Trivia Question For Classicists

by John Holbo on September 16, 2013

Wikpedia says: “What is now the orthodox view of the piece [the Parthenon Frieze], however, namely that it depicts the Greater Panathenaic procession from Eleusis to Athens …”

But is that right? The Panathenaic procession ran … 20-some kilometers?

From Jon Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion: “[participants in the Panathenaic procession] would go in a large procession from there [the city gate] one kilometer along the Panathenaic Way, through the Agora, and up to the Acropolis to Athena’s Great Altar. The priestess of Athena and the priest of Poseidon-Erechtheus would no doubt lead the way. They would be followed by others who served Athena’s cult, and then by a host of religious and government officials.”

Just curious if anyone knows if there was some marathon Panathenaic parade all the way from Eleusis to Athens. There was, I think, a procession from Athens to Eleusis for initiates into the Mysteries, so it’s not like Greeks weren’t prepared for a good trudge in a good cause.



Adam Roberts 09.16.13 at 11:40 am

‘The presence of the peplos at the centre of the east frieze flanked by the gods seems to indicate that the procession is that of the Panathenaic festival. Outside this central image, however, it could be argued that the procession is a generic one with no specific reference to any one festival. The horsemen, chariots and various pedestrian figures could be collectively emblematic of all Athenian festivals; and the presence of all the major gods suggests that such a general, abstract idea of celebration was intended. Attempts to see it otherwise and to make the frieze a pictorial record of the Panathenaic procession will always show up a mismatch between the procession of the frieze and that of the collected literary sources that document the festival.’ [Ian Jenkins, Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture (2006), 105]


Carol Atack 09.16.13 at 12:08 pm

I don’t think so: as you note from Mikalson, the Panathenaic procession assembled at the Pompeion (place for assembling processions) at the Dipylon gate in the Kerameikos, and headed into the city through the agora to the Acropolis. Wycherley’s ‘Stones of Athens’ pp 71-72 observes that both the Panathenaic and Eleusinian (from the city centre to Eleusis, as you observe) processions may have assembled there, but the two processions were going in different directions, one into and one away from the city centre, and honouring different deities. (The politics of space in Greek cult and ritual is a fascinating area).


John Holbo 09.16.13 at 12:12 pm

Thanks but that’s sort of separate. It’s true that this interpretation is questionable. I’m actually interested in the parade whether that’s what the frieze depicts or not. I should have been clearer about that.


potchkeh 09.16.13 at 1:11 pm

I would’ve said it mustered at the Dipylon–and that the procession thus ran a km, give or take–but maybe I don’t really know that and am just extrapolating from the fact that that’s where the Panathenaic Way began. Can check the books at home this evening. My guess is there’s a clear enough answer in the literary or epigraphical sources–if Mikalson doesn’t cite them maybe try Parke’s Festivals of the Athenians?


John Holbo 09.16.13 at 1:36 pm

The only way it can be right, I think, is if there was allegedly some ur-procession – the first one – which allegedly ran all the way. But then later when it became an annual/quadrennial affair they cut it short. I suspect someone somehow got confused about the Eleusinion

But I don’t think the procession started at the Eleusinion either. So I dunno.


Chris Lovell 09.16.13 at 3:11 pm

The Panathenaic procession definitely began at the Dipylon Gate. See Thucydides 6.57.1, where Hippias marshals the procession in the Ceramicus (the neighborhood around the Dipylon Gate). In addition to Mikalson and Parke another place to look for references to the ancient evidence is Robert Parker’s Athenian Religion.

Wikipedia’s mention of Eleusis is a mistake, though a longstanding one–it’s been in the article since 2007. There’s no basis for it, though.


Glen Tomkins 09.16.13 at 3:25 pm

I’m only up on the major authors, and the only locus I recall that might bear on this question is in Herodotus VIII, 65. A bit before the battle of Salamis, a group of philomede Greeks is riding near Eleusis when they see a great cloud of dust, such as might be raised by an army of 30,000 marching across the plain, coming at them from Eleusis. They hear as well the sound of many voices coming out of this cloud. The Athenian exile in the group interprets this as a portent, and it’s presented as the obvious interpretation that would occur only to the Athenian in this group. The sound is the Iacchus Song, which is what the initiates sing on their way back from Eleusis. The portent is that whichever direction the cloud goes — towards the isthmus where the Persian army has marched, or towards Athens and Salamis where the Persian fleet has gone — that Persian force is doomed.

