Perikles and Parthanon lead image

Perikles and the Parthenon Paradox

May 4, 1970. What a perfect morning for a quest! At the terminal’s screen prompt, you type GO EAST and hit the return key.

Wow. From here, you can see the Adriatic. The air is crisp. Late spring breezes and birdsong fill the trees. It’s a beautiful day to walk among Athenians milling about the Acropolis. Some are taking in the vista. Most worship the sun and other gods. On the steps of the Parthenon is an orator with a gathering; a peaceful protest seems under way. And tucked away somewhere in this immense citadel, you’ve been told, is Perikles.

The war with Sparta was dragging on, making the general less popular than he’d been in years past. Months of growing demonstrations, occasionally violent, prompted Perikles to withdraw from public life. Rumor had it he was closeting himself. That’s why you felt fortunate to have met his lover in the Agora this morning. With barely contained enthusiasm, Aspasia noted that, like you, she was not from Athens. Unlike you, though, she was intimately familiar with the city and its ways. Aspasia boasted she’d climbed to the top of Athens’ social ladder using nothing but “wit and intellect.” In a very short time, she had earned the love and respect of Athens’ most revered citizen, Perikles.

When you told her you would like to speak with the general, she asked why. A thirst for knowledge was your best answer. You came to unravel an enigma. She watched you as you spoke, unsure of your intentions. “For wisdom, Perikles is unmatched,” she said. “But to know the unknown, you must go to Pytho and speak with the Oracle. Allow me to take you there, Wanderer. There is much you can learn.” You declined, saying Perikles was the one you sought, the champion of democracy. Reluctantly, Aspasia relented. Pulling you close in confidence, she whispered where to find her partner. 

As you trekked up the Acropolis hill, your mind was a whirl of questions. At 500 feet above the city, you paused: was Aspasia flirting with you in the marketplace? It wouldn’t be out of character. Athens in 429 B.C.E. was filled with that kind of intrigue. You cursed yourself for missing a chance to earn points.

Ah, well. Keep going. You type WALK to move forward.

There he is, sitting by the Kore Porch. Legend has it that Perikles used to hold court on the plaza fronting the gigantic Athena statue. Admirers would cheer him and the goddess for their victories. Today, the space is occupied by a crowd complaining of Athenian failures. You spot Perikles sunning alongside the Erechtheion. His back is against a wall of caryatids. The general appears small and despondent, not the imposing figure you anticipated. You wave as if you know him (you don’t).

“Greetings, friend,” he says, not at all startled by a stranger’s intrusion. “Come and enjoy the warmth of the gods.” You sit down to his left. Perikles asks, “Are you here to honor or to harangue me?” His expression gives no hint of concern either way. You introduce yourself as Alexios and tell him you’ve come seeking answers, not to deliver judgment. He turns surprised. You reassure him that you want nothing more than his opinion on architecture. “Oh?” You point to what historian Joan Breton Connelly calls “the West’s most iconic building.” Perikles takes in the massive structure to your south and studies the blue bunting between columns, the exquisite statuary, the hundreds of feet of carved metopes. He grins and says, “Of the Parthenon, I am happy for discourse.”

After 30 minutes of questions and answers, you hit the space bar. The word PAUSED appears on the screen. You finish your morning coffee and wolf down what’s left of your donut before continuing.

This great man, you tell yourself, this great man made that great building possible. Eighteen years ago, his time, Perikles proposed to the Assembly an enormous budget to rebuild temples destroyed when the Persians sacked the city. But his vision went beyond reconstruction. The building program added the massive Propylaea gate, a 30-foot-tall bronze statue of Athena, and a new and larger Parthenon. The Erechtheion and Temple of Athena Nike owe their existence to this warrior-statesman. Modern history regards Perikles’ time at the helm of government, B.C.E. 460 to 430, as Athens’ golden age. Thanks to him, philosophy, literature, art, and architecture played starring roles in an ancient drama whose story never faded.

You cryptically inform Perikles that you traveled from a distant land to discover the secret of the Parthenon’s meaning. What you don’t say is that, although a ruin for the past 300 years in your lifetime, the temple’s significance has been all over the map. In one sense, it served Western civilization as the embodiment of government. Monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies all made copies of the building. The Parthenon was faithfully recreated as a Bavarian war memorial by King Ludwig I in 1842, and Hitler latched on to the Parthenon as representative of Fascism. A replica popped up in the United States, 1897, in Nashville. Pieces of the Parthenon are attached to the U.S. Capitol and the capitol buildings of many American states.

In another sense, the Parthenon has meant money. Numerous banks and law courts take their cue from the temple’s portico. The New York Stock Exchange has Parthenon written all over it. There’s also education. Countless universities are dotted with Classical Revivals referring to a Parthenon-inspired Greek or Roman temple. And there are modernist versions, such as Minoru Yamasaki’s Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and your own campus’ School of Architecture, Kent State’s Taylor Hall.

