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Reason on Trial

In 1951 a virtual bombshell fell on the world of specialists of Athenian archaeology in the form of a monograph by the Greek scholar Konstantinos Th. Syriopoulos. This thorough reassessment of the history of the Parthenon began by gathering all the architectural, stratigraphic and epigraphic evidence and collating the various opinions expressed on the subject of the chronology of the Parthenon and its predecessors. On the basis of these data he submitted a complete and detailed theory of the relative dates of Parthenons I, II and III.

As a first conclusion, Syriopoulos argued that the three Parthenons were not separate temples, but rather constituted changes in plan in a single constructive effort. Dörpfeld, too, had stated that Parthenons I and II were only “projects” (Entwürfe) and that they were “buildings that had only been initiated” (nur begonnene Bauten). But Dörpfeld had contradicted himself by dating far apart the construction of the three Parthenons: Syriopoulos reacted by dating all of them within the span of four or five years. He concluded that there had been at least three different plans for the Parthenon. The first plan was a grandiose one which was suddenly abandoned for that of the small temple studied by Hill. After a period of interruption the work was resumed following a third plan which was similar to the very first one. For this reason Syriopoulos declared that one must no longer speak of proto-Parthenons or or Parthenon I, II, or III. But this is a matter of terminology, once it is stipulated that by the terms Parthenon I and Parthenon II one refers not to completed temples, but to plans that were executed only to some initial steps, and that each successive plan was so conceived as to utilize in a large measure what had already been built.

Syriopoulos marshalled all the evidence with great diligence, but overlooked a single empirical datum, which the result that he was led to construct two far-fetched hypotheses, whereas it was his intention not to move away from the realm of proven facts. The datum which he neglected is that Parthenon II is of Pentelic marble, like Parthenon III, whereas Parthenon I is of poros limestone. Because he neglected this datum, having observed that Parthenon II is smaller than Parthenon I, he wrongly concluded that Parthenon II was cheaper to construct than Parthenon I. Syriopoulos considered only the size of the temples, without considering the material used in the construction; hence, he did not grasp that each plan was more ambitious in terms of cost than the preceding one, since a temple of poros limestone is cheaper to build, even if large in size. Having arrived at this false conclusion, he asked what could have induced the Athenians to start with the plan of Parthenon I, then to shift to the supposedly more economical plan of Parthenon II, and finally to return to a grandiose plan with Parthenon III, which is similar in size to Parthenon I.

In the search for an explanation he thought that he had to find it in the internal political developments of Athens in the period immediately preceding the construction of Parthenon III. He paid attention to the sources which relate that Pericles was attacked by his political opponents for advocating the construction of a temple which heavily taxed the resources of Athens. He proposed that Parthenon I together with its huge substructure was initiated as a grandiose plan by Pericles one year before the formal conclusion of the peace with Persia (Peace of Nicias, winter 449 or spring of 448 B.C.). After the conclusion of the peace the political influence of Pericles was undercut by the conservative opposition led by Thucydides, son of Melesias, who denounced Pericles as an irresponsible waster of the public wealth. The opposition would have scored a success by forcing the abandonment of the plan of Parthenon I and the adoption of the plan of Parthenon II, supposedly a more modest one. When Pericles mounted a successful counter-offensive and succeeded in eliminating Thucydides from the Athenian political scene through ostracism, (445 B.C. or one or two years earlier), the radical democratic party of Pericles would have marked their triumph by bringing about the construction of Parthenon III, which in size is similar to the plan of Parthenon I. Syriopoulos argued his hypothesis learnedly, but it falls down like a house of cards when consideration is given to the fact that the plan of Parthenon II was more expensive than that of Parthenon I. His general view of the political events is correct, but irrelevant to the issue of the plans of the Parthenon.

When the sources are read in full they make it clear that Pericles was accused of being a squanderer of the public wealth for furthering the construction of a temple in Pentelic marble. Hence, Pericles should be given the credit and the responsibility for the plans of Parthenon II and Parthenon III. From the architectural point of view there is a close similarity between Parthenon II and Parthenon III; Hill goes so far in stressing this similarity as to assert that the columns of the two temples were identical and that blocks cut for the former temple were employed in the latter. Syriopoulos, however, erroneously ascribed to Pericles the plan of Parthenon I in the mistaken notion that this temple was particularly expensive because of its size. Since Syriopoulos placed the construction of Parthenon I immediately before that of Parthenon II, he was forced to crowd two shifts of plan within three years of the accounts of the construction. These accounts begin with the year 447/6 B.C. and suggest that little or nothing was spent in the third year. Syriopoulos realized that it is not likely that within the space of three years not only was there erected the substructure terminating with the platform of Parthenon I, but also the platform of Parthenon II was laid, and further time was taken to draw the plans of Parthenon III, which were energetically carried through in the fourth year. For this reason he felt compelled to take a gross liberty in interpreting the accounts. In order to allow adequate time he imagined that the construction of Parthenon I with its substructure started even before the formal conclusion of the peace with Persia (end of 449 or beginning of 448 B.C.); he assumed that Parthenon I with its substructure was started in 450/449 B.C.). But then he had to reconcile this data with the inscription which indicates that the works were started in 447/446 B.C., and in order to do this he claimed that the inscription starts with the year 450/449 B.C. and that there is a gap of three years in the reporting of the accounts after the third year.

This hypothesis is totally unacceptable because the inscription contains not only lists of expenditures, but first of all the names of the members of the board of five epistalai, ”supervisors,” who were appointed each year and their statements about the moneys they received from their predecessors and passed to their successors. By the hypothesis that the board was not appointed for three years Syriopoulos, who tried to examine the problem of the proto-Parthenons in a scientific spirit, added one more piece of foolishness to the lamentable record of the literature on the subject. When Plommer criticizes him on this account, one cannot blame him for resorting to a rude and overbearing tone.

Syriopoulos was impressed by the historical argument used by Dörpfeld in refuting Kolbe. Since Kolbe had suggested that the substructure and Parthenon II were erected after 478 B.C., Dörpfeld argued that no major construction could have been initiated by the Athenians as long as there was a danger of a new Persian attack. But Dörpfeld should have realized that the same argument also excludes any major construction following the battle of Marathon, when there was no doubt that the Persians would aim at revenge. Dörpfeld, who was not very strong in historical matters, argued that the danger of a new Persian attack lasted from 478 B.C. to the conclusion of the peace with Persia in 449/8 B.C.

Syriopoulos offered a brilliant solution when he realized that Parthenon II belongs to the Periclean Age together with Parthenon III. But he was carried away by his discovery and claimed that Parthenon I, too, belonged to the Periclean Age. He was right, however, in claiming that the date of Parthenon I must be lowered even more than it had been lowered by Kolbe and Tschira—we shall see that Parthenon I, together with the substructure—belongs to the Cimonian Age, as Dörpfeld had demonstrated in his earliest articles.

Syriopoulos was aware of the unquestionable stratigraphic evidence which proves that the earth filling in front of the substructure was laid down at the time of the erection of the Cimonian Wall. Hence, in order to support his basic hypothesis, he built a supplementary ad hoc hypothesis. He imagined that when the Cimonian Wall was erected in order to extend the area of the Acropolis in the direction of the south, all the space behind it, up to the crest of the Acropolis, was filled with earth. Then, when years later it was decided to erect Parthenon I, part of this filling would have been removed down to the level of natural rock, in roder to make space for the substructure of Parthenon I. This hypothesis is to be rejected for two reasons. The first is that before the construction of Parthenon I, there was no reason to extend the area of the Acropolis to the south by the construction of the Cimonian Wall, a project which per se was a major and expensive enterprise. The second is that the filling between the Cimonian Wall and the substructure was laid layer by layer as each successive tier of blocks of the substructure was put in place. The workmen who put into place the blocks of the substructure rested their feet on layers of filling successively added as the substructure was raised higher. This fact is evinced from the stratum of stone chips which separates the several layers of the filling.

In conclusion, Syriopoulos was wrong in contradicting his own observation that the plans of Parthenon II and Parthenon III are closely related and that the shift from one to the other took place within the span of three or four years at the most, and was wrong in trying to evade the stratigraphic evidence that links Parthenon I with the Cimonian Wall. Nevertheless, his diligent and thoughtful monograph, by presenting all the available data in an orderly fashion, exposed the manifold figments and legends which had been accumulated on the subject of the proto-Parthenons. As a result its publication was deeply disturbing to specialists of Athenian archaeology, but for this very reason the reaction to it was a systematic policy of silence.

As far as I know, Syriopoulos’ work was the object of a single book review. Three years after its publication, the Journal of Hellenic Studies dedicated a column to the work; although the reviewer went as far as to say that it is a matter of ”a provocative study which merits serious consideration” he failed to inform the reader of its revolutionary conclusions. Many of the great American research centers which pride themselves of having complete collections of books int he field of Greek archaeology, did not include Syriopoulos’s work in their collections.

The arguments of Syriopoulos were too compelling to be totally ignored. Hence, in 1960 the Journal of Hellenic Studies, which had taken cognizance by the mentioned book review of the existence of Syriopoulos’ monograph. published a defense of Dinsmoor’s theories about the dates of the Old Temple and of the proto-Parthenons, written by the Cambridge scholar Hugh Plommer.

As a first step, Plommer takes to task Kolbe, the one who had reopened the issue of the dates of the proto-Parthenons for having said:

a) that there are no traces of fire in the steps below Parthenon III;

b) that the section of the north wall which includes the column drums belongs to the Periclean age.

Plommer ignored all those who had written in support of Kolbe’s position, that is, Tschira, Riemann and Sophianopoulos. As to point a) Plommer built his argument on the personal opinion of Hill. Kolbe had observed that the reddish streaks in the Pentelic marble of Parthenon II are a normal feature of this material and cannot be taken as evidence of fire damage. They occur also in Parthenon III and in blocks still in the quarry. In order to make his contention absolutely unquestionable, Kolbe had referred to the experiment conducted by a mineralogist to the effect that pieces of Pentelic marble exposed to the flame of a Bunsen burner trun gray and do not develop a reddish tinge. Syriopoulos had mentioned in his monograph that Hill had stated to him orally that the mentioned laboratory experiment is not decisive, since the temperature of a Bunsen burner may be different from that of the fire lighted by the Persians in 480 B.C. For Plommer this kind of hair-splitting is decisive: “Mr. Hill is still assured that the marks on the stone blocks of his first marble Parthenon are those of fire.” This brief sentence, which should dispose of the matter, contains an entire series of misrepresentations. First of all, Hill is assumed to be the final authority because he discovered Parthenon II and hence this temple supposedly is ”his.” But Hill in the only published report of his discovery had concluded that Parthenon II was not the first temple and had never mentioned seeing traces of fire. Secondly, even granting that the experiment of the mineralogist was conducted incorrectly, neither Hill nor anybody else has even tried to prove that the reddish tinge in the Pentelic marble is the result of fire.

As to point b), Plommer repeated the shopworn contention that the section of the north wall which incorporates the Pentelic marble column drums was erected soon after 480 B.C. He could not offer any evidence except the nature of the wall itself, which would have been built in haste. Since the wall appears built of carefully squared blocks, Plommer equivocated by stating that the wall was built “rather swiftly.” He dismissed the specific evidence that supports dating this wall later than the Cimonian Wall by this peculiar statement: “I feel morally certain that the north wall was built before the south.” Of course, Plommer has a perfect right to be morally convinced that the north wall was built by the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, if he so chooses, but this is not a matter of faith or of morals. By this unexpected appeal to morality Plommer referred to the fact that Kolbe and Tschira, who gathered the evidence for the date of construction of the north wall, quoted evidence based on natural science and quantitative data, a kind of evidence which the self-styled “humanists” dismiss as subversive of morality.

Having supposedly established that Parthenon II was damaged by the fire of 480 B.C., Plommer felt free to move tot he attack against Syriopoulos. If Plommer had refuted Kolbe as he claimed, he could properly have disposed of Syriopoulos’ work in one or two sentences. Instead, Plommer felt obliged to deliver himself of derogatory remarks about Syriopoulos’ monograph. He began: “This little book ... adds nothing to our knowledge,” and concluded: “The omissions and special pleas in this book seem, then, to me to render its conclusions valueless.” None of these serious charges is supported by evidence. Most revealing is a charge which, to my knowledge, is novel in the history of scholarship. Syriopoulos is accused of “parochialism.” Parochialism would consist in the fact that “Nowhere does he seem conscious of all that detailed research in Britain and in America.” Since Syriopoulos quoted this research extensively, not being “conscious” must mean not to agree. In order to understand this outburst of Plommer, one must keep in mind that up to recently native Greek archaeologists have been looked upon with the sufficiency of the wealth tourists toward the natives. But looking at the matter objectively, who could be more properly labelled “parochial”—the independent scholar who dares to look at the stones of the Acropolis with unbiased eyes, or a narrow clique of chair-holders of Britain, Canada and the United States concerned with upholding each other’s prestige?

After delivering himself of sweeping statements about Syriopoulos’ work, such as that its “unlikely conclusions seem to me to be irresponsibly argued,” Plommer finally came down to one specific criticism. He pointed out that Syriopoulos is incorect in dating the substructure almost two decades after the Cimonian Wall: “No one, that I can see, has ever found a shred later than c. 470 in any of these fills behind the ‘Cimonian’ Wall and the Parthenon.” This criticism is perfectly correct, and I have used it earlier to support my one basic disagreement with Syriopoulos. The stratigraphic data to which Plommer refers definitely prove tha the filling piled up between the Cimonian Wall and the substructure of the Parthenon, the downwards extention of the steps of Parthenon I, was laid down soon after the battle of Eurymedon (about 468 B.C.). But this evidence cannot by any stretch of the imagination be used to prove that Parthenon I does not exist and that Parthenon II was built before 480 B.C.


  1. Poros had been chosen as the construction material in most of the buildings of the pre-Periclean Acropolis for its economic advantages: it is easy to cut because of its sponge-like nature, and is easy to transport because of its lightness. But, for the same reason, it is a poor material for foundations, since it crumbles easily under pressure, as has been observed by Roland Martin in his study of ancient Greek construction materials.
  2. Journal of Hellenic Studies 79 (1959), 127-159.
  3. Ibid., 137.
  4. Ibid., 139-140.

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