Regency controversy: The Elgin Marbles

The Acropolis 

Today’s subject is marbles. No, not the kind I used to bring to school in a drawstring pouch and play with at recess. Rather, the kind that adorned the ancient Acropolis, the citadel in Athens, Greece, since roughly 400 years BCE, and which have been the subject of bitter debate for two centuries.

Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin,
 painted circa 1788 by Anton Graff

It all started in November of 1798, when Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, a diplomat and a patron of the arts, was appointed as an ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey in the Ottoman Empire, of which Greece was then a part. 

Elgin visited the Acropolis and became concerned about the deteriorating condition of the old buildings there. Many had been damaged during the war between Venice and the Ottomans over a hundred years earlier. Especially hard hit were the marble statues and sculptures adorning the Parthenon, the “jewel of the Acropolis.”

Elgin was told by local Turks that some of the crumbling bits and pieces that fell off the damaged structures were being burned to extract lime and used for new construction. By some accounts over 40 percent of the original marbles had been ground into dust. Elgin was appalled.

Originally, the Scottish noble had intended only to document the existing sculptures, and then, later, to use artists to make castings so that the sculptures could be recreated. But Elgin apparently became convinced that the best thing he could do to protect the priceless artifacts of the Acropolis was to remove as much of them as possible and ship the pieces back to Britain.

One of the Elgin marbles - a marble panel (metope) from the
Parthenon showing a centaur fighting a warrior

In 1801 Elgin began the process of removing material from the site. He obtained a couple of firmans or official decrees from the Ottoman central government that he believed allowed him to excavate at the Acropolis, and his crew went to work, crating statues and hacking pieces off the pediments.

Elgin oversaw the excavation and removal of about half of the remaining sculptures of the Parthenon from 1801 to 1812. He justified his actions by saying that if he hadn’t taken the treasures they would have been destroyed by the Turks.

In all, Elgin took 21 statues from the Parthenon, including a large section of the magnificent Parthenon Frieze. His acquisitions also included statuary from other parts of the Acropolis.

Borrowing from an old schoolyard phrase, you could say that Lord Elgin picked up his marbles and went home. 

If only Elgin had taken marbles like these
 there wouldn't have bene any fuss

Except that they weren't really his marbles, although he seemed to think he had permission to cart them off.

In retrospect, and no matter what reasons Elgin had, taking the marbles seems like a remarkably a high-handed move on his part.  

By some estimates, the Scottish diplomat took at least 253 pieces of marbles, along with coins and vases, in two different shipments. (The first load of cargo he sent home was shipwrecked, never making it past the waters of Cythera, an island off of the coast of Greece. Divers found most of the sunken marbles, but there are probably still pieces lying on the bottom of the Ionian Sea.)

Elgin paid all the costs himself, to the tune of about £70,000. Adjusted for inflation and time, that would be equivalent to at least £4 million or $5 million in today's currency.*

Elgin's first wife Mary, whom he divorced in England
and Scotland in 1807 & 1808 for adultery.
 But that's another story.

Elgin had intended to display the sculptures he acquired at his estate in Scotland, but his plans changed when he decided to divorce his wife and found he needed to settle debts. In 1816 he sold his statuary to the British government, charging the government much less than he’d paid out. He wanted £50,000 but the government only wanted to pay him £30,000. After some haggling, Elgin accepted £35,000 for his marbles.

Perhaps out of a sense of patriotism, Elgin actually turned down higher offers for his prizes, including one from Napoleon. Parliament debated not only how much they’d pay Elgin, but also the legality of what he’d done. In the end, Parliament exonerated Elgin for his actions before taking ownership of the Greek sculptures. 

Elgin’s marbles have stirred controversy ever since they made landfall on the British Isles. One of the most vocal critics of Elgin's actions was Lord Byron, a passionate supporter of Greek independence who considered the Scottish lord's removal of the marbles an act of vandalism. 

Lord Byron, dressed in an Albanian national costume

Byron referred to Elgin's marbles in two of his poems, The Curse of Minerva (where he satirically blames the shipwreck of the first shipment on a curse) and also in one of his most famous works, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published between 1812 and 1818.

In the latter poem Byron writes:

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
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.

The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum in 1819

Once they acquired the marbles, the British government put them into the British Museum, where they’ve been on display ever since. But in 1832, when Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greek officials asked for the sculptures to be restored to their original site.

The British government refused.

In 2015 a lawsuit the Greek government wanted to launch against the British Museum was dropped, which has been interpreted as a tacit acknowledgment that there's no legal case for returning the marbles. Yet Greece still wants the sculptures and other artifacts taken from the Acropolis back and placed in an Athens museum, and the Greeks will no doubt continue to work towards that goal.

Despite popular polls indicating that a majority of the British people support restoring the sculptures to Greece, the official answer is still no. It's hard to say after all this time if the British government still believes it can take better care of the priceless art treasures or it all boils down to a belief in "finders keepers."

U.S. officers discover stolen art stashed by the Nazis
in an Altaussee, Austria, salt mine, Dec. 31, 1944

Some have compared Elgin’s taking the marbles out of Greece as akin to other “spoils of war” situations, such as the organized looting of priceless European art treasures done by the Nazis during World War II, and also the more impromptu looting some American soldiers did when they came across works of art while serving in Europe during the war.

Today there are many efforts from organizations such as the Monuments Men and others to return stolen or displaced cultural art treasures to their rightful owners, whether that’s a government or an individual. But controversy still surrounds the question of who should get to keep the so-called Elgin Marbles.

For a discussion that explains both sides of this debate, here’s a short video by the National Geographic Society:

*Currency conversions made using a calculator at

Images courtesy of Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

Sources for this post include:
  • "How the Parthenon Lost its Marbles," National Geographic History Magazine
  • "Spoils of War Returned," Prologue Magazine, a publication of the US National Archives, Fall 2002
  • “Lord Byron and the Elgin marbles,” blog by Professor Panos Karagiorgo 
  • “Greece knows there is no legal right to the Elgin Marbles - that’s why it won’t sue the UK,” by Dominic Selwood, The Telegraph, May 14, 2015
  • "Returning the Spoils of World War II, Taken by Americans," by Tom Mashberg, , May 5, 2015

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