Book review: The Parthenon by Mary Beard

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Travellers have braved wars and bandits to see it, politicians and superstars have competed to be photographed in front of it and some of the world’s greatest artists and designers have been inspired by it...

The ancient Parthenon in Athens has been a centre of pilgrimage since it was built over 2,500 years ago and its stunning architectural beauty has never failed to disappoint the millions of visitors.

Oscar Wilde compared it to a white goddess, Virginia Woolf was uncharacteristically struck dumb by its majesty and Evelyn Waugh likened it to a mild Stilton cheese.

The blazing sun, maddening crowds, surly guards and, more latterly, acres of scaffolding have failed to deter devotees from marvelling at this amazing temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena.

Renowned classicist Mary Beard also knows a thing or two about this towering colossus and in her scholarly but witty and enthralling overview proves the perfect guide for those who want to know more about its history and its controversies.

From the Parthenon’s early days as the most important temple of imperial Athens, when it housed a giant gold statue of Athena, through its life as a cathedral church and ‘the finest mosque in the world’ to its current status as an iconic ruin, this is an entertaining, plain speaking and very readable historical odyssey.

The secret of Beard’s success as a knowledgeable tour guide is her ability to successfully digress...this is not just her view of the monument but how others have seen it, and used and abused it, over the course of two millennia.

For an ancient view of the Parthenon, we have to look to a writer called Pausanias, from what is now Turkey, who toured Greece in the 2nd century AD when Athens was a university town and notable high spot in the ancient ‘heritage trail’.

Remarkably to modern viewers, he hardly mentions the building itself, instead fussing over a small stone where a friend of the god Dionysus was said to have rested and extolling the virtues of a statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

The Elgin Marbles are never far from the top of the agenda in any history of the Parthenon. The poet Lord Byron launched a hate campaign against Lord Elgin after he removed part of the famous frieze and brought it to England.

‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands...’he famously wrote in his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Others, like Thomas Carlyle, viewed the marbles as all that was worst about classical art...a little too perfect, rather sterile and spoiled by the similarity of the figures and their lack of real-life expression.

Beard’s book is full of delightful surprises, amusing anecdotes and her own sparkling commentary.

History couldn’t be in better hands...

(Profile, paperback, £8.99)