Thus the enigma: What does the Parthenon mean: worship, government, money, or education?

None of this you reveal to Perikles. Instead, you tell him the legacy of Periklean thought will forever be associated with his temple of Athena Parthenos. The man shrugs as if to say, who cares. “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

True enough. Perikles not only commissioned buildings whose remnants survive but also developed ideas that remain intact enough to shape the modern era. Before his ascension to strategos (general), Athens was governed by the Court of the Areopagus, a council of aristocrats. Perikles railed against the view that the wealthy must rule. He argued that demos, common people, should be in control. Perikles’ views solidified the meaning of democracy. For decades under his tutelage, the idea of an assembly where all (male) citizens could vote, stuck. Athens prospered. 

The protestors have outgrown the plaza. They’re moving toward the Parthenon. Out of the corner of one eye, you see a squad of hoplites, citizen-soldiers, forming up into a line. Perikles casts a wary look in the same direction.

You throw Perikles a hypothetical curveball: What would he think of a government made of two assemblies, one for the aristocracy, the other for commoners? To underscore the point, you make up silly names like a House of Lords and House of Commons. For fun, you describe a Senate and House of Representatives. Perikles rubs his chin before answering. “I’d be afraid of one assembly dominating the other. The populace would have to be ever vigilant that the wealthy didn’t use their money to overpower the commoners.”

The hoplites look nervous. They are pacing back and forth, whispering among themselves, darting their heads in various directions.

Perikles continues, ruminating next on the curse of apathy. “Commoners can never let their guard down,” he says. “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

As if on command, the hoplites draw their swords and march into the crowd of protesters, swinging wildly. You’re about to confront the attackers when Perikles springs to his feet and yanks your arm. “By Zeus! Follow me.” The two of you escape into the Erechtheion. By the time the mayhem ends, four are dead. The total elapsed time is maybe 15 seconds.

Holy shit! You hit the space bar and push back your chair. What just happened? You stare out the computer lab’s window at the trees in front of Rockwell Hall. They’re barely moving. Someone is feeding a black squirrel. A bus makes a lazy arc around the front campus, inching around parked Jeeps. It’s a peacefully calm morning, even with National Guard troops on the lawn. The word PAUSED flashes. With some trepidation, you press the space bar.

Perikles leads you through a secret passage that emerges outside a cave. As you scramble down the Acropolis hill, a singular impression haunts you: a young woman kneeling beside the body of a young man on the Parthenon’s steps, her arms and head raised, her face in tears, her mouth screaming, “Why?”

Traveling along overgrown footpaths, the two of you enter the city. Perikles motions to pull your hood over your head, saying, “There will be spies.” He maps a circuitous route through the fabric district, passing workshops. You turn right and then double back in the marble district, finally sprinting through potters to reach Perikles’ house.

Aspasia greets you with open arms. “Wanderer, I am forever in your debt. I heard the news. Horrifying. Thank you for saving my partner.” You don’t tell her it was the other way around: Perikles saved you.

His large home flows with wine, courtesans, and song. It is also filled with personalities straight out of history. Aspasia is showing off her little black book; she invited numerous artists and philosophers to a gathering in your honor. Putting a possessive arm over yours, she walks you to Pheidias, who created the Acropolis’ huge Athena statue. The sculptor is chatting with Iktinos and Callicrates, the Parthenon’s architects. Handing you a cup of wine before leaving, she tugs your earlobe and whispers, “Find me later in the evening before your tongue gives out. There is something you should know.”

Another learning moment is at hand. You are about to quiz luminaries contemporary architects could only dream of meeting—the makers of the Parthenon. Le Corbusier said of the building, “A long time ago, I accepted the fact that this place should be the repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art. You plan to ask Iktinos about his creative process, and Callicrates about the Parthenon’s optical illusions.

But words from behind draw you away: “May fourth will live in infamy as the day the government turned against its people. Soldiers are cutting us down.” You rotate and see a cluster huddled together. Recognizing one individual, you join the group.

“… but they were not soldiers.” Socrates says. “They were assassins.” 

Thrasymachus adds, “We must find out for whom they work. Who gave them their orders?” Protagoras shakes his head and speaks in a low voice: “Asking would be a waste of time. The assassin’s creed is never to reveal a benefactor.” The three philosophers look at you inquisitively. Then they avert your gaze and say nothing more before dispersing.

Perikles notices the snub and beckons you to join him. He is seated at a long table with others, drinking, eating. “You said you came to discover the truth about the Parthenon, did you not, Wanderer?” You nod. “Then dine with me, and your education shall proceed.” Glancing at Socrates, who had returned to conversation on the other side of the room, Perikles says, “The lesson you just received is that philosophers have no answers, only more questions.” He laughs. “Tell me, Wanderer, what ultimate revelation do you seek?” 

