Precious Stones

Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles

by Christopher Hitchens, with essays by Robert Browning and Graham Binns
Hill and Wang, 137 pp., $19.95

High on the educated tourist’s list of sights to see in Europe stands the British Museum. Its colossal treasure includes everything from Egyptian mummies to Renaissance clocks, Roman silver and Magna Carta, and harps from Ur of the Chaldees and King George V’s stamp collection. But pride of place, perhaps, and the most costly galleries, go to a large collection of more or less broken marble carvings from Athens; the celebrated and controversial Elgin Marbles. Their history raises a number of moral and political questions.

In the years immediately after 450 BC the people of Athens were persuaded by Pericles, the great aristocratic leader of the democracy, to embark on a spectacular program of public building. They spent for the purpose the accumulated income that had been paid, ever since the defeat of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC, by a large number of independent Greek city-states all around the Aegean. This money was originally pledged as a common fund for the defense of Greek cities against the might of Persia. With the passage of time the enthusiasm of the first years faded away, the Persian menace seemed less immediate, and some cities tried to withdraw; but the Athenians took a firm line, used force to prevent any secessions, and moved the common treasury from the sacred island of Delos to Athens itself. They were still defending the other cities, argued Pericles; they provided the ships and the men; all that the others contributed was money, and Athens was free to spend the surplus on works that would provide full employment and win undying glory.

This policy of Pericles was violently disputed. His opponents said that it amounted to imperialism and exploitation (in Greek terms, “tyranny”) to spend the money paid by other states on their own city: Athens was behaving like a loose woman, decking herself out with jewels and finery acquired by shamelessness. But he carried his point. In the words of Plutarch, written more than five hundred years later,

So then the works arose, no less towering in their grandeur than inimitable in the grace of their outlines, since the workmen were passionately anxious to surpass themselves in the beauty of their handiwork. All was finished in an astonishingly short time, and every piece was at once classic in its perfection, but its freshness keeps it to this day crisp and new. Such a bloom of novelty makes them look untouched by time, as if they contained a spirit and a soul which never grows old.

It was one of those moments in history, like the building of the cathedral at Chartres or of Brunelleschi’s dome of the Duomo in Florence, when the energies and passions of a society concentrate with intensity on the creation of a work of art which is recognized, both by contemporaries and by posterity, as the perfection of its kind. The crown of these buildings was the temple of the virgin goddess Athena: the Parthenon. Adopted by UNESCO as…

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