Persians in Athens? The Parthenon Frieze Revisited

Root, M.C.  1985.  “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”  American Journal of Archaeology 89: 103-120.

22 thoughts on “Persians in Athens? The Parthenon Frieze Revisited

  1. What are the connections between the Parthenon and the Apadana at Persepolis? What do these visual connections say about the Athenians given their rivalry with the Persians? Why were these echoes included in the architecture of the Parthenon?

    • The Parthenon frieze course and the Apadana feliefs resemble each other both structurally and narratively in that they each “present a theme of imminent convergence.” (P. 111) While the convergence on the Parthenon is around the building and upward and into the building symbolically the Apadana is upward, both physically and conceptually. Root also argues that just as the Apadana reliefs projects a message of harmonious order” so too does the Parthenon frieze; both reflect hierarchically structured societies that function in a harmonious manner(Page 113).

      It seems that these visual connections speak to Root’s argument that the Athenians would have known, adopted/adapted, and emulated some iconographic and structural elements of the Apadana reliefs. The fact that the Athenians did so seems to me to convey the ideas of both respect for a powerful foe and a claim to superiority over them. This idea of respect certainly fits in with the Ancient Greek worldview which centers around the concept of agon. Competition with a powerful foe often includes respect for the power that they wield and a knowledge of a foe’s strength, for without these elements a victory would not mean as much. To another degree, utilizing an enemy’s iconographic/structural program and adopting it to one’s own “superior” and victorious society suggests victory and power on another scale. In a way adopting/adapting these motifs demonstrates not only political superiority, but artistic superiority as well. In this way it only makes sense to include these echoes in the architecture of the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena that was only completed after the Athens was destroyed in 480 BC by the Persians.

    • According to Root, the Parthenon frieze depicts one single moment in time. Rather than depicting a procession scene as it develops over time with several snapshots of different moments, the reliefs provide various views of the same moment, a moment taking place before a procession begins. Root suggests that the different figure groups are all at different points in their preparations for the procession.

      • If this is the case, how does one explain the static nature of some participants and the dynamic nature of others?

        • The moods shift on the frieze figures. For example, the elders and musicians are shown in a more subdued and still manner. The reason being that the readiness for the procession varies among the participants. Other figures, however, appear less still and interact with those around them. They converge and create relationships with one another. Root believes this to be a representation of a single moment in which various participants are shown in various locations in preparation for the procession.

          • Time on the frieze, the way I understood it, was depicting a single moment in time, however in such a particular order that as it flowed, the characters depicted were changing in their stance and action. Here, I think he is trying to make the point that space and time are relative: each character should be interpreted as an individual who is doing his or her own preparations before the procession begins. The example he gives for this is that the horses at the back end of the procession are not yet moving, while those at the front are already engaged in a charge forward, giving the illusion of a time span. He explains that the mood of some character’s depicted directly relate to space, however I don’t see him trying to prove that their moods correlated with time at all. The “static” nature of some of the characters may have been due to the way in which they were preparing at that point in time–the chariots at the back are shown as stationary because at this snapshot moment of time, they have not begun to move yet.

    • Instead of viewing the frieze as a series of snapshots from different points in the procession, Root argues that the frieze represents one single moment–the moment before the procession begins. However, the figures on the frieze illustrate a spectrum of different stages of preparedness for beginning the procession. The figures at the west end of the frieze are in the initial preparatory stages, as they are located at the end of the processional group. As you follow along the frieze, the figures demonstrate through forward movement that they are ready to lead the group in starting.

    • Root argues that the frieze offered a beckoning aspect to the pronaos. It called people into a physical building by offering a scene that symbolizes what is going on in the interior. The scene may not have actually happened there, or have happened at all, but it made the population informed enough to be curious as to what was inside. His description kind of reminded me of when bakeries let the scent of their goods waft out to beak on people inside. Literally, the Parthenon frieze depicts a single moment in a procession.
      The Apandana has a similar effect on the viewer. It not only pulls the viewer around, but also upward and inward. It plays with the real and the mythical, as well as offering a narrative. It also fits into the architecture, making it seem whole. These evoke reminders of the city’s newly found power and relationship with the gods.

    • Root has a strong argument in the “critical similarities between the Parthenon frieze and the Apadana frieze” . They both have the same structure of the story and figures converging towards a central scene. More so, they both have the same structure of converging toward a central figure and a convergence upwards from the bottom of the building into it. The figures ascend the frieze as they would up the stairs. this ascension up works with the architecture, making the viewer lead up and into the building. This complex of a scene, of leading the viewer around, up and into the building, I think shows the sculptors of the Parthenon looked at Apanda when creating the structure.

