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 its symbol of culture, it can also be seen as standing for the arrogance of power.

The Parthenon is the summit of classical Greek architecture. Its simplicity of outline conceals countless optical subtleties and exactnesses, all working together to achieve the greatest visual effect. It was also exceptionally rich in carved decorations.* At either end a triangular pediment displayed large statues, carved in the round, enacting scenes from the mythical history of Athena and her city. Along the external walls ran ninety-two panels carved in high relief, the metopes, which represented four mythical battles: the defeat of the Giants by the Gods, the destruction of the half-horse Centaurs by the fully human Lapiths, the defeat of Troy by the Greeks, and the defeat of the Amazons. Monsters, whether half-bestial creatures like Centaurs and Giants, or denatured warrior women, or the subjects of Asiatic monarchy: all symbolized the same theme, the defeat of the bizarre and the lawless by the ordered civilization and human scale of Hellas. That was the significance of the defeat of Xerxes, of which these images served as mythical counterparts. Inside, high up and not easy to see, ran a frieze, 160 meters long, carved in low relief: the procession of the whole of Athens, young and old, men and women, which every four years honored Athena at her greatest festival.

These carvings are among the supreme masterpieces of sculpture, an art in which few artists, over the centuries, have achieved the very highest rank (it is sobering to see how few names of sculptors come to mind, compared with those of painters). They arrived in London at the height of Romantic Philhellenism, and they created a sensation. Chipped and fragmentary as they are, their combination of energy, power, and grace remains the noblest embodiment of the ideal, now itself controversial, of the classical in art.


Over the centuries the great temple has undergone many changes. Forty years after its building, Athens lost the war against Sparta and its allies; some of the victors wanted Athens destroyed, and although that did not happen, there followed a reactionary coup and civil war, and dead bodies in the streets below the glories of the Acropolis. A hundred and fifty years later, and a Macedonian king took up residence in the Parthenon with his whores, announcing that he was living with the goddess. In the Roman period it was a tourist attraction, in Christian times a church, under the Turks a mosque. They also stored gunpowder in it, and in 1687 a shell fired by the Venetian general Morosini caused a damaging explosion in the building. By 1800 the Parthenon was a ruin, but with many statues and carvings still in position, and others, it seems, lying nearby on the ground. Some had been ground up for lime, some had been smashed by Morosini in an unsuccessful attempt to remove them. And the ivory and gold, the bronze and ebony and cedar-wood, had all long disappeared, leaving only stone. Athens was now a very small town, like all of Greece part of the dominions of Turkey.

Enter, at this point, the seventh earl of Elgin, British ambassador to Constantinople. It was the time of Napoleon’s great looting of works of art, and the French, too, were interested in the Parthenon. By the use of judicious bribery, and by exploiting his position at a time when the Sultan was anxious for British help against Napoleon, he succeeded in getting the local authorities to grant him permission to “take away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” Stretching this grant to its limit, his agents also stripped from the building a number of sculptures that were still in place, inflicting damage as they did so. In the end they had more than half of the existing Parthenon carvings, as well as a few others from the Acropolis.

With enormous difficulties and crippling expense, Elgin managed to transport the Marbles to England. There he faced further difficulties in getting them off his hands. His proceedings were denounced by members of Parliament; Byron crucified him in ferocious verse; he was caught in France and interned by Napoleon; his nose was consumed by a disease picked up in the East, opening him to allegations of syphilis; his wife left him and after a spectacular divorce married another Scottish landowner; he was never able to recoup the most of the Marbles. But finally they were accepted by the British Museum, and have been one of the glories there ever since.

Ever since, too, there has been a demand that they should be returned to Greece. Christopher Hitchens’s book is a passionate plea for their return. Like most, but not all, of the Britons who have campaigned for the cause over the centuries, he argues from a position on the left. The title Imperial Spoils makes the claim that the presence of the Marbles in London is a consequence of imperialism. The claim is not exact—Elgin used British influence, but he was in no position to invoke imperial control, since Britain did not rule Athens. Hitchens says, “A visitor to the British Museum who knew nothing of the British would certainly be able to conclude that this was a people who had once enjoyed wide dominions.” The looseness of that chain of thought emerges if one thinks of the Vatican Museum in Rome, or of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “Dominion” is by no means the only way to acquire great collections; and the British Museum has greater treasures from Assyria, which was not part of the Empire, than from India, which was.

By the standards of right that obtain in this often shady field of international law and custom, the claim of the British Museum to the Elgin Marbles is not bad—legally, at any rate. The museums of the West are full of things that were exported from other countries with no kind of legality at all. The museum at lzmir (Smyrna), when I was there eighteen months ago, featured a large photographic display of objects recently excavated in Turkey that were smuggled out of the country, and a number of the exhibits actually named the North American museums in which the objects in question now are. The visitor to at least one great museum in California is struck by the fact that many of the archaeological treasures on show there are given no provenance at all; a colleague who observed a member of the staff at work cataloging a vase, and asked where it was unearthed, received the answer, “I’m not allowed to tell you.”


In this way we are regressing from the idea, laboriously established in the nineteenth century, that objects found in the earth have a local setting that is vitally informative and that they are part of history, to the attitude of the grandees of the eighteenth century or earlier that they are simply “treasures,” aesthetic marvels to be appreciated in isolation from anything that they could tell us about their time or place. The paradoxical difference is that the modern equivalents to the dukes and earls of former centuries are not actually well-to-do aesthetes but think of themselves as professional scholars. The lust for acquisition is no less powerful when it is vicarious.

Elgin did at least have an arguable case that his collecting was formally permitted by the authorities in power at the time. That is weakened emotionally by the fact that those authorities were not Greek but Turkish, and that within a few years Greece had won its independence. Greeks do not regard that permission as valid in the light of the modern ideal of nationalism: the Elgin Marbles are seen as the inalienable property of Greece, a treasure of unique importance for the national identity.

