By Paul B. Donovan


The Montréal Review, July 2024

‘Parthenon 3’, Pamela S. Pease, 2024

As history’s pendulum swings once again, ominously, towards the political far-right, the iconic, enduring symbols of democracy take on a fresh significance.


Putting aside brash upstarts, the Statue of Lady Liberty for one, there remains that singular monument, instantly recognized by all peoples down through the ages, nestled atop the Acropolis of Athens for 2,400 years: The famed Parthenon of Pericles.

Knocked around and battered like a prize fighter; buffeted by wars too numerous to name; robbed by the Byzantines of its namesake massive, gold  cult-statue of the goddess Athena; a storehouse for barrels of gunpowder by the Ottoman Turks, until the arsenal exploded; after much abuse and neglect down through the ages, the hardy Parthenon is now undergoing a much-needed facelift. Even the partial return of the Elgin Marbles — carved noble horses, hoplite soldiers frozen in combat, everyday grazing cattle — that once adorned its frieze and pediments, sculpted by the eminent Phidias himself, are apparently in the offing.

Timely that such a perennial symbol of democracy gets a burnishing when it seems that across the world, totalitarianism is fast on the rise, crafty packaged as small-minded ‘nationalism’. An irony surely… but one which belies a deeper, darker truth underpinning these two opposing political ideologies: a suggestion perhaps of a dialectic between them? Does not each include elements of the other, for better or for worse, consistent with the mired interplay of events and people.

Consider for example, the United States presidential race, with its stranger-than-fiction cast. Both nominees are in their latter years (81 and 78 respectively), a sitting president challenged by his immediate predecessor, the ex-president. Scurrilous rumor has it that during their recent debate, a major concern for both presidents was their dread of a televised humiliation due to a weak bladder — assigned presidential protection, as it stands, doesn’t provide for such untoward emergencies. This is perfectly fine as far as it goes… except it goes much further.

The establishment high-ground, nominally democratic, finds itself struggling to enforce the rule-of-law against the oddly charismatic appeal of a Machiavellian ‘strongman’ in the unlikely figure of the rotund ex-president, a filthy rich tycoon and recently convicted criminal (a convoluted taxation snafu arising from a cover-up involving a former mistress).

Could the bull-headed, stentorian contender, convinced of his own rightness, really be the long-awaited Nietzschean Superman, spreading chaos and division. Arguably, only what is necessary to clear out the detritus in the American polity and “make the country great again”? Thus spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet on his mountain-top, playing out on nightly television. Hollywood would no doubt summarily reject such a movie script as outlandish, beyond the bounds of credibility. On the other hand, it has been said that democracy can’t be grafted onto a country, as with grape varietals or new cultivars of apples, but must evolve naturally over time from the inside-outwards…with this truism in mind, it seems reasonable to begin at the source.

The present article, set in the very crucible of democracy — of Athenian ‘demos’, the people — provides a brief sketch, however imperfectly, of the conflicted beginnings of this, most famous of temples, the Parthenon, commissioned by the exotic figure of Pericles — a shrewd general in warfare, smooth-talking statesman, or conniving arch-manipulator? A parable, yet not without some present gleanings perhaps, for 21st century politics? (While factually true in all pertinent details, the following dialogue sequence is nonetheless a work of creative non-fiction.)

454 BCE, ‘The Sacred Port’

Aegean Island of DELOS

The cargo is now secured, hawsers are cast off, sails set and trimmed, billowing and flapping as the vessel picked up speed, amidst the parting shouts and muted waves of the priests in their flowing robes.

Only when the last faint outline of Delos died away, a lone disappearing speck on the horizon, did the enormity of Pericles’ decision strike home. His pluck was legend, serving him well where others had hesitated. He had acted upon his own authority, a nagging, fleeting thought pushed away for the moment — overtaken by the immensity of a glittering sea beyond sight of land. An omen hopefully, of the hero’s welcome that awaited him back in Athens. Much to his chagrin, however, his mission had become an open, if dangerous secret, prematurely — Sparta had covert agents scouting the Athenian waterfront. He had finally decided to press ahead: the Spartans lacked sufficient time to assemble a warfleet.                        

The arched prow of the merchantman knifed through the crystalline waters of the South Aegean, as the stout vessel gently heaved and yawed in the following sea — surrounded by a flotilla of several fast, light triremes from the Athenian Navy, each with over 150 oarsmen. Athens and Sparta both know that the tenuous Peace Treaty ending the First Peloponnesian War was merely a stopgap between hostilities, with nothing settled. Meanwhile, the much-prized Delian Treasury was a sitting duck…there for the taking, as Pericles never tired of telling his fellow Athenians.

Athens led the Delian League, a military coalition of over two hundred city-states. Each member pledged to contribute yearly to a defence fund, ‘the Delian Treasure’…. as a precaution in the event, now highly unlikely, that the Persians would attempt to invade Greece for a third time following their previous routs. As the years passed, with Persia lapsing as a world-power, the nuanced view of the hoard shifted in turn. What was once a traditional peace-of-mind ‘insurance policy’ belied a focus on ‘the thing in itself’, such that it came to be known simply as ‘the treasure’.

Yearly subscriptions were enforced by the leading member-state, Athens with its all-powerful navy. To avoid petty squabbles between members of the League, the Treasury was deposited with the priests of the Temple Sanctuary of Apollo on the sacred island of Delos, the smallest member of the League. Sparta in opposition, formed its own coalition of member states, the Peloponnesian League.

Pericles had cleverly crafted his diplomatic ‘pitch’ in advance, highlighting the ominous risk as “Sparta had become increasingly sinister in recent months”. With deep-set eyes and a misshapen head that seemed curiously at odds with his smaller body, Pericles soft-spoken, beguiling manner was often mistaken for weakness…. yet concealed a canny, resolute personality, well suited to the duplicitous worlds of diplomacy and politics. Once met, for better or worse, no one forgot him. Much to Pericles’ surprise, the priests of Apollo seemed only too happy to part with the liability of the treasure: their small rocky island was an easy mark for marauding Phoenicians… or Spartans.

Lugging the many chests below deck, loaded with gold, jewellery, and precious stones from the Orient, was no easy task. Heavily-laden, the ship sat low in the water, while the master growled about the reduced freeboard. The cargo manifest, as a bureaucratic coverup, showed a motley consignment of three hundred amphorae, mostly wine and olive-oil, with a ballast of grindstones. The ship even had eyes, vividly painted on each side, to see its way around dangers for safe guidance… or at least for good-luck, if nothing else.

The Aegean was no longer roiling and breaking with white combers, as it was on the first day of the homeward voyage. Come morning, it had settled down now into that long, rhythmic heaving familiar to all mariners. With little to do, Pericles stretched out slumberously in the morning warmth, cushioned on a coil of camel-hair rope — ample time to review the rapid-moving events. Matters had unfolded as hoped, with little diplomacy needed; all in all, it was a ‘splendid success’. Athens, which is to say Pericles, now possessed the priceless trove for “safekeeping on behalf of The Delian League”; besides, the jittery priests were eager to avoid warmongering Spartans on their doorstep, desecrating Apollo… with swords drawn.

Whether the Spartans would have tempted fate so imprudently as to steal the Delian Treasury, defying the Temple Sanctuary on the Sacred Island of Apollo’s birth, will remain forever a moot point. More importantly, the priests of Apollo were thankful that “insightful Pericles has preempted the dreaded Spartans”, securing not only the Treasury but also their personal safety to boot.  

“What good are these many chests of wonderful treasure,” Pericles thought, languidly, his eyes squinting against the sun and sparkling sea, “to be left sitting stagnant in the armoury of the Athenian Guard, when they could be used gainfully to achieve great things?”

The dream of a grand temple rising from the Acropolis had taken root in Pericles’ mind since childhood when, playing at the Agora, he had gazed upwards at the summit, dotted with small temples and stelae — even then, he thought the site begged for something more, so that proud citizens anywhere in the city would look up from their toil and behold the glory of Athens, a lustrous mirage floating above them. The Acropolis with its central position, was surely shaken upwards out of the earth by the gods for just such a purpose. Moreover, the dilapidated Old Parthenon dated back to ancient times when Athens was little more than a village, with goats wandering about its stubby, corroded columns.

