Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and Greece’s Effort to Get the Marbles Back

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from the East Pediment of the Parthemon

The Elgin Marbles (pronounced with a hard "g") are perhaps the most striking and well known piece of classical Greek statuary. They are sections of the pediments and metopes (marble carvings set into the frieze) from the 160-meter (525-foot) frieze that looped around the Parthenon in Athens. They are considered by many to be the best examples of ancient Greek art.

Created by Phidias Periclean, Athens's greatest sculptor, the Parthenon frieze contain images of processions of men, women and horses through the streets of Athens, battling horsemen and reclining deities. Some of the pieces of the frieze ended up in British Museum and others ended up in the Louvre. The sections from the Parthenon are now in the British museum (the Elgin Marbles) include battles with Amazons, giants and centaurs and scenes from the Trojan war

The Elgin Marbles were brought to England from Greece by Lord Elgin who got permission from a Turkish sultan to take them and then sold them for £35,000 to the British government, who gave them to the British museum. One shipment of the friezes was on a ship lost at sea. Although the rightful owners of these treasures are perhaps the Greeks, removing them from Athens’ notorious pollution has kept them in better condition than they would have been in if they had stayed in Athens.

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “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 B.C. sculpture taken from the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, which stood on the Acropolis hill in the centre of the city. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011. 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 books include “The Parthenon” (Profile Books, 2002) and “Classical Art from Greece to Rome” (Oxford History of Art Series, 2001) |::|]

“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'. |::|

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Famous Parts of the Elgin Marbles

Centaur and Lapith from the Elgin Marbles and the Metope of the Parthenon

The magnificent friezes that wrapped 160 meters around the entire Parthenon largely show a procession of gods and people honoring Athena and scenes from the Trojan Wars and Greek myths. Fragments from the eastern gable of the temple depict the birth of Athena from Zeus's head. Those on the western gable show the contest between Athena and Poseidon for patronage of the city. At the western entrance are the spirited horsemen.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “In the world of the ancient Greeks there was a very close relationship between sculpture and architecture. Both temples and sculptures were created in order to honour the gods and the sculptures were not just an embellishment of the temple; together they combined to form an integrated and harmonious whole. The Parthenon is a good example and modern Greeks have long made the point that the so-called Elgin marbles, now a centerpiece of the British Museum, were an inseparable part of the Parthenon and cry out to be reunited with the building. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca]

The most famous of the marbles, the “Three Goddesses” , features three headless well-developed female images with clothing folded and draped gracefully and naturally on their bodies. Describing these figures in 1808, B.R. Haydon wrote, "I saw the arm was in repose and soft parts in relaxation. That combination of nature and idea which I had felt was so much wanting for high art was here displayed."

I turned to the Theseus and saw that every form was altered by action or pose—when I saw that two sides of his back varied, one side stretched from the shoulder-blade being pulled forward, and the other side compressed from shoulder-blade being pushed close to the spine as he rested on his elbow...I saw in fact the most heroic style of art combined with all essential detail of actual life."

The head of a horse that pulls the chariot of the moon goddess Selene has been described by the art critic and politician Boris Johnson as "the archetype in Western Art." Heralded for both its realism and emotional impact, the horse head features the bulging eyes, flared nostrils and gaping mouth of an exhausted animal.

Parthenon Adornments

The Parthenon temple itself was adorned with sculpture, of a quality never before, and never since, equaled. The metopes (rectangular panels above the columns) were sculptured with scenes from the Trojan War, and from the Battles of the Athenians and Amazons, the Lapiths and Centaurs, and the Gods and Giants. In addition, a sculptured frieze above the temple walls depicted the great Panathenaic procession. In this annual celebration, Athenian youths and maidens accompanied the new robe for Athena's statue from Eleusis to the Acropolis itself. The young men on horseback, the maidens, the sacrificial oxeri, and the gods themselves all were depicted, and may be seen today - but not in Athens. [Source: Internet Archive, from vacation.net.gr]

The sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, are on view in London at the British Museum. A few carvings remain in place on the Parthenon, and some fragments are on view in the Acropolis Museum.In addition, the Parthenon had monumental sculpture in both pediments. As Pausanias concisely put it, "As you go into the temple called the Parthenon, everything on the pediment has to do with the birth of Athena; the far side shows Poseidon quarrelling with Athena over the country." As we know, Athena won this contest by producing the first olive tree, and the Athenians did not stint in honoring her with Greece's finest temple. However, the Athenians were always practical: the gold regalia which clad the great statue was designed so that it could be removed for safekeeping. The Athenians had learned what could happen to their sacred sites in the Persian sack of the Acropolis of 480 B.C.

North of the Parthenon is one of the loveliest of all ancient monuments, the delicate Erechtheion, thought to have been built on the very spot where Athena and Poseidon had their contest for possession of Athens. Indeed, some said that the marks of Poseidon's trident were clearly visible in the rock; be that as it may, for some years it has been traditional for an olive tree to grow near the Erechtheion. Alas, visitors today will see the exquisite temple through a screen of scaffolding. Like many of the monuments on the Acropolis , the Erechtheion is feeling the effects of time and urban pollution, and its elegant columns the Caryatid Maidens, have had to be removed (and replaced with copies) for safekeeping.

Elgin Marbles, East Pediment of the Parthenon

Like the monumental Propylaea, the Erechtheum had to overcome irregularities of terrain, and its south and east walls stand some 9 feet above its north and west walls. Although the Porch of the Caryatids is the more famous, the North Porch, with its elegant carved architectural ornament, is perhaps the more deserving of praise. Within the temple was both an ancient wooden idol (a "xoanon") and an olive wood statue of Athena Polias (Athena of the City). Like the great statue of Athena in the Parthenon, this statue also received a new robe in the Panathenaic festival.

Today's visitor to the Acropolis gains but a fragmentary impression of its original splendor. One should keep in mind that the temples were brightly painted, and adorned with great bronze rosettes. The honey-hue of the Parthenon was hidden in antiquity; each visitor will have to decide whether he is disappointed, or relieved, not to have seen the Parthenon and its neighboring temples bedecked with color.

Parthenon Frieze

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “None deny that the Parthenon building is a work of art in its own right but it was also embellished with a dazzling array of quality sculptures. The famous Parthenon frieze was a 160 meter (524 ft.) long mural, carved in high relief, a continuous band of sculpture. It encircled the Cella at the ceiling. It would have been very difficult to see and appreciate from the temple floor, the usual place from where it could be seen. The height of the frieze was just in excess of one meter (about 41” tall) and the depth of the relief was about the width of a dollar bill. (Phideas had the top portion of the frieze cut to that depth and the bottom portion incised somewhat less so as to make the scenes more apparent from the distant floor.) Despite the fact that it would have been difficult to discern details of the artwork from that viewpoint, especially given the dim, shadowy light of the temple, no less care was lavished on these images than on the other groupings. If only the gods could see and appreciate them, then that was sufficient. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

The frieze tells the story of the Great Panatheniac procession- a major parade, festival and games that took place in Athens every four years. (Each year a smaller event called the Lesser Panathenaea also celebrated the birthday of the goddess.) On each occasion, a new peplos (robe), woven by selected maidens would be presented to the goddess, who was also the patroness of weaving. The frieze tells the story of the marshalling of the parade, depicted on the western end, the parade participants (musicians, horsemen, priests, maidens with offerings, sacrificial animals, etc.) winding around both sides of the building, heading east. On the eastern side, seated gods and goddesses and standing civic and religious leaders gather to receive the new garment and, naturally, to make speeches. |