This is a relatively recent claim. During the long centuries of Turkish rule it was the Orthodox Church in Greece, like the Catholic Church in Ireland, that played the most important role in keeping nationalism alive; and the Church had little tenderness for the monuments of pre-Christian paganism. In the early Christian period, indeed; it seems that a good deal of deliberate damage was inflicted on some of the carvings on the Parthenon that too frankly represented pagan gods, notably the metopes, and heads and torsos were torn down and thrown aside. But when, after 1800, Western Europe began to interest itself in the plight of Greece, and celebrated men like Byron joined and publicized the struggle for Greek independence, it was largely the memory of classical Greek learned at school and university that provided the emotional drive. The battle of Marathon, the isles of Greece where burning Sappho loved and sung: in the age of Shelley and Keats and Hölderlin, when ancient Greece was ousting Rome as the focus of thoughts and feelings, these were talismans of great power.

So it was that a nation emerging from long subjection came to find in them the foundations of national pride, an inheritance venerated by a Philhellene Europe that had little interest in Orthodox Christianity, its art or its ideas. The Greek language itself was altered, to make it more like what it had been two thousand years earlier: a disastrous step, which opened the Language Question that has haunted the country ever since. Only Athens, not Návplion or Ioánnina, could be the national capital, and the Parthenon, the heart of Athens, the creation of Pericles, became the symbol of the ancient lineage of the new-born nation-state. But by then the Elgin Marbles were gone.

In the early years of Greek independence it was argued that the Marbles could and should be replaced on the Parthenon itself. There, in the unique light and air of Athens, they could be seen to advantage as they could not in the grayer light of London and the antiseptic atmosphere of a museum. That, alas, is no longer a possibility. The air of Athens is now conspicuous for its foulness and acidity, even as modern cities go. The Greeks are planning a new museum below the Acropolis, into which the Marbles could be put. Will they, should they, be given back? Hitchens makes the case with panache. It would be a gesture of rare generosity: the kind of gesture that the nation-state, tenacious of its possessions and never admitting to being in the wrong, least likes to make—especially under the pressure of publicity. The British Government considered returning the marbles in 1941, when Britain and Greece stood virtually alone against Hitler’s Germany; it was decided to keep them, and one can hardly imagine such a sacrifice, evaded by Churchill’s administration at so heroic a time, being performed in a less noble age by that of Mrs. Thatcher.

Elgin’s impetuous purchases impoverished his family. Hitchens, who is consistently hard on him, says “his great vice was parsimony”; but in fact, like other collectors, he combined meanness with extravagance. His descendants, as a result, could not live the life of quiet aristocrats but had to bustle about and serve their country. Both his son and his grandson were viceroys of India; the son died there, the grandson survived. The career of the son is a curious footnote to the story of the Marbles, with a horridly ironic climax. He was forced by the poverty they caused to serve first as governor general of Canada, where he was thought to favor the French speakers in Quebec against the Scottish magnates of Montreal. His carriage was stoned, the Parliament building in Montreal was burned down as the members debated within (they all got out), and, for having “disgraced the Scottish name,” he was expelled from the St. Andrews Society of Montreal, and from the Thistle Curling Club, too. All this is well recounted in The Elgins, a very superior example of the history of a noble family.

That was not the end of his tribulations. He was sent to China, where the Chinese had just captured a river ship, the Arrow, registered in Hong Kong, taking the crew and insulting the British flag. Elgin, a humane man, disliked the whole business: “No human power,” he wrote to his wife, “shall induce me to play the office of oppressor of the feeble,” but he soon found himself bombarding the helpless city of Canton (“I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life”). From India he wrote to her, “It is a terrible business, this living among inferior races. I have seldom from man or woman since I came to the East heard a sentence which was reconcilable with the hypothesis that Christianity had ever come into the world.” In China, “our trade is carried on on principles which are dishonest as regards the Chinese and demoralising to our own people.” He liked things better in Japan, where the people “are competent to manage their own steam engines and to navigate their own ships,” and had “an inexhaustible fund of good temper.” But there too were difficulties. He was Earl of Elgin and also Earl of Kincardine, and the Japanese imagined he was two people; and they thought it prudent to offer him women, whom he did not want.

But the worst lay ahead. Back to China he was sent, where the Chinese had disowned the treaty he had negotiated with them, and had fired on British ships. This time they were to be taught a lesson, and with great reluctance Elgin returned. Putting on such an alarming demeanor that he was called, in the Chinese press, the “Uncontrollably Fierce Barbarian,” he advanced on Peking with a joint force of British and French soldiers. A party protected by a flag of truce was, with incredible folly, captured and maltreated by the Chinese; three of the party were killed. Arrived at Peking, the French captured and looted the Summer Palace, five miles outside the city; the British hurried to join in. It was decided that a signal punishment must be inflicted on the emperor, and Elgin gave the order that the looted Summer Palace should be destroyed. The porcelain roofs, the gilded beams, the ornamental trees and lakes: all were burned. “No one,” he said in London, “regretted [it] more sincerely than I did…. I was forced to choose between the indulgence of a not unnatural sensibility and the performance of a painful duty.”

The way of the man of power is hard. The father, a keen collector, impoverished his family and became a byword for insensitivity; the son, a man of humane feelings, destroyed a palace of great beauty. The Chinese never forgave the burning of the Summer Palace, as the Greeks have never forgiven the taking of the Elgin Marbles. As for the loot of Peking, some of it reached England; among the rest was a Pekinese dog for Queen Victoria. She called it “Looty.”

This Issue

July 20, 1989