Politics / History

Is the King Losing his Marbles?

At the turn of the 19th century, a Scottish nobleman stood atop the Acropolis of Athens, surveying the ruins of its famous Parthenon. In 1798, the British Crown had appointed this man, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In poor health and middling status, Lord Elgin made his way to Constantinople, seeking a turn of fortune. The events that followed resulted in immediate and eventual controversies. Elgin’s colonialist attitudes towards the sovereignty of Ottoman-Athens contributed to Britain’s ever-growing imperial power and dismantled one of Classical Greece’s great monuments.  

When Elgin arrived in Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire was still geographically powerful. It governed much of the Middle East, northeastern Africa, and Greece. This last territory no doubt intrigued Elgin, a man known for his interest in antiquities. In Greece, Elgin saw an opportunity. The over 2,000-year-old Parthenon had fallen into disrepair due to age, and to an extent, a lack of attentive stewardship. Its condition was only made worse by a Venetian bombing in 1687. By the time Elgin reached Athens, the Parthenon was far from the great monument it had been in millennia past. 

The scene lends itself easily to the imagination: a desperate nobleman and a destitute monument covered in priceless art. Claiming he was concerned with the dangers posed to the future of the surviving marble reliefs, Elgin sought a permit from the Ottoman government to remove the sculptured ornaments and to “rescue (them) from such impending ruin”. While the British Museum bases its right to the marbles off the existence of this permit, others, including the Greek government, the former head of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and Turkish academics, deny that this permit existed. 

Elgin quickly began his removal of the sculptures now known as the “Elgin” or Parthenon Marbles. According to a report he published, Elgin demolished the homes of those living on the Acropolis during the excavation, “selected and purchased” items from Athens’ poor, and, of course, cut statues and reliefs off of buildings on the Acropolis itself.

Here lies the fundamental contradiction of Elgin’s enterprise: how could he claim to act in the interest of preserving the marbles while at the same time blatantly deface them? Elgin literally tore the marbles out from their foundations and shipped them across the world. As if by an Olympian curse, one of these ships sank, entombing numerous sculptures in the Mediterranean. 

Today, Elgin’s self-perception as a savior seems incomprehensible, but it makes some sense in the context of his time. What Elgin feared was not a damaged Parthenon, but a Parthenon damaged by “barbarism” and “peasants.” What to the modern eye is destruction was, to Elgin, an act of heroism. Removing the Parthenon’s reliefs removed them from the Eastern sphere of influence. Not only did this wound the East’s cultural wealth, but it enabled what was, in his view, a more enlightened audience to gain access to important historical artifacts. As Elgin saw it, there were no downsides to his actions. He would gain fame and fortune for himself and would contribute to the education of his fellows. The reliefs, he reasoned, did not belong in Athens. To him, the marbles represented a civilized ideal incompatible with his contemporary, “uncivilized” Athens. Removing them was not really an act of charity but of self-assured superiority. Even ancient stones are not above the evils of imperialism. 

It is possible to dismiss Elgin’s hypocrisy as a product of his time, but even when Elgin returned to Britain in 1806, he incited mass controversy. Many of his countrymen published bitter criticisms of his conduct, including Lord Byron, who wrote a poem, “The Curse of Minerva”, chastising the “Scot” (Elgin) who hailed from a “bastard land”. Byron’s poem rejects and curses Elgin’s actions. The poem shows that bringing the marbles back to Britain was not a universally accepted action. Evidently, there were those of Elgin’s contemporaries who did not condone his theft. It is also important to note why Byron disliked Elgin’s actions. In Byron’s poem, the speaker describes Scotland’s “barren soil” that “stints the mind”, birthing a people “foul as their soil”. Clearly, Byron was not a man outside his time. He was not above colonialist thinking. Byron’s love for Greece was not a love for its inhabitants, but for those who had lived on its land thousands of years ago. Byron falls prey to a temptation extremely prevalent in historical studies, a romanticization of the past. So, while Elgin engaged in more explicit colonialism targeted abroad, Byron too expressed colonialist tendencies, only targeted towards England’s neighboring subject, Scotland. Despite his colonialist attacks on Elgin’s homeland, Byron remains proof of the fact that there was backlash against Elgin, however misguidedly it was framed. 

While Byron’s lines themselves contain colonialist sentiment, the point stands: it is anachronistic to shield Elgin from judgment entirely through claims of ignorance. There was greater nuance in Elgin’s age than he displayed. So great was the debate over Elgin’s actions that a special Parliament committee formed to determine the marbles’ fate. Shockingly, Parliament decided the best course of action was its own acquisition of the marbles, which it could then entrust to the British Museum. 

Attempting to save face, Elgin designed a response to his critics. In Memorandum on the Subject of the Earl of Elgin’s Pursuits in Greece, Elgin extensively listed the marbles he removed and the conditions these marbles faced in Athens. When explaining these conditions, Elgin played on the colonialist fears of his contemporaries, continuously noting the “backwards” habits of the Ottomans and Greeks. This succeeded in quelling public anger, but it did not stop Parliament from forcing Elgin to sell the marbles to the crown for £35,000, less than half what it had cost him to acquire them. That Parliament could force such a sale implies there was more than just money at play. Elgin, according to Memorandum, took great pains to get the marbles to Britain, it doesn’t follow that he would sell them for such a small sum. Why didn’t Elgin resist this decision? His future depended on these marbles; he had made a name for himself with them. Elgin had removed the marbles with the motivation of profit, yet Elgin sold the marbles for half his costs, essentially agreeing to financial ruin. Elgin’s acceptance of Parliament’s decision suggests he was avoiding criminal charges.

All that was 200 years ago. Though Memorandum silenced British anger against Elgin, Greek independence inflamed a new battle. Athens, the capital of the Hellenic Republic, wanted the return of the marbles as a symbol of the nation’s democratic establishment. Ancient Athenians originally constructed Parthenon and its adorning marbles to commemorate their victory over the Persians and retention of their independence. Millennia later, modern Greeks sought the return of these marbles to assert a new independence. 

In 1983, Greece submitted its first formal appeal for the marbles’ permanent return. Since this official proposal, the British Museum has waged a public relations war to hold the marbles in its halls. Under a section of its website titled “Contested objects from the collection”, the British Museum outlines its case. Among its claims, “It is universally recognized that the sculptures that survive are best seen and conserved in museums.” As the Greek government makes clear, that isn’t the case. The website also describes Athens’ new Acropolis Museum as a place built to hold the marbles which remain in Greece.  The museum was, in fact, built with empty display spaces waiting to be filled by the marbles Elgin took. A final highlight, “His (Elgin’s) actions were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal.” This is disputed; moreover, the investigation was conducted by members of Parliament who stood to gain great prestige were they to declare these famous treasures legal British property. The British Museum attempts to justify holding the marbles, and, to an audience without much exposure to Elgin’s history, likely succeeds. The website gives a cheery overview of why the marbles should remain in Britain, but the reasons outlined don’t survive scrutiny. The Greek government has waged a sustained campaign to reclaim the marbles, yet they remain in Britain. Why?  

The answer, the more accurate answer, has to do with bureaucracy rather than with noble humanism. Quite simply, the museum asserts that the British government gave the marbles to the museum, so by British law the museum trustees own the marbles. To return them would violate the law, meaning any potential return would require new Parliamentary legislation. 

This is a convenient shield. Museum trustees have no responsibility to return the marbles. There is no accountability. No public outcry at the injustice of keeping the marbles in Britain can harm the museum itself. Moreover, the Greek government cannot force parliamentary action, and neither Parliament nor the British public have an incentive to push for necessary legislation. 

Without bureaucratic restrictions, the return process is more straightforward. In 2022, the Hornian Museum and Gardens, a charity museum in London, announced the return of six of their 72 looted Benin Bronzes, in addition to a plan to return more of the bronzes in the future. As it functions independently, the museum was able to, in response to criticism, deal with the Nigerian government directly. This isn’t the case for the British Museum. 

Recently, the potential for a deal between the Greek government and the British Museum has made headlines. This deal, according to George Osbourne, the museum chair, would send some of the marbles to Greece for a period, in exchange for artifacts never before shown outside of Greece. This quid pro quo of art is common in the museum world. Some objects are lent in return for others, usually when one of the museums is creating a themed exhibit. That any marbles could return to Greece is promising, but this exchange maintains the possibility that the British Museum may demand the marbles back. This possibility is a major sticking point in the negotiations, one the Greek government refuses to yield to. The Parthenon marbles belong alongside the Parthenon. Unlike many thousands of other objects decorating museum walls and archives around the world, these marbles are explicitly tied to Greece. They were designed to decorate the Parthenon; they should be viewed in the context of Athens. Today’s dialogues are more promising than those of the past, but much more is necessary. 

The current discussions will not end with the marbles’ permanent return. They may not even end with temporary returns. They have at least succeeded in creating a new bout of controversy surrounding the British Museum. With more public awareness and interest in Elgin’s story and his wrongdoings, there is greater hope for a permanent return. Bureaucracy and governments, the two greatest bulwarks against the marbles’ return, are purposefully structured against change. One can only hope that, however gradually, the British will come to acknowledge their history, and the Greeks will be reunited with theirs.