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Cavalry from the Parthenon Frieze, West II, 2-3, British Museum.

The Parthenon Frieze is the low relief, pentelic marble sculpture created to adorn the upper part of the Parthenon’s naos. It was sculpted between ca. 443 and 438 BC[1] most likely under the direction of Phidias. 420 ft of the original frieze survives, some 94%, the rest is known only from the drawings made by Flemish artist Jacques Carrey in 1674, thirteen years before the Venetian bombardment that half-destroyed the temple.

At present, 37.5% of the frieze is at the British Museum in London (forming the major part of the controversial Elgin Marbles); the rest (48%) is in Athens and the last 14% is shared between the two cities. The Athenian material is on display in the top-floor Parthenon Gallery of the new Acropolis Museum, where it is shown under natural light in the exact same arrangement and orientation as it would have on the Parthenon itself, with the missing parts replaced by plaster casts. There are fragments in nine other international museums. Casts of the Frieze may be found in the Beazley archive at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, in the Skulpturhalle at Basel and elsewhere[2].



Plutarch’s Life of Pericles, 13.4-9, informs us “the man who directed all the projects and was overseer [episkopos] for him [Pericles] was Phidias... Almost everything was under his supervision, and, as we have said, he was in charge, owing to his friendship with Perikles, of all the other artists”. It is of note that the description was not architekton, the term usually given to the creative influence behind a building project, rather episkopos. But it is from this and the circumstantial evidence of Phidias’s known work on the Athena Parthenos and his central role in the Periclean building programme that we deduce his authorship of the Frieze[3]. The Frieze consists of 378 figures, 245 animals, it is 160 meters in length (524 ft), 1 meter in height, it projects 5.6 cm forward at its maximum depth. It is composed of 114 blocks of an average 1.22 meters in length, depicting two parallel files in procession. It was a particular novelty of the Parthenon that the cella carries an Ionic frieze over the hexastyle pronaos rather than Doric metopes as would have been expected of a Doric temple. Judging by the existence of regulae and guttae below the frieze on the east wall this was an innovation introduced late in the building process and replaced the ten metopes and triglyphs that might otherwise have been placed there.

Imaginative Victorian reconstruction of the colour on the Parthenon Frieze.

The marble was quarried from Mt. Pentelikon and transported 19 km to the acropolis of Athens. A persistent question has been whether it was carved in situ. Just below the moulding and above the tenia there is a channel 17 mm high that would have served to give access to the sculptor's chisel when finishing the heads or feet on the relief; this scamillus or guide strip is the best evidence we have that the blocks were carved on the wall. Additionally, on practical grounds it is easier to move a sculptor than a sculpture, and to crowbar them into place could have potentially chipped the edges. No information is recoverable on the workshop, estimates range from three to 80 sculptors on the basis of style, however Jenifer Neils[4] suggests nine on the grounds that this would be the least number necessary to produce the work in the time given. It was finished with metal detailing and painted, no colour survives so we must argue by analogy, the background was perhaps blue judging by comparison with grave stelae and the paint remnants on the frieze of the Hephaisteion. Possibly figures held objects that were also rendered in paint such as Poseidon’s trident and the laurel in Apollo’s hand. The many drill holes found in Apollo’s and Hera’s heads indicate that a gilded bronze wreath would have crowned the gods.

The system of numbering the Frieze blocks dates back to Adolf Michaelis's 1871 work Der Parthenon, since then Ian Jenkins[5] has revised this scheme in the light of recent discoveries.[6] The convention, here preserved, is that blocks are numbered in roman and figures in arabic numerals, the figures are numbered left to right against the direction of the procession on the north and west and with it on the south.


West frieze, XLVII, 132-136, British Museum

The narrative of the frieze begins at the south west corner where the procession appears to divide into two separate files. The first third of the west frieze is not part of the procession but instead seems to be the preparatory stages for the participants. The first figure here is a marshal dressing, W30, followed by several men preparing the horses W28-23 until figure W22 who, it has been suggested[7], may be engaged in the dokimasia, the tryout or enrolment of the knights. W24 is an ambiguous figure who might be either the protesting owner of a rejected horse or a keryx whose hand held part of an otherwise lost salpinx, either way this point marks the beginning of the procession proper.

