The following is based on a speech given on 1 March 2017 at the British Museum during a debate entitled “The Parthenon Marbles: London or Athens” hosted by Wadham College, Oxford. The debaters were Professor Edith Hall, Professor Paul Cartledge, Dr Tiffany Jenkins, and Dr Dominic Selwood. The vote taken at the end of the debate concluded overwhelmingly that the sculptures in the British Museum should remain.
In this speech, Dominic argued for the retention of the sculptures. Information about him can be found beneath the speech.
If you reduce the Parthenon sculptures debate to its core, there are just two questions. What were the circumstances in which Lord Elgin acquired the sculptures in the early 1800s? And, today, where do we believe these sculptures should be displayed?
The first is a matter of history. The second is a far broader question, but to explore it we must understand the first, as the circumstances in which Elgin brought the sculptures to England are vital background for approaching the modern issues. The two questions are distinct, but they flow in and out of each other.
The Historical Background
Thomas Bruce — seventh Earl of Elgin — was born in 1766. He received an Enlightenment education at Harrow and Westminster, before university studies at St Andrews and Paris, and a year mastering German in Dresden.
At 24, he was appointed a representative peer for Scotland, before beginning a diplomatic career with positions in Vienna, Brussels, and Prussia. In 1799, aged 33, he was sent to Constantinople as ambassador to the “Sublime Porte” of the Ottoman Empire.
Elgin was a lover of Greek art and culture. Before departing, he declared that he wanted to use his spare time in the East, “to improve the arts in Great Britain”. His idea was to commission drawings and life-size plaster casts of Greek antiquities in the hope they could be used in Britain to inspire and instruct artists. He put the plan to the British government for funding, but they turned it down. Undaunted, he financed the project himself, hiring a team of six artists, architects, and moulders from Italy, and sending them to Athens under the direction of their most accomplished member, the painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri.
Arriving in Athens, the artists found a city that had been under Ottoman rule since 1456. The hill of the Acropolis — the highest ground in the city — was being used as an Ottoman military garrison. When the artists eventually gained access onto the Acropolis, they were shocked by the Parthenon’s dilapidated condition.
The centuries since the Golden Age had not been kind to the temple. Aside from fire and looting in late antiquity, the first wave of major damage came around a.d. 500. The Athenians removed Pheidias’s great chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos, and took out the whole middle section of the temple’s east range. They also systematically hacked the features off the metopes on the north, east, and west sides. These actions were taken to convert the building into a church, and were the single biggest event of sculptural destruction in the temple’s long history.
Around a millennium later, when the Ottomans conquered Athens in 1456, the Parthenon was converted into a mosque, but with limited damage to the sculptures.
In 1687, during the Great Turkish War, Venetian forces attacking Athens scored a direct hit on the Parthenon with a mortar shell, igniting an Ottoman gunpowder magazine stored inside. The resulting explosion blew out the temple’s centre and roof, taking a large amount of sculpture with it.
By the time Elgin’s artists arrived in 1800, around half the original sculptures were gone forever, and those that remained were suffering ongoing damage. The Ottoman military garrison was using them for firearms target practice, and grinding them down for lime. Tourists from Europe were also arranging to have heads, legs, arms, and other chunks of sculpture hacked off as souvenirs.
For Elgin, the ongoing destruction of the temple changed his plans. He decided the sculptures should not merely be recorded in drawings and casts: they needed to be preserved.
In the summer of 1801 he approached the Sublime Porte in Constantinople for permission to remove sculptures. His request was approved, and he was granted an official document — known as a firman — addressed to the Ottoman governor in Athens, explicitly permitting Elgin to take away, “any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures”. To fund the rescue undertaking, Elgin took out a very large quantity of personal debt.
The work of removal and shipping took from 1801 to 1810. It was undertaken in broad daylight, with large teams of three or four hundred labourers at a time, all under the watchful eye of Ottomans and Greeks.
In 1810, in response to questions from the French — who rather fancied the sculptures for the Louvre — Elgin obtained a further firman reconfirming the earlier one, and explicitly permitting the export of the remaining sculptures.
A while earlier, in 1803, while returning home to Britain, Elgin and his family were captured by the French. Napoleon offered Elgin freedom in return for the antiquities, but Elgin refused. He was held for three years, and only allowed to leave after giving his parole to return if summoned. This arrangement meant the end of his public career in Britain.
Weighed down by the heavy cost of the enterprise — which included not only the labourers in Athens, but transporting the sculptures to Piraeus, then shipping them to England — Elgin asked Parliament if it would reimburse him.
In 1816, a Parliamentary Select Committee considered the question. It examined Elgin’s authority to remove the sculptures, as well as the sculptures’ artistic merits and monetary value. The original firman permissions were retained in Athens, but the Select Committee saw a translation of one, and cross-examined Elgin and others closely. They concluded that Elgin possessed the sculptures lawfully, and Parliament then voted, by 82 votes to 30, to acquire the sculptures for the nation. Elgin submitted his expenses as £73,600. Parliament paid him £35,000, and the sculptures were entrusted to the British Museum.
