You are here

Becoming Good Democrats and Wives: Civic Education and Female Socialization on the Parthenon Frieze

Becoming Good Democrats and Wives: Civic Education and Female Socialization on the Parthenon Frieze

By Burkhard Fehr (Hephaistos Sonderband). Pp. 179, figs. 105. LIT Verlag, Zurich and Berlin 2011. €59.90. ISBN 978-3-643-99900-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The approach to the Ionic frieze of the Parthenon taken by Fehr in his new book is evident in the title and echoes that of the journal for which he has served as editor since 1979, Hephaistos. That is to say, he views the frieze as having a social and civic, as opposed to purely religious or artistic, function, serving as a sort of growth chart for the various stages of education and socialization of the democratic Athenian citizenry. Following a brief introduction, the text tracks the various groups of figures from west to east on the temple and ends by considering the imagery of the frieze in relation to the Athena Parthenos and the Parthenon pediments and metopes. The fluid translation of the text from German into English by Hoffmann makes the book a pleasure to read, and it is amply illustrated with photographs and drawings. Like much in ancient art scholarship, the conclusions are not entirely verifiable, but the book charts a new course in Parthenon studies.

In brief, Fehr proposes the fairly radical notion that the subject of the frieze is not the Panathenaic festival in honor of Athena. The so-called Peplos Scene in the center of the east frieze is, in his opinion, an Athenian family or oikos: a mother training her two daughters in textile production and a father teaching his son to fold a himation, a symbol of citizen status. For the rest of the frieze’s content (gods, eponymous heroes, sacrificial procession, cavalcade, and preparations or dokimasia on the west), he adheres to the generally accepted identifications but with a twist. Thus, the so-called marshals directing the procession become “watchers” (i.e., older males who make sure the younger generation is behaving as proper Athenians) (e.g., 27). The two bearded equestrians on the west frieze are not hipparchs in his reading but rather older men modeling good behavior for the young riders.

Fehr’s starting point is what he terms the “unexplained majorities” on the frieze, namely the prevalence of young (i.e., beardless) men on the west, north, and south sides and the large number of females on the east (3–6). He insists that their presence must be justified and believes that the explanation lies in their relationship to the democratic norms and values of classical Athens. After briefly surveying earlier interpretations of the frieze (7–8), which fail to address these “majorities,” he opts for a new theoretical approach (9–12), which can account for the unusually large number of young men and the exceptional appearance of women in the Parthenon’s decoration. According to his scenario, the frieze is divided into several “chapters,” each of which exemplifies a specific stage of civic education for Athenian males, while the east side highlights the socialization of females as wives and mothers. These phases exhibit specific patterns of behavior—good and bad—that reflect the value system of Athenian society. Even the horses are brought into the equation. For instance, Fehr describes the poses of certain horses as being overly restive (West III) or too relaxed (West XII) through comparisons with Attic red-figure cups featuring horses in training and with Xenophon’s text On Horsemanship and suggests that they are models of improper behavior.

The headings in chapter 2 indicate the ways in which Fehr reads the various stages of Athenian citizenship as preparation for democratic participation: “Preparations for the Cavalcade and Public Examination of Physical Ability and Character Qualifications” (west); “Cavalcade: Egalitarian and Disciplined Participation in Joint Actions for the Polis” (north and south horsemen); “Four-Horse Chariots: Ambitious Individuals Committed to the Polis’ Benefit–Mutual Trust Between Cooperating Partners as a Barrier Against Tyranny” (north and south chariot races); “The Pedestrian Procession: Demonstration of Self-Control by the Newly Qualified Young Citizens and the Athenian Maidens” (north, south, and east). Each “chapter” of the frieze highlights a specific civic virtue: thus, the inspection on the west references preparedness; the cavalcade of individual riders on north and south relates to isonomia (equality); the paired charioteers represent philia (friendship); and the procession of citizens exemplifies sophrosyne (self-control). The females on the east, all of whom he takes to be parthenoi (in spite of the clear differentiation of hairstyle and dress), also represent a heightened self-control. Although he states that these male and female processional figures are involved in cultic activity, he never identifies a specific ritual.

As for the nonmortals on the east, Fehr accepts the most common identifications, that is, the 10 men at rest as the eponymous heroes and the 12 seated figures as an assembly of deities. He argues persuasively, as has this reviewer, that the young girl standing next to Hera is her daughter Hebe rather than Nike or Iris (114). The gods on the south side he associates with the protection of fields (Demeter and Dionysos, and Ares who can destroy harvests), herds (Hermes), and human progeny (Zeus, Hera, Hebe), while those on the north embody good social interaction (Artemis and Aphrodite with arms entwined, Apollo turning to speak to Poseidon and Hephaistos to Athena). He ascribes charis (favor) to the southern group and nomoi (customs/laws) to the northern group, both of which are essential for the well-being of the polis.

Two chapters are devoted to a consideration of the frieze in relation to the Parthenon’s other sculptures, including the chryselephantine Athena Parthenos. The pediments and metopes reiterate the themes of “well ordered communities, auspicious offspring and the vital importance of female virtues” (135). The myth of Pandora on the statue’s base relates to Athena’s role as an educator of young women. In an epilogue, Fehr makes the claim that the pictorial narrative of the Parthenon’s Ionic frieze represents the first comprehensive discourse on democracy, preceding as it does Pericles’ famous funeral oration (Thuc. 2.35–46), which is often regarded as the essential text on Athenian democracy.

As for the Panathenaia, perhaps it is not necessary to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. These beautiful, well-behaved and well-educated Athenians could be participating in their city’s most important festival while at the same time exemplifying the civic virtues that Fehr associates with them. The Parthenon is, after all, a temple, not city hall.

Jenifer Neils
Department of Art History & Art
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio 44106-7110

Book Review of Becoming Good Democrats and Wives: Civic Education and Female Socialization on the Parthenon Frieze, by Burkhard Fehr

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.Neils

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.