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Episode 27 - Parthenon sculpture: Centaur and Lapith

Parthenon sculpture: Centaur and Lapith (made around 440 BC). Marble; from the Parthenon, Athens

Around 1800, Lord Elgin removed some of the sculptures from the ruins of the Parthenon in Athens, and a few years later put them on public show in London. For most western Europeans it was the first time they had ever been able to look closely at Greek sculpture, and they were overwhelmed and inspired by the breathing vitality and the beauty of these works. But in the 21st century, the Elgin Marbles, as they've long been known, are famous less as art objects than as objects of political controversy. For most people today, the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum provoke only one question: should they be in London or in Athens? The Greek government insists they should be in Athens; the British Museum's Trustees believe that in London they're an integral part of the story of world cultures.

"For me the Parthenon sculptures reveal to us the tensions, the discontents, the conflicts, and also the sheer brilliance of Ancient Greek culture. For the modern Greeks, the Parthenon sculptures are a rallying cry and a remembrance of things lost." (Mary Beard)

"The whole Parthenon - not only the sculptures but the building - became emblematic, the symbol of new Greece. It still is, and we're still restoring it, and naturally, of course, the sculptures of the Parthenon are part of this." (Olga Palagia)

It's a passionate debate in which everyone has their own view, but in this programme I want to focus on one sculpture in particular, and what that sculpture meant to the people who made it and looked at it in Athens in the fifth century BC.

The Parthenon sculptures set out to present an Athenian universe made up of gods, heroes and mortals, woven together in complex scenes drawn from myth and daily life. They are, I think, some of the most moving and uplifting sculptures ever made. They've become so familiar, and have shaped so much of European thinking, that it's hard now to recover their original impact. But at the time of their making they were a quite new vision of what it meant, intellectually and physically, to be human and, indeed, Athenian. They're the first, and supreme, achievements of a new visual language. Here's Olga Palagia, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Athens:

"The idea of the new style was to create a new equilibrium between the human body, and the human movement and the garments . . . The effort was to achieve the perfect proportions of the human body which were not there before. The key word for the new classical style is harmony and balance - that is why the sculptures of the Parthenon are so timeless, because the figures they created are indeed timeless."

The sculptures were of course made at a very particular time and with a very particular purpose.

The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos, meaning Athena the Virgin. It was built on the Acropolis - a rocky citadel at the heart of the city. Its central hall housed a colossal statue of the goddess herself, made of gold and ivory. And everywhere there was sculpture.

Around all four sides of the building, above the columns and easily seen by everybody approaching, was a series of 92 square relief carvings, known as metopes. Like all the other sculpture in the building, these would have originally been brightly coloured in red and blue and gold, and it's one of these metopes, now without its colour, that I want to take as our object to think about Athens around 440 BC.

The metopes are all about battles - battles between the Olympian gods and the Giants, between Athenians and Amazons and, in the ones I want to focus on, between Lapiths and Centaurs. The figures are almost free-standing, and the human ones are about four feet (1.2m) tall. Centaurs - half horse, half human - are attacking the Lapiths, who are a legendary Greek people. According to the story, the Lapiths made the mistake of giving the Centaurs wine at the marriage feast of their king. The Centaurs got horribly drunk and attempted to rape the women, while their leader tried to carry off the bride. A general bitter battle ensued, and the Lapiths - the Greeks - were ultimately victorious over their half-animal Centaur enemies.

The one I'm looking at now is particularly moving; there are only two figures - a Centaur rearing triumphantly over a fallen Lapith, who lies dying on the ground. As with so many of the Parthenon sculptures, this one is damaged, and we can no longer see the expression in the dying Lapith's face, or the aggression in the eyes of the Centaur. Nonetheless, it remains a wonderful and moving piece of sculpture. But what does it mean? And how can it sum up, in itself, a view of the Athenian state?