The following ranks W21-1 along with N75-136 and S1-61 are all of horsemen and constitute 46% of the whole frieze. They are divided into two lines of ten ranks – significantly the same number of the Attic tribes[8]. All are beardless youths with the exception of two, W8 and W15, who along with S2-7 wear Thracian dress of fur cap, a patterned cloak and high boots; these have been identified by Martin Robertson as hipparchs[9]. Next are the four-horse chariots, each with charioteer and armed passenger, there are ten on the south frieze and eleven on the north. Since these passengers are sometimes depicted as dismounting they may be taken to represent the apobatai, participants in the ceremonial race found in Attica and Boeotia.

By N42 and S89 the equestrian parade is at an end and the following 16 figures on the north and 18 on the south are taken to be the elders of Athens judging by their braided hair, an attribute of distinguished age in Classical art. Four of these figures raise their right hand in a clenched fist gesture suggestive of a pose associated with the thallophoroi (olive branch bearers) who were older men chosen for their good looks in competition. However no drill holes exist for any branch to be inserted in their hands. Next in line (N107-114, N20-28) are the musicians: four kithara (a variant of the lyre) and four aulos (flute) players. N16-19 and S115-118 (conjectured) are the hydriaphoroi, the water-vessel carriers, here men rather than metic girls mentioned in the literature on the Panathenaia. N13-15, S119-121 are the skaphephoroi, the tray bearers of the honeycombs and cakes used to entice the sacrificial animals to the altar. N1-12, S122-149 are the ten cows on the north and four cows and four sheep on the south meant for sacrifice on the acropolis, presumably an abbreviated form of the hecatomb usually offered on this occasion - note there is an a-b-a rhythm of placid and restive cows.

Weavers section of the frieze, East VII, 49-56, Louvre, (MR 825).

As the files converge on the East frieze we encounter the first women celebrants E2-27, E50-51, E53-63. They carry the sacrificial instruments and paraphernalia including the phiale (phial or jug), oinochoai (wine jars), thymiaterion (incense burner), and in the case of E50-51 they have evidently just handed the marshal E49 a kanoun, making the girl the kanephoros[10]. The next groups E18-23, E43-46, are highly problematic. Six on the left and four on the right, if one does not count two other figures who may or may not be marshals, then this group might be taken to be the ten eponymous heroes who gave their names to the ten tribes. Certainly their proximity to the gods indicates their importance, but selecting differently then nine of them may be the archons of the polis or athlothetai officials who managed the procession, there is insufficient iconographic evidence to determine which interpretation is correct. The twelve seated gods are taken to be the Olympians, they are one third taller than any other figure on the frieze and are arranged in two groups of six on diphroi (backless) stools with the exception of Zeus who is enthroned. Their backs are turned to what must be the culminating event of the procession E31-35; five figures (three children and two adults, and though badly corroded the two children on the left are probably girls) the girls bear objects on their heads[11] while a third, probably a boy[12], assists an adult who may be the archon basileus, in folding a piece of cloth. This is usually understood to be the presentation of Athena’s peplos by the arrhephoroi.


Cavalcade south frieze, X XI, 26-28, British Museum.

The Parthenon Frieze is the defining monument of the High Classical style of Attic sculpture. It stands between the gradual eclipse of the Severe style as witnessed on the Parthenon metopes[13] and the evolution of the Late Classical Rich style exemplified by the Nike balustrade. What sources the designer of the Frieze drew upon is hard to gauge, certainly large scale narrative art was familiar to 5th century Athenians as in the Stoa poikile painting by Polygnotos of Thasos, but without evidence to the contrary it is reasonable to assume the novelties of the Parthenon belong to Phidias and his workshop alone.

