More on the Post-Classical Parthenon

ChristianParthenon If you want more traffic to your archaeology blog, just post with the words Acropolis, Parthenon, or Athens in the title!  I posted a couple of weeks ago on what I termed the “destructive power” of the Athenian Acropolis and declared it to be one of the most unapologetically modern of all ancient monuments.

This past week, while frantically preparing for classes, I used my down time to read A. Kaldellis new little book on the Christian Parthenon.  As per my usual practice, I am not going to review this book.  And in the interest of full disclosure, he allowed me to read an early draft of his manuscript.  The book is an exciting one.  Kaldellis combs the difficult and dispersed Byzantine sources for the Parthenon and argues (among other things) that the Parthenon was more important as a church than it ever was as an ancient temple.  Dedicated to the Mother of God, the temple was the Cathedral of Athens, an important pilgrimage site, and the location of a persistent miracle involving some kind of mysterious light.

I’ll make three short observations about this book and how his thinking about Byzantine views of antiquity is so enriching:

1. He is subtle in his argument, but he suggests that some of the Parthenon’s modern fame is rooted in its Byzantine renown. While the lines of transmission can not be precisely defined, the long Frankish occupation of Athens and some continuity of practice between the Frankish and Byzantine period would have exposed the Crusaders to the temple’s reputation as a church.  The Western suppression of the Byzantine period at the Parthenon, then, not only physically eliminated and historically vilified the Byzantine contributions to the building itself, but overwrote the Byzantine source for the temple’s architectural and historical significance.  After all, how could the “Oriental” Byzantine have appreciated the Classical glory of the Parthenon?  This argument adds sting to Kaldellis observations “the Byzantines had done far less damage to the monument than had Elgin and the Venetians” (p. 4). 

2. He problematizes the Byzantine relationship to the past in a far more complex way than previous scholarship.  In doing so, he offers the suggestion that spread and importance of the cult of the Panagia Atheniotissa represented a sublimated knowledge of the city’s glorious Classical past as embodied in the Parthenon which could not be expressed within the rhetorical and intellectual structures of Christian Byzantine rhetoric or, perhaps, even Byzantine society more broadly (p. 175).  This Freudian reading of the deep conflict between the pagan Classical past and the Byzantine present explain the emergence of the Parthenon as an important site by representing it as the manifestation of suppressed desire.  In other words, the Parthenon and the Classical past of Greece continued to function in societies unconscious (especially among the Byzantine intellectual elite).  It’s a small leap to understand the historical and archaeological character of Greek dream life in the same way (for more on that see here and here).  The suppressed wish for a glorious Classical past (especially during challenging times faced by bishops like Michael Choniates) finds expression through the exaltation of the Byzantine temple.

3. For a while, I was looking serious at Byzantine saints lives from Greece and I was told, perhaps flippantly, by a senior archaeologist that he thought these texts had little value and were, more or less, all the same. While this did not cause me to give up on them entirely, it probably discouraged me from thinking that there would be much potential in attempting to bring together Byzantine hagiography (or Byzantine texts more broadly) and the systematic archaeology of the Byzantine period.  Kaldellis’s work is a great model for any efforts in that directions and suggests that the integration of Byzantine texts and monuments is not only possible for Greece, but can be profitable.

Oh, one last thing in this non-review. Kaldellis prose is great.  He manages to combine analytical precision with an casual and readable diction.  A few of my colleagues can pull this off.  I can’t.  I’m jealous.

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