The acrimonious debate over the Elgin Marbles, housed in the British Museum since 1816, provides the catalyst for this new book. Ever since Lord Byron libelled Lord Elgin in verse as, ‘the last, the worst, dull spoiler,’ plundering the temple where ‘Pallas lingered,’ homegrown restitutionists have quoted Childe Harold to support the arguments for their return to Greece. John Keats never saw the Parthenon, but his feelings on first encountering its sculptures in London were just as intense. He sat before them in a reverie, staring for hours as they opened the classical world to him. His sonnets written afterwards remind us that these Grecian marbles belong to our national culture too now, as embedded as Cranmer’s Prayer Book or the King James’ Bible.
Angry restitutionists tend to overlook the centuries of careless destruction which preceded Elgin’s arrival at the Acropolis, making his removal of the marbles such a reasonable, natural act. This is the story which Dorothy King, who strongly believes that they should stay where they are, sets out to tell. The Parthenon was built by Pericles in the 5th century BC to commemorate victories over the Persians, and especially the battle of Marathon, with a gold and ivory votive statue of Athena Parthenos, and a treasury chamber housing the wealth of the city state of Athens. Although Athena survived the Roman occupation, by 694 her temple had become a Byzantine church, reconsecrated to the Virgin Mary. The Christian graffitti cut into its stones in this period and peg-holes for icons in its columns are still visible. Frankish crusaders added an apse with golden mosaics, and punched new doors and windows through the walls, knocking out some of the sculptural metopes, and defacing others. In the 16th century the Virgin’s cathedral became a Turkish mosque with a minaret capping its bell-tower and whitewash on its mosaics, standing in the middle of a military garrison. Military occupation was its undoing. In 1687 an ammunition store in the Parthenon was shelled by besieging Venetians, blowing out its long walls and columns, shattering frieze and metope blocks and ripping through the roof.
Fire and gunpowder ended this period of the Parthenon’s useful, mongrel existence and recast it for a couple of centuries as a romantic ruin. The Ottomans built small houses from fragments of broken masonry between its fallen walls, and when Elgin arrived in 1801 local jannissaries were hacking off and smashing the bas-reliefs and sculptures in search of the lead ties which held them in place, which they melted down for bullets. Since Britain had helped defend Ottoman Egypt from the French, Elgin obtained the right to take some of the Parthenon’s remaining sculptures, a diplomatic gift from the ruling Sultan. Today it is indisputable that Elgin’s marbles have survived much better than the hacked and eroded pieces which stayed in Athens.
For the nation state of Greece the Acropolis will always be a politically sensitive archaeological site. In the 19th century its Christian and Ottoman remains were demolished, and in the 20th, some of the Parthenon was rebuilt. About half of its remaining architectural sculpture is in London, in a universal museum show- casing the culture of the Enlightenment, whose architecture signals their place as the most significant treasure in its collections. Dorothy King’s book will not make peace between the factions warring over Elgin’s marbles, but it should finally lay the libel of his rapacious plundering of a great Hellenistic monument.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 18, 2006