Home > Byzantium, Late Antiquity, Notes From Athens > The Destructive Power of the Athenian Acropolis

The Destructive Power of the Athenian Acropolis

The Athenian Acropolis preserves an amazing collection monuments.  Perhaps because of the prominence of these monuments, it never fails to attract attention and controversy.  In fact, as much as the Acropolis and its crown jewel the Parthenon has inspired, the idea of the Acropolis has also shown an amazing power to disrupt, destroy, and disorient.  The most recent example of this (via Kostis Kourelis) is the short film directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras designed to be shown at the new Acropolis museum.  Apparently, the church became upset by a scene that showed priests destroying part of the sculpture of the Parthenon frieze.  According to AP:

The animated segment showed figures clad in black climbing up ladders and destroying part of the Parthenon frieze; the scene referred to well-documented episodes of destruction that took place in the early Byzantine period (5th-8th centuries A.D.), when Christians often demolished monuments and temples belonging to the old pagan era. Many parts from those temples were used to build churches. The Parthenon itself suffered some damage but was spared a worse fate by being converted into a church.

“The priests used to destroy ancient temples. Now they want to remove scenes from a film,” Costa-Gavras told Greece’s Mega TV channel. “This is the kind (of censorship) that used to happen in the former Soviet Union.”

This entire episode is fascinating and another testimony to the power of the Acropolis and the Parthenon to destroy.  History first.  The “well-documented episodes of the destruction that took place in the early Byzantine period” is wrong.  There are almost no well-documented incidents of anything during the Early Byzantine period.  In fact, the closing of the Parthenon as a temple and its consecration as a church remain a hotly debated issue with no particular chance of any resolution any time soon.  Alison Frantz in her still seminal and elegant article from 1965 puts it best (A. Frantz, “From Paganism to Christianity in the Temples of Athens,” DOP 19 (1965), 185-205):

“The zeal with which the classically-oriented archaeologists of the nineteenth century stripped away from Athenian temples all possible reminders of their post-classical history has rendered unduly complicated the task of dating their conversion. The nature of the required alterations made it impossible to eradicate completely all traces and these, supplemented by descriptions and drawings by the early travelers, have sometimes made it possible to reconstruct the general appearance of both exterior and interior. But the systematic removal, without recording, of wall masonry and, in many cases, even of foundations, destroyed at the same time almost all chronological evidence…” (p. 201)

In fact, the lack of good chronology for the conversion of the temples of Athens to church means that there is no way of knowing who and when the Parthenon marbles were damaged. 

The issue with the film and the marbles and the Parthenon and the Acropolis is not just about some quibbling over the date of its conversion and the changes wrought by its conversion to a Christian church.  (There have been some good, recent work on the Parthenon during the Byzantine Period).  The real issue that I want to focus some attention on here is how amazingly destructive the idea of the Parthenon has become.  The prominent rock that is the Acropolis has long stood as a place where the various rulers of Athens sought to project their identity onto the city and, more recently, the modern nation.  At the same time that the rock with its temples has represented the commanding voice in Athens, it has also worked to negate competing visions of the city and the nation.  The Conta-Gavras film is a typical example of this.  His work, like many intellectuals of modern Europe, has always contained an anti-clerical strain, so it is unsurprising that he would project his left-leaning ideals onto the Parthenon.  At the same time, the Parthenon is a place where identity is tightly controlled by the Greek state which, particularly when governed by a center-right party, closely tied (if not properly inseparable) from the Greek Church. 

From the 19th century on, efforts have been made to purify the history of the Parthenon through the systematic destruction of its post-Classical phases (see the work of Y. Hamilakis); more recently, the construction of the new Acropolis museum in one of the most archaeological sensitive areas of Athens has caused its own kind of destruction without mentioning the high-profile controversy surrounding the need to destroy a nearby art-deco style building to ensure the museum’s view of the “sacred rock”.  It is a testimony to the power of the Acropolis that the recent episodes have captured the modernist roots of archaeology and broadcast them so globally.  A the Parthenon, perhaps more than anywhere else, destroying the past and collapsing it into an permanent present has become the key method for transcending it.

The most recent controversy over images of destruction in the Costa-Gavras film and the subsequent destruction of his artistic vision falls in line with the politics of nation building and identity formation that have swirled around the monument for its entire history.  It’s also a nice reminder of how an inspirational monument can empower destruction as well as creation.

  1. August 3, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    A very useful summary of the issue, and a useful description of circumstances.

  2. August 3, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    The Costa-Gavras image of blackrobed priests hacking away at the Parthenon is undoubtedly crude and inflammatory, but Alison Frantz (bless her) is no longer a good reference to the fate of the building. For that you need to go to Manolis Korres.
    At some time, either just before or, more likely,just after the catastrophic fire of the fourth or fifth century, most of the east end of the temple was dismantled. The central figures of the east pediment were taken down to make room for the apse, and almost all of the pronaos was dismantled. (The interior of the cella, and the entire central area of the roof were totally destroyed by the fire.)
    It is time to admit that immense alterations had been made to the building by the 6th century so that it would have been hardly recognizable to the ancient world or, for that matter, even to us.

  3. August 4, 2009 at 6:24 am

    Thanks for the comments! Rest assured that I know that Korres is the better reference, but I liked Frantz’s prose (and, frankly, liked her article) more. I think that 4th or 5th century changes to the building are really valuable for this discussion. They suggest that there were very late repairs to the building that were not necessarily associated with its Christianization. (I can’t imagine Christians converting the Parthenon in the 4th century and I’d be skeptical of the 5th!) So the blackrobed priests hacking at the temple may not have necessarily been Christian and may have, in fact, been pagans.

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