The Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures (mostly by Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural members that originally were part of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman house to remove pieces from the Parthenon while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while some critics compared Elgin’s actions to vandalism or looting.
Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 and placed on display in the British Museum, where they stand now on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
Greece condemned Elgin’s action to remove the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. The Greek position is that the violent removal of the marbles from the monument is illegal, and a blatant act of vandalism against a monument of significant historical value, and regards the marbles to be stolen intellectual property. Greece urges for the return of the marbles back to their home country and has raised the issue on the international level since 1980s, with Melina Mercouri, then Minster of Culture of Greece, leading the Greek efforts for their repatriation. UNESCO agreed in 2014 to mediate between Greece and the United Kingdom in resolving the dispute of the Elgin Marbles.
Main articles: Parthenon Frieze and Metopes of the Parthenon
The Parthenon Marbles acquired by Elgin include some 17 figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments, 15 (of an original 92) of the metope panels depicting battles between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, as well as 247 feet (or 75 m of an original 524 ft or 160 m) of the Parthenon Frieze which decorated the horizontal course set above the interior architrave of the temple. As such, they represent more than half of what now remains of the surviving sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. Elgin’s acquisitions also included objects from other buildings on the Athenian Acropolis: a Caryatid from Erechtheum; four slabs from the parapet frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike; and a number of other architectural fragments of the Parthenon, Propylaia, Erechtheum, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Treasury of Atreus.
When the marbles were shipped to England, they were “an instant success among many” who admired the sculptures and supported their arrival, but both the sculptures and Elgin also received criticism from detractors. Lord Elgin began negotiations for the sale of the collection to the British Museum in 1811, but negotiations failed despite the support of British artists after the government showed little interest. Many Britons opposed the statues because they were in bad condition and therefore did not display the “ideal beauty” found in other sculpture collections. The following years marked an increased interest in classical Greece, and in June 1816, after parliamentary hearings, the House of Commons offered £35,000 in exchange for the sculptures. Even at the time the acquisition inspired much debate, although it was supported by “many persuasive calls” for the purchase.
Lord Byron did not care for the sculptures, calling them “misshapen monuments”. He strongly objected to their removal from Greece, denouncing Elgin as a vandal. His point of view about the removal of the Marbles from Athens is also reflected in his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”:
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Byron was not the only one to protest against the removal at the time:
“The Honourable Lord has taken advantage of the most unjustifiable means and has committed the most flagrant pillages. It was, it seems, fatal that a representative of our country loot those objects that the Turks and other barbarians had considered sacred,” said Sir John Newport.
And English travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the removal of the metopes, called the action a “spoliation” and lamented that “thus the form of the temple has sustained a greater injury than it had already experienced from the Venetian artillery,” recording also that “neither was there a workman employed in the undertaking … who did not express his concern that such havoc should be deemed necessary, after moulds and casts had been already made of all the sculpture which it was designed to remove.”
A parliamentary committee investigating the situation concluded that the monuments were best given “asylum” under a “free government” such as the British one. In 1810, Elgin published a defence of his actions which silenced most of his detractors, although the subject remained controversial. John Keats was one of those who saw them privately exhibited in London, hence his two sonnets about the marbles. Notable supporters of Elgin included the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
Public perception of the issue
Despite the British Museum’s position on its ownership of the marbles, in 1998, all the public polls carried out by companies or newspapers, show a favor of returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece.