The Elgin Marbles: Whose?

A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on October 8, 2014, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois

Leo Segedin   |   October 8, 2014 |   Print this essay


Who should own the Elgin Marbles? The Elgin Marbles — or — more accurately — the Parthenon Marbles — are a collection ofÊclassical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members — mostly made by Phidias and his assistants in the 5th century B.C. These Marbles are the remains of what originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. As such, they are also a large part of what once was one of the major cultural monuments of Western civilization.

In the 5th century B.C. — the Parthenon and its brightly colored sculptures — on the Acropolis far above Athens — must have been a very impressive sight. High on its façades — you would have seen the high relief metopes — a series of marble panels celebrating the triumph of civilization and order over chaos and barbarism — represented by warring gods and giants — Centaurs and Lapiths — a legendary people of Greek mythology — accompanied by Greek, Trojan and Amazonian heroes. The two triangular pediments would have contained images of the birth of Athena, and her contest with Posidon for Attica and the patronage of Athens. Around the upper edge of the outer wall of the inner chamber was a low relief frieze depicting gods, horsemen, and charioteers in a procession honoring Athena and the gods. And within the Parthenon's sanctuary — you would have seen a 40 foot high — ivory and gold statue of the warrior maiden Athena Parthenos, symbol of the city's invincibility.

Early in the 19th century — when the Ottoman Empire controlled Greece — Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Empire — obtained a controversial permit to remove pieces from the Parthenon. He wanted them to decorate his mansion in England. By then — almost half of the Parthenon statues — even those that had been there as recently as the 17th century — were missing. From 1801 to 1812, Elgin's agents removed about half of what remained. These included some 17 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments — 15 — of an original 92 — of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Also included were 247 feet of an original 524 feet of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple.

The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In 1816, following a public debate in Parliament — the Marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government and placed on display in the British Museum — where they stand now on view in the specially built Duveen Gallery.

Since 1816, the public continues to debate: Should the Marbles remain in the British Museum or be returned to Athens? Since the British acquisition is based on an English translation of an Italian copy of a missing Ottoman permit — what happened to the original document? What did it actually say? Did Elgin remove more than the Ottoman permit allowed? Did the Ottomans have the moral right to give permission? Did Elgin have the moral right to remove them? Also — by the early 19th century — when Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon — they had been deteriorating from neglect for centuries. Were the Marbles then stolen or saved? Are they colonial loot or rescued works of art? Or preserved relics of ancient civilizations? And so forth…. Recent claims have usually been based on legal and moral grounds. The British argue that they bought the Marbles legally from the Ottoman authorities and that they are better restored, maintained and presented to more people in the British Museum than in Greece. In this location — they are considered universal — rather than national — cultural objects. According to this view — the art of ancient civilizations belongs to the world — not the country occupying their original geographical location. In the British Museum — they can be seen in relation to the arts of other ancient civilizations. On the other hand, the Greeks maintain that the Marbles were looted from their original location on the Parthenon in Athens. Since they are also symbols of Greek cultural and historical heritage — they belong in Greece and should be returned. They argue that that the Marbles can be better understood in their original environment.

Rather than take sides in this ongoing confrontation — I would like to consider issues that both Greek and British proponents avoid. I will maintain in this paper that neither the British nor the Greek claim to the Marbles is historically justified. In fact — in attempting to justify their claims — both sides distort the history of the Marbles and — in attempting to attract visitors with attractive displays — misrepresent the appearance of the original marbles.


In their present condition — the Parthenon Marbles bear little resemblance to their original appearance. They were hacked off when they were removed from their high locations on the Parthenon by Elgin's workers and damaged when they fell to the ground. Half of the backs of some of them were cut off to lighten the load when they were shipped to England. They have been mutilated by time — weather — pollution and airliner— caused vibration. And — historically — most misleading of all — in efforts to restore them to their assumed original whiteness — their surfaces have been chiseled, sanded and scraped — totally destroying what remained of their original bright red, blue and gold surfaces. This assumption of a colorless, Classical style was based on false beliefs about Greek and Roman sculpture. In antiquity, Greek and Roman sculpture was richly embellished with colorful painting — gilding — silvering — and inlay. Such colors — which were integral to the meaning and impact of such works — survive today only in fragmentary condition. The misconceptions were caused during the Renaissance when Roman marble sculptures wereÊbeing rediscovered and excavated. Since they had been buried in the ground for over a thousand years — their ancient colors had been mostly worn away. As a result, the assumption was that they had originally been white and — because Renaissance intellectuals had come to idealize Roman culture — all Renaissance sculpture became white. This formal — colorless — sculptural style continued all the way into the 20th century and is still evident in some sculpture made today. It also gave rise to new models for the other arts which — for 400 years — were characterized by an emphasis on form and in which —in painting — color was limited to the surface of represented objects.