  2. Do you believe that the Parthenon frieze intentionally echoed the reliefs at the Apadana of Persepolis? Explain your opinion.

    • On page 115 of the Root article, the author says, ” The acquisition of specific rituals and paraphernalia of pomp from the Persian sphere was a conscious and quite logical way to render all the more wonderful the cults of the Athenians- and, by extension, the political/ military strength of Athens.”
      This passage caught my attention and I was waiting for the author to convince me with evidence that this Greek consciousness was in fact there, but unfortunately the author fell short of winning me over. I want to challenge this statement. I have little knowledge in comparison to the author, but from what I do understand, the Greeks absolutely hated the Persians. They hated them and were culturally opposed to the “other.” The Greeks had a “radical” democracy at home, the Persians had a monarchy, the former had their gods and men separated, the later had no problem combining the two. The list can go on, but there’s no reason to beat a dead horse. I think Root makes a good argument for the similarities between the two monuments, I even thing his time line is convincing to say that the Greeks got some of their ideas from the Persians, but I cant imagine that this borrowing of ideas was conscious. Why would the Greeks want to use iconography from a culture they oppose, in a positive and illustrious way no less? I feel like a good Greek upholds Agon, and sets out to create a monument bigger, better, and completely independent and original in comparison to every culture in the known world. Another thought that crossed my mind is the Athenian mindset. During the building of this complex the Athenian’s are running high off their-own greatness and becoming an exploitative superpower. On their biggest, bestest, and most awesome monument they decide to depict their new identity. They need to find a new iconographic vocabulary with which to depict themselves. They experiment with different motifs and ideas. The author says that they were sampling “ oriental flavor.” Are we to understand that oriental means Persian? Couldn’t this overlap be a coincidence? If they are taking from Persian ideas, couldn’t this be unconscious?

      • Initially, I mostly agreed with Jenna here – I was not totally convinced that the Greeks would have wanted to intentionally take motifs and other aspects of significance from the Persian Empire. In response to the first question on the blog, Morgan made a good point that perhaps this is an example of Greek respect for their competitors. However, I am not sure this could explain the similarities completely. If this were the case, it seems strange that the Athenians would have waited at all to construct the Parthenon after the Acropolis had been destroyed (unless maybe they eventually decided that the best revenge was to emulate a Persian structure and make their version even better. I can see this maybe happening, but I am not sure how likely this explanation is either). Ultimately, I can imagine that the Athenians would have intentionally echoed the Persepolis reliefs, given a few of the points the author made. Overall, I found the argument to take too many leaps, but I think several very valid suggestions were made. The paragraphs and sections I found most helpful to support the author’s “intentional” argument were as follows:

        “None of the Greek monuments with individual aspects of similarity offers a whole system of significant similarities; and none can claim any particular historical plausibility as the model for a monument as important and politically charged as the Parthenon. The Parthenon frieze, does, on the other hand, bear striking resemblance to the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis.” (108) – The author is attempting to argue here that the Parthenon resembles a Persian structure much more closely than it does any other structure in Greece. However, since the various aspects of the building can perhaps be found individually among other Greek structures, I would not be willing to completely dismiss the possibility of the Parthenon being the culmination of many Greek architectural aspects. In general this is probably not the simplest conclusion (so that goes against the rule that the simplest conclusion is usually the best conclusion), but at this point, I would be willing to leave the Greek culmination view open as a possibility.

        “The moral for Athens is that her empire will succeed (whereas Persia’s ultimately failed, at least in its ambitions to control mainland Greece) only if this lesson is heeded.” (113) – This goes back to my response to Morgan’s remark. Perhaps the Greeks would have intentionally mirrored the Persians to show their competitive nature; essentially to say “You may have destroyed us at one point in time, but now we will build something which takes your own motifs and portrays them better than even you. PLUS in the end, we will ultimately succeed over you anyway.” This would seem somewhat logical to me.

