Thursday, June 12, 2014


Dyfri Williams, The East Pediment of the Parthenon: From Perikles to Nero. BICS supplement, 118. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2013. Pp. xvii, 101. ISBN 9781905670437. £38.00 (pb)​.

Reviewed by Jonah Lloyd Rosenberg, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

In producing this study of the East pediment—its sculptures, largely—of the Parthenon, Dyfri Williams has fulfilled what is doubtless the dream of many: to clamber over the sculptures in the British Museum and to scrutinize them closely, preferably though not necessarily (for this reviewer at least) in the absence of the public. The book that flows from the fulfilment of that that fantasy easily earns its place on shelves because Williams has noticed features of the sculptures and their architectural situation that no other scholar has; no mean feat for the most studied of ancient monuments. The book is divided into two parts: an iconographic study of the pediment as it was conceived and installed, and an account of its Nachleben up through Nero. That some observations are small is a sign of the degree of Williams's attention; e.g., the spear of Ares in the frieze was bent under his weight (p. 11). The big observation (pp. 4-21) comes from the close scrutiny of East pediment figure D, reclining on his left arm atop a cloth and a feline skin, one of the best preserved sculptures. On the basis of holes on the left shin at the ankle and the top of the head and on a ridge along the back of the hair, Williams, assisted by the excellent drawings of Kate Morton, makes clear that this figure was none of the nine other males (the British Museum claims that it 'almost certainly represents Dionysos') that have been suggested (p. 7, n. 9) but Ares, fitted with greaves (or at least greave-pads) and helmet.

Williams follows Nicgorski's 2004 study of Ares on the frieze (p. 22), which brands him 'hostile' because of his posture and Homeric characterizations.1 Yet the posture of the pedimental Ares does not, pace p. 21, match that of the frieze. The 'interlaced fingers and knotted limbs' so central to Nicgorski's thesis of hostility are absent, and Williams at many points notes the lack of muscular tension that would characterise hostility. Ares' 'isolation and introversion'—that is, his placement in the corner of the frieze facing away from the centre—is at least in part (though there is some circularity to this argument) due to his relaxed, reclining posture and his lack of close involvement with the birth of Athena.2 Williams's position on the role of Pheidias, or rather of 'Perikles and his designer' (p. 60), makes for a contradiction. More broadly, Williams signals that he is a unitarian, i.e., he holds that there was a single, powerful designer of the sculptural decoration of the building (pp. 11, 21, 61). He argues that 'one could reasonably expect a uniformity of iconographical signals to be maintained' (p. 8). This leaves a caesura in otherwise tight reasoning: as Ares' iconography in the frieze does in fact differ from that in the pediment (helmet, greaves), one ought to consider alternatives: (1) there was no attempt at iconographic homogeneity,3 (2) there was a failed attempt at iconographic homogeneity, (3) there was an attempt at homogeneity within a sculptural zone (i.e., of types of figures rather than of individuals) but not among them. These impact our understanding of Pheidias' role.

Like Nicgorski, Williams relies on textual accounts of the gods, especially on Homer and the Homeric hymns. At times the parallels he draws are seductively close, notably the account of Aphrodite's wounding at the hands of Diomedes in Iliad V.337-228 and the hole on figure L's wrist (p. 25). Yet the reader is never told why the designer should have had the Trojan story in mind. Why not some version other than the Iliad?4 Why should the Trojan story have been in mind at all? Williams claims that there was a 'fully worked out Homeric thread' (p. 59). By following this line, he is forced into some awkward assertions: e.g., the Parthenon highlights the 'erotic connection' of Ares and Aphrodite, even though they are nearly as far apart as possible and facing opposite directions (never mind that Aphrodite probably lies in her mother Dione's lap). Sometimes this textual-relation method has major consequences, for Williams theorizes that a lightning strike displaced and damaged a good deal of the sculpture in the first century of this era, and that the Delian palm acted as the lightning rod (p. 78). The Delian palm-theory emerges from a displacement of figure K's (Leto's, probably) garment that indicates her reaching out for something with her right hand, which 'is probably explained… by an aspect of her story, such as her reaching out for the palm tree on the island of Delos' (p. 49), adducing the Homeric hymn to Apollo (3, vs. 117) and Odyssey VI.162 (p. 49, n. 115). This is a major chain of reasoning, one that links the two halves of the study, but one whose basis is unexplained. Does Williams think that there is a theme of motherhood in the pediment (Leto-Apollo-Artemis, Dione-Aphrodite, Demeter-Persephone)? It is an interesting avenue, given the suppression of Metis' role in Athena's birth.

