The Nashville Parthenon, a startlingly exact replica of the original in Athens, is often regarded both by Nashvillians and our visitors as just another quirky roadside attraction somewhere in middle America . The Nashville Parthenon comes as a bit of a surprise to the country music tourists for which Nashville is much more famous — after all, the pedal taverns and party-tractors don’t usually make it out to West End to visit Athena. For those who do make the trek, the question “Why did they build the Parthenon?” has been asked time and time again. President of the Conservancy of the Parthenon and Centennial Park, Sylvia Rapoport,explains that the Nashville Parthenon symbolizes “a respect for tradition that is balanced by an equal respect for innovation that distinguishes Nashville from other cities.”
Rapoport portrays the Parthenon as a center for the classical ideals of arts, culture, and education. This maxim seems to fit the current day Nashville Parthenon, which serves as the center of a vibrant artistic community, playing host to art fairs, endless musical performances, Nashville’s Shakespeare in the Park, and an art gallery. But this answer forgets Nashville’s fraught history with the classics.
A more complete answer to the question “Why did they build the Parthenon?” provides a firmer motivation for the building’s construction than just the reification of a local nickname, and also reminds us of the foundation of classical reception throughout the history of our country — a history upon which the modern use of classics in the public sphere now rests. In the decades following the Civil War and Reconstruction, “classical ideals” had a more specific significance to the nineteenth century leaders of Nashville.
As Rapoport acknowledges, Nashville’s classical reception is indeed a marriage of tradition and innovation. The greater tradition of antebellum Southern classical reception was used to both define and justify Southern identity and institutions. In celebrating this agrarian democracy, plantation houses modeled after Greek temples went hand in hand with Aristotle’s assertion that some people were “natural slaves.” As a result, white Southern aristocrats laid claim to the classics by establishing themselves as the true heirs of the ancient Greeks. Regardless of what the truth may have been, Southerners claimed that they were genteel, civilized, and — most of all — educated, in comparison to the crass and uncultured Northerners.
Just as the South created an identity by defining itself in opposition to the North, Nashville established its own claim to a classical identity by positioning itself as a beacon of education and culture amidst the wilderness of the American frontier. When the first president of the University of Nashville Philip Lindsley (a former Princeton Classics professor) declared Nashville the “Athens of the West” in the 1820’s, he was not describing the frontier town of only 4,000 people, he was describing his aspirations for his city. Lindsley dreamt of creating a Nashville of perfect democratic citizens, which to Lindsley meant well-educated agrarians.
Over the next forty years, Nashville become known instead as the ‘Athens of the South’ — an epithet that was at the forefront of civic leaders’ minds as Tennessee’s hundredth anniversary of statehood approached. In the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, a new generation of Nashville’s leaders drew on the familiar visual language of Athens during the construction of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The director-general of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Major Eugene C. Lewis, whose romantic fascination with antiquity followed him to his pyramid-inspired grave, chose to build a likeness of the Parthenon as the crown jewel of the Exposition.
Lewis’s Exposition presented Nashville as a success story of the Jim Crow South, a well-ordered city in which each type of citizen fulfilled the role to which they were “best suited.” The “Women’s Building” and “Negro Department” provided platforms from which Tennessee could prove to critics that any allegations of the violence of Reconstruction were unfounded. Thespeeches given at the “Negro Department” celebrated technical education over the study of law or politics, and encouraged African-Americans to pursue internal perfection rather than to seek to change the world around them. Emancipation made Lindsley’s classical Nashville impossible, but Lewis’s classical Nashville, which embraced economic advancement and the new social order, incorporated “innovation” into the Southern tradition.
While building a monument to glorify the Jim Crow South is not the same as building a Confederate monument, the Nashville Parthenon was undeniably built in a climate of great reverence for the Confederacy, at the beginning of a surge in the construction of Confederate monuments. Lewis chose a Confederate veteran as the architect for the Parthenon, and declared his own Confederate sympathies when he dedicated the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the grounds of the Tennessee state capitol. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a once-powerful auxiliary that is still visible today, was founded in Nashville in 1894, and was responsible for this monument at the capitol and many other Confederate monuments around the country. They were also extremely successful in using education — antebellum Nashville’s most prized virtue — to entrench the Lost Cause narrative in the public psyche.
The tradition of Southern classical reception in the service of slavery, the glorification of Jim Crow society during the Exposition, and the climate of Confederate sympathy surrounding the building’s construction make it very difficult not to view the Nashville Parthenon of 1898 as a monument intrinsically linked to the promotion of the supremacy of the white citizens of Nashville, of Tennessee, and of the United States. The Nashville Parthenon could very well be viewed as a Confederate monument.
As a Nashville native whose love of Classics was inspired in part by the Nashville Parthenon, the implications of the history of the building were difficult for me to accept. The revelation that the Nashville Parthenon was so intertwined with the Lost Cause was not the narrative of the Nashville Parthenon that I was ever taught. It shocked me.
The Nashville Parthenon was a moment in the tradition of Southern classical reception, using a classical image to glorify a contemporary process of exclusion. In the reception of classical history and images that inspired the 1898 Nashville Parthenon, there is not room for all people to be equal. There must be barbaroi.
This exclusive inheritance that Lewis expressed through plaster, Fugitive poet and Southern Agrarian Donald Davidson put into poetry. The Fugitive poets were plainly concerned with portraying the South as the classical world reborn, and their poetry dripped with classical allusions.
You would think that the Fugitives would have loved the Nashville Parthenon. However, Davidson displays outright scorn for the structure in his poem On a Replica of the Parthenon. A shop girl in Nashville who appreciates classical art might consider herself quite sophisticated compared to an unemployed redneck in Pulaski. But in Davidson’s eyes, she, as an uneducated woman, must only be able to view Poseidon’s form with crass physical appreciation.
Black citizens of Nashville do not even enter the poem as potential viewers of the temple. Under Davidson’s judgements, even those who fully embrace Nashville’s classicism are at risk of disenfranchisement by those who think they have a better claim. Even the Parthenon itself can be delegitimized if the people viewing it are deemed illegitimate.
Davidson views the Nashville Parthenon as an uninspired replica. But what Davidson—and what the typical visitor of the Nashville Parthenon today—misses is that even the initial construction was not so much a replication of the temple in Athens as an adaptation. The goddess of the Nashville Parthenon stood outside her temple, with the interior filled with gallery after gallery of art. Compared to the Athenian inspiration, the 1898 Nashville Parthenon was inside out.
This is how it feels to see the misuse of classics by the alt-right in our own time — as though classics is being turned inside out. It’s easy to spot the misuse of classics when we see it on a flag emblazoned with Ω. It’s easy to recognize that promoting the false ideal of a lily-white ancient Mediterranean promotes white supremacy. But these ideas didn’t spring fully formed from the internet in 2017. They are part of a long tradition of misusing classics to lend gravitas to certain ideas.
Historically, as in the case of the Nashville Parthenon, some people try to lay a specific claim to this classical identity, at the expense of those who are deemed unworthy. As classical reception in America has compounded over time, ideas about what classical symbols and traditions “mean” have taken on a life in the general zeitgeist—and they have no use for “truth” about the classical world. When the classics are used and misused in the public sphere, too often the truth about a classical symbol is less important than the impression it has on its viewers.
But somewhere between the construction of Lewis’s first temple, the reconstruction completed in 1931, and the eventual completion of Athena Parthenos in 1982, the Parthenon became an empty temple. Although the magnificent statue of the goddess in the cella (the tallest indoor statue in the country) makes the Nashville Parthenon a more accurate replica of the Athenian Parthenon, she is not my city’s patron goddess. The public receives her as the goddess of Athens, not the goddess of Nashville. In a city with over2,000 churches, there was not a god of the Nashville Parthenon. But this monument still makes a claim about Nashville’s right to a classical inheritance.
If viewers of the Nashville Parthenon do not currently associate the monument with the Jim Crow South and the Lost Cause narrative, does it no longer serve as a monument to glorify these ideas? We never really build monuments to the past, we build them to the grief and pride of the present and in anticipation of a future. Can a monument be separated from its past? After all, leaving a monument standing has done nothing to remind people of the city’s history — in fact, we’ve forgotten our history in order to preserve this monument. This is also why the Nashville Parthenon, as beloved as it is, to many now feels strangely rootless.
This de-monumentalization liberates a classical icon from its potentially less than savory ideological history, but denigrates it as a work of art. When the monument is viewed solely as a peculiar growth in the middle of Centennial Park with no real motivation or relevance, a look into the compelling history of the Centennial Exposition and Nashville becomes little more than a roadside attraction. Educational information provided by the city of Nashville on our Parthenon focuses more on Greek history than local history, and even historical perspectives focus on the facts of the monument’s construction. There is plenty of discussion of “how” the Nashville Parthenon came to be and almost none of “why.”
My initial fascination with the Nashville Parthenon was a desire to understand the history and the myths, and to understand a well-shaped pile of marble. But studying classics does not bring me any closer to understanding a Parthenon made out of concrete. And so I began looking into the history of the Nashville Parthenon, not to prove anything in particular, but driven by that initial desire for understanding.
This is an image designed to capture the public imagination, and that’s exactly what it does. Standing so small at the foot of Athena, the sound of your own marble footsteps echoing in your ears, it is impossible not to reach for some explicit significance. That’s why we keep asking why they built the Parthenon. You feel like it has to glorify something.
Savannah Marquardt is a Nashville native and the host of Ritual podcast. She has a B.A. in Classics from Princeton University. This article appeared ineidolon.pub