2015 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Caroline Eng

With election season fast approaching the majority of current undergraduate students (born between 1994 and1998) are about to vote for a US President for the first time. Our system of democracy, as most of us were taught in middle school, originated in ancient Greece, specifically in Athens. However, new research reveals that this comparison may owe at least as much to the intervening centuries of political and cultural mythology as it does to reality. In The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It (Knopf, 2014, author Joan Breton Connelly discusses critical and previously overlooked differences between our concept of democracy and that of the ancient Athenians. 

The Parthenon Enigma is the 2015 recipient of Phi Beta Kappa’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. The Emerson award is granted to works of scholarship that contribute significantly to interpretation of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity. The award is open to works in history, philosophy, or religion.

A classical archaeologist and cultural historian, Connelly received her BA in classics from Princeton University, then attended Bryn Mawr College for her MA and PhD in classical and Near Eastern archaeology. She has travelled throughout Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus working as a field archaeologist, has directed the NYU Yeronisos Island Expedition since 1990, and is an honorary citizen of Peyia Municipality in Cyprus.

Connelly is a professor of classics and art history at New York University. Recognition for her teaching includes the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, NYU’s Lillian Vernon Chair for Teaching Excellence, and NYU’s Golden Dozen Teaching Award. She has held visiting fellowships at five colleges and universities, including the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

The Parthenon Enigma explores a building that is both iconic and enigmatic in Western civilization. Since the Enlightenment period, the Parthenon has been revered a symbol of democracy. In The Parthenon Enigma, Connelly challenges views that have been held for centuries in favor of a fuller understanding of this iconic structure. The book draws on three decades of new research to present a fresh interpretation of the building, assessing both what we got right and what we got wrong. In particular, Connelly discusses the sculptures of the Parthenon frieze, whose meanings have long been disputed. Her analysis of them as portrayals of human sacrifice reveal an aspect of Athenian society that has no parallel in present day democratic societies.

In addition to the Emerson award, The Parthenon Enigma has been honored as a Notable Book of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, one of Metropolis Magazine’s Top Ten Books in Architecture and Design, and one of The Daily Beast’s annual top ten works of nonfiction.

Caroline Eng is a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center majoring in English. Fordham is home to the Tau of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.