisher.


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