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North Frieze Slab 41: Cavalcade

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South Frieze Slab 13: Cavalcade

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North Frieze Slab 24: Part of one apobates (left) and several horse and ri...

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South Frieze Slab 15: Cavalcade

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South Frieze Slab 40: South frieze: detail of head of sacrificial ox

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North Frieze Slab 4: Three or four sacrificial horned sheep led by two dri...

Collection: London, British Museum and Athens, Acropolis Museum
Title: Parthenon, Frieze
Context: From Athens, Acropolis
Findspot: Found at Athens, Acropolis
Summary: Parthenon frieze overview
Sculptor: Literary attestation to Pheidias
Material: Marble
Sculpture Type: Architectural
Category: Statuary group
Placement: Exterior crown of cella
Style: High Classical
Technique: Low relief
Original or Copy: Original
Date: 447 BC - 432 BC

L 160.0 m, H 1.0 m

Scale: Under life-size
Region: Attica
Period: High Classical

Subject Description:

The traditional interpretation of the Parthenon frieze is that it depicts, in some sense, a Panathenaic procession, part of the festival of the same name celebrated each year on the occasion of Athena's birthday. Beginning with the institution of Panhellenic games in 566/65 B.C., a more elaborate festival was held every fourth year known as the Greater Panathenaia. Eventually certain rituals such as the presentation of the peplos were reserved for the Greater Panathenaia (see Shear), leading most scholars to assume the procession depicted on the frieze is associated with this festival. The frieze forms a single, continuous band around the exterior of the inner building (i.e., along the top of the wall on the north and south and over the columns of the porch on the east and west). Compositionally its plan is somewhat more complex. It begins at the southwest corner of the building. Strictly speaking the west end is the "back" of the temple, but in fact is the side first approached by any visitor to the Acropolis. The procession then proceeds in two directions. On the west side a figure heads up a cavalcade of horses and riders, many not yet mounted, who move across the west end of the building, around the northwest corner and on up the long north side. On the south side a similar cavalcade parallels the one on the north. The design thus envisages a procession which has split and moves around both sides of the building, converging toward the east end where it will rejoin for the enactment of the culminating ritual.

A large proportion of the frieze, i.e. all of the west and most of the north and south sides, is devoted to the cavalcade. The beginning sections depict individual horses, horsemen and marshals. On the north and south sides the riders are separated into ranks. On the south there are ten such groups; on the north side the number is greater, possibly twelve. The precise number is impossible to confirm beyond doubt owing to the extensive damage, but the number may well be significant (it has been suggested that the ten groups on the south are a reference to the ten Attic tribes). In front of the ranks of riders are chariot groups, again ten on the south and eleven or twelve on the north. Many take part in the apobates' contest in which a warrior jumps off and eventually back onto a moving chariot, a technique of ancient warfare long since abandoned on the actual battlefield but retained as a military exercise performed at the festival. Farther along both sides the focus changes to groups of men carrying objects: on the north, olive branches (somewhat hypothetical, since the painted objects are no longer extant), musical instruments (4 of each kind), hydriai (water jars) (4) and trays (3 visible). Still ahead are attendants with the sacrificial animals, on the north both horned sheep (4) and cows (4). The south side shows a similar arrangement but with some difference in the objects and numbers of figures: tablets instead of instruments (although Boardman suggests lyres) and only cows (10) as sacrificial victims.

The east side is treated somewhat differently, as it represents both a continuation of the procession and its culmination. Women head up both streams of the parade: a group of sixteen from the south and thirteen from the north. Several men accompany them. The women are sometimes identified as attendants for the sacrifice, sometimes as the Ergastinai who wove the peplos. Next to these but clearly separated from them compositionally are ten mature men, apparently one category of figures though separated by the gods and peplos scene into two sub-groups of six (to the south) and four (to the north). These figures are most frequently identified as the eponymous heroes of the ten Attic tribes. A recent suggestion is that they represent the athlothetai. The sub-group of four may be a reference to the original number of tribes. Next in order to the center is a group of seated figures, again divided by the peplos scene but united by their unquestionably larger scale. Clearly they represent the gods. They communicate neither with the heroes nor with the mortals involved in the ritual scene. They are apparently there as witnesses though invisible to the other participants and should be understood as occupying a different plane. The rocks under their feet have been thought to refer to Olympos. Finally, positioned over the center of the front porch of the cella, is the small group whose activity is the focus of the frieze. It includes an older man, usually identified as the archon basileus or chief magistrate of Athens, a woman thought to be a priestess of Athena or perhaps his wife, and three children. The two girls on the left may represent the Arrhephoroi, whose responsibilities include the weaving of the peplos. The sex of the child holding the folded peplos is much debated and his or her role in the ritual, clearly important, remains as generally mysterious as the scene itself. For though it certainly involves the ritual exchange of Athena's peplos, there is some question as to which peplos and which moment: the old one or the new, the presentation or the putting away?

