Should the Elgin Marbles be Returned to Athens? Sean Gabb, 30th January 2003

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 89
30th January 2003

Should the Elgin Marbles
be Returned to Athens?
by Sean Gabb

Image result for athens ottomanAt the beginning of the 19th century, Athens was a small town in one of the less orderly and important provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Its inhabitants numbered about a thousand, mostly living in small huts built just below the Acropolis. The glorious buildings of antiquity were all in various states of ruin, some still to be recognised from the descriptions given in Pausanias, others but heaps of overgrown masonry. There was a mosque and a church and various administrative buildings on the Acropolis. The Parthenon had been falling into ever greater ruin since the explosion there in 1687. Those parts of the Erechtheion still not utterly ruined were used to house the seraglio of the Turkish Governor.

To this place of silence and desolation came Lord Elgin, who had been appointed British Ambassador to Constantinople in 1799. He arrived in Athens, intending at first to take sketches and mouldings of the antiquities there. He soon realised, though, that his influence and the indifference of the Turkish authorities to classical art allowed him to go somewhat further. He eventually removed 56 sections of the frieze sculpted by Phidias around the Parthenon, plus nearly all the sculptures from the pediments and the metopes, together with one of the caryatids from the Erechtheion, and had them shipped back to Britain. These treasures are collectively known as the Elgin Marbles, or the Parthenon Marbles, or sometimes as just the Marbles.

After various adventures, the Marbles were bought in 1816 by the British Government, and housed in the British Museum, where they are now displayed in the fine gallery presented to the nation in 1939 by the generosity of Lord Duveen. I saw them first when I was seven; and while I was not so smitten by them as was Keats when he saw them in the 1820s, I have always regarded them as objects of the highest beauty, and make sure to look at them again whenever I am in that part of London with time to spare. They are by general acclaim the greatest works of the greatest period of Greek art. They possess a sustained nobility of theme and execution that the Greeks never again achieved, and that we moderns cannot hope to match.

There is now a vigorous campaign to have the Marbles returned to Athens. Confident of their return, the Greek Government is building a large new museum close by the Parthenon. Despite this optimism, there seems no chance of their being returned, either in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, or at any time thereafter. Both Margaret Thatcher and John Major refused to consider requests for their return. Surprisingly, bearing in mind his general worthlessness, so has Tony Blair.

This refusal, though, to listen to the Greeks may not remain an established fact. In a bureaucratic state such as ours, office brings an immense burden of work; and politicians tend to react by concentrating on the few issues they think of prime importance, regarding all others as annoyances—to be ignored so far as possible, and compromised if they cannot be ignored. So it may be with the Marbles. I have no doubt that, as with the Spanish over Gibraltar, the Greek Government hopes that if it continues making a fuss, it will eventually get its way. Perhaps we shall one day want something of the Greeks, and think little of handing over a few antiquities in return. Perhaps more likely, enough of those who matter will simply be brought to accept the justice of the Greek claim, and will think as well of themselves for returning the Marbles as they now do for saying sorry about the slave trade, the potato famine, the conquest of India, and all our other alleged misdeeds of the past. And if this ever does happen, a leading part in the work of persuasion will have been taken by a body called British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles. Funded so far as I can tell by wealthy Greeks, this body operates from offices just outside the City of London, and has the support of various British celebrities, including Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, and John Mortimer. Its website—www.parthenonuk.com—makes a permanent case for the return of the Marbles.

The case for their return rests on a number of grounds. There is the claim, that Lord Elgin had no legal authority take them in the first place. There is the scholarly claim, that the Marbles would be best displayed in Athens together with the rest of the Acropolis. Then there is the claim that really motivates the Greek Government, that they are the moral property of the Greek people. According to the Greek Foreign Minister, speaking in London in June 2000, “We are talking about the greatest national symbol of Greece. It symbolises the Greek contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind”.

Needless to say, I am strongly opposed to returning the Marbles. If I had my way, they would stay in London forever—preferably joined by anything else we might in future be able to bribe out of the Greeks or the other successor states of antiquity. Indeed, if Lord Elgin did anything wrong, it was to leave too much behind when he finished his work in Athens. He should at least have taken all the pediment sculptures and another caryatid. He might also have dug up some of the statues buried after the Persians destroyed the old Acropolis in 480BC. The world of culture would be all the better had he done so. Just compare the Caryatid he took away with those he left behind, and ask if he really did wrong. However, rather than continue with its mere statement, let me try to justify my opinion. I will review the case for returning the Marbles.