What emerges from the first part is that there was a tremendous amount of alteration at the point of installation; one wonders why there was so much difficulty. Does it indicate that Pheidias' presumed stranglehold on the execution of the sculptures—keeping in mind that the pediments were begun some ten years after the frieze—was less complete than ventured here and generally? The exposition and analysis of the second part indicates that there was a degree of reverence toward the sculptures, but not so much that would prevent alteration in the name of repair. Major repairs seem to have been needed (one possible reason has been mentioned above) in the first century of this era, and Williams plausibly connects them to Nero's (unrealized) visit to Athens in the mid-60s (pp. 80ff.) via the large bronze inscription running along the East architrave (Williams prints Carroll's text: SEG 32:251).

Everyone is or ought to be well aware of the life of the building—church, mosque, munitions store—but the progress of the temple before it was a church is both historically and aesthetically relevant. Younger and Rehak have historicized the Olympia sculptures (Williams queries their dating, probably rightly), and shown how our view of their composition is affected through alterations from after their installation.5 In the case of the Parthenon, this largely takes the form of additions to the building and its environs, rather than changes to the sculptures themselves. One might hope for a clearer heuristic for dating alterations; there are glimpses based on types of fixtures and marks (e.g., pp. 68-69) and points of style (e.g., simple drapery folds, p. 72), but it would be helpful to others who would (and will, hopefully) follow this model.

Williams is constantly conscious of the physicality of the monument. For example, the first post-fifth-century alteration (it is surprising that there was none earlier), the removal of large portions of the seat of figure K, renders it unstable (pp. 69f.), and corresponds to a replacement of two geison blocks. (Williams's request to have the modern base removed to investigate the ancient cutting was denied by the Museum's administration ((p. 72, n. 29); it is hard to imagine a worthier cause.) The same principle is at work in the placement of the Wegner peplophoros (p. 78). Williams proposes revisions to the display of the sculptures—whether absolute position or angle—always genteelly in footnotes (p. 27, n. 64; p. 33, n. 80; p. 37, n. 92), that the British Museum will doubtless investigate. This calls to mind the dialogue between Cooper-Madigan and Jenkins-Williams about the arrangement of the slabs of the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassai (incidentally, Bassai 530:2 provides a close comparison to figure G ( cf. p. 47)).6

The quality of the illustrations is extremely high; Morton's drawings are helpful and clear. The bibliography is solid and well tailored. To hope for a fuller treatment of more recent studies is to hope for a beach with a few more grains of sand; that said, Ellinghaus produced a study of the relation of text and image on the monument that is interesting to read alongside.7 Williams's rich prose is let down by the press: there are no fewer than fifty-four typographical errors in a book of under one hundred pages. Many are innocuous (if distracting) but, e.g., the comma at the end of the first line of the epigraph to the preface makes the Greek nonsense. These cast a faint shadow on an otherwise exemplary study of the Parthenon, one about which there is no doubt of its usefulness. By close observation, Williams has enhanced and refined our views of something deeply familiar.


1.   A.M. Nicgorski. 'Interlaced Fingers and Knotted Limbs: The Hostile Posture of Quarrelsome Ares on the Parthenon Frieze'. Hesperia suppl. 33 (2004), 291-303.
2.   Here the argument of J. Neils ('Reconfiguring the gods in the Parthenon frieze', ArtB 81.1 (1999) 6-20, esp. 12ff.) might be extended to the pediments; should we translate the two-dimensional course of figures into three?
3.   As Ch. Morgan ('The Sculptures of the Hephaisteion: II. The Friezes', Hesperia 31 (1962), 221-235; 224) wrote, 'one speaks with easy equanimity of "the style of the Parthenon"… yet its elements have none of the homogeneity of a planked shad or a sirloin steak. Rather it is a superlative bouillabaisse concocted of many ingredients and blended into a general, all-pervasive identity.'
4.   The easy answer is the association of the Homeric epics with the Panathenaia instituted by Hipparchos ca. 520: [Plato], Hipparchos 228b; if there were a Homeric undercurrent to the sculptural program, this would be a strong vote for the identification of the procession in the frieze as a Panathenaia.
5.   J.G. Younger and P. Rehak. 'Technical Observations on the Sculptures from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia'. Hesperia 78 (2009), 41-105.
6.   B. Madigan (ed. F. Cooper) The Temple of Apollo Bassitas, vol. 2: The Sculpture (Princeton, 1992); I. Jenkins and D. Williams, 'The Arrangement of the Sculptured Frieze from the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassae' in O. Palagia and W. Coulson (eds.) Sculpture from Arcadia and Laconia (Oxford, 1993) 57-77.
7.   C. Ellinghaus. Die Parthenonskulpturen (Hamburg, 2011).

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