It is often noted that the Parthenon frieze breaks ground in depicting a historical rather than a mythological event. Yet the frieze includes divinities and probably heroes, and though accounts of the procession are incomplete, it is certain that this representation does not seek to realistically depict the event. The single largest element of the procession consisted of the citizen body on foot, yet this aspect is entirely absent on the Parthenon frieze. Also missing is the ship from whose mast and yard-arm the peplos was suspended. Instead, attention is lavished on the cavalcade. In an attempt to explain this, Boardman counts 192 participating males exclusive of the charioteers and sees a heroization of the 192 killed at Marathon celebrated in the frieze. Other scholars have difficulty confirming the numbers but given the historical connection of the Older Parthenon with the Persians, it is conceivable that the sculptural program would include a reference to that event. Boardman's hypothesis seeks to explain the inconsistencies between the historical sources and the frieze while continuing to accept the basic premise that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession in some sense. Some scholars reject only Boardman's hypothesis, while others believe that the premise itself must be discarded.

If it is difficult to relate the frieze to a specific time frame, it may be possible to relate it to a specific place. Robertson, noting the emphasis on preparation rather than movement and siting the apobates contests near the Eleusinion, interprets those activities on the frieze as taking place within the Agora. He thus retains the basic premise of the Panathenaic Procession by including events which took place prior to the procession proper. Boardman agrees with the Agora setting and would place even the peplos scene there. Fehl sees the landscape elements as references to the Panathenaic Way, the Acropolis and Olympus.

The interpretation of the various carriers is yet another problem. The possible inappropriateness of horned sheep (if rams) as offerings to Athena, as pointed out by Simon, has led to a hypothesis of two distinct sacrifices. Perhaps the greatest difficulty of interpretation, however, involves the east frieze. Harrison and Kron have made a case for the identification of eponymous heroes, yet some still believe these figures to be magistrates or festival officials. A difference of opinion still confounds the identification of the various deities and, more importantly, their precise role in the scene. As already noted, the interpretation of the peplos scene, like many aspects of the frieze, is still open to question and highly controversial. Two recent proposals reject the premise that the frieze represents the Panathenaic procession. Connelly offers a new mythological interpretation: the sacrifice of the Erechtheids. Pollitt suggests the frieze celebrates aspects of contemporary Athenian society of special concern to Perikles, as expressed in his funeral oration.

Date Description: The frieze, like the metopes and the pediments, is dated within the 15-year span 447-432 B.C. covered by the Parthenon accounts. Stylistically at least some of the metopes appear to precede the frieze. The frieze, in turn, logically precedes the pediment, since it must be installed long before the pedimental figures can be hoisted into place. Because some of the same sculptors apparently worked on the metopes and frieze, and perhaps the pediments as well, it is generally assumed that the metopes were begun first, followed by the frieze and lastly the pediments. The only intervening date of importance is 438 B.C., when the cult statue was dedicated, implying, as the argument goes, that the roof must have been completed and the frieze course thus in place. This date is relevant to the frieze sculpture for those who believe the slabs were carved in workshops on the ground, in which case the dedication provides a terminus ante for the completion of the carving. Other scholars, beginning with Dinsmoor, believe the frieze blocks were hoisted into place in a rough state, and the sculpting was done in situ. One piece of evidence for this theory is the narrow band which runs along the base of the slabs. It was apparently pre-cut, and its function was to provide a setting line for the as-yet-unfinished slabs. In some cases a similar band runs across the top. The way in which the composition cuts across slabs with little regard for their edges, especially on the north and south sides, is also cited as evidence for this view. According to this school of thought the bulk of the carving was done in the 430s rather than the 440s. Scholars who believe the frieze is stylistically closer to the pediments than to the metopes find confirmation here. Within the frieze some scholars believe the south was finished last and possibly in a hurried fashion, thus accounting for the looser style of carving. Nonetheless, given the immense length of the frieze and the number of sculptors who must have worked on it, the style is remarkably uniform.

Condition: Fragmentary

Condition Description: The east and west sides of the frieze are essentially complete. The north and south sides have suffered significantly more damage, particularly in the middle of those sides.

Material Description: Pentelic marble

Associated Building: Athens, Parthenon

Sources Used: Brommer 1977; Brommer 1979b; Robertson & Frantz 1975; Boardman 1985a, 106-09, 172-74; Robertson 1975; Stewart 1990, 155-57; Bruno 1974; Shear 1978b, 36 n. 89; E. Simon 1983, 55-72; Goddess and Polis 1992, 25ff.; B. Nagy 1992; Connelly 1996; Pollitt 1997.

Other Bibliography: Parthenon-Bibliographie 1984; Parthenon-Kongress; Kron 1976; Schäfer 1987