First, there is the claim about legal authority. The argument here turns on the status of an alleged firman, or decree from the Sultan, allowing Lord Elgin access to the Acropolis. Was this genuine? If genuine, what does its ambiguous wording most probably mean? These questions need not be answered, as they are irrelevant. The concept of legal authority has never been very strong in the Islamic world. The Ottoman Empire in the 19th century was entering its last stage of decline, and its government was moved to action far less by considerations of legality than by the various promptings of force and corruption. The form of Lord Elgin’s authorisation is of no consequence. All that matters is that he was the agent of an important foreign power, and he wanted things that were considered at best to be worthless; and so he was allowed to have them. And that, in an oriental despotism, is the only permission that counts. Questioning his legal right to do so as he did is about as pertinent as asking whether the order to shoot one of Stalin’s victims was properly given if the authorising name was typed rather than signed.

Second, there is the claim of cultural integrity. If the Marbles were to be restored to their old places on the Acropolis, there might be some reason behind the claim. But there is no plan to do this. Athens nowadays is one of the most heavily polluted cities in Europe. Setting the marbles into a cloud of car exhaust fumes would be an act of vandalism. In any event, the Marbles could not really be viewed in their old places. The plan rather is to take them from a museum in London and put them into another museum in Athens. Now, most of the museums I have visited in Greece are decidedly inferior to the British Museum in matters of presentation. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens, for example, is a chaotic jumble of statuary and other objects—often with no proper exhibit labels. It is also housed in a building that looked to me in September 2002 as on the verge of collapse, its internal walls patterned with horizontal cracks. Add to this that modern Athens is a city of the most atrocious ugliness—three and a half million people living and working in a sprawl of concrete boxes compared with which the suburbs of Bratislava are models of town planning. London is far more accessible to those most likely to want to look at the Marbles. It is cleaner, more beautiful, and more cultured; and entry to the British Museum is still free. I will add that the museum being built in Athens has been denounced as an architectural eyesore that, whatever its contents, will make it still harder to appreciate the beauty of the monuments beside it. And there is the notorious fact that many of the provincial museums in Greece are a scholarly disgrace—shut most of the time, filled with statues swathed in bubble wrap that may not even have been catalogued. Perhaps before demanding the return of antiquities taken from their country, the Greeks should consider putting what they already have into a semblance of order.

I turn now to the claim that the Greek people have some moral right to the Marbles. This is not a right I can understand. I understand clearly enough that I own the notebook computer on which I am typing this article. I understand that the British Government owns most of Salisbury Plain, though I might wish it did not. Where restitution is concerned, I understand my claim to a book that one of my students borrowed from me in 1999 and never returned. I understand the claim that an American Jew might have to a picture in a German gallery that he can prove was stolen from his great uncle in 1942. But a right of ownership attaching to an entire people and lasting for thousands of years, during most of which time there was no accepted representative to exercise it, and that remains powerful enough to override any competing claim based on purchase and nearly two centuries of undisturbed possession—that is not something that I at all understand. Compared with this, the wilder oddities of American tort law make perfect sense. Compared with this, the reparations for slavery demanded by certain black groups in America seem almost reasonable.

Let us, however, accept that such moral rights can exist. This granted, no museum in the civilised world will be safe. If the Elgin Marbles, why not the Rosetta Stone, sent to France by Napoleon, and brought from there to London as spoils of war? Should that be returned to Egypt? Why not the Codex Sinaiaticus, brought to England in the 17th century, ultimately also from Egypt? Should that be returned? Why not the obelisk that Caligula took to Rome? Why not the statues in the Capitoline Museum, many of them looted from Greece by the Roman Consuls and Emperors? Why not the Serpent Column, taken from Delphi, I believe, by one of the early Eastern Emperors, and placed in the Hippodrome at Constantinople, where it remains? Why not the bronze horses in Venice, taken from Constantinople after the sack of 1204, and taken there perhaps from Rome in the dark ages, to where they may have been taken after the sack of Corinth in 146 BC? Should all of these be returned to where they were originally placed or last known to have been placed? If not, why not? When is there to be any line drawn to bar such claims? Nor are these inconceivable extensions. I read last year that some Jewish group was considering a claim to the Coliseum in Rome on the grounds that it was built by the Flavian Emperors with the proceeds from the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Of course, the claim for the Elgin Marbles is said to be an exceptional one. These objects are uniquely important. No precedent, we are told, will be set by their return to Athens. It will be a case terminating in itself. Anyone who believes that has no understanding of human greed and vanity, or of the ingenuity by which they can be advanced. First it will be the Marbles, and then it will be something else, and then something else again. Let the Greeks have their way in this, and it will be only a matter of time before the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum and the Louvre are stripped as bare as a Roman palace after the sack by Genseric.

But let us continue accepting the principle of moral claims. Do the modern Greeks actually have one to the return of the Marbles? In what sense can they be regarded as the legitimate heirs of the ancient Greeks?