This period is one of discovery of the expressive possibilities of the human body; there is a greater freedom in the poses and gestures, and an increased attention to anatomical verisimilitude as may be observed in the ponderated stances of the figures W9 and W4 who partially anticipate the Doryphoros of Polykleitos. There is a noticeable ease to the physiques of the Frieze compared with the stiffness of the metopes along with an eye for such subtleties as knuckle joints, veins and the careful articulation of musculature. One important innovation of the style is the use of drapery as an expression of motion or to suggest the body beneath; in archaic and early classical sculpture clothing fell over the body as if it were a curtain obscuring the form below, now we find the billowing chlamydes of the horsemen or the multi-pleated peploi of the women which lends a surface movement and tension to their otherwise static poses. The variation in the manes of the horses has been of particular interest to scholars attempting to discern the artistic personalities of the sculptors who laboured on the Frieze[14], so far this Morellian analysis has been without conclusion.


Cattle led to sacrifice, South XLV, 137-140, British Museum.

As no description of the frieze survives from antiquity the question of the meaning of the sculpture has been a persistent and unresolved one. The first published attempt at interpretation belongs to Cyriac of Ancona in the 15th century AD who referred to it as the “victories of Athens in the time of Pericles[15]. However what is now the orthodox view of the piece, namely that it depicts the Greater Panathenaic procession from Eleusis to Athens, was mooted by Stuart and Revett in the second volume of their Antiquities of Athens, 1787[16]. Subsequent interpretations have largely built on this theory even if they disallow that a temple sculpture could represent a contemporary event rather than a mythological or historical one. It has only been in recent years that an alternative thesis in which the frieze depicts the founding myth of the city of Athens instead of the festival pompe has emerged.

Procession of guards from the Apadana, Persepolis, 1st half 5th C., inspiration for the Parthenon Frieze?

The contention that the scene is a document of Athena’s festival is fraught with problems. We know from later sources that a number of classes of individual who performed a role in the procession are not present in the frieze, these include: the hoplites, the allies in the Delian league, the skiaphoroi or umbrella bearers, the female hydraiphoroi (only male hydrai bearers are portrayed) thetes, slaves, metics, the panathenaic ship and some would suggest the kanephoros, though as we have seen there is evidence she is accounted for[17]. That what we now see was meant to be a generic image of the religious festival is problematic since no other temple sculpture depicts a contemporary event involving mortals. So locating the scene in mythical or historical time has been the principal difficulty of the line of inquiry. John Boardman[18] has suggested that the cavalry portray the heroization of the marathonomachoi, the hoplites who fell at Marathon in 490, and that therefore these riders were the Athenians who took part in the last pre-war Greater Panathenaia. In support, he points out, the number of horsemen, chariot passengers (but not charioteers), grooms and marshals comes to the same as the number Herodotos gives for the Athenian dead: 192. Equally suggestive of a reference to the Persian War is the similarity several scholars have noted of the Frieze to the Apadana sculpture in Persepolis. This has variously been posited to be democratic Athens counter posing itself to oriental tyranny[19] or aristocratic Athens emulating the Imperial East[20]. Further to this zeitgeist argument we have JJ Politt’s[21] contention that the Frieze embodies a Periclean manifesto, which favours the cultural institutions of agones (or contests, as witnessed by the apobatai), sacrifices and military training as well as a number of other democratic virtues. Recent scholarship pursuing this vein has made the Frieze a site of ideological tension between the elite and the demos with perhaps only the aristocracy present and merely veiled reference to the ten tribes[22].

The so-called peplos scene, East V, 31-35, London.

