DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

A classroom/school Lecture



1 hour


The Language of Democracy: AIC Lecture

Barbara Barletta on the Pantheon


“when we have got hold of enough people to satisfy our many varied needs, we have assembled quite a large number of partners and helpers together to live in one place; and we give the resultant settlement the name of a community”


~from Plato’s Republic


With an established community comes education, guardian forces, philosophies regarding justice and injustice, maintenance of family, and definitions of art. Alberto Manguel notes that it was an architect alive during Pericles’ building of Athens who noted that a community has “six different castes of citizens,” demarcating roles that each citizen must play within the community. Hippodamus’ theories, Manguel states, “reflected the Greek demographical ideal: a limited number of citizens divided by the role they played within society” (15). While Hippodamus may not have directly planned the grid for central Athens nor was he instrumental in constructing any part of the Acropolis, he did work closely with Pericles designing the Athens’ port 12 miles away. He has been credited with establishing the grid plan upon which most cities are constructed, those demarcating boundaries which simultaneously divide and organize citizens.


It is significant to note that Hippodamus, who was instrumental in developing the layout for cities throughout history, also noted the class divisions he believed to be inherent within society, whereas during Pericles funerary address, Thucydides noted that Pericles’ Athens was a Democracy in which “not the few but the many govern” (from Histories). As Manguel notes, not all citizens in Athens had a voice, but, like Hippodamus’ city plan, remained divided, classified into specific classes in the way streets intersect and divide a city.


In her lecture on March 15, 2012 at AIC, Barbara Barletta addressed the question: Parthenon, how innovative is it, noting that the building represents “harmony of opposing forces.” It stands, then, if you will, as a symbol of democracy itself, the institution which allows opposing forces to work toward establishing harmony through governing not by “the few but the many.” Barletta notes that the Parthenon is “consistently balanced and proportionate throughout,” a concept which mirrors America’s original constitutional ideal of checks and balances through divided powers of the legislative branches.


Barletta points out that the discrepancy in length from one side to the other is only 2.5 mm, a precise design that isn’t even replicated in today’s modern buildings, and many of the joints are discernible only with microscopic equipment. Barletta notes other observable, measurable facts: It is lined with 92 metopes and features both a decorated continuous frieze and pediments, and the architects used a 9:4 ratio throughout, one based upon the diameter and distance between each column. This ratio is patterned in the cella, which featured four Ionic columns, and Barletta adds that it was the art historian Vitruvius who first assigned gender-specific designations to the Doric and Ionic columns. This Ionic columned cella also contained the 36-foot tall ivory and gold cult statue of the goddess Athena. The temple was built, Barletta notes, upon the foundation of an older temple that had been destroyed by invading Persian forces in 488 BCE. The salvageable drums were used in the newer temple, while the burnt, broken ones were included in the construction of the North Wall as a reminder of the sack.


The lecturer rattles off the facts that for one who has taken any basic art history class may know by rote, facts often contained on a typical end-of-chapter or mid-term exam. Manguel’s observation regarding language comes to mind: “Language can,” he notes, “never serve the dictates of power, political, religious, or commercial, except as a catechism of fixed questions and answers” (25). Art historians rattle off the facts to their students as though they are tenets, a foundation upon which art history itself is built. Manguel also observes, though, that “in spite of its pretensions to precision, [language] can never affirm anything indefinitely,” something that comes to mind as Barletta delivered her lecture. Critics, she notes, often represent that the Ionic capitols were Athenian architects way of visually expressing their recent conquest of the Ionian Islands. Some of these art historians include information provided in typical college level art history texts by Gardner, Jensen and Stokstad. Barletta’s recent research, however, argues that the inclusion of the Ionic capitols was not a sign of Athenian dominance but an assimilation of styles by the Parthenon architects. I agree with Barletta and maintain that they are rather a visual representation of the Democratic process within the architectural plan itself. The Ionians were not, she points out, a conquered people by the Athenians, but were instead fleeing the Islands as exiles following the Persian sack, voluntary members of the recently formed Delian League. Rather than a symbol of dominance, I believe the inclusion of the Ionic columns within what was considered the “Holiest of Holies” was an honorable tribute to the artistic contributions made by valuable members of the artistic community, lending voice, if you will, to the unified Democratic ideal for which Pericles had been remembered.


Manguel notes that, “stories distill our learning and lend it narrative form” (9). As art educator, even though I have relied upon a number of different texts, I, too, in my art history lectures have represented the popular analysis that the Ionic and Doric columns represent Athenian oppression, and my students have walked away from my lectures having been taught that the capitols stand as a symbol of Athenian misappropriation of defense funds provided to the Delian League.


Barletta, however, notes that the Parthenon was not as innovative as originally argued, but was an assimilation of styles throughout Attica. For example, she notes, although it was larger than any other temple previously constructed, the width of the Parthenon reflected the typical length of extant temples, and the length was increased according to the 4:9 ratio established by the width. The larger dimensions, I may add, are arguably a nod to the traditions established by the temples and treasuries sprinkled across Attica, yet another assimilated style rather than specifically an expression of Athenian supremacy. In addition, Barletta mentions that while the inclusion of carved metopes combined with the carved pediment and carved frieze was innovative, she notes that treasuries up to this point included at least two of these three elements. Once again, I believe the inclusion of all three elements may be symbolic of the assimilation of Attican temple and treasury styles. If only two of the three elements had been included, one could argue that the Parthenon was patterned after one particular region or another. By including all three carved surfaces, however, the sculptors of the Parthenon assimilated the influence of all temples and treasuries throughout the Delian League.