        “The message which runs beneath this drama of imminent moment is a message of imperial aspiration articulated through a festival metaphor borrowed deliberately from the Persians and recast in the guise of an eminently Athenian celebration.” (113) – I think it may be a leap to say at this point that the Athenians deliberately borrowed this concept, but it IS fair to point out the similarity and suggest that the scene is an imperial scene. With this in mind, the next section I found helpful is more convincing:

        “If the Parthenon frieze is imperial art in any sense,… we should expect that, regardless of what prototypes may have existed within Greek traditions for various isolated formal or iconographical aspects of the frieze, the Athenians would have looked carefully to the court of the Great King for inspiration on matters of imperial imagery – for the good reason that in the realm of artistic expression of imperial ideals, as well as in the realm of actual implementation of imperial policies, Persia was surely the resource par excellence.” (115-116) – This section made a lot of sense to me and seemed the most convincing. Of course I am not an expert in terms of who had the best artistic expressions of imperial imagery, but if Persia truly DID have the best expressions, then this argument is entirely reasonable. Additionally, it ties back to my first concern regarding existing prototypes in Greece. This paragraph suggests that even if the styles already existed in Greece, the Athenians would have wanted to take styles from the imperial art experts.

        I wouldn’t say that I am completely won over by this argument, but it at least makes me reconsider my initial viewpoint towards Athenians intentionally echoing Persian reliefs. I am, at this point, not unwilling to accept the possibility posited by the author in this article.

      • In some areas, I can see support for Root’s argument (as in the organization of the scenes and the similarity of imagery), but I do not believe that the Athenians specifically created the Parthenon frieze with the Apadana reliefs in mind. I agree with Jenna as I, too, cannot comprehend why the Athenians would have been so inspired by their sworn enemies to intentionally place such similar iconography on their grandest structure. Rather, I see the processional scene on the Parthenon as a dedication to Athena for the period of victory over the Persians. The frieze was surely intended to promote Athenian society, so it makes sense for the sculptural designers to have chosen such an important event as the Great Panathenaic Procession to represent their culture. Support can be made in that the organization of the Athenian frieze in relation to the structure is very similar to that of the Persian reliefs. As Rebecca posted, “[the Parthenon frieze and the Apadana reliefs] both have the same structure of the story and figures converging towards a central scene.” However, this makes sense for a processional scene in general because the figures within the scene could wrap around the structure with the sculptural designers placing emphasis on the main event. Additionally, I agree with Root that “the sculpture was meant to convey something powerful and energizing: the harmonious ordering of a society guided by positivistic ideas and far-reaching aspira- tions,” but I do not believe that if “its representational imagery [was] derived from [a] calculated emulation of the programmatic imperial visions of Darius” (120) the power and ability of Athenian society would been as strong. They created something new and outstanding with the Parthenon (as seen in the architectural revisions of the structure), so I do not believe that the Greeks would have chosen to simply take imagery from a culture they did not admire in the least bit.

    • It is possible that it attempted to echo the reliefs at Apadana of Persepolis as on page 111 Root says “We have already established that the Parthe-
      non frieze functions in a similar way-in this case to
      draw the participant around the building literally and
      upward and into the building symbolically, with ref-
      erence to the ascent from Agora to Akropolis and
      hence toward the interior of the temple at the east.” He goes on to point that in both reliefs there is a harmonious, hierarchically defined relationship occurring in society. Root also explains that he believes the Greeks looked towards the imperialist Persian empire for inspiration for many of their reliefs. However some evidence attempts to negate this just as mentioned on page 116 when he explains there is evidence that highly regarded Greek individuals did not make trips over to the Persian empire and that the Greeks during this time period were not allowed to visit Persepolis and therefore could not draw inspiration from the Persians.

  3. How could the Athenian democracy justify their references to and adoption of the iconography of the palace of Imperial Persia?

    • The Athenian democracy emphasized the “message of harmonious imperial order richly shaded to suggest a divinely sanctioned and piously applied covenant of rulership.” By approaching the iconography of Imperial Persia from this angle, the friezes of the Parthenon could reflect the Persian culture with the reason to better enrich the structure itself and depict the themes the architects wished to display.

  4. Did the Athenians see Democracy as incompatible with imperialism? What about the characteristic of freedom and self-determination shared by nearly every Greek city-state?

    • If the Athenians saw democracy as incompatible with imperialism, some major cognitive dissonance must have been going on in regards to the “Delian League-turned-empire” (Root, 114). Root goes into great detail describing how Athens functioned as an imperial power, citing mandatory tributes and events, such as the Panathenaia, that the other city-states participated in (Root, 114-115). As far as the Greek city-states’ valuing of freedom and self-determination in relation to imperialism, I think those values were incompatible with the Athenians’ imperial system more so than the conflict within Athenians themselves regarding Democracy/imperialism, simply due to the fact that the city-states eventually revolted against the Delian League.

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