Lord Elgin and the Marbles

The Parthenon by Lusieri; Wikimedia Commons

Andrea here. There has been a hiatus in my self-published Lady Arianna Regency mystery series, but I’m delighted to announce that a new book will be releasing on May 14th! (It’s up for pre-order now.) The adventures of Lady Arianna and her husband, the Earl of Saybrook revolve around political intrigues of the era, which is fun for because it allows me to set stories in different countries during interesting events—past stories have been set at the grand Peace Conference in Vienna, Paris during the Allied occupation after the Battle of Waterloo, and the Imperial Russian court in St. Petersburg.

One of the Elgin Marbles; photo by author

I also enjoy working in cameo appearances of real people, and exploring controversies that created social and political tensions One of the things that has always struck me as I do research into a specific topic is how many of the things that matter to us today  as resonated with people in earlier times. (There is that old French saying, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—which roughly translates to “the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Having traveled to Greece last year, I really wanted to set a book there. And luckily, history provided me with a perfect story—one that is still stirring emotions today.

In 1816, known as the Year Without A Summer because of the massive volcanic eruption of Mt. Tambora, Lord Elgin asked the British government to purchase his breathtaking collection of decorative marbles—known then and now as the Elgin Marbles—that he had brought back to Britain from their original home as integral elements of the magnificent temple known as the Parthenon, which crowned the Acropolis in Athens.

How did Lord Elgin come into possession of these Marbles? Well, it’s a long story.

The Parthenon by Lusieri; Wikicommons Media

The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, built in the 5th century BCE to celebrate the Greek victory over Persian invaders during the Greco-Persian Wars. Over the centuries, it stood sentinel over Athens, and was used by various conquering powers as a treasury, a Christian church, and then a mosque when the Ottoman Empire added Greece to its possessions. Unfortunately it was also used as a storage place for munitions by the Ottomans during their war with the Venetians, and in 1687, it was badly damaged by a Venetian mortar, which caused a huge explosion.

One of the Elgin Marbles; photo by author

In the 1700s, a number of antiquarians were concerned about the deterioration of the Parthenon and urged Western travelers to bring home fragments from the temple in order to “preserve” them.

Napoleon’s military campaign into Eygpt in 1799 included artists and historians, who carried back priceless artifacts to Paris. In 1800, concerned about French influence spreading east, the British government sent their former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin back to Constantinople in order to maintain good relations with the Sultan.  As Elgin had a great interest in antiquities, he readily agreed to undertake a side mission and do a survey of the Acropolis in order take casts of the Parthenon’s decorative marbles. He assembled a team to do the work, and hired an artist by the name of Giovanni Battista Lusieri to record the site in watercolor paintings and  supervise the copying of the marbles. (Elgin had originally wanted to hire a talented 24-year old painter for the job, but J. M.W. Turner wanted £400, and Elgin thought that too high a price.)

Here’s where it starts to get murky. Elgin requested a firman from the sultan—an official document giving him permission to . . . well, no one quite agrees on exactly what that permission was. The original document seems to have gone missing and only translations exist.

Elgin interpreted the firman as allowing him to cart back to Britain whatever caught his fancy. Now, he did claim from the start that he was doing it to preserve the priceless art from further ruin, pointing out that the site was being scavenged by local thieves.

The Parthenon; photo by author

So, up went the workers and chiseled off a stunning array of classical art, leaving the Parthenon stripped of most of its treasures. In 1803, over 200 crates of marble artwork were loaded onto a ship headed for London. Alas, the Marbles were lost at sea during a storm, and had to be retrieved from the sunken ship, at great personal expense to Elgin.

Once finally in Britain, the Marbles drew crowds to see them in the house Elgin rented as an exhibition hall . But already there was some public outcry over whether it was right to take cultural treasures from another country. Leading the protest was Lord Byron, who described Elgin as a scurrilous thief. (His epic poem Childe Harold has a passage that decries the plundering of the Parthenon.)

Resentment, fanned by Byron’s fiery words (as we all know, it helps to have a celebrity as your spokesperson!) was also growing in Greece, and the loss of the Marbles was used to fan patriotic fervor and  create a nascent independence movement to break away from the Ottoman Empire.

Elgin had spent a vast sum of his personal money on the collecting and transporting the Marbles, and was in serious financial troubles. Which led him to ask the British government to buy them for the British Museum. (Parliament did vote to buy them, and they are currently on display at the museum.)

One of the Elgin Marbles; photo by author

My story is set in the summer of 1816, as Lady Arianna and Saybrook are dispatched to Greece to make an unofficial assessment of the tension roiling through Athens. The British government is anxious to keep the lid on the region, as they fear Russia is looking to gain influence in the Balkans, which would upset the balance of power so carefully constructed at the Congress of Vienna. The Albanians are also getting restless, and there are British who are ardent supporters of Greek independence. . . . So what they find is a tangle of intrigue and deceptions. I hope you’ll enjoy the adventure and learning more about the history of the magnificent Elgin Marbles!

Cultural “looting” is a very serious topic these days. I’ve seen the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum . . . and I’ve seen the Parthenon. And I confess, I feel a twinge of unease. A discussion—sometimes quite heated—has been going on for years between Britain and Greece as to how to resolve who should have custody of the Marbles, and recently there seems to be some progress. My understanding is it involves sharing. What about you? Do you have an opinion on the Elgin Marbles and where they should be?

13 thoughts on “Lord Elgin and the Marbles”

  1. On one hand, the Elgin marbles are more accessible to more people in London. On the other, they belong in the Acropolis in Athens, or, at least, back in Greece. On the whole, I’d choose Greece.

  2. It’s not an easy question to answer. Ideally, art treasures belong in the place that created them, especially when they are monumental sculptures created for a specific setting.

    On the other hand, many things that now reside in western museums would no longer exist if they had remained in place. In one of my books, I sent my Victorian travelers to Mesopotamia, where they saw, among other things, the lion hunt relief sculpture which is now in the British Museum. To my horror, the gates and other sculptures my characters saw at Nineveh were smashed by ISIS just after my book was published.

    I have very mixed feelings about where things should be.

    • Very good points, Lil. It’s a very complex questions with no easy answers. IMO, for the good of humanity and our collective history, cultural treasures should be preserved, and and that may sometimes mean facing hard questions.

      I also think it’s a good thing that as many people as possible have a chance to view them and be inspired and awed by artistic genius. So I ike the compromise that Britain and Greece appear to be nearing. Sharing exhibition of treasures (I think the plan is to send the Marbles back and forth, with ownership ultimately going to Greece.) allows a greater viewership.

  3. What a wonderful setting & backdrop for your book. So intriguing! My vote on the Elgin Marbles would go to sharing.

    • Thanks, Jeanne! It was a very fun book to research and write. And finally gave me a perfect excuse to visit Greece and climb to the top of the Acropolis, which was such a thrill.

      Sharing strikes me as a good way to engage the most people in celebrating the magnificent art.

  4. Well, the British have had the marbles for a couple of hundred years, so I think it’s time to send them back to Greece.
    Evie Dunmore’s most recent book, “The Gentleman’s Gambit”, is very much about this issue. The hero is Lebanese, and he’s in London trying to get back some archeological treasures that were taken from his country, by hook or by crook. It’s a great book, in fact the whole series is wonderful!

    • I agree that the Marbles in the British Museum should now be displayed in the wonderful new museums in Athens for a long stretch, so people can get a sense of their true home and creators.

      I love Evie Dunmore’s series! She does very interesting and engaging themes.

  5. I believe that the marbles were acquired legally though the dispute over this continues.I think that the legality issues need to be settled before discussing any permanent return to Greece.

    In my opinion, unless an artist specifies a preference for locality, his work should be enjoyed by everyone and distributed around the globe wherever suitable display facilities are available. Just as in science where discoveries and knowledge are shared through published journals and not claimed as national property.

    Art and Science should be above petty political wrangling!

    It should make a fascinating backdrop for your story Andrea.

    • The problem is, Greece was conquered by the Ottomans, So even if the Sultan “legally” gave permission to Lord Elgin, the Greeks would naturally say that they weren’t his to give away, they belonged to Greece. Think about your country getting being conquered by a foreign power, who then gives away the country’s treasures!

  6. This situation also brings to mind how many Jewish people were stripped of their valuables, artwork included, during WWII, and the difficulties survivors faced in attempts to reclaim their property. Sharing of the Elgin Marbles seems like a temporary solution, but they should ultimately be returned to Greece, as they are emblematic of Ancient Greek culture. I agree, that the Ottomans gave away that which was not theirs to give.

  7. This situation also brings to mind how many Jewish people were stripped of their valuables, artwork included, during WWII, and the difficulties survivors faced in attempts to reclaim their property.

  8. Byron’s Curse of Minerva is a curse on Elgin for taking the marbles. The curse seems to have fallen on Lady Elgin more than on Lord Elgin. She opposed spending so much of her father’s money on getting the marbles and shipping them to England. The possession of the marbles by England is still a highly contentious subject and it seems that there have been arguments on both sides for more than 200 years.


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