Two hundred years ago today, Britain’s House of Commons purchased a collection of marble sculptures that were removed from the Acropolis in Athens. The man who took them was the seventh Earl of Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
The British people paid Lord Elgin £35,000 for the collection – a handsome sum at the time, but only about one-quarter of what Elgin said it cost him to remove and ship them over 15 years.
The decision was controversial at the time and remains so today. To remove slabs of the Parthenon frieze, Elgin’s workers had to destroy a row of marble cornice above them. The sculpted slabs themselves are half a metre deep. To lighten the load in shipping, Elgin had the backs of them sawn off.
Even before the parliamentary debate took place, negative publicity surrounded the removal. In the Curse of Minerva, first published in 1811, Lord Byron, a fellow Scot, predicted the demise of the British Empire on account of the raptorial instincts that led Elgin to the removal of the Marbles:
So let him stand, thro’ ages yet unborn,
Fixed statue on the pedestal of scorn!
Though not for him alone revenge shall wait,
But fits thy country for her coming fate:
Hers were the deeds that taught her lawless son
To do, what oft Britannia’s self had done.
The House of Commons formed a committee to investigate how Elgin obtained the marbles, and it is on the basis of that committee’s report that Parliament decided to purchase them from him. But the committee had no independent documentary evidence. It only had Elgin’s word to go on.
“Did the permission specifically refer to the removing of statues, or was that left to discretion?” the committee asks.
Elgin replies evasively: “No, it was executed by the means of those general permissions granted; in point of fact, permission issuing from the Porte for any of the distant provinces, is little more than an authority to make the best bargain you can with the local authorities.”
As British ambassador in Constantinople, Elgin apparently used his influence to study the Parthenon – then stretched that permission.
What Elgin had, in fact, obtained, and pointedly failed to preserve a record of for the parliamentary committee, was a letter, rather than an official decree, or firman.
“What this letter included was that the Ottomans in Athens should be helpful to Elgin’s team and allow them to draw and take casts and maybe from the debris all around the Parthenon few sculptures or pieces of marble with inscriptions could be removed – some,” says Eleni Korka, director general of antiquities at the Greek culture ministry. “But there is a sentence in the middle of the text saying that in no possible way could there be harm to the monument.”
The Greek campaign to reunite the marbles started in the 1980s. Greeks feel that Elgin removed the marbles both violently and illegally. But ownership is not the issue, they say.
“I think that these sculptures, which form part of an international cultural heritage, these belong to themselves, they belong to the Parthenon, and the Parthenon is here,” says Dimitris Pantermalis, president of the board of the New Parthenon Museum in Athens, where originals are displayed alongside plaster casts of marbles now removed to London. “If you ask people what they prefer, to have these marbles together or divided, it is very difficult to justify wanting them divided.”