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The Significance of the Parthenon Frieze

No other city-state had ever before gone beyond the traditional function of temples in paying honor and glorifying its special deities by adorning, as the Athenians did on the Parthenon, a temple with representations of its citizens. Previously, the closest temples had come to a reference of such local significance had been to place sculptures in their pediments that depicted mythological scenes1 with particular meaning for the people of the locale in which temple had been built. The Parthenon, indeed, had such scenes in its pediments. The sculptures of the east pediment2 portrayed the birth of Athena, the patron deity of the Athenians, while the west pediment3 portrayed Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, engaged in a contest to see who would become the patron deity of the Athenians by bestowing on them the greater blessing. The Parthenon frieze, however, achieved a new level of local reference. It made a unique statement about the relationship between Athens and the gods by showing its citizens in the company of the gods, even if the assembled deities carved in the frieze at the temple's eastern end were understood to be separated from and perhaps invisible to the humans in the procession depicted in the frieze. A temple adorned with pictures of citizens, albeit idealized citizens of perfect physique and beauty4, amounted to a claim of special intimacy between the city-state and the gods, a statement of confidence that these honored deities favored the Athenians. Presumably this claim reflected the Athenian interpretation of their success in helping to turn back the Persians, in achieving leadership of a powerful naval alliance, and in controlling, from their silver mines5 and the allies' dues, an amount of revenue which made Athens richer than all its neighbors in mainland Greece. The Parthenon, like the rest of the Periclean building program, paid honor to the gods with whom the city-state was identified and expressed the Athenian view that the gods looked favorably on their empire. Their success, the Athenians would have said, proved that the gods were on their side.

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Laurion (Greece) (1)

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