All in all, the venture had been disastrous for Elgin. He had been imprisoned in France, lost his career, and suffered a financial annihilation from which it took his family several generations to recover. Ruined, Elgin moved to France, where he died in Paris in 1841.
In assessing Elgin’s actions, the key fact is that, by 1800, the sculptures had suffered serious damage, and their destruction was ongoing. If Elgin, or someone else, had not acted to save some of them, it is questionable what would remain today. (Some others, in fact, did act. A little earlier, the French ambassador, de Choiseul-Gouffier, removed some sculptures to France, with permission.)
The sculptures Elgin left in Athens continued to suffer damage well into the twentieth century. Chemical waste from the oil refinery at Eleusis and general pollution ate away the detail of much of the carving, leaving the figures blurred and indistinct. And from 1895–1933 Nicholoas Balanos disastrously restored the Parthenon by stapling it together with iron bars, which then expanded, shattering a good deal of the remaining carvings. Fortunately, the comprehensive set of casts taken by Elgin’s artists — now in the British Museum — have proved a uniquely valuable resource for appreciating the finer details of these sculptures before the nineteenth- and twentieth-century damage.
It is true that Elgin had privileged access to the Sublime Porte because of his position as ambassador. And it is true that the Sublime Porte was especially grateful to Britain for the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt. But it is also true that the Ottomans had no cultural or artistic interest in the sculptures, and that Elgin rescued the carvings on his own initiative, in a personal capacity, using his own money. I am therefore among those who see Elgin as a conservator. He saved around half the sculptures on the building in his day, or a quarter of the total originals.
Despite frequent assertions that Elgin was a thief, there are no fair grounds for this allegation. He obtained multiple official permissions from the Ottomans, who were the lawful, internationally recognized authorities in Athens, and had been for 345 years. To impugn the validity of the Ottoman administration is like suggesting the Plantagenet kings of England in the early 1400s had no right to deal with Anglo-Saxon property that William of Normandy acquired by conquest in 1066. The happy fact Athens was returned to Greek rule a generation after Elgin does not invalidate the period of Ottoman rule.
Greece won its independence from the Ottomans in 1832. Britain, France, and Russia assisted in the war of independence, with part of the international enthusiasm for the Greek cause coming from a renewed interest in Greece’s heritage inspired directly by the fame of the sculptures on display in the British Museum.
Following Greek independence, there were many people still living, including Lord Elgin, who could have given direct evidence in a British or Greek court if any Greek authorities had wanted to assert that Elgin had acted illegally in any way. No such case was — or has ever been — lodged.
It is sometimes noted that Lord Byron criticized Elgin. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron wrote of the Parthenon:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed.
(Canto the Second, Stanza XV, published 1812)
This lament, however, needs a context. Byron was a Romantic who wanted the Parthenon to crumble away as an enchanting, poetic, nostalgic wreck. He did not want it preserved. Nor was he a campaigner for the retention of Greece’s antiquities in Greece: he brought Greek antiquities back to England for private sale.
Another occasional misunderstanding surrounds the sculptures now on display in Athens’s New Acropolis Museum. The exhibits there are a mix of the originals Elgin left in situ and casts of the sculptures now in the British Museum. The gaps in the museum’s reconstruction of the Parthenon’s decoration do not represent the sculptures in London. They simply indicate where sculptures were destroyed before Elgin’s day.
Whatever today’s arguments about the best location for the sculptures: about the value and role of specialized versus encyclopaedic museums, and about the pros and cons of allowing the British Museum’s seven million annual visitors to learn about Athens and the Parthenon, it should at least be possible to agree on one thing. Elgin — single-handedly, single-mindedly, and to his own great cost — saved an extraordinary quantity of uniquely wonderful ancient sculpture. Wherever people want them to be displayed, they only exist today, in such excellent condition, because of Elgin. For that, we should all be grateful.
Dr Dominic Selwood is a historian, journalist, and barrister. He writes about history for the Daily Telegraph, including the daily ‘On this day’ online column. He also writes occasionally for the Spectator, Prospect Magazine. and others. He received his DPhil in history from New College, Oxford, studied at the Sorbonne, Poitiers, Wales, and London, and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has lectured at Oxford, London, Exeter, Cardiff, Paris, Piacenza, and elsewhere, and regularly discusses history on television and radio. He works as a barrister. His history books include Knights of the Cloister, a study of the medieval Templars and Hospitallers, and the popular history book Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers, which is a collection of essays debunking historical myths. He is the author of The Sword of Moses and The Apocalypse Fire, crypto-thrillers featuring Dr Ava Curzon, an ex-spy working as an archaeologist in Britain and the Middle East.