Mary Beard, author of a book on the Parthenon has written a summary of the arguments surrounding the Elgin Marbles for the history section of the BBC’s website.
Lord Elgin – Saviour or Vandal?
By Mary Beard
Last updated 2010-10-15
Much of the sculpture that once enhanced the Parthenon in Athens was brought to London by Lord Elgin 200 years ago. Was this the act of a saviour or a vandal? Mary Beard looks at both sides of a fierce argument.
During the first decade of the 19th century the agents of Lord Thomas Elgin (British Ambassador to Constantinople 1799-1803) removed whole boatloads of ancient sculpture from Greece’s capital city of Athens. The pride of this collection was a large amount of fifth-century BC sculpture taken from the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, which stood on the Acropolis hill in the centre of the city.
The Parthenon sculpture included about a half (some 75 metres) of the sculpted frieze that once ran all round the building, plus 17 life-sized marble figures from its gable ends (or pediments) and 15 of the 92 metopes, or sculpted panels, originally displayed high up above its columns.
These actions were controversial from the very beginning. Even before all the sculptures – soon known as the Elgin Marbles – went on display in London, Lord Byron attacked Elgin in stinging verses, lamenting (in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’) how the antiquities of Greece had been ‘defac’d by British hands’.
Others enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the sculpture in London. John Keats penned a sonnet to celebrate ‘Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ in the British Museum, and from Germany, JW Goethe hailed their acquisition as ‘the beginning of a new age for Great Art’.
Since then, there has been a never-ending international debate about Elgin’s removal of the sculptures, and whether they should be returned to Athens. Sometimes this can give the impression of an unseemly scrap over a favourite toy, with petulant cries of ‘we want’ being balanced by an equally unappealing refusal to let go. There certainly have been bad, as well as good, arguments on all sides. But the real reason that the dispute has lasted so long is that it raises important and difficult issues, and it is not easy to see what a fair resolution is.
There are many factors behind this. We do not know if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time. He had obtained from the Turkish authorities then in control of Athens permission to work on the Acropolis, but only an Italian translation of this firman(or permit) survives and its terms are disputed.
Nor is it possible to reconstruct Elgin’s motives. Some evidence suggests that he was a self-serving aristocrat, seeking sculpture to decorate his ancestral pile. Some say that he was genuinely concerned to rescue these works of art. But the main difficulty lies in the much bigger issue of ‘cultural property’ in general. Who owns great works of art? Do monuments such as the Parthenon belong to the whole world? And what does that mean in practice?
The Parthenon in 1800
When Elgin’s men removed the sculpture from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state. From the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD, it had been in continuous use. It was built as a Greek temple, was later converted into a Christian church, and finally (with the coming of Turkish rule over Greece in the 15th century) it was turned into a mosque.
Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid-17th century, ‘the finest mosque in the world’.
All that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the Parthenon mosque – temporarily in use as a gunpowder store. Some 300 women and children were amongst those killed, and the building itself was ruined. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins.
On the one hand, the local population was using it as a convenient quarry. A good deal of the original sculpture, as well as the plain building blocks, were reused in local housing or ground down for cement. On the other hand, increasing numbers of travellers and antiquarians from northern Europe were busily helping themselves to anything they could pocket (hence the scattering of pieces of Parthenon sculpture around European museums from Copenhagen to Strasbourg) – and among these collectors was Lord Elgin.
Whatever Elgin’s motives, there is no doubt at all that he saved his sculpture from worse damage. However, in prising out some of the pieces that still remained in place, his agents inevitably inflicted further damage on the fragile ruin.
The Acropolis hill today is a bare rock, on which are perched the famous monuments of the fifth century BC – including the Parthenon. There is the tiny temple of Victory, which stands by the propylaia, or main gateway, to the hilltop, and also the so-called Erechtheum, another shrine of Athena, with its famous line-up of caryatids (columns in the form of female figures). One of the caryatids is now, thanks to Elgin, in the British Museum.
In Elgin’s day it was quite different. The Parthenon stood in the middle of the small village-cum-garrison base that then occupied the hill. It was encroached upon by houses and gardens, and by all kinds of Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance remains. It is quite wrong to imagine Elgin removing works of art from the equivalent of a modern archaeological site – it was more of a seedy shanty town.
