Contested Heritage: Lord Elgin and the Legacy of the Parthenon Marbles

During an interview with Greek newspaper Ta Nea this year, Boris Johnson explicitly ruled out the return of the Elgin marbles to Athens. He insisted Lord Elgin acquired the marbles from Parthenon legally in the 1810s. Since then, it is under legal ownership of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London. The Prime Minister’s statement sparked further controversy on this contested heritage. The Greek Culture Minister, Lina Mendoni, rejected this view and stated that Johnson had not been briefed by competent scholars on new historical data. In an interview in 2020, Mendoni also branded Lord Elgin a “serial thief”.

Night view of the Pathenon ( A UNESCO Heritage site)
A night view of the Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens, where Lord Elgin removed many metopes and friezes. Credit @

Elgin’s Questionable Acquisition

Elgin marbles are also known as the Parthenon marbles. Lord Elgin became the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799. Greece was under Ottoman occupation. Elgin found that the Parthenon on the Acropolis was in a perilous state after early Christian destruction and the conversion into a Mosque by the Ottomans. As an art lover who suggests Britain can preserve the sculptures better, he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Turks to remove some of the finest statues, metopes, and friezes from the Parthenon. He then transported the marbles to London, and the British Museum acquired them in 1816. Although it appears that the Sultan gave two ratifications to Elgin, Greece argues that the Ottomans were foreign invaders acting against the will of its people.

Lord Elgin, the marbles were named after him. A thief of heritage?
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. A Scottish nobleman and diplomat. Credit @ George Perfect Harding, National Portrait Gallery.

The Debate

The war of words between Johnson and Mendoni revived the age-old debate on the Elgin marbles – to whom does it belong, the Brits or the Greeks? Should Britain return the marbles?

This debate is a historical, legal, and moral one. Yet, I say such a dispute has flooded the mainstream media. There has been extensive literature and opinion pieces on the subject. The debate on Intelligence², involving Stephen Fry, is particularly excellent. Hence, this article will not focus on this important yet cliched controversy. Instead, it will offer an analytical and historical account of the marble’s significance to its owners and audience from Imperial Athens, Georgian London, and then to modern London. It shall explore the marble’s colourful interaction with the people.

Imperial Athens: The Parthenon and its Marbles in Antiquity

After the victory over the Persian invaders, Statesman Pericles directed the construction of the Parthenon. The work began in 447 BC and was completed in 438 BC by Architects Ictinus and Callicrates. Sculptor Phidias continued the fine decorations and carvings on the building until 432 BC.

What the Parthenon meant to its contemporary Athenians

Religion was at the centre of Greek life. Before the Parthenon, Athenians worshipped at an older temple known as the Older Parthenon. The Persian invasion of 480 BC saw the destruction of such buildings. And after defeating the Persians at Eurymedon, it is only proper to reconstruct the centre for religious life.. The religiosity of the Parthenon was highlighted by the magnificent statue of Athena, Athens’ protector, the focal point of the temple. It was the Athena Parthenos: 12 meters high, carved of wood and covered in ivory and gold.

Athena Parthenos. The interior of the Parthenon
An unknown artist’s rendition of the Athena Parthenos, located at the centre of the Parthenon. Credit @

Power and Victory

As Ancient Geographer Pausanias noted, Athena holds a statue of Nike that is four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. The masses gathered outside the temple, offering prayers, pouring libations, and performing sacrifices for the goddess of wisdom. But it is more than that. As Mary Beard argues in The Parthenon, Athena was not simply the goddess of wisdom. Instead, she embodied a cunning intelligence that played an essential role in carpentry, warfare, and statecraft.

Indeed, this sense of militaristic prowess is evident in the Parthenon marbles. Some of the 92 metopes depict the Athenian victory over the Persians. Many young cavalrymen featured prominently on those friezes. The statue of Nike, the goddess of victory which Athena holds, also symbolises triumph. From there, it is clear that celebrating the win over a formidable enemy like Persia is another aim of building the Parthenon.

Reconstruction of the Parthenon (before the Elgin marbles)
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Beautiful Recreation of the Parthenon and its surrounding heritage. Credit @ Greece Is.

Moreover, the temple served as a treasury for Athens, where officials managed the finances of the Delian League: an association with other Greek states against Persia, in which Athens was the dominant force. The Parthenon is overall a symbol of the flourishing democratic Athens, where eligible male citizens could participate in public affairs. She gave a unique identity to the Athenians in the Greek world filled with Oligarchies like Sparta and Monarchies. Despite being a controversial system of government at the time, Athens rose above all challenges and produced the finest artists, architects, statesmen, and military.

Georgian London: The British Pride and the Elgin Marbles

The meaning of heritage to its audience inevitably changes as history progresses. To Londoners in the Georgian era, the Parthenon marbles had different connotations (here the word ‘Georgian’ refers to a period in British history, not the nation – Georgia). Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the marbles was highly nationalistic. He moved heaven and earth to ship them to London. In light of the European Art Race, at a time when countries such as Bavaria and France were itching for antiquities, nationalism was a salient motive.

Nationalism and the Scramble of Classical Art

Western civilisations hugely valued antiquities and heritages in the 19th Century. In Britain, newspapers typically present the news of acquiring antiquities on global affairs pages, alongside reports of battles. Britain, like her European counterparts, wanted to build an image of a cultural nation. British political elites back then all had a classical education, and many were fond of Greek and Roman culture. Indeed, as Philosopher Denis Diderot asserts, those who wish to see nature must study Antiquity. Therefore, the love for Neo-classicalism and Greek antiquities empowered the drive to take ancient artworks as possession.

The central players in the race to acquire Greek and Roman classical art were France, Bavaria, Prussia, Russia, and Britain. These powers invested substantial resources. For example, in 1842, to remove 80 tons of sculpture from Xanthos for installation in the British Museum, the British Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean ordered two naval ships and 160 enlisted men to recover the objects. The investment of manpower and money reflects the importance of these antiquities’ place in Britain’s diplomatic missions.

On Elgin’s return journey to London, the French cut him off and detained him for three years. Elgin claimed that had he named a price for the marbles to sell to Napoleon, freedom would have come sooner. Indeed, as Historian Merryman noted, Prince Ludwig of Bavaria likewise offered to purchase the Marbles, but Elgin stood his ground. Back home, the feeling of pride was apparent. For instance, the 1816 parliamentary Select Committee Elgin report claims:

“No country can be better adapted than our own to provide an honourable asylum to this [monument]”.

Painting. Heritage: Elgin marbles
Archibald Archer: The Temporary Elgin Room in 1819, portraits of trustees and visitors. Credit @ British Museum.

Elgin Marbles and Race

The relative superiority of some races to others was an accepted belief in Georgian London. Indeed, what we perceive today as racist and derogatory nowadays was a social norm for those living 200 years ago. This is also a dark side of heritage. Some columnists used the whiteness and the masculine beauty of Elgin marbles as a means to justify British rule over the colonised world. For example, after the arrival of the marbles, The Examiner titled an article – ‘Negro Faculties’, where the author uses the marbles to contrast the cognitive abilities and cultural achievements of black people with white men:

“The exquisite, unrivalled Greek form, which is set forth as the epitome of the physiognomy of the white race, is evident in the Elgin Marbles, which, when they are publicly studied by the academy, will enable England, in art as in arms, to bid guidance to the world.”

(The Examiner (London): 29 September 1811: ‘Negro Faculties’)

Gender and Masculinity

A curious reaction to the Parthenon Marbles happened after their initial arrival in London. Elgin marbles are also heritage that reflects societal values. In 1808, they percolated into the world of sport and shed light on the societal codes of masculinity. To drum up the initial publicity of the marbles, Elgin invited boxing icons and staged lavish prizefighting next to the marbles, where elites cheered and bet on the matches. The physical beauty of the statues serves as a backdrop to the physique of the boxers.

Elgin invited many big shots at the time. For example, Jem Belcher, English Champion from 1800 to 1805. Masses across different classes supported prizefighting, as it was a traditional sport reflecting the courage and manliness of Englishmen. Boxing champions were national heroes. Historian Leoussi suggests, through the juxtaposing of the boxers and the marbles, Elgin was persuading his audience of the sculptures’ natural place in Britain:

‘If the naked celebrities looked like mounted Greek warriors in the frieze, then Britons could assure themselves that they were the embodied legacy of ancient Athens.’

Dionysus in Athens vs boxers in England
Comparing masculinity. Figure of Dionysus. Dresden boxer. Théodore Géricault, boxing match, 1818.

