The Case for the Elgin Marbles

I was reading Keats last night:

My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time – with a billowy main –
A sun – a shadow of a magnitude.

(On Seeing the Elgin Marbles by John Keats)

I have to say it threw me a bit. Not quite as easy as “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer also by John Keats). In fact, after much mulling over what some of the phrases actually meant, I had to seek enlightment from Mr Anglo-Saxonist who upon reading it pronounced that it was s**t poem and there was no need to rack my brains about what it meant. (He particularly objected to the sick eagle.) Well, I wouldn’t go quite as far but I have to agree: not one of Keats’s best. Nevertheless I do like the last few lines, in particular:

… mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time…

Which is why today we’re going to talk about some Greek grandeur and the rude wasting of old time.

Elgin and his Marbles

For those of you who don’t know, the Elgin marbles that inspired Keats to write the poem above are a set of friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon which Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador at Constantinople at the turn of the 18/19th century, removed from the Acropolis of Athens and brought to England. They  currently belong to the British Museum.

There is an ongoing argument between the Greek government and the British Museum whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or not; indeed at the time when Elgin first turned up in England with the marbles, he was immediately criticised by part of the English public for having removed them. Without going too deeply into the legalities, the basics of the case are:

  • Elgin said he had permission from the Turks (Greece was under Turkish rule at the time) to remove the statues;
  • the Greeks doubt this and argue that even if he did, the Turks had no right to give such a permission.

The Acropolis Museum

I went to Greece a few years ago and visited a few of the archaeological sites, the Acropolis included. I tell you this: the state these sites are in is the shame of Greece (and of Europe – in as much as we’re all are inheritors of Greek culture).

Nevertheless, some progress is being made. At around the time of the recent Athens Olympics the Greek government built a beautiful new museum to house the Parthenon marbles; at least partly in the hope that it would help their case in getting them back. On the top floor of this museum there is a gallery, where the drawings of the friezes are displayed on the wall at eye level, with some of the slabs. The slabs are few and they are not in a very good shape – it’s heartbreaking. As you walk around this gallery, you can see the Acropolis and the Parthenon through the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, over the Athenian rooftops, practically at the reach of a hand. Personally, I couldn’t think of a more fitting space to house the Parthenon marbles; I hope someday they all make it there, at least on loan. (I’m sure the Greek government could, in exchange, offer many treasures to exhibit in their place in the British Museum.)

The Case for the Elgin Marbles

But I’d like you to compare these two photos:

Elgin marbles, British Museum
Elgin marbles, British Museum
Still in situ, Athens

Obviously Elgin would have carried off the best preserved bits. Even so, the photos speak for themselves: the difference should give anybody pause for thought.

When you visit the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, before you reach the top floor gallery, you are shown a film about the history of the Parthenon. It concludes with the condemnation of Elgin for “looting” the marbles. (Looting is the word the script writer chose to use.) Now I have no intention of trying to establish who is in the right, legally and/or morally here. We can leave that to the lawyers (although I think it would be so much better for all concerned if they spent their money on preserving archaeological treasures instead of arguing about where they are displayed). But I come from a country that’s been destroyed so many times in history we stopped counting. All our treasures – there wasn’t much to begin with – have been looted, all our historical buildings have been burned to the ground… repeatedly. So I fully understand and sympathise with the Greeks wanting their statues back. I just wish to say this:

φίλοι, if Elgin didn’t “loot” your marbles, there’d be no marbles worth arguing about now.

You may also like:The Parthenon Gallery of the Acropolis Museum: when I saw it, the gallery only had drawings of the friezes; since then, they've been replaced with casts of the pieces abroad. Looks much better! :) 
⇒ The Parthenon Gallery of the British MuseumThe British Museum press statement regarding the Parthenon sculpturesDelphi: Shaping the Future of the Past

4 thoughts on “The Case for the Elgin Marbles

  1. StewKen

    I say this:
    Elgin did not “loot” the marbles and to say so, as so many campaigners disingenuously do, debases the meaning of the word. The marbles do not just “currently” belong to the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles form a core part of the British Museum collection in perpetuity.


    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Just to clarify: “Loot” was not my word,this is the actual word used in the film in Acropolis Museum, and personally I wasn’t impressed with its use either. As for “currently”, I employed the word simply with reference to the fact that the Museum acquired the marbles from Elgin, not as a comment on whether they should continue to hold onto it (which is I think what you mean?).

      Indeed, I think the overall point was that while I can have sympathy for the Greek view, if those marbles were not in the BM in the first place, they would be not in a very good state by now so their complaint of Elgin “looting” them is hardly justified. I also think that if the Greek government took a more sensible view and did not dispute the ownership of the marbles, then maybe someday they would actually make it to the Acropolis Museum even if only on loan (assuming they can be transported safely, that is) – and I do think that that would be a good thing. I’ve seen things come to the British Museum on loan that I was very pleased to see indeed and would have never had the chance to go and see in their original location.


  2. You make an interesting argument here, Arwen. But I’m still not 100% convinced this is morally correct, nowadays.
    Europe and all that….
    oh no, wait…not Europe anymore!
    No doubt that the conservation has been superb in comparison to the “in situ” photo.
    Regards. Marie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Truth be told I don’t think there is an easy ‘morally correct’ solution here…

      The only thing that I consider unequivocal is the Greek argument about the Turks having had no rights to sell their statues… I’m wholly with the Greeks on this one: The Turks had no right to sell the marbles – that is, other than the right of the conqueror. But in a world where might is right (which sadly is still the kind of world we mostly live in, let alone what it was like 200 years ago), it’s naive to expect anything other to happen. Besides, nor were the Greeks themselves necessarily always averse to the idea of ‘might is right’ in the course of history – think of the Melian Dialogue?

      Elgin obviously carried off the best bits and then the British Museum did a great work in preserving it. Unfortunately Greece (even allowing for the fact that it’s not a rich country), still does not do enough to preserve the stuff that they’ve got in situ, at least not as far as I could see, and god knows, they’ve got wonderful stuff all over the country. Consequently, it’s difficult to see how they can convince the Trustees of the BM to give the marbles up.

      But like I said, I’m not really trying to judge the case… The post is merely meant to be thought-provoking.

      Consider, for example, the precedent that would be set should the British Museum return the marbles without any payment received. What about all the other countries who had their treasures looted… some of those treasures that had been through half a dozen hands by now… and then what about the treasures that had been destroyed? Who’s going to compensate the original owners?

      Lots of food for thought here! 🙂


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