Not, I think, in the genetic sense. We have no reliable demographic evidence from antiquity, but after the wars of the century around Alexander the Great, the populations of mainland Greece seem to have gone into a steady decline that lasted for a thousand years. By around the time of Christ, the depopulation of the old city states was a matter of general comment by those who lived there and of Roman visitors. It is described in a letter to Cicero. It is implied in an inscription that Nero had placed on the Parthenon. Plutarch ascribes the progressive silencing of the Greek oracles to the diminished need for their services. The great plague of 542 reduced populations right across the Mediterranean world, and would have reduced that of mainland Greece still further. Long before that, however, the majority of those living there might well have been descended less from the nation of Pericles and Demosthenes than from imported slaves and barbarian invaders. Certainly, in the two centuries of disorder that followed the great plague, the territory was almost wholly lost to the Byzantine State. When finally reconquered from the Slavs, it had to be rehellenised from Constantinople. The linguistic evidence is important here. With the exception of the Tsakonians in the Peloponnese, the modern inhabitants of Greece speak a language clearly descended from that of Byzantium, with no trace of the old regional dialects. The Turkish conquest of the 15th century led to renewed movements of people. When Lord Elgin arrived in Athens, perhaps half the population was Moslem—and probably not all of these were Greek converts. Certainly, modern Greece as I have seen it is occupied by a rich ethnic mix that embraces every human shade from Nordic blonde to Moorish brown. Athens itself was largely colonised after the population transfers of the 1920s by Asiatics whose claim to a Greek ethnic connection is less well founded than that of the West Indies blacks to an English connection—less so, indeed, since the West Indies blacks can often accurately trace their bloodlines back to British planters before the abolition of slavery there.

Nor in the cultural sense are the modern inhabitants of Greece Greek. Let us return to the issue of language. They speak a language that is descended from Greek, but with a loss of vowels and diphthongs and a change of accentuation that makes it incomprehensible when spoken to anyone who has learned Greek. Nor is it much more comprehensible when read, having lost most of its tenses and with the change of much of its basic vocabulary—words like bread, water, fish, meat, house, and so forth, unrelated to the original Greek. Few modern Greeks can understand the ancient language. As soon as the European Union harmonises away the Greek alphabet, and words are spelled phonetically in the Roman script, only a philologist will be able to see any connection between the two languages.

Turning to wider differences, the religion of the modern Greeks is that of the Byzantine Church, and the tendency of this, unlike that of the Roman, has been to degrade the intellect. Even before the Turkish conquest, this church had little theology beyond arguments over the efficacy of icons and relics and over the reality of the Inner Light. It had no Anselm or Bonaventura or Aquinas. Its chosen representatives were humbled by the Latins at the later ecumenical councils of the Church, and a point was gained once only by forging a quotation. It spawned no Reformation and headed no Counter-Reformation. It nurtured no Descartes or Voltaire to react against it.

Of course, there is much about the Byzantine Church to be admired. It kept alive the idea of a separate nation during the centuries of Ottoman rule, and it has not during the past century shared in the moral collapse of the western churches. But it is not a religion that can be described in even the vaguest sense as Hellenic. And the national idea that it kept alive was a specifically Byzantine national idea.

Of course again, there was much admirable about the Byzantine Empire. It was not the sickly, sterile thing that the inattentive reader of Gibbon may be inclined to think it. The Empire survived more than a thousand years in the most trying circumstances. For much of this time, it even flourished, being the dominant military, naval, economic and cultural power of the Mediterranean world. It saved and transmitted just about all that we now have of Greek civilisation, and would have transmitted still more but for the criminal folly of the Latins. Its arts were beautiful, its technology progressive, its historians among the best. But with the Venetian sack of 1204, and certainly after the Turkish conquest of 1453, the Byzantium of Michael Psellus and Anna Comnena died. What lived on was the anti-Hellenism of the religious establishment. The westerners who joined in the war of independence against the Turks told themselves they were fighting in a second Persian War, and that victory would be followed by another classical age. What really followed was a long age of cultural and intellectual torpor, disturbed though never interrupted by a cycle of revolutions, civil wars, assassinations, military dictatorships and childish economic policies. No wonder the modern Greeks are such happy members of the European Union. Not only does it now hand over “project funding” faster than even they can embezzle it, but it also relieves them from all the trouble of thinking for themselves about politics and economics. No wonder so many of the clever Greeks simply get out of the country.

Anyone who looks for Greece in the modern inhabitants of that country will be disappointed. In almost every sense, the modern Greeks bear as little relationship to the builders of the Acropolis as we do to the builders of Stonehenge. But there is still a Greece – not a nation, perhaps, but a spirit. Wherever there is reason and light and beauty, there is Greece. Wherever people wonder what is truth and how we can perceive it, there is Greece. Without Greece, there would have been no Shakespeare or Milton, no Newton or Leibnitz, no Bach or Mozart, no Descartes or John Locke or David Hume, no Adam Smith. We, the civilised classes of Western Europe and the English-speaking world, are the true heirs of Greece; and, beyond all reasonable doubt, England has been the Athens of that New Greece. The Elgin Marbles are presently in London, and by all that we may regard as sacred, it is our duty to keep them there.

© 2003 – 2017, seangabb.

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