Moreover, what such a juxtaposition reveals is the codes of masculinity which the boxers and marbles embody. Compare a fighter to Dionysus. They share perfection in sturdiness, fertility, and heroism. Dionysus is the god of fertility and  rescued the princess of Crete, Ariadne. Georgian elites were undoubtedly aware of these features because of their classical education. When stage actress Sarah Siddons, visited Lord Elgin’s showcase in Park Lane to see the Parthenon sculptures, awestricken, she reportedly fainted at first sight of the marbles. The Georgians’ emotional engagement with the marbles shows the presence of Elgin marbles romanticised and embodied masculine virtues. They represent an ideal which the masses widely admire.

Modern London

Currently located at the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum, the marbles are visible to 6 million visitors each year. The bright and spacious Duveen Gallery is located toward the end of the Ancient Greece exhibits. It was intentionally constructed in 1928 to display the sculptures. The purposeful architecture of this room and the use of large translucent panels allows the visitor to view the sculptures in a natural light. And this reflects the history of the sculptures as they were once presented in the Parthenon, intended to be viewed under the natural Greek sunlight.

Duveen Gallery/ Parthenon/Elgin marbles /jHeritage site
Natural light at the Duveen Gallery. Credit @

Historical education and the British Museum

Whilst many of the visitors are tourists who may appreciate the marbles’ sublime beauty but not dig deep into the history, there are plenty of Art, Anthropology, History, or Classics students who would undertake in-depth research into this heritage. For them, the British Museum is an oak of knowledge that inspires interest. History and Classics students could dive into comparative history and contrast and evaluate the acquisition context, and materials of the marbles with other sculptures of the Greek world. Dawning artists could note down the form of the statues and reimagine them with originality and contemporary styles as exercise.

Heritage as Inspirations for Artists and Architects

In an interview with The Guardian, former Arts Minister, Alan Howarth, states that the beauty of marbles rises above the banal and is a heightened experience in which the whole personality is committed. After seeing those marbles, Howarth asks, ‘why should we tolerate mediocrity and ugliness in our buildings’?

Whether those flowery words are honey from a seasoned political rhetorician or genuine reflections by an art lover, I do not know. Nevertheless, Howarth’s idea of using marbles as an artistic experience has been frequently applied in the last decade. Many art projects have reimagined the Parthenon Marbles.

Architect Niall McLaughlin reproduced the marbles in concrete and graced them onto apartment block no. 15 of the 2012 London Olympic Village. In an interview with The Architectural Review, McLaughlin himself expresses wonder towards the changing lives of the Marbles:

“Damaged by volcanic ash, burnt in a fire, defaced by Christians, robbed of their metal by Turks, blown up by Venetians in a bombardment…There is a sense to me of the Elgin Marbles being fragmented and lost. They were made under the eaves of a particular building at a particular time by particular people, with a particular set of meanings at that time.”

The Marbles and the London Olympics

McLaughlin’s deliberate juxtaposition of the Olympic Games with the marbles has many meanings one can infer. The obvious one being the passing of the Olympic torch from Greece to Britain. But it is more than that. The Elgin marbles, like the Olympics, are a universal human heritage that endured the toil of past conflicts, being constantly politicised, yet, they retained their beauty, just as the Olympic Games sustained their creed through times of racism and war. This is something the masses should recognise and cherish.

Heritage reimagined: Elgin marbles at stratford
McLaughlin’s reimagination of this heritage at Olympic Village, Stratford, London. Credit @ Pinterest.

Final Thoughts

To us, the Elgin marbles have educational value. Whether to inspire students’ dawning interests in Liberal Arts, bring out artistic inspirations, or foster cultural understanding like the Olympics. For elite Brits in the Georgian era, the marbles symbolised masculinity, justified colonialism, and represented their identity as a cultured nation. To Athens, the marbles reflect the triumph of their people, government, and artists over their Greek counterparts, as well as a holy dedication to the goddess they fear and love. I do not think the current excessive emphasis on ‘to whom the marbles belong’ is correct. Because not only is the debate getting nowhere, it also diverts the scrutiny of heritage from an anthropological perspective. The many lives of the Elgin marbles and other heritages deserve to be told, because they are fascinating and colourful, they open a new door to historical analysis.

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