The pediments, metopes and shield of the Parthenos all illustrate the mythological past and as the gods are observing on the East Frieze it is natural to reach for a mythological explanation. Chrysoula Kardara, [23] has ventured that the relief shows us the first Panathenaic procession instituted under the mythical King Kekrops. This would certainly account for the absence of the allies and the ship as these post-date the original practice of the sacrificial rite. In evidence she offer E35 as the future King Erichthonios presenting the first peplos to his predecessor Kekrops, iconographically similar to the boy’s depiction on a fragmentary kylix of the 450s[24]. A recent, more radical, interpretation by Joan Breton Connelly[25] identifies the central scene on the East Frieze (hence above the door to the cella and focal point of the procession) not as the handing over of Athena’s peplos by the arrhephoroi but the donning of sacrificial garb by the daughter of King Erechtheus in preparation for the sacrifice of her life. An interpretation suggested by the text of the fragmentary papyrus remains of Euripides’s Erichtheus[26] wherein her life is demanded in order to save the city from Eumolpos and the Eleusinians. Thus the gods turn their backs to her to prevent the pollution from the sight of her death. A hotly contentious subject in the field, Connelly's solution to the problem of meaning poses as many problems as it answers.


Gemma Augustea, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.

The earliest surviving works of art that exhibit traces of the influence of the Parthenon Frieze belong to the media of vase painting and grave stelae where we can find some echo not just of motifs, themes, poses but tenor as well. Direct imitation, and indeed quotation, of the Frieze begins to be pronounced around 430 BC. One striking example, an explicit copy, is a pelike attributed to the Wedding Painter[27] of a youth “parking up” a horse exactly in the manner of the figure W25 on the frieze. While those vase paintings that resemble the frieze cluster around 430, the vases that quote the pediments are datable nearer to the end of the century so giving us further evidence of the priority of the sculptural program[28] . More accomplished painters also found inspiration in the sculpture, namely Polygnotos I and his group, especially the Peleus Painter, the Kleophon Painter and the late work of the Achilles Painter. Later painters of talent also managed to capture the mood of eusebeia or thoughtful piety of the procession as, for example, on the volute krater of the Kleophon Painter of a sacrifice to Apollo[29], which shares the quiet dignity of the best of High Classical sculpture.

It is natural to look for resonances of the Frieze in Attic relief sculpture of the late 5th century; these may be discovered to some degree in the public works of the Hephaisteion frieze and the Nike Athena balustrade, where the imagery of the seated gods and the sandal-binder respectively likely owes a debt to the Parthenon. We can also look to traces found on the private commissions of grave stelae from the period, for example the “cat stele” from Aegina[30] bears a distinct similarity to the figures N135-6. As does the Hermes of the four-figure relief known from a Roman copy[31]. Later classicizing art of the Hellenistic and roman eras also looked to the Frieze for inspiration as attested by the Lycian Sarcophagus of Sidon, Phoenicia, the Ara Pacis Augustae, the Gemma Augustea, and many pieces of the Hadrianic generation.