You say you want to know why the Parthenon, a building dedicated to worship, came to symbolize governance. Perikles looks confused. You cite today’s example. Why did the protestors select the Parthenon to voice concerns about war and peace? Logically, they should have demonstrated at the Pnyx, where the Assembly meets. And why did soldiers choose the temple to create political martyrs?

“A valid query, Wanderer. As far as I’m concerned, their death was a warning. Kleon sent the soldiers. He wants to eradicate dissent. This morning was his declaration that the power of our patron god, Athena, has been transferred to a demigod demagogue.” Perikles thinks for a moment. “As for the protesters’ and soldiers’ affinity for the Parthenon, that knowledge resides inside their heads, not mine.”

Aspasia joins you at the table and takes your hand. “Let you and I travel to Pytho, my friend. Your quest for truth ends there.” She looks into your eyes. “And I, too, have questions in need of answers.” “Ha,” Perikles says. “Beware of her, Wanderer. She seduces for information when others would simply ask.” Aspasia winks at Perikles, and then at you.

You journey to Pytho (today called Delphi) alone, by trireme from Piraeus across the Corinthian Gulf. You disembark at the port of Kirrha. Up Mount Parnassus’ sacred zigzag path you climb. Upon reaching the Temple of Apollo, an elderly, gray-robed man appears. He claims to be Herodotus, the famed “Father of History,” the man who chronicled much of what we know about ancient Greece today. “The Oracle awaits you,” Herodotus says as you stride past him—but he blocks your way, puts his hand on your chest. “The Oracle has declared you a creature of time, Wanderer. Tell me of your time. From where and when do you come?” You push past him and enter the temple.

You are in the chamber of the most influential woman in the ancient world. Pythia sits on a stool at the end of a rectangular room and is surrounded by boiling cauldrons. Vapors fill the space, obscuring her appearance. You can’t tell if she’s 20 years old or 200. Through the fog, you hear strings of unintelligible words, except one: “Come.”

The closer you get, the hotter the room feels. The walls are etched with burn marks. Pythia stands when you reach the edge of a cauldron. She fixates on the ceiling, arms outstretched, mumbling, panting.

Now she looks at you, or rather, through you—piercing blue eyes. “I feel the truth of your past, Wanderer. I see truth in your presence. I know the truth of your future.” Pythia walks toward you as a divine presence touches your shoulder. In your mind, you see a woman kneeling beside the body of a man, her arms and head raised, her face in tears, her mouth screaming. 

Then it hits you. You recall the Parthenon’s pediment depicts a mythological contest between Athena and Poseidon. In the story, citizens select the winner by voting for which of the two gods offers the best life. The Parthenon is a temple to freedom of choice as much as to a god. As such, it’s a symbol of power. Perikles inferred that Kleon knew this. The protestors must have known this. In modern times, politicians, bankers, and school administrators learned this. Parthenon equals power.

Apollo’s words uttered by Pythia enter your consciousness: What you have discovered, you will forget. But what you have seen, you will see again. You are history, Wanderer, and history repeats itself.

Awaiting you outside the Temple is Aspasia, who must have traveled to Pytho with Herodotus before you left Athens. You tell her about the Oracle’s prophecy and your vision of more deaths. Aspasia says, “She may be talking about the plague that’s coming,” and pulls you aside. “It’ll be a real pisser. Perikles will die from typhus in the fall. Everyone in Athens will quarantine themselves at home to little avail. A third of the city will croak before the epidemic is over.” 

How do you know this? you ask. Are you some kind of oracle yourself?

“Nope. I’m minoring in Hellenic Studies. You?” 

You beg her pardon and tap your fingers on the keyboard, thinking of a reply.

Aspasia follows up. “If you’re who I think you are, Wanderer, I’ve seen you around campus. What’s your major?” 

You don’t know what to say to her, so you say, “Um … information sciences with a minor in architectural history.”

“Groovy. Are you going to the rally at noon? Maybe I’ll see you there. Anyway, sorry to inform you that Perikles and the Parthenon Paradox is a single-player game. I logged on first, which is what I was trying to tell you back at the Agora. As the Oracle said: Wanderer, you are history.”

Your screen goes black.

***

Featured image: The Parthenon at the Athenian Acropolis (reconstructed).

Below: Taylor Hall, a “Parthenon” at Kent State University. In the foreground is the May 4 Memorial to four students killed at the building by National Guardsmen in 1970 as they protested during a noon rally against Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. All images by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. To learn more about the Kent State University shootings, go here. To learn more about interactive fiction (aka “text-based adventures”) go here. To learn more about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a 3D, first-person role-playing game set in Ancient Athens, go here.

Newsletter

Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.