Main Page    Introduction to the Parthenon Frieze     


The temple and its sculptured decoration

The theme of the frieze

The designing and carving of the frieze

The history of the frieze

The east frieze, block V. British Museum


The problems of interpreting the scenes on the frieze are manifold indeed. It is evident that neither place nor time of the different scenes have been explained. Scenes of preparation scattered at various points alternate with scenes of the procession moving. The horsemen of the west frieze must be at the Dipylon; the chariots and the horsemen who are galloping their horses cannot possibly be on the uphill approach to the Acropolis. Yet the kanephoroi (basket- carriers) have already gone ahead and handed over their offerings.

Many questions remain to be answered. Since the archaic temple of Athena had been burned by the Persians, while the Erechtheion had yet to be built, to what extent is the theme focussed on the old or the new peplos, that covered the diipetes xoanon of the goddess, and was shown in the central scene? If the positioning of the gods and goddesses on the east frieze corresponds to the topographical location of the sanctuaries at Athens and the deities are in the area of the Peribolos (Precinct) of the Twelve Gods, then the King Archon and the priestess can place the peplos somewhere close, perhaps in the Royal Stoa in the Ancient Agora.

There are differences between the representations on the frieze and the descriptions of the procession in the ancient sources. For example, the representatives of the allies and colonies are omitted, as are also the skiaphoroi (parasol-carriers) and diphrophoroi (stool-bearers) who were the daughters of metoikoi (metics, settlers) and who followed the kanephoroi, Athenian maidens who carried the offering baskets. The most significant omission, however, is that of the Panathenaic ship, on the mast of which the peplos was carried, like a sail. The ship, to be sure, was not taken up the Acropolis rock. It stopped somewhere near the Areopagus. From this point on, the peplos was carried by hand. This is what led the American archaeologist, S. Rotroff, to suggest that at the eastern parts of the long sides of the frieze are shown the two sections of the procession that mounted the Acropolis, whereas the ship remained at the Areopagus.

The Greek archaeologist, Chr. Kardara, presented a different interpretation according to which the frieze represents the original first procession with the institution of the Panathenaic festival by Erechtheus, whom she identifies with Erichthonios, and recognises as the boy (35) in the east frieze. The priest (34) on the same side she identifies as Kekrops, figure (33) as Ge and the young maidens (31 and 32) as his daughters.

The theory of the English archaeologist J. Boardman is also of interest. He identifies the procession of 192 horsemen shown on the frieze as the procession of the 192 heroised dead of the battle of Marathon in the presence of gods and eponymous heroes. He excludes, however, the charioteers of the apobates' chariots, although the charioteers are known to have shared victory with the apobates and for this reason received a prize.

The mixture of scenes in place and time, and the division of the procession into two parts has from time to time resulted in other hypotheses. The American archaeologist E. Harrison, for example, suggests that on three of the sides the frieze represents the Panathenaic procession at different chronological periods. Thus the west frieze shows the procession in mythical times, the north in the archaic period, the south in the classical period. On the south frieze 60 riders are depicted who are divided into 10 groups of six each, 10 chariots, 10 bulls with their drivers and so on. The predominance of the number 10 on the south side is a reference to the ten tribes into which Kleistenes divided the Athenian citizens for administrative and political purposes. On the north frieze the number 4 appears constantly, a reference to the 4 tribes of the archaic period, and the 12 chariots reflect the 12 phratriai (political sub-division of a tribe, a brotherhood).

The German archaeologist, E. Simon, has presented a similar theory, suggesting that the the north procession refers to the archaic period, the south to classical times.

The Italian archaeologist, L. Beschi, as does E. Harrison, accepts the idea that the division of the procession into two sections is governed by separate arithmetical references. On the south side the repeated number 10 of the different groups corresponds to the 10 tribes. On the north side, the predominance of the number 4, with its multiples, agrees with the archaic division of the citizens into 4 tribes. In each section there are three themes: sacrificial procession on the Acropolis, chariot race and parade of horsemen at speeds varying according to the phase of the contest on the Dromos (Panathenaic Way) in the Ancient Agora. Thus rhythms, times and places vary. This is in opposition to the view that the frieze depicts a single procession from the Kerameikos to the Acropolis. Even so, a view of the frieze as a unified whole draws support from the idea that the place represented is not real, but idealogical, an entire cult area in itself a votive offering. The Parthenon, which is a building without an altar, containing a statue that is not a cult statue, is indeed a great votive offering and the frieze is the greatest votive relief in history, with important themes chosen from the ample programme of the Panathenaic festival. The chosen themes are alloted to two facades according to their origin, historical-religious and political. While they appear to form an antithesis, they come together in a wonderful way on the east end. Thus the frieze is a combination of both the earlier tradition and the democratic revival at a rare moment of equilibrium.