Review – The Parthenon

Posted January 11, 2016 by Nicky in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Parthenon by Mary BeardThe Parthenon, Mary Beard

I enjoyed Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, so when I spotted The Parthenon in a deal, I figured it’d be an interesting one. I actually expected it to be a bit more about the Greek context of the Parthenon, rather than going into the afterlife of the building — the use as a church and a mosque, the archaeology and tourism, even the literary responses to it, which is what it actually did. It seemed quite inconclusive about what the Parthenon actually was, though the evidence that might tell us about that is more scarce than you would think. It’s unsatisfying — it doesn’t have an altar, so it’s not a temple? But maybe it is? But?

Still, it is interesting to read about the history of the building as a church and a mosque, as well as a temple. I wasn’t even really aware of how much destruction the Parthenon went through: the iconic modern look is actually due to a lot of restoration.

It was very interesting to read the part about Lord Elgin and the issue of the British Museum’s possession of the marbles he took from Athens. On the one hand, it manifestly helped preserve the sculpture: that which remained in situ is in much worse state. But it’s also so… ugh, so imperial and condescending, to assume that Britain is the best guardian. Paternalistic. And while I like Neil MacGregor’s outlook on the British Museum (at least as expressed in A History of the World in 100 Objects), I’m still torn on the subject of the Elgin Marbles. I love the idea of a world museum, and I like the idea of it being in London — because I can conceivably take a weekend off and go there. That doesn’t mean it’s actually the best location, obviously. Just convenient to me. Not that I can think of anywhere notably better, either; I can’t think of a genuinely neutral, international space.

This book really emphasised that the problem of the Parthenon for us is one of cultural ownership, just as Pompeii can be seen as one of preservation. I wanted more about the Acropolis and the original purpose/usage of the Parthenon, but it seems we just don’t know. Which is kind of fascinating in itself…

Rating: 4/5

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