The sculptural elements contained on the frieze, pediment and metopes served as a pictorial representation, lessons, if you will, to the illiterate public. The frieze represented a processional feast, culminating in what would have been a depiction of legendary members of Attican history bringing their offerings to the gods, who line the pediment above the temple’s entrance. In The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome, C.R. Long traces the lineage of the primary Greek deities from their Egyptian origins through their Roman inclusion in the Pantheon, maintaining that the assimilation of the regional deities by the conquering civilizations was similar to the argument that Gardner, Jensen and Stokstad make regarding the column styles: the gods of the Pantheon, Long argues, are Athenian assertion of dominance over the members of the Delian League. She notes that the panoply of gods depicted on the pediment represent the local deities from all the city-states of Attica. This argument could perhaps have a more solid echo of truth if Athena were the central figure depicted at the pinnacle of the entrance pediment. She is not, however, even present. Although the triangular composition at the pinnacle has been destroyed, art historians agree that she was not depicted at all, but instead, Zeus, the father of all Attican gods, sits on the throne. Attican legendary figures do not gather to pay homage to Athena, but to the father of all other regional gods who sprawl, equally partaking in the processional feast brought by Attican heroes. All Attica, in a nod to the Periclean ideal of Democracy, participates in a celebration of unity rather than dominance, and the even the most illiterate Athenian is reminded that without the alliance of the Dellian League, they wouldn’t be able to worship at this magnificent temple.


Edgar Degas

Study for Young Spartans Exercising

AIC Collection

Photo by RJ Molyneux-Davis, July 2009

To deny that the members of the Delian League were dissatisfied with the supposed misappropriation of funds would be foolish since within less than a generation, the League was dissolved with the advent of the Peloponnesian Wars, and Athenian power waned following the devastation of both the siege as well as the plague. The final objection Sparta and Corinth brought to the accusation of misappropriation of Delian League funds was the monumental cult statue Barletta described in her lecture, the 36-foot tall depiction of Athena whose staff, Pliny notes, served to guide Athenian sailors to the safe harbor, the one planned by Hippodamus. Even this oft-quoted quip, though, was written not necessarily as a catechism celebrating Athenian dominance, but could be interpreted as a reminder of the power of the Delian League, since it was the joined forces of Attica, not merely the prowess of the Athenian naval fleets, that defeated the Persians, for the stately columns, some salvaged from the initial defeat of Athens in 488 BCE, served as a reminder of the vulnerability of even the Athenian army.


Capitol investment, if you will pardon the pun, is never without a risk, and Attica had, up until this point, been painfully reminded of the risks involved in storing a region’s wealth in a single location. With each invasion, the Persians sacked the treasuries, and entire investments were lost. No single invading army could hoist the secure investment, the single, monumental 36-foot tall golden image as long as an entire League of conjoined military forces were determined to protect it. 


Manguel rightfully is critical of Plato’s interpretation of Democracy since, as he notes, only one-sixth of the population had the right to have a voice in government. Plato notes, however, that each “ruling class makes laws that are in its own interest” (66). As a patriarchal society divided into the classes Hippodamus believed to be inherent in civilization, Plato’s observation regarding law making is not prescriptive but descriptive. Plato, like Hippodamus, has observed the class division, yet he, like the Parthenon, pays homage to even the less prominent members of the league of human kind upon which Attica’s greatness rests. In the Republic, Plato notes that “…each profession brings its own peculiar benefit” (75). Plato also notes that a society’s “prospect of success is greater if they don’t wrong each other,” a subtle injunction towards a more just treatment of all members of a society (82). He further decries injustice, noting that it is “incapable of any common action because of factions and quarrels, and sets it at variance with itself and with its opponents” (83). The construction of the Parthenon, the “common action” of the Delian League, then, according to the Platonic model, would not have been possible if the League would have been set “at variance with itself.” I maintain that the Parthenon was constructed, at least initially, not as an expression of Athenian dominance but as an assimilation of styles that imitated the ideal of Democracy itself.


Manguel explains Georg Lukacs’ idea of reification as “the colonization of the world of experience by means of one-dimensional generalizations derived from the rules of commercial exchange” (131). The art history texts written by Gardner, Jensen and Stokstad reify the Parthenon, explaining it as a structure representing the dominance of colonial Athens, providing a single interpretation to one of the primary foundational styles in western civilization. Manguel notes that language is fluid, malleable, creating the stories for each generation, which, in turn, are always indefinite. Language, then, like the Parthenon, is in itself an expression of Democratic values: a monument, always available for a viewer to read, but ever open to interpretation.


As scholars, students, critics engage in education through language, then, perhaps they should be ever mindful of yet another Platonic ideal: “Justice is….supreme simplicity….injustice is duplicity” (78).

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.