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An Introduction

Case Study 1:
Michael Longley

Case Study 2:
Eavan Boland and
Olga Broumas

Database Pilot Sample:
Eavan Boland
Olga Broumas
Ted Hughes
Michael Longley

Classical historiography, ideas and material culture
Exhibiting Democracy

Classical Reception Studies Network


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The ancient reception of Pheidias' Athena Parthenos:
the visual evidence in context

Kenneth D.S. Lapatin, Boston University

Contents     Full Paper

The fame of classical antiquity's greatest artist, the Athenian sculptor Pheidias, rests upon two monumental chryselephantine statues: Athena Parthenos and Zeus Olympios. Neither magnificent gold-and-ivory image survives, but their appearance is recoverable from ancient descriptions and reduced copies and adaptations in other media. Only the Parthenos, however, was depicted by ancient artists with any frequency. She appears on coins, gems, and jewellery; in vase- and wall-painting; and in terra-cotta, bronze, and marble sculpture, both free-standing and relief. In contrast, the equally, if not more celebrated Zeus, ranked among the Seven Wonders of the World, seems to have been seldom reproduced.

Any explanation of the ancient reception of the Parthenos and Zeus must take into account the divergent aims of ancient piety, state ideology, literary genres, and artistic replication. Athena Parthenos was a multivalent image, widely reproduced by Greeks and Romans to serve a variety of needs. Unlike the Zeus, she did not preside over a panhellenic sanctuary, but rather served as a national symbol. Thus, she featured on Athenian document reliefs, coins, and terracottas. Like Praxiteles' Knidian Aphrodite, the Parthenos became a favourite type depicting an important goddess, appropriate to numerous contexts. Closely associated not just with Athens, the pre-eminent cultural capital of antiquity, but with its "Golden Age" under Perikles, this image of the Goddess of Wisdom also connoted culture and learning; thus she became a peerless adornment of public libraries and private villas. Although often perceived by scholars as an entirely secular monument, this parochial Athenian figure was also venerated by inhabitants of other Greek poleis in their own Athena temples and even figured on their coinage. In yet other contexts, replicated on jewellery, her image might betoken the beautiful, enlightened, decorous woman.

Contents     Full Paper


1996 Department of Classical Studies, The Open University