“Athenians,” St. Paul begins his famous sermon in the Book of Acts, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” That basic fact about ancient Athens–that it was, in classicist Joan Breton Connelly’s words, an “intensely religious” society–mostly escapes us today. Since the Enlightenment, we are accustomed to see Athens as the prototype of rationalism and liberal democracy. That’s why so many civic buildings in America, like the Supreme Court in Washington and Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, take as their model the most famous Athenian structure of all: the Parthenon.

In a provocative new book, The Parthenon Enigma (Knopf), Connelly argues that the Enlightenment view is wrong, or at least crucially incomplete. One cannot understand the Parthenon, she says, without appreciating the central role religion had in Athenian life. Yes, the Parthenon was a political building. But in ancient Athens, politics, like everything else, was an extension of religion. To be an Athenian was to share an imagined identity as a descendant of Erechtheus, a legendary king born of a union (sort of) between the god Hephaistos and Mother Earth. Athenian citizenship, she writes, “was a concept whose sense extended far beyond our notions of politics, positing a mythic ‘deep time’ and a cosmic reality in which the citizen could not locate himself or understand his existence except through religious awareness and devotions.”

The centerpiece of Connelly’s book is a reinterpretation of the Parthenon’s frieze. Since the Enlightenment, conventional wisdom has held that the frieze commemorates a civic festival known as the Panathenaia. Connelly argues, however, based in part on a recently discovered manuscript of a lost work by the playwright Euripides, that the frieze in fact commemorates the myth of Erechtheus and his daughters, one of whom offers herself as a human sacrifice to save the city. (The word “Parthenon,” it turns out, means “place of the maidens”). This reading of the frieze, she argues, resolves some puzzling aspects of the conventional understanding–for example, other Greek temples, without exception, depict myths, not civic festivals–and better fits what we know of the history, legendary and otherwise, of the Acropolis, the famous hill on which the Parthenon sits.

Unless one is a classicist, it’s going to be very hard to evaluate her claim. Much depends on the correct interpretation of the section of the frieze in the photograph above. Is that Erechtheus on the right, giving his daughter a burial shroud? Connelly certainly provides a lot of detail. But, detail or not, this is a fun and worthwhile book, and its central argument about the overwhelming religiosity of Athens is compelling. Turns out St. Paul was right.

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