This ties in to one of the little pet theories with which Herodotus litters the Histories. He later makes a point that the battles at Plataea and Mycale, with which he ends his account of the Persian expulsion from Greece, both occur right next to temple grounds of the Eleusinian Demeter. This goddess seems to have a serious case of the ass against the Persians, or at least Persians invading Greece. Note to self — if you ever invade Greece, be careful to avoid ground sacred to the Eleusinian Demeter.

To get back to the point after an anecdotal excursion in the style of Herodotus, we have a huge procession from Eleusis, that is part of a festival, but which festival is not specified. It’s not even clear the procession always goes from its origin in Eleusis to Athens, as at least the portent version can go either towards the Isthmus or in the other direction towards Athens. It’s also not clear to me that the Mysteries and the Panathenaic festival or procession go together, as I’m not sure that the Mysteries weren’t esoteric, and therefore something you would not make part of a public celebration. Of course, the mention of a dust cloud that might be raised by a procession of 30,000 makes you think that maybe the Mysteries weren’t so esoteric, if there were really that many initiates every year — but perhaps the monstrously large number is intended as one of the strange and terrifying aspects of the portent. The final objection is that this anecdote Herodotus tells doesn’t make it seem like being on the receiving end of this procession is a good thing, so it’s not something you would make part of a civic event. But I guess that’s a professional hazard of dealing with chthonic goddesses, and maybe it’s only bad juju if you’re a foreigner invading the scared soil, but good juju if you’re Athens.


Glen Tomkins 09.16.13 at 3:45 pm

A correction: that’s “sacred soil” not “scared soil”. The Earth, of course, doesn’t get scared, any more than Old Man River bothers to plant cotton.

Another correction: to a true classicist, no question is trivial. I once wrote a lengthy paper on the question of whether a textual crux should be read as “akhos”, or “iakhos” (which is one reason I remembered this locus). Of course, I titled the thing, “An Iota’s Worth of Difference”.


Scott P. 09.16.13 at 4:26 pm

Carol is correct, the procession started at the Pompeion by the Dipylon Gate.


Scott P. 09.16.13 at 4:27 pm

Should further note that the Panathenaia was a festival sacred to Athena, while Eleusis was a shrine of Demeter and Kore.


John Holbo 09.16.13 at 4:29 pm

“Wikipedia’s mention of Eleusis is a mistake, though a longstanding one–it’s been in the article since 2007. There’s no basis for it, though.”

Any Wikipedians out there want to make the change? (Someday I should learn to edit Wikipedia myself. But this time I’m not going to bother.)


Glen Tomkins 09.16.13 at 5:01 pm

Conforming to Type

Apparently this is a question for which Thucydides provides a clear, concrete answer, while Herodotus just gives us an anecdote about some dudes who claim they had a vision one day.


Meredith 09.16.13 at 5:29 pm

On the general subject of trudging (since I couldn’t tell if that was part of your query, and in any case, folks might be interested): people used to walk a lot, including distances that today most of us couldn’t imagine walking unless rambling/hiking for pleasure. For instance, Andocides in On the Mysteries explains how a certain Diocleides happened to witness in the pre-dawn hours a conspiratorial group meeting in the Theater of Dionysus (the translation is by Maidment, via Perseus):
Diocleides’ tale was that he had had to fetch the earnings of a slave of his at Laurium.1 He arose at an early hour, mistaking the time, and started off on his walk by the light of a fuIl moon. As he was passing the gateway of the theatre of Dionysus, he noticed a large body of men coming down into the orchestra from the Odeum.2 In alarm, he withdrew into the shadow and crouched down between the column and the pedestal with the bronze statue of the general upon it. He then saw some three hundred men standing about in groups of five and ten and, in some cases, twenty. He recognized the faces of the majority, as he could see them in the moonlight.”

I quote more than necessary because it’s such a great story. Anyway, here’s a prosperous Athenian preparing to walk 60 km to Laurion (the distance Wikipedia’s Laurium article gives, and that sounds right to me — it’s a serious bus ride today), or about 37 miles. There’s lots of other anecdotal evidence of this sort in surviving Greek and Latin literature (and in the bible, too): people walked great distances by today’s standards. (Evidence for same in rural New England as recently as a hundred years ago, btw.)

Which is to say, whichever directions and from whatever precise starting points various religious processions made their way, it seems likely that large numbers of people, and not just token groups of worshippers, would have processed, most of them on foot, distances that seem absurdly long to us today. (You can imagine why the idea of “stations” developed — places to stop and rest along the way.)


dbk 09.16.13 at 5:31 pm

As per recent Anglophone interpretation, the Parthenon frieze did not depict a specific Panathenaea, but rather a generalized portrayal in honor of Athenian triumphs/victories generally. Cf. Jenifer Neils, The Parthenon Frieze (Cambridge, 2001), who proposes the frieze as being a “theoxenia”. Such an interpretation would be in line with the overall pictorial style of the High and Late Classical periods.

For more specific depictions of historical triumphs/ceremonies/individuals, etc. the general thinking is that this would not be fully realized until the Roman Imperial Age in e.g. the great triumphal arches (Titus, Galerius) and columns (Trajan) the Romans covered with historical reliefs.


Ewan Sinclair 09.16.13 at 5:36 pm

*Sheepishly raising hand* I wrote that article, and checking sources it seems you’re quite right I’ve erroneously conflated the Elusian way with the Panathenaic way. Robertson Athena’s Shrines an Festivals in Neils Worshipping Athena p.58 identifies the mustering point as “a city gate at the northwest” – probably the Dipylon gate from the late archaic onwards. The early archaic parade and the procession of myth may have taken another route.

The article could do with an overhaul, preferably by someone fresher from the books.


clew 09.16.13 at 5:38 pm

I was going to make the same point about twelve miles (or even twenty-four) not being so far for a pre-auto person to walk, especially with snacks and cultmates to talk to. For one thing, a lot of daily life was walking, even if you were just going back and forth around the home plot. Doesn’t make you more tired to follow the road.


Meredith 09.16.13 at 6:57 pm

“… as I’m not sure that the Mysteries weren’t esoteric, and therefore something you would not make part of a public celebration.” The rites for Demeter at Eleusis were not esoteric if “esoteric” supposes that only a few people participated in them or learned the secrets associated with them. For many centuries, large numbers of Greeks (male, female, free, slave), not least Athenians, were initiated into the Eleusinian cult at least at the basic level, so whatever “secrets” the initiates became privy to were open secrets shared with many others. The Athenian state, in cooperation with officials and priests at Eleusis, oversaw/managed the Eleusinian cult, as it did related cults whose rites were conducted at other times of the year, often in different places. Same true for other Greek cities. Same true for other “mystery” cults (e.g., for Dionysus, for Demeter in the Thesmophoria). The modern confusion caused by the use of the term “mystery” has led some scholars to suggest we avoid the term altogether.


AlexB 09.16.13 at 7:07 pm

I’ve edited it to:
“What is now the orthodox view of the piece, however, namely that it depicts the Greater Panathenaic procession from the Pompeion by the Dipylon gate to the Acropolis, …”
That seemed to be the consensus from the comments.


Glen Tomkins 09.16.13 at 9:02 pm


While the existence of the Mysteries was definitely no secret, there clearly were mysteries to it that the initiated were definitely not supposed to reveal to the uninitiated, on pain of death. Even if Athens had public ceremonies connected to various stages of the annual rites connected to the cult, it’s not clear to me that this mystery cult of a chthonic deity would have been something the ancients would have felt comfortable mixing in with the exoteric worship of the Panathenaion.

Not that I feel at all confident making such judgments on their behalf. I’m a New Orleanian, and the weird cult practices people feel comfortable grafting onto Mardi Gras parades still surprises me despite growing up with the whole Creole gemisch.


Meredith 09.16.13 at 10:08 pm

Glenn, all of this is subject to so much scholarly argument, which (to boot) I haven’t kept up with recently, that I hesitate to make strong statements. But I would insist that Athens had more than “public ceremonies connected to various stages of the annual rites connected to the cult.” The Athenian state managed, if in some respects only indirectly (through priestly families and officials in Eleusis, part of Attic territory), all the stages of these rites. The classical state did not stand in some sort of opposition to or tension with the “mystery” cults of a Demeter or Dionysus but integrated them and overtly relied on them for civic organization and identity-formation. (Otherwise, e.g., why the state’s and the citizens’ response to the alleged profanation of the mysteries before the Sicilian expedition?)
Yes, a ritual/festival like the Panathenaia is different from the Eleusinian rites and festivals. I’m just not sure that labels like “esoteric” and “exoteric” take us very far in appreciating those differences.
Anyway, everybody did a lot of walking.


John Holbo 09.16.13 at 11:20 pm

“*Sheepishly raising hand* I wrote that article, and checking sources it seems you’re quite right I’ve erroneously conflated the Elusian way with the Panathenaic way. ”

“I’ve edited it to:”

Crooked Timber gets results! Obviously I don’t need to be initiated and become a first-level Wikipedian. I can just shout to them from here.

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