On Friday I joined the regular program for its half day trip to the Parthenon, which includes the opportunity to go inside the monument. I was mainly interested in doing so because it’s the only way to see the few remaining medieval layers of the temple—the abundant graffiti on the west columns, where the entrance to the medieval church was located, and what remains of the medieval bell tower.
But the Mellon Professor, Margie Miles, also turned our attention toward the east architrave, where today the visitor can see several large dowel cuttings under the metopes as well as numerous small, closely grouped cuttings under a majority of the triglyphs. The large cuttings once held decorative shields, while the small ones held bronze letters, an honorary inscription to the Roman emperor Nero. In antiquity this was the only inscription to grace the marble of Athens’ most famous monument. It was not on the Parthenon for long: the bronze letters were removed after Nero’s death and damnatio memoriae in 68AD, leaving only the small cuttings.
The cuttings are under the triglyphs.
The inscription reconstructed (K. Carroll)
It reads: The Council of the Areopagus and the Council of the 600 and the Athenian People to the Great Emperor Nero Caesar Claudius Augustus Germanicus, son of god, when Tiberius Claudius Novius son of Philinos is acting as general over the hoplites for the eighth time and while he is epimeletes and nomothetes and while Paullina daughter of Capito is priestess of Athena.
The inscription likely dates to 61/62 AD and its precise purpose is debated. Some have argued that it speaks to the dedication of a statue in Nero’s honor, one which would have been placed in front of the Parthenon. Others have argued that the inscription served as a means of rededicating the temple to Nero himself. But these explanations fall short. The form of the inscription (its language and grammar—esp. the cases used) make it clear that it’s an honorific inscription. Kevin Carroll ably argues this point in his The Parthenon Inscription, GRBS monographs no. 9, 1982. The Athenian institutions and people mentioned back this up. The two councils and the people were, in the Roman period, the main organs of government in Athens collectively. Novius had responsibility for conferring honors and supervising monuments in his role as epimeletes and general of the hoplites, while Paullina is mentioned for the obvious reason that she is priestess of Athena and the inscription is placed on the Parthenon.
The man who deciphered this inscription was named Eugene P. Andrews and he did so in 1896 (Sterling Dow deciphered the last few words some seventy years later). It was no easy task. He had to secure a bosun’s chair in front of the architrave to work. Here he is at work (Carroll, p. 3):
He was not impressed with the results. In a letter to his sister, he wrote:
“The inscription proved to be a dedication to Nero, whereat I’m much disgusted…But the holes remained, and at last they have told to our inquisitive century the story of how a proud people, grown servile, did a shameful thing, and were sorry afterward.” (Carroll, p. 7).