Parthenon Pediment

“The West Pediment. There are two triangular pediments, one on each narrow end of the structure, and these were commonly used on temples as a place within which to display sculptures appropriate to the nature of the building. The theme of the west pediment is the mythological competition between Athena and Poseidon to determine who should be patron of the city. Each offered a gift, a saltwater spring from Poseidon symbolizing sea power, and an olive tree from Athena. The people deemed the latter to be more practical. (Olives were a favorite food item and the oil was used in lamps, for cooking and in cosmetics as well as being a prime trading staple.) In this sculptural grouping, the key figures are Athena and her uncle, Poseidon. They occupy the central, high point of the triangle and various other participants are assembled on each side- Cecrops, half-man, half-serpent founder and first king of Athens, Erechtheus, the second king, various water divinities, Hermes, Iris, etc. |

“The East Pediment. This grouping of sculptures was in the most advantageous location to be seen and appreciated by anyone approaching the temple via the usual route. Appropriately, the theme dealt with the birth of Athena, which took place in the presence of the other gods and goddesses. The story is well-known. Zeus had developed a splitting headache and great pressure in his head, for which he could find no relief. He ordered his son, Hephaistos, to strike him across the head with his axe, to relieve his symptoms. From that opening sprang a fully-grown Athena, dressed in complete battle regalia. Instead of the wail of a new-born baby observers heard the sound of a battle cry. The sculptural setting commemorates the event in stone. A seated Zeus fittingly occupies center stage with central players Athena and Hephaistos, while other deities take in the miraculous occasion.” |

Metopes of the Parthenon

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Parthenon actually had two friezes. One, already described, ran around the exterior of the Cella. The second, which encircled the exterior of the building, just underneath the roof overhang, is a typical Doric frieze with alternating triglyphs and metopes. (The triglyph is a projecting block featuring two vertical, parallel glyphs or grooves. It is about 2/3rds the width of a metope and it alternates with the metopes for the length of the frieze. On the Parthenon there are 92 metopes (32 on each side and 14 on each end), each roughly 1.20 meters (48” square). [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

“The metopes on the Parthenon substantially exceed the usual temple standard for such embellishment. Each metope on the Parthenon is decorated, carved in high relief to the point that in some examples it is akin to sculpture in the round. Each side of the building had its own story to tell:

On the West. (Amazonomachy). This end depicts a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were a bellicose tribe of women descended from Ares, the god of war. Heracles came into conflict with the tribe in the course of doing his twelve labours. Symbolically this battle, and the others shown, symbolized the defeat of the barbarians (the Persians) by civilization ( the Greeks)

On the East. (Gigantomachy). This end portrays the mythical battle between the Giants and the gods for the control of Mount Olympus. On the North. (Trojan War). The subject on this side is the Trojan War, a favorite topic for illustrations for temples as well as vase paintings.

On the South (Centauromachy). Unlike the sculptural groupings on the other three sides that were all badly defaced and disfigured by early Christians, for some unknown reason, the South escaped that fate. Depicted is the mythical battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs where the drunken Centaurs, who had been invited to the Lapith wedding party, tried to make off with the Lapith women.” |

Statues at the Parthenon

copy of the Athena statue in the Parthenon in Nashville

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The chryselephantine statue of Athena was a huge work of art by any standard, at least 40 feet (12 meters) in height, a formidable figure in gold and ivory with gems for eyes and outfitted with her full panoply of weapons and symbols. (Chryselephantine comes from the word chryso (gold) and elephantine (ivory). It was a standard technique of the Greek Classical period whereby beaten gold for clothing and ivory for flesh was attached to a wooden armature or core. It is estimated that the gold on the statue alone was worth many millions of dollars. According to early Greek writers, the tyrant Lachares later stripped the goddess of her gold and used it to pay his army. It was said that the statue was later supplied with a coat of gilt by way of replacement. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

“The figure of Winged Victory- “Nike”- held in the right hand of Athena was six feet tall. In her left hand she supports both a spear and her shield. Entwined inside the shield is a serpent representing Erechtheus, an early king of Athens, son of the earth goddess Gaia but who was raised by Athena. |