I'm fairly certain that these sculptures are using myths to present a heroic version of recent events. A generation before these sculptures were made, Athens was one of a number of fiercely competitive city states, who were suddenly forced into a coalition with each other by the Persian invasion of the Greek mainland. So, in the metopes, when we see Greeks fighting Centaurs, these mythical battles stand proxy for the real-life struggle between Greeks and Persians. Here's Mary Beard, Cambridge classicist, on what the sculptures would have meant to the people who first saw them:

"Ancient Greece is a world which sees - 'sees' - issues in terms of conflict, of winning, and losing. It's a conflictual society, and one of the ways that Athenians thought about their position in the world, and their relationship to those they conquered, or abominated, was they saw the 'enemy' or the 'other' in terms that were not, in a sense, 'human'. So what you have on the Parthenon is different ways of understanding the 'otherness' of your enemy. I mean, the best interpretation of the metopes, is that you see the heroic conflicts as necessary in order to ensure order. And part of that is a feeling that we can very easily empathise with. I mean, we don't want to live in a culture that the Centaurs - the half-men half-horse � run, we don't want to live in Centaur World! Nor do we want to live in Amazon World. We want to live in Greek World, and Athenian World."

Centaur World for the Athenians would have meant not just the Persian Empire, but other competing Greek city states, and above all, Sparta, with whom Athens was frequently at war. The struggle against the Centaurs that we see on the metopes becomes an emblem of the perpetual battle that, for the Athenians, every civilised state has to fight. Rational man has to keep struggling against brute irrationality. Dehumanising your enemy like this takes you down a dangerous path, but it's a magnificent rallying call if you're waging war. If chaos is to be kept at bay, so the message goes, reason will have to fight un-reason again and again.

But I chose this particular sculpture because it gives us the bitter insight that, in the short-term, reason does not always prevail. The defence of the rationally ordered state will cost some of its citizens their lives. And yet - and this is why this sculpture is such a supreme achievement - the dying human body is shown with such pathos, the fierce struggle depicted with such balance, that the victory goes not to the strutting half-beast, but to the Athenian artist who can turn conflict into beauty. In the long-run of things, this sculpture seems to say, intellect and reason alone can create things that endure. The victory is not just political: it is artistic and intellectual.

This is all very high-minded stuff, but what did the Parthenon look like if you came from one of the other Greek cities? You might expect that because the Parthenon is called a temple, it would have been a place of prayer and sacrifice; in fact, it became a treasury - a war-chest to finance the defence of Greece against the Persians. In time, though, this fighting fund became protection money, demanded by Athens from the other Greek cities when Athens placed itself at the head of them. It forced them into becoming satellites of its growing maritime empire. And a great chunk of that money was siphoned off by the Athenians to fund the Acropolis building programme. Here's Mary Beard again, on the non-Athenian view of the Parthenon:

"I think the Parthenon must have been the kind of building that you spat at and kicked if you could. You knew, if you were one of Athens' subjects, that this was a statement of your own subordination. There was a clear and vociferous faction in Athens when the Parthenon was built, which said the money shouldn't be spent that way. That this was, in the words of one, dressing Athens up like a 'harlot'. Now, that's very odd, I think, for us to empathise with now, because the Parthenon sculptures seem so austerely beautiful, I think, it's hard to think of them in terms of prostitution. It's very discomfiting, I think, to think of our touchstone of good classical taste as having appeared vulgar. But it clearly did, to some."

One of the many extraordinary things about the Parthenon is that it's meant so many different things to different people at different times. Conceived as the Temple of the Virgin Athena, it was for centuries the Christian Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, and it later became a mosque. By the end of the eighteenth century, it was a neglected ruin in a diminished Athens ruled by the Turks. But in the 1820s and 30s, the Greeks fought for, and won, independence, and they were given a German king by their European allies. The new state needed to define what kind of society it wanted to be. Here's Olga Palagia again:

"Greece was resurrected in about 1830. We had a German king who came to Greece from Bavaria, and the Germans decided they were going to resurrect the Athens of Pericles. This initiated, I think, the perennial identification of the new Greek nation with the Parthenon. So, we have been restoring it from 1834, and I'm sure that this will never end! It will be a constant attempt to restore and redefine the Parthenon as a symbol. So the seed the Germans sowed in 1834 has really become very big and important."

And so this great building had, by the 1830s, acquired yet another meaning. Not as the self-image of one ancient city, but as the emblem of a new modern country. And it was an emblem familiar to all educated Europeans, through the sculptures in the British Museum. One of the most striking things about recent European history is how countries wanting to define and strengthen their present identity look to particular moments in the past. In the last hundred years or so, more and more people in Ireland, Scotland and Wales have wanted to see themselves as the heirs of a people that flourished in northern Europe at the same time as the Athenians were building the Parthenon. And it's those other Europeans of two and a half thousand years ago - Europeans dismissed by the Greeks as barbarians - that I'm going to be talking about in the next programme.

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