The efforts to restore the Marbles were based on these false assumptions. As early as 1838 — scientist Michael Faraday was asked to provide a solution to the problem of the deteriorating surface of the Marbles. Assuming that they were originally white — he first used a fine, gritty power to clean them and when that did not work — he tried carbonated and caustic alkalis — and finally dilute nitric acid. Even after that — he “despair(ed) of the possibility of presenting the marbles in the British Museum in that state of purity and whiteness which they originally possessed”.

A further effort to clean the marbles ensued in 1858. Richard Westmacott — who had been appointed superintendent of the “moving and cleaning” the sculptures — complained about previous restorations of the marbles which had been done with oil and lard — with wax — and with wax and resin.

Perhaps the most destructive attempt at 'cleaning' was in 1937—38 — when a new gallery was constructed to house the collection. The now colorless Pentelic marble — from which the sculptures were made — had naturally acquired a tan color similar to honey when exposed to air. The art dealer — Lord Joseph Duveen — who financed the whole undertaking — arranged — without authorization — for the masons working on the project to remove such 'discoloration' from the sculptures. This cleaning process — which in some places removed as much as one—tenth of an inch from their surfaces — scraped away some of the finest, remaining details. The tools used were seven scrapers, one chisel and a piece of carborundum stone.

To give you an idea of what the original colors really were like, here is a description of how they were created. After the basic form was carved and smoothed: …all details that a living counterpart would have had color — hair, eyeballs, lips, costume, and other inanimate accessories — were given their approximately correct hue by working tinted wax into the pores of the marble, hence coloring but not covering or physically affecting the surface of the stone. (Rhys Carpenter) Add to these realistic colors, the bright Egyptian blue on the background and red and gold on other surfaces…& So much for restoration.


The Parthenon and its sculptures did not always have the kind of idealistic importance they now have. For 800 years, the Parthenon may have been an Athenian temple — but for 1,000 years — it was a Christian church and for 350 years — an Ottoman mosque. For a good part of its 2,500 year history — it was a treasury — a fort — a military barracks — a munitions dump — a ruin and a source for building materials and souvenirs. In each of these contexts — the significance of the sculpture changed. Only in the centuries immediately after it was first built and during the last 200 years — when Greek sculpture replaced Roman sculpture as an ideal for western artists — have the sculptures been considered worth seeing as great art or as a high cultural achievement. During the long, intervening period — they were considered as second rate when compared to later Roman sculpture or not considered as art at all.

The Greek historian, Plutarch — in the 1st century AD — admired the work. He wrote:
As the works rose, shining with grandeur and possessing an inimitable grace of form, and as the artisans strove to surpass each other in the beauty of their workmanship…….there is a certain bloom of newness in each work and an appearance of being untouched by the wear of time.
But only a few years later — the Greek geographer and world traveler, Pausanias — when he visited the Acropolis — only mentioned briefly the sculptures of the pediments of the temple — reserving the majority of his description for the gold and ivory statue of the goddess inside.

Toward the end of the sixth century — after most Greeks had converted to Christianity — the Parthenon became a church and — since it was now a Christian building — many of its pagan sculptures were defaced. Icons were erected in its sanctuary and its walls were covered with paintings and mosaics. A hundred years later — it was the Byzantine, Orthodox Cathedral of the Virgin Atheniotissa, the “God—bearing Mother of Athens.” After 1204 — when the French and Venetian leaders of the Fourth Crusade passed through — the building began a new life as the Roman Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame d'Athènes — complete with a bell tower. In another three centuries — after the Ottoman Turks occupied the Greek mainland — what was once a temple and church was reborn as a mosque. The paintings and mosaics remained — but the bell tower became a minaret. The Acropolis itself became a fortress — with the spaces around the Parthenon coved with houses and gardens.

In 1687 — when Venetian forces that were part of a Holy League against the Ottoman Empire raided Athens — the Ottomans converted the Parthenon into an arsenal as well as a shelter for women and children. The Ottomans believed the building was safe because the Venetians cherished its Christian history. But the Venetians bombarded the building with cannon fire; an estimated 700 cannonballs struck the building's western facade alone. Eventually, gunpowder the Turks had stored in the Parthenon ignited — blowing out 28 columns, damaging several internal rooms, and killing up to 300 people. It reduced the temple to a ruin and led the Turks to surrender.

The Venetian general — Francisco Morosini — whose forces now occupied Athens and who was responsible for the bombardment — still felt that the Marbles were worth collecting and personally oversaw the looting of some of the surviving sculptures. His unsuccessful attempt to remove the sculptured horses from the west pediment, however, resulted in the sculpture being smashed to bits on the rock below.

The Ottoman Empire regained possession of the monument in the following year. To the Turkish pashas who then controlled it, the Parthenon sculptures were the valueless relics of a long—dead, heathen society and a despised Christian church — but to Western tourists — pieces of the Parthenon, — including its sculptures — were collectible as historic relics. Having noticed the demand— the Turks began to sell souvenirs to Westerners.

In the ensuing century and a half — the Parthenon became little more than a rich source for looters. It became a quarry for marble used in the construction of other buildings. Sculptures that fell from the Parthenon during those years were burned to obtain lime for making masonry mortar. When Bavarian soldiers arrived in Athens in 1832 after the war for Greek independence from the Ottomans — to drive the remaining Turks from the Acropolis — they had so little concern for the building that they turned it into an army barracks. Athens was then an insignificant village with a population of only 4 to 5,000 people. It did not become capital of Greece until 1834. For a good part of the 19th century — Greece had a Bavarian king. There is no indication that the Greeks cared anymore for these ruins than the Turks during the previous 350 years.


Although the Marbles had been admired as examples of the superiority of Greek over Roman sculpture during the previous century by Western artists and art critics — in fact — they were probably even responsible for the change in style — there was no Greek demand for their return. They became a public and political issue only after the downfall of the Colonels in 1974 — when Greece became a democracy. The first indication of such a concern was in 1975 — when the Minister of Culture — Constantinos Trypanis — set up a committee for the preservation of the monuments of the Acropolis. Later — in 1981 — the Panhellenic Socialist Movement was elected on a platform of national self determination and change — inspiring the idea of recovering the Marbles as a symbol of a more democratic society. In 1982 — the first public demand that they be returned was made at the Mexican World conference on Cultural Policies. However, the first official request to the British from the Greek government was only made in 1983. In this request, it was argued that the Marbles should be returned to Greece, because: —they are an integral part of a unique building symbolic to the Greek cultural heritage — It is now universally accepted that a work of art belongs to the cultural context in which (and for which) it was created, and — they were removed during a period of foreign occupation when the Greek people had no say in the matter."

The actress — and later, politician — Melina Mercouri — then Minister of Culture in the new government — argued vigorously for their return. Among the thing she said:
The marbles are part of a monument to Greek identity — part of the deepest consciousness of the Greek people — our roots our continuity — our soul. The Parthenon is like our flag. You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our sacrifices. They are our pride. They are our noblest symbols of excellence. They are our tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspiration and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.”
“They are the symbol and the blood and the soul of the Greek people”, she said.

But is this claim based on history? Or is it a politically motivated myth? I argue that it is a myth. First, Mecouri's urgent pleas assume that there is a'Greek people' with a history that can be traced back to the creation of the Parthenon marbles. She assumes 2,500 years of Greek ethnic and genetic continuity. But this is not true. The early Greeks were mixtures of Aeolians — Ionians and Dorians. The Greeks today are a mixture of Slavs — Turks — Greeks — Bulgars — Albanians — Vlachs — Jews and Gypsies — the result of migrations — invasions and immigration. Other than that they live in the same place — they are not the same people. Contemporary Greece cannot claim to be Ôthe country of origin' for the Marbles because the ancient descendants of Aeolians — Ionians and Dorians never formed a country. There was no country that could be called Greece in that land in 432 BC when the Parthenon was built. Rather than a country — there were about 700 city—states, of which Athens was only one. City—states were small, relatively independent communities scattered throughout the Greek mainland and its many islands. Although they might join together to fight the Persians — they spent more time fighting each other. They were Greek only in the sense that Puerto Rico, Mexico and Peru are Hispanic. In this social milieu — the Parthenon was important only to the Athenians — but not in the other city—states. Greece has existed as a country with recognized borders only since 1830 — when it won its independence from the Ottoman Empire and — even since then — its boundaries have been changed several times. In any case — however Greece is defined today — it has little to do with the Athens of 5th century BC.

The people in 5th century BC Athens and in Greece today differ in many other fundamental ways. For example, they do not share the same language. Early Greeks spoke variations of the Aeolic — Doric and Ionic dialects. Not only have these dialects radically changed since then — but contemporary Greek has also been enriched by the languages of the ethnic groups which became part of the culture long after the Marbles were made.

They do not share the same religion. There is no similarity between the polytheistic religions of the city—states and the Church of Greece — part of the Greek Orthodox Catholicism — which is — for all practical purposes — a state religion dominating Greece today. And even though the city—states recognized the same gods and goddesses — they did not practice their religion in the same way. They often worshiped in dissimilar cults with language that distinguished them from each other and emphasized their differences.

They do not share the same political values. Ancient Athenian society has traditionally been considered to be the model for western democracy — but this is also a myth. Out of an Athenian population at the time of about 300,000 people — only 35,000 men could vote. Women and slaves could not. Their great leader, Pericles, was a general — famous for his military and financial prowess — rather than any democratic innovations. The Parthenon may have been a temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of Athens. It may have been part of a monument marking the Greek victory over the barbarian Persians in 480 BC. It may even have been a place of religious worship — but — in the 5th century BC — it was also the Athenian treasury — containing the riches of the Delian League. The League was a military alliance of about 100 Greek city—states — headed by Athens and organized to fight the Persians. For this purpose — member city—states contributed money to the Athenians — some of which Pericles deviously was able to divert to the building of the Parthenon. By such means — for a few short years — Athens grew to be the most powerful among the city states. The Parthenon may be popularly regarded as an enduring symbol of ancient Greece — Athenian democracy and western civilization — and as one of the world's greatest cultural monuments — but — in reality — it originally manifested Athenian political and military power — rather than democracy. According to the art historian, Sir John Boardman:
In no way can the Parthenon be regarded as a monument to democracy and freedom rather than to the military prowess of her people and the political and financial acumen and ruthlessness of their leaders.
Thus — contrary to their claims, — ancient and contemporary Greeks do not have 'blood' or a 'soul' in common. They do not share ethnicity — language — religion and especially democratic values. Although according to several polls — a large majority of the British favor returning the Marbles — other than their politicians — the Greeks themselves seem to be indifferent. In fact, they have not shown much concern for the Marbles for most of their 2,500 year history. Therefore — I do not see how the Greek government can legitimately claim the Parthenon Marbles as a symbol of their heritage. While the British claim to the Marbles may be the rationalization of looting — location rather than 'Greekness' —geography rather than genetics — the fact that the marbles were created in Athens — is really all that underlies the present Greek government's claim to the Marbles.


The British Museum now displays the Elgin Marbles as historical relics — as products of an ancient civilization along with the products of other ancient civilizations — but with hardly a mention of the history of their acquisition or their disastrous cleaning. If returned to the Acropolis Museum In Athens — the Marbles would also be displayed as historical relics — but as glorified products of Greek culture. Although they are easier to see and perhaps appear more beautiful because their ideally proportioned human and animal forms are more evident — viewing them in such a location does not show you how they were originally intended to be seen or affect people. As a result — their present appearance has little to do with their original significance. Rather than being based on anything seen — their significance is now created by what is told about them. People look at the Marbles because of what they think they are looking at — not because of what they look like. They would go see the Elgin Marbles — not a collection of old statues.

It is not likely that the Parthenon and its remaining sculptures would ever be restored to what they looked like in 432 BC. So much of the original building is missing that to repair it would — in effect — turn it into a copy. In order to protect them from further damage — however — the remaining sculptures have been removed from the Parthenon and replaced by their exact replicas. These well worn originals are now exhibited in the Acropolis Museum. The Parthenon itself remains a partial ruin — with traces of the original temple, church, and mosque intentionally left intact. As a symbol of Greek heritage, however, none of this matters and it is now Greece's most popular, award winning tourist attraction.

Find this content at: