Incomparable ruin

The Parthenon

Mary Beard <em>Profile Books, 209pp, £15</em>

ISBN 186197292X

In the aftermath of 11 September, the Cambridge don Mary Beard became notorious for comments published in the London Review of Books. "When the shock had faded," she wrote, "more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn't just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming . . . World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price."

Beard's remarks provoked what Mrs Merton might have described as "a heated debate". Even now, the phrase "had it coming" continues to resonate. Beard's publishers must be thrilled. However other people may have twisted or misinterpreted her comments, they should certainly help to secure widespread interest in her new book. Nor will readers from outside the circles of classical scholarship be disappointed: The Parthenon may be about a building two and a half thousand years old, but it is also about us, about our obsessions and fears - and yes, about 11 September as well.

In October last year, an outraged correspondent to the LRB wanted to know what gave an academic writing in Cambridge - "surely one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world" - the right to pontificate about the destruction of the World Trade Center. He will find his answer within the pages of this book. Beard may well have written it in Cambridge, but she was also living in what another classicist has described as "the shadow of the Parthenon", the first and greatest monument raised by an imperial democracy to itself. The controversies bred by the events of 11 September must already have been much on her mind.

Charred rubble has always marked east-west conflicts. The Greeks had their own problems with monotheists from the Middle East. In 480BC, the Persians had occupied Athens and burnt the buildings on the Acropolis to the ground, before being thrashed at Salamis and driven out of Greece. Architects wondering what to build on the site of the World Trade Center might care to reflect that it took the Athenians 30 years before they finally got round to building the Parthenon. By that time, their city was the mistress of the Aegean, and rich with the tributes of what were euphemistically known as "allied" states. Whether directly or indirectly - the evidence is unclear - this is what paid for the Parthenon. A majority duly revelled in its splendour, and hailed it as a fitting symbol of their city's self-confidence and power. Others - a minority, but still vociferous - complained that the Parthenon was a grotesque monument to hubris. As one of them might have put it: world bullies, even if they build the most beautiful building in the world, will in the end pay the price.

Both sides were right. The allies of Athens did turn on her, and the city's "golden age" was fleeting. As Beard mournfully reminds us, "through most of classical antiquity, the Parthenon, our icon of democracy, was the jewel in the crown of autocrats". Yet, all the same, who could wish that the Parthenon had not been built? The Bengali poet Rabin-dranath Tagore, perhaps, who found it so ugly that he wept, and William Golding, who preferred the view of a cement works. But most, from Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud, and from Le Corbusier to Bill Clinton, have thrilled to it.

"Future ages will wonder at us," the great Athenian leader Pericles boasted, "as the present age wonders at us now." So it has proved. The Parthenon has been blown up, looted by Scotsmen, and turned into a cliche on a million postcards, but still, as Beard points out, it "seems to work for almost everyone, almost every time".

Yet it remains a mysterious building, although its familiarity tricks us into thinking otherwise. Its status as a symbol of both democracy and empire, freedom and tyranny, is only one of a multitude of ambiguities. Beard repeatedly reminds us how little we actually understand about the Parthenon; indeed, she argues that it "offers an object lesson in those tantalising processes of investigation, deduction, empathy, reconstruction and sheer guesswork that must be the hallmarks of any study of classics and the classical world".

Just as its ruined state has encouraged endless restoration projects - most of them taking far longer than the original construction of the building - so the gaps in our knowledge are what make it so seductive as an icon. Like with a son-et-lumiere show, we can project on it our fantasies and dreams.

Beard has always been particularly fascinated by changing perspectives on the classical past. She is intrigued by the battles fought for possession of the Parthenon's corpse; she traces its afterlife as a cathedral, as a mosque and finally as the most influential cultural cliche of the west. On the celebrated tussle between the Greek government and the British Museum over the Elgin Marbles, she is a model of sanity. The classical world still rouses fierce passions, and books such as this help to make the study of ancient Greece urgent and relevant.

Tom Holland is working on a history of the collapse of the Roman empire