  1. ^ 438 was the year of the dedication of the Parthenon and usually taken as an upper limit for completion of the frieze, see I Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze and Perikles' cavalry of 1000, p149-150, in Periklean Athens and Its Legacy: Problems and Perspectives, 2005, for a discussion of the dating problem.
  2. ^ For example, in the Architecture Hall at the University of Washington, Seattle, in the Museum of the Center for the Acropolis Studies at Athens, at the Western Australian Museum in [[Perth, Western Australia|Perth], at Hammerwood Park near East Grinstead in Sussex and at the University of Strasbourg (France)
  3. ^ Ridgway, Fifth Century Styles, 1981, p.17, designates the artist as the "Parthenon Master" precisely to avoid the problem of attribution. She also speculates on whether Perikles might have been responsible for the overall conception of the Parthenon's sculptural program, see note 3, p.17.
  4. ^ J Neils, The Parthenon Frieze, 2001, p.87
  5. ^ I Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze, 1994, p.50-1
  6. ^ Particularly the manuscript of Francis Vernon of 1675, describing the Frieze prior to the Venetian bombardment which shed new light on the Carrey drawings of 1674, see T. Bowie, D. Thimme, The Carrey Drawings of the Parthenon Sculptures, 1971, and BD Meritt, The Epigraphic notes of Francis Vernon, in Commemorative Studies in Honor of Theodore Leslie Shear (Hesperia Suppl. 8, Princeton 1949)
  7. ^ M Robertson and A Frantz, The Parthenon Frieze, 1975, notes to plate 9.
  8. ^ The Athenian cavalry was organised by tribe of phylai and commanded by ten officers known as phlyarchs
  9. ^ M Robertson, A Frantz, The Parthenon Frieze, p.46, 1975.
  10. ^ LJ Roccos, The Kanephoros and her Festival Mantle in Greek Art, AJA 99, p.641-66.
  11. ^ Either baskets, Wesenberg, Panathenaische Peplosdedikation und Arrhephorie. Zur Thematik des Parthenonfrieses JdI 110, p.149-78, 1995, or stools, Boardman, The Parthenon Frieze: a closer look, RA 99:2, p.305-330, 1999
  12. ^ F.Brommer, Der Parthenonfries,1977,269-70 identifies the existence of a temple boy of Athena in Athens, see also E.Harrison, The Web of History: A conservative reading of the Parthenon Frieze in Worshipping Athena ed. J.Neils, 1996, p.204
  13. ^ B.S.Ridgway, Fifth Century Styles, 1981, p.16, "it is certainly true that most of the South metopes... retain distinctive traits of the Severe style. This feature is best explained, however, in terms of lingering tradition, and it is quite possible that the various Fifth century styles developed in the process of carving, since highly advanced details can be noticed in whatever remains of some other metopes, or, for that matter, in some of the South series as well."
  14. ^ WH Schuchhardt, Die Entstehung des Parthenonfries, JdI 45, 1930, p.218-80, detects 79 individual sculptors.
  15. ^ Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels, ed. Clive. Foss, Edward Williams Bodnar, p19, I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2003
  16. ^ The Antiquities of Athens: And Other Monuments of Greece, p31, Elibron Classics edition, 2002
  17. ^ R. Ross Holloway, The Archaic Acropolis and the Parthenon Frieze , The Art Bulletin, Vol. 48, No. 2, 1966, p.223-226 lists the testemonia for the Panathenaic procession
  18. ^ J. Boardman, The Parthenon Frieze – another look, in Festschrift fur Frank Brommer, p.39-49, 1977
  19. ^ A W Lawrence, The Acropolis and Persepolis, JHS, 1951, p.116-19, also B. Ashmole, Architect and Sculptor in Classical Greece, p.117, 1972.
  20. ^ Margaret Cool Root, The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs: Reassessing a Programatic Relationship, AJA:89, p.103-20.
  21. ^ J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, 1972,p.87.
  22. ^ See L. Maurizio, The Panathenaic Procession:Athens' Participatory Democracyon Display?, in Democracy, Empire and the Arts in Fifth-century Athens, 1998
  23. ^ Γλαυχκώπις, ο Aρχαϊκός Nαός και το Θέμα της Zωφόρου του Παρθενώνα', Archaiologike Ephemeris, 62-158, 1964, see also F. Brommer, Der Parthenonfries: Katalog und Untersuchung, 1977, p.149.
  24. ^ Acropolis 396
  25. ^ JB Connelly, Parthenon and Parthenoi:A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze, AJA 100, 58-80
  26. ^ Fragments are preserved in Lycurgus Against Leocrates, 101 and on papyrus Sorbonne 2328
  27. ^ Berlin F 2357
  28. ^ J. Niels, The Parthenon Frieze, 2001, p.204
  29. ^ Ferrara T57
  30. ^ NAMA 715
  31. ^ Louvre MA 854

See also


  • Ian Jenkins. The Parthenon Frieze. British Museum Press, 2002.
  • Jenifer Neils. The Parthenon Frieze, 2001.
  • J. Boardman. The Parthenon and its Sculptures, 1985.
  • F. Brommer. Der Parthenonfries, 1977.
  • M. Robertson and A. Frantz. The Parthenon Frieze, 1975.
  • J. Neils (ed.). Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Athens, 1992.

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