“After the Parthenon project was completed Phideas went on to build an even larger and more renowned sculpture, that of the god Zeus, at Olympia. That became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the model for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. What happened to the Athena sculpture? It was taken to Constantinople by the Byzantines by the fifth Century AD. Then, no one is sure when, it disappeared.” |

Parthenon in 1800

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “When Elgin's men removed the sculpture from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state. From the fifth century B.C. 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'. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Lord of Elgin

“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.” |::|

Greece in the Early 1800s

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “The Acropolis hill today is a bare rock, on which are perched the famous monuments of the fifth century B.C. - 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. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

at work on the Parthenon

“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 B.C. 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.” |::|

Removal of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon

Temporary Elgin Room at the British Museum in 1819

More than 100 pieces of the Parthenon frieze, later called the Elgin Marbles, were removed from the Parthenon between 1801 and 1805. They are named after Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, a Scottish aristocrat who used his position as British Ambassador to the Ottoman empire, which controlled Greece at the time he was there, to get approval to hack the friezes off the Parthenon in 1801.

In 1802 Lord Elgin allegedly secured permission from Ottoman sultan to make castes of Parthenon frieze images (the authenticity of the permit, however, has been questioned). At first he was denied permission by the Turkish military governor, who thought Elgin could use his perch on the Parthenon to look at women in nearby houses. Permission was eventually granted partly because Turkey was fighting with Napoleon at the time and wanted to curry favor with France's main enemy, Britain. The permit allowed Elgin to remove "some pieces of stone with inscriptions of figures” from ''the temple of idols." It also said that "No person should...prevent [Elgin] from removing any stone bearing inscriptions or figures."

Elgin showed up with cutting tools and oxcarts and hundreds of laborers. Turkish officials looked on as Elgin oversaw the removal of the Parthenon’s best friezes Describing the removal of the marbles in September 1802, the travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke wrote: A workman informed the supervisor of the removal project "that they were going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs; but...part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelic marble, scattering their white fragments with a thundering noise among the ruins."

Elgin Marbles Leave Greece While Elgin Suffers

Elgin Marbles at the British Museum today

Lord Elgin believed he had done a noble thing by removing the marbles. He shipped 60 friezes and sculptures to Britain (the others mainly ended up in France the supervisor who oversaw the removal was French). It took 22 ships to carry the load. One ship sunk in storm. The marbles were retrieved.

But that wasn’t all of Elgin’s bad luck. Removing, transporting and taking care of the marbles cost him his fortunes... and his beautiful and rich wife. In the years it took him to chisel the marbles off the Parthenon and bring them to Britain, Elgin lost his wife to his best friend and large portion of his nose to either a ghastly infection he picked up in Constantinople or perhaps medicinal mercury he used to treat the infection. In 1816, Elgin was forced to sell the marble for £35,000 (about $10 million in today’s money) to the British government to pay off his debts after his divorce. After the purchase of the marbles, which was approved by an act of parliament, the friezes were placed the in British Museum, where they have been one of the museum's main draws ever since.

Elgin estimated that he spent £62,444 ($18 million in today’s money) securing the marbles. He had originally hoped to display the pieces in a palatial mansion but ended up selling them at a loss. He was jailed for several years in a French prison, from which he could have been released if he turned the marbles over to France. It was while he prison that his wife left him.

Elgin Marbles in Britain

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “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. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“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.” |::|

Parthenon frieze

Greece’s Efforts to Get the Elgin Marbles Back

Ever since it became independent in 1821, Greece has been trying to get the Elgin Marble back. One of Greece's most influential cultural ministers, the late actress Melina Mercouri, made it her goal to get the Elgin Marbles back. She pleaded in 1986, "They are our pride. They are our sacrifice. They are our nobelist symbol of excellence. They are our tribute to the democratic philosophy. Greece has gone to the World Court on the issue and won support from 56 nations on a United Nations resolution to promise their return.

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “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. [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“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?” |::|

In June 2009, the new Acropolis Museum was opened about 300 meters from the Parthenon in Athens. Designed by Swiss-born, New-York-based architect Bernard Tschumi, the three-level, steel-glass and stone structure arguable has been built specifically the house the Elgin Marbles. The unique building has a glass floor on its bottom level so visitors can watch the archaeological excavations below the building. On the third floor are sculptures originally kept in the Parthenon and a huge glass case with plaster copies of the Elgin Marbles along with expectations for the return of the originals.

One of the points of the new museum’s seems to be make the statement that a comfortable home is waiting for the marbles that aim to debunk the assertion that they are better off in Britain away from the pollution in Athens. The British Museum has said it would consider lending the friezes to the Acropolis Museum but is reluctant to because the pieces are too fragile to travel.

Parthenon frieze

Britons and Return of the Elgin Marbles

Even in the early 19th century when the Elgin Marbles were displayed in Britain with much fanfare many Britons, including the poet Lord Byron felt the Elgin Marble had been stolen and should be returned to Greece. In “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” Byron wrote:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
The walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which is had best behov’d
To guard those relics n’er to be restored.”

The sentiment remains today. According to an April 1996 television poll with 99,340 of British respondents 92.5 percent of those asked said they were in favor of returning the marbles.

Neil Kinnock, head of the British labor party during the late 1980s and early 1990s, said that if his party returned to power, the marbles would be sent back to Greece. After Tony Blair was elected as the new British Minister in 1997, the Greek Minister of Culture wrote a letter to the new Labor government asking it to live up to a promise to return the Elgin Marbles. The answer was no. The Party decided that the return of the marbles was neither feasible or sensible and that they were "wonderfully displayed" at the British Museum where they were "integral part" of the collection.

British Museum and Elgin Marbles

The British Museum has been unwavering it its position that the Elgin marbles belong to it. Officials at museum have repeatedly turned down requests to return the Elgin Marbles on the grounds that the museum is better prepared to take good care of the friezes and the museum has helped preserve the friezes by removing them from Athens’ notorious pollution, which has kept the treasures in much better condition than they would have been in if they had stayed in Greece.

Officials at the British Museum also argue that if they return the Elgin marbles then other museums should returned their pieces too. The Louvre for example should be required to return the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samonthrace. When a Greek official asked to see the statues, an official at the British Museum responded, "burglars" were not usually allowed "to case the joint.”

Elgin Marbles, East pediment

The British Museum's position was tarnished in 1998, when it was revealed that the marbles were severely damaged between 1936 and 1939 when they were cleaned with powerful chemicals and sand in a futile effort to remove the marble's honey-brown color before it was realized that brown was its natural color. A report made at the time concluded "the damage can not be exaggerated" but decided "a public statement need not be made."

No court can make a decision on the matter as the marble were taken from Greece too long ago for modern laws to apply. Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum insisted that Greece must first formally recognize that the marbles are the museum’s property. “The conversation cannot even begin until that has happened.” Computer and laser technology now makes it possible to make perfect replicas of the Elgin Marbles and other famous statuary.

Debate Over Who “Owns” the Elgin Marbles

Mary Beard of the University of Cambridge wrote: “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'). [Source: Mary Beard, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“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.” |::|

reconstruction of the Parthenon and Acropolis

On a similar sad tale related to “Greek” statuary, Mary Beard wrote in the New York Review of Books, “My own favorite story is the “Parthenon metope” brought back to Cambridge from Athens by Edward Daniel Clarke, who went on to become the professor of mineralogy. He bought it from the Turkish garrison commander at about the same time as Lord Elgin’s men were removing their “marbles.” And Clarke was very smug that his own piece of the famous temple had been acquired completely legitimately. The only problem, as you can now read in the gallery, is that it was not a piece of the Parthenon at all, but a piece of Roman sculpture probably from a nearby theater. Smugness is always dangerous in archaeology. [Source: Mary Beard, New York Review of Books, March 3, 2010]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and the British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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