VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF THE SCENES ON THE FRIEZE
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
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
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.