This changed dramatically in the 1830s, after the Greek War of Independence which ended Turkish rule in Greece. The young Bavarian prince, Otto, who was put on the throne of the new Greek nation, was confronted with terrible problems – not least of which was how to find the patriotic symbols for a new country that had just experienced a dreadfully brutal war.
It is clear that Otto’s classically-educated advisers saw the culture of ancient Athens as a valuable card here. Athens was chosen as the capital city and (once the plan to build the royal palace on the Acropolis had been rejected) a systematic programme of excavations began. In the course of this, everything that did not belong to the ‘great’ period of the fifth century BC was removed. The hill was stripped to bedrock, with just the classical monuments preserved or reconstructed, to serve as a symbol of the new nation’s heroic past.
There is no doubt that today the status of the Parthenon as a Greek national monument is an important factor in the campaign to restore the Elgin Marbles to Greece. The complicating paradox is that the Parthenon was not a national monument when those same sculptures were removed.
Meanwhile in London, the Elgin Marbles started a new chapter of their history — as museum objects. Acquiring the sculptures had bankrupted Elgin, and he was keen to sell them to the government. In 1816 a Parliamentary Select Committee looked into the whole affair (examining everything from the quality of the sculpture as works of art to the legality of their acquisition) and recommended purchase, though for much less money than Elgin had hoped. From that point on the sculptures have been lodged in the British Museum.
Over the last 200 years they have come to ‘belong’ in the British Museum and are now historically rooted there as well as in Athens. Not only were they an important part of British 19th-century culture (inspiring Keats and others, and prompting replicas of themselves across the country), but they are also integral to the whole idea of the Universal Museum and the way museums over the last two centuries have come to display and interpret human culture.
The museum movement depended on collection, on moving objects from their original location, and on allowing them to be understood in relation to different traditions of art and cultural forms. In the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles gain from being seen next to Assyrian or Egyptian sculpture, at the same time as they lose from not being ‘at home in Greece’.
This is what causes the irresolvable conflict – it has turned out that there is more than one place that can legitimately call itself ‘home’ to the Elgin Marbles.
The battle of the Marbles has been fought on many fronts. The weaker arguments do neither side much credit. Both the Greeks and the British have accused each other of not caring properly for their precious charges. And there have been outbreaks of vulgar nationalism (reaching a low point when one Director of the British Museum claimed that the campaign for the return of the Marbles was a form of ‘cultural fascism’ – ‘it’s like burning books’).
The stronger arguments tend to reveal just how complicated the dilemmas are. There is a powerful case for suggesting that the Parthenon could be better appreciated if it could be seen close to the sculptures that once adorned it. (Though environmental conditions in Athens mean that the original sculptures can never go back on the building itself.) On the other hand, it is undeniable that part of the fame and significance of the Parthenon rests on its wide diaspora throughout the western world.
Ultimately it comes down to matters of ownership, and how the world’s great cultural icons are to be shared. In the performing arts that problem is relatively easy to solve. Shakespeare might have a special connection with Stratford, and Mozart with Vienna – but we can all ‘own’ their works in performance anywhere in the world.
That is not the case with these blocks of marble. Where do they belong? Is it better or worse to have them scattered through the world? Are they the possession of those who live in the place where they were first made? Or are they the possession of everyone? The likelihood is that we will be debating these issues for many years to come.
Find out more
The Parthenon by M Beard (Profile Books, 2004)
The Elgin Marbles: Should They be Returned to Greece by C Hitchens (Verso Books, 1998)
The Parthenon and its Impact in Modern Times by by P Tournikiotis (ed) (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. , 1996)
Lord Elgin and the Marbles: The Controversial History of the Parthenon Sculptures by W St Clair (Oxford, 1998)
The Acropolis: Global Fame, Local Claim by E Yalouri (Berg, 2001)
About the author
Mary Beard is Reader in Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Newnham College, as well as being Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Her most recent book is The Parthenon (Profile Books, 2002), and her other publications include The Invention of Jane Harrison (Harvard 2002) and with John Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome (Oxford History of Art Series, 2001)