As a Classicist, I have been fascinated by the continuous debate around the notorious Parthenon Sculptures, or Elgin Marbles, and since Brexit has recently somewhat revived the controversy around this subject, I thought I’d use this blog to explain the interesting history of the sculptures and some of the different arguments surrounding them. Over two centuries after being brought from Athens to Britain, they remain one of the British Museum’s most popular displays. ‘For me, the Parthenon Sculptures raise some of the biggest questions of cultural property, ownership and where works of art ‘belong’,’ explains Mary Beard. So what’s the big deal? Why do several hundred tonnes of marble from a mountain in Athens matter so much?
After Athenian victory in the Persian War in 480BC, a huge building project was commissioned, with the Parthenon as its centrepiece, to mark the success and new affluence of the city. However, as the rise of Christianity gradually took over from the classical era, Christians in Athens defaced many of the sculptures in order to convert the Parthenon into a church. Then in 1687, an invading Venetian force caused even more damage to the Acropolis, where, at that time, the Parthenon was being used by the ruling Ottomans as an explosives store, leading to destructive consequences when it was attacked.
So, when Lord Elgin arrived in Athens at the start of the 19th century, he found the Acropolis being used as a military garrison, with soldiers using the sculptures on the Parthenon for target practice or selling fragments to the growing crowds of tourists. By this time, only around half of the original sculptures remained, with many in poor condition, so they could easily have been viewed – rightly or wrongly – as being better off somewhere else. And so, Elgin’s men began to oversee the removal of the sculptures and over the course of 10 years shipped around half of those surviving back to Britain, where they found a safer home for the time being in the British Museum. However, when Athens returned to a safer state after the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1830, the government began its campaign to restore the sculptures to Greece, and the debate began.
Even before all of Elgin’s marbles went on display in London, Lord Byron attacked him in a stinging poem, saying that the antiquities of Greece had been ‘defac’d by British hands’. Others enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the sculptures in London, such as John Keats, who even wrote a sonnet celebrating Seeing the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum.
Some say Elgin was a hero and conservator who saved the sculptures for the world, arguing that he was genuinely concerned to rescue these works of art. Others, like Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek at Cambridge, differ: ‘I believe,’ he says, ‘Elgin had purely self-aggrandising reasons for seeking to acquire – for himself and his own personal display – as many of the Marbles as he could.’ However, monetary gain certainly wasn’t an advantage for Elgin – it is estimated that he spent abound £73,600 (around £3.5m nowadays) transporting the sculptures to Britain, but the British Museum only bought them off him for £35,000. As Mary Beard explains, ‘It is a myth that Elgin profited hugely from ‘getting’ the marbles. His wife walked out, and he faced bankruptcy, which prompted the sale to the government.’
Whatever his motive, there is no doubt that Elgin saved the sculptures from worse damage, despite some harm caused during the removal process. Meanwhile, many of the remaining sculptures in Athens were eroded by pollution from an oil refinery nearby in Eleusis, while others suffered from attempted restorations made at the start of the 20th century, where iron bars intended to hold them together instead expanded, shattering sections of marble.
I find this debate particularly fascinating because of the bigger issues that drive it, such as who history and historical objects belong to, and the purpose behind preserving them. On the one hand, the fame and significance of the Parthenon relies on its portrayal in other countries, and the sculptures have reached and inspired an international audience in the British Museum; “The marbles in London were a vital catalyst for 19th-century Europe’s passion for Greek culture,” explains Dr Greg Sullivan, a leading sculpture historian. However, it is equally possible that the Parthenon would 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). The question is, has history moved on? Are the sculptures automatically the possession of those who live in the place where they were first made, thousands of years ago? Or are they the possession of everyone, allowing us to benefit from a greater understanding of classical culture? Difficult yet intriguing questions like these are the reason that the issue of the Elgin Marbles has not been resolved for hundreds of years, and it is likely that we will continue to debate them for years to come!
Hannah (Head Girl)