“Athens is now a great city, and will be greater still”, Pericles beamed, fully awake, his face glowing with pride,” I will use the finest white marble from Mount Pentelikon and Athens’ superior artisans, “It will be a temple for all of Greece to rejoice…and praise my name.”

“At the age of forty-one, my time has arrived.”


The fact that Pericles, without consulting the other member states of the Delian League, had appropriated the treasury of the Delian League, moving it from Delos to Athens in 454 BCE was one thing, bad enough: to flaunt it so conspicuously for all to see atop the Acropolis, so grandiose, so magnificently, so provocatively, was quite another matter.

The Parthenon exuded Athenian supremacy, unmistakably, among the Greek city-states. More than a temple, it served as a shining symbol of hegemony and excess, its brightly colored Doric columns visible by vessels more than thirty miles at sea. Such brazen effrontery lay beyond the pale of acceptance by their ancient rivals, the Corinthians, no less by the restive Spartans who in strict accordance with their own militant values, lived in rough-hewn wooden dwellings.

Moreover, the so-called Thirty Years Treaty of Peace which concluded the First Peloponnesian War had resolved nothing, and the tinder was ready for the end-stage of the disastrous civil war. If the dates are any gauge, the Parthenon set the fuse alight. After 15 years of construction, the temple was completed in 432 BCE… with the Second Peloponnesian War erupting less than twelve months later, in 431 BCE.

At the same time, great upheavals in history often seem to cast an aura of catharsis — notwithstanding the pain, suffering, and wholesale loss of life — sweeping away that which was rigid and decrepit while fostering a rebirth of the humanities. In such a way, the Peloponnesian wars ushered in a hundred years of remarkable artistry and intellectual creativity — the so-called Athenian ‘Golden Years’. Dramatists such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes created classic plays that are still performed today. A string of innovative philosophers sprang into being including Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus and the Stoics. Most of all, a forerunner of democracy flourished all in the shadow of the Parthenon, Pericles’ belated legacy.

Strangely enough, the Parthenon is noticeably absent from the ‘Seven Wonders of the Ancient World’ listed by Antipater of Sidon, circa 100 BCE, and further ignored by other noteworthy writers of antiquity. Five of the seven ancient listings comprise a testament to Hellenistic achievements in architecture and construction without a single mention of the Parthenon, the most outstanding of all. Such an obvious omission could not be an oversight. Did the stain of that ‘original sin’, the Herculean temple built by stolen funds, that arguably contributed to the Second Peloponnesian War, and the great plague, still linger as a festering wound, unforgiven?

However much one admires the proportions, aesthetics, and sheer grandeur of the Parthenon (not to be confused with the Pantheon in Rome, another wonder), there remains Pericles’ disreputable manipulations, deceit and thievery, that underpinned its construction — that made it possible in the first place. This is where the fine line of the law, ‘for and against’, takes on the consistency of sticky treacle.

It is one thing for Pericles to secure the treasury on behalf of the Delian League, ostensively ensuring its safety — yet this is the point where his ‘moral compass’ falters. It is quite another thing for him to use the treasury as if it was his own: it seems he felt no pangs of remorse. What he had planned was a far greater, nobler thing for all parties concerned: he commissioned the Parthenon on behalf of Athens, as well as the Delian League (whose members were never consulted), and for Greece as a whole… notwithstanding that it greatly consolidated his own political power base and personal prestige, setting the stage for autocratic rule.

On the other hand, this accusation itself rests on shaky ground: as it turns out, Pericles did not seize absolute power as a stereotype dictator, as might well be expected, or for that matter, even a benign one. In fact, quite the opposite, for which he deserves our kudos. Pericles joined with other city patriarchs to fan the embers of an incipient democracy into vibrant life. By comparison, Sparta was largely based on authoritarian, totalitarian principles. Despite his aristocratic birth, Pericles was a ‘populist’ statesman for the ordinary people, says the historian Thucydides, such that the poor would throw olive branches before him as he passed through the streets of Athens. Still, this does not mean he is without blame.

What emerges of Pericles, the man himself, is a mixed picture, like a set of Russian dolls, one within the other. Hubris one moment, and kudos the next. The appalling truth remains however, that with meticulous planning and forethought, Pericles deceived the member-states of the Delian League. As for the Delian priests, it is most unlikely that they would have agreed to release the vast sum of the treasury to be dedicated solely to an Athenian temple. Instead, Pericles put his diplomatic finesse to good use, securing the treasure ‘under false pretenses’, that he was acting ‘on behalf of the League’. This is disingenuous, too.

