The Parthenon Enigma

Preparing for the Sacrifice?  

“Athenians,” St. Paul begins his famous sermon in the Book of Acts, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That basic fact about ancient Athens–that it was, in classicist Joan Breton Connelly’s words, an “intensely religious” society–mostly escapes us today. Since the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to see Athens as the prototype of rationalism and liberal democracy. That’s why so many civic buildings in America, like the Supreme Court in Washington and Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, take as their model the most famous Athenian structure of all: the Parthenon.

In a provocative new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf), Connelly argues that the Enlightenment view is wrong, or at least crucially incomplete. One cannot understand the Parthenon, she says, without appreciating the central role religion had in Athenian life. Yes, the Parthenon was a political building. But in ancient Athens, politics, like everything else, was an extension of religion. To be an Athenian was to share an imagined identity as a descendant of Erechtheus, a legendary king born of a union (sort of) between the god Hephaistos and Mother Earth. Athenian citizenship, she writes, “was a concept whose sense extended far beyond our notions of politics, positing a mythic ‘deep time’ and a cosmic reality in which the citizen could not locate himself or understand his existence except through religious awareness and devotions.”

The centerpiece of Connelly’s book is a reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze. Since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has held that the frieze commemorates a civic festival known as the Panathenaia. Connelly argues, however, based in part on a recently discovered manuscript of a lost work by the playwright Euripides, that the frieze in fact commemorates the myth of Erechtheus and his daughters, one of whom offers herself as a human sacrifice to save the city. (The word “Parthenon,” it turns out, means “place of the maidens”). This reading of the frieze, she argues, resolves some puzzling aspects of the conventional understanding–for example, other Greek temples, without exception, depict myths, not civic festivals–and better fits what we know of the history, legendary and otherwise, of the Acropolis, the famous hill on which the Parthenon sits.

Unless one is a classicist, it’s going to be very hard to evaluate her claim. Much depends on the correct interpretation of the section of the frieze in the photograph above. Is that Erechtheus on the right, giving his daughter a burial shroud? Connelly certainly provides a lot of detail. But, detail or not, this is a fun and worthwhile book, and its central argument about the overwhelming religiosity of Athens is compelling. Turns out St. Paul was right.

Brinig & Garnett, “Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America”

Next month, the University of Chicago Press will publish Lost Classroom, Lost Community: Catholic Schools’ Importance in Urban America by Margaret F. Brinig (University of Notre Dame) and Nicole Stelle Garnett (University of Notre Dame). The publisher’s description follows.

In the past two decades in the United States, more than 1,600 Catholic elementary and secondary schools have closed, and more than 4,500 charter schools—public schools that are often privately operated and freed from certain regulations—have opened, many in urban areas. With a particular emphasis on Catholic school closures, Lost Classroom, Lost Community examines the implications of these dramatic shifts in the urban educational landscape.

More than just educational institutions, Catholic schools promote the development of social capital—the social networks and mutual trust that form the foundation of safe and cohesive communities. Drawing on data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods and crime reports collected at the police beat or census tract level in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett demonstrate that the loss of Catholic schools triggers disorder, crime, and an overall decline in community cohesiveness, and suggest that new charter schools fail to fill the gaps left behind.

This book shows that the closing of Catholic schools harms the very communities they were created to bring together and serve, and it will have vital implications for both education and policing policy debates.

Crone, “The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism by Patricia Crone (Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton). The publisher’s description follows.nativist

Patricia Crone’s latest book is about the Iranian response to the Muslim penetration of the Iranian countryside, the revolts subsequently triggered there, and the religious communities that these revolts revealed. The book also describes a complex of religious ideas that, however varied in space and unstable over time, has demonstrated a remarkable persistence in Iran across a period of two millennia. The central thesis is that this complex of ideas has been endemic to the mountain population of Iran and occasionally become epidemic with major consequences for the country, most strikingly in the revolts examined here, and in the rise of the Safavids who imposed Shi’ism on Iran. This learned and engaging book by one of the most influential scholars of early Islamic history casts entirely new light on the nature of religion in pre-Islamic Iran, and on the persistence of Iranian religious beliefs both outside and inside Islam after the Arab conquest.