The deprived member-states may rightly ask, “what do we get for the loss of our contributions, when the Treasury should be divided amongst us fairly?” They are the real aggrieved parties, whereas we (in the 21st century CE) are the default winners!  Pericles for his part, openly basked in the celebratory honors bestowed on him by most Athenians, proud of his role in bankrolling the Parthenon which set an aesthetic standard for city artisans of all stripes to follow. It comes as no surprise that popular histories treat Pericles as an esteemed figure in the pantheon of Western democracy.

The ethical question remains nevertheless, like an awkward family member, hidden away, half-forgotten in a backroom. Most tourists visiting the Parthenon today, smitten with the sheer magnitude of the site, wouldn’t hesitate to say that ‘in this particular case’, the End justifies the Means — the long-ago ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ raised by the indignant Delian League, I suspect, would have precious little meaning for them. Where then lies the rule of Law, swept under the dusty carpet of millennia?

Some caution may be warranted at this point before jumping headfirst with a verdict, poor Pericles in the dock, from a jury-seat in the 21st century, as if events were playing out in a contemporary setting. As unwitting jurors, we carry our own subjectivity with us, like a Rorschach, all the nuances, values, and biases of modernity, that we unknowingly project on a cultural, political landscape very different from our own. As the saying goes, ‘context is everything’, and all the rest is minutiae. In this sense, the ancient past is truly glimpsed through a prism, darkly: the unexpected happens, not always from the perspective of Aristotelian logic.

Whatever may be Pericles’ failings, his straitforward refusal to take an autocratic position — despite his immense popularity — in favor of continued rule by the people, the ‘demos’, must be considered the overriding measure of his greatness. The general reaction was one of deep gratitude, yet also puzzled disbelief — “those shifty Delian priests must have put a crazy curse on him’” — while the Spartans either laughed dismissively at such a ridiculous happening… or else became unaccountably angry. Such magnanimity, protecting the fragile Athenian democracy at such a crucial time, stands out as Pericles’ most singular takeaway for our own times. He can be forgiven much in return.

History is nothing if not a sorry tale of Impermanence: the flourishing ‘Golden years’ of Athens petered out, then came the Macedonian invasion, even if Alexander himself was tutored by Aristotle, … followed in due course, by the ubiquitous Roman invasion. For good reason did the Roman gentry send their sons away to be tutored, where else but in Athens, ‘the school of all Greece’, inspired by the classical sculpture, philosophy, poetry, and not lest of all by the architecture, enshrined in the miracle of Pericles’ Parthenon…the crowning symbol of ‘humanitas’, who we are as civilized humans, free and equal.


  • In 460 BCE, the First Peloponnesian War was fought between Sparta and the Delian League led by Athens, ending in 445 BCE with an uncertain peace treaty.
  • In 454 BCE, Pericles seized the treasury of the Delian League, moving it from the island of Delos to Athens.
  • In 447 BCE, under Pericles direction, construction of the Parthenon commenced, largely financed by the Delian treasury.
  • In 432 BCE, the Parthenon was completed, taking 15 years, marking the peak of Athens as the political, economic, and cultural center of Greece.
  • In 431 BCE, ensued the Second Peloponnesian War, lasting 15 years.
  • In 430 BCE, plague devastated the population of Athens.
  • In 430 BCE, Pericles died of the plague (probably smallpox or typhus).
  • In 404 BCE, Athens surrendered and was occupied by Sparta. The ‘Golden Age’ ended with the demise of the Republic of Athens.

Paul B. Donovan is a humanist writer and forensic psychologist. He is the author most recently, of "EPICURUS IN LOVE: A Novel of Mythos and Desire in Ancient Greece" (2023, The Euphorion Press).

Pamela S. Pease has painted and exhibited her art in Santa Fe and Maine, as well as internationally in France and Australia. Inspired by the shapes of Nature and the geometry of objects, she embraces an artistic style that is both impressionistic and abstract. She is the author and illustrator of a children’s book, "EL JOFFE: Poodle de Santa Fe" (2024, The Euphorion Press).





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