Posts Tagged ‘Elgin Marbles’


That old chestnut is back in the fire, as always happens when a Greek government finds itself up the creek (when was a Greek government last not up the creek?). Let’s find something to rouse our sense of national unity, re-animate that spirit of dogged courage and resistance to the hostile world that always surrounds us, the ingrates, ever eager to destroy our brave and noble little country that gave the world art, science, literature, philosophy: in short, the whole of civilization.

And rather as the Arab countries have that oh-so-convenient running sore of Israel’s existence in “Palestinian” territory to distract attention from their own numerous failings, so Greeks can always turn on the unspeakable Germans (war reparations – though not too politic to make too much of that at the moment when we might need a pile of their tax-payers’ euros), the Americans (the 1940s defeat of the Left; the Colonels’ regime; the Turkish grab of northern Cyprus) or the wicked imperialist British and – horror of horrors – that arrogant, bullying milord Elgin who stole our greatest national treasure, the Parthenon sculptures, and gave them to the British Museum.

Enter the Clooneys or rather the Haven’t-a-Clooneys. For what do they know about the hornets’ nest they are stirring up? But what a wonderful windfall: a glamorous Hollywood star and his beautiful lawyer wife take up the cause. A human rights lawyer, en plus. Justice and human rights: an undreamed of piece of luck for a beleaguered and incompetent government and its died-in-the-wool old lefty minister of culture.

Greek claims based on  narrow nationalism

But is Greece’s claim to the Elgin Marbles any stronger than that of any other modern state to objects or artefacts once found on what is now its territory and housed, for whatever reasons, in a museum on the territory of some other state. Are we to unravel the great international museum collections for this sort of petty cultural chauvinism? For that is what it is.

Greece does not NEED the Parthenon marbles, rather fewer than half of which survive anywhere in any form. It is absolutely stuffed with glorious monuments of the classical age. You would think they might be able to find it in themselves to leave these wonderful sculptures, which have arguably been far more influential in the subsequent intellectual and artistic development of countries other than their own, where they are: in one of the world’s great international collections. For the BM’s collection is INTER-national; that is half the point of it – it is not a matter of narrow nationalist pride. And one thing is very clear: if Elgin had not removed the marbles when he did, modern Greek administrative incompetence and corruption would have seen to it that none of them would have been around today, at least in anything like a recognizable condition, because of the appalling air pollution in Athens throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.

And why a fuss just about the Elgin marbles? Why not the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre in Paris or the sculptures from the temple of Aphaia on Aegina in Munich? Or indeed countless other Greek artefacts in various museum collections around the world? Or, come to that and closer to Mr Hasn’t-A-Clooney’s own home, the “iconic” Cycladic Harp-player in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, famously identified by my now dead friend, the artist John Craxton, as a fake. John had met its maker, a shepherd and self-taught sculptor, on the Greek island of Ios in the 1940s.

 Would any of Greece’s classical monuments have survived without the money, dedication and expertise, indeed sacrifice, of other Europeans?

How often have Greek builders, finding something suspiciously “archaeological” in the foundations of a new house, simply poured concrete as quickly as possible in order to avoid the nosey, time-c0nsuming interest of the archaeological services? I don’t know. I simply ask the question.

Here is a list of major sites largely excavated by foreigners: Delphi and Delos, by the French; Aegina and Olympia, by the Germans; Knossos, by the English; Mycenae, by the Germans and the English; the Athens Agora and Corinth, by the Americans; Phaistos, by the Italians.

Any payments forthcoming from the Greek government? Or any thanks?

And what about all those scholarly works, editions of texts, histories, commentaries, all of which have contributed to bringing billions of tourist dollars to the Greek economy over the years?

Who deciphered Linear B, the oldest version of the Greek language?

And what about John Pendlebury, the archaeologist at Knossos and organizer of Cretan wartime resistance, captured and executed by the Germans, happy to die for the country that he loved? Like many other Englishmen, many of them classicists.

And while we are talking about what might count as claims for reparation of a sort or at least sympathetic acknowledgement: has the Greek government ever considered what it might owe the English, French and Russians for defeating the Turkish navy at Navarino in 1827, in a battle which largely secured the establishment of the infant modern Greek state?

By way of an aside: Codrington, the British admiral of that fleet, is a hero in Greece, with many streets named in his honour. In Britain his family’s name is dragged in the mud because its wealth came from slave-worked plantations in the West Indies which it used to endow the beautiful All Souls College Library in Oxford, now the target of students with similarly arse-over-tip, let’s-rewrite-history views as the Haven’t-a-Clooneys.

Some further ideas for Clooney intervention

Now that gives me an idea. Hey, Mrs Clooney, you could track down Achilles’ descendants and have them up before the beak on a war crimes charge for dragging the body of Hector round the walls of Troy? Or maybe arraign the Athenians for their wholesale destruction of brave little Milos?

But that would not please the Greeks. How about going for the restitution of Constantinople, capital of Orthodox Christianity, so wrongfully stolen by the Muslim Turks in 1453? Or the whole of modern Turkey, come to that, which had been Greek for a couple of millennia before the first Turkish boot ever trod its soil? Now that would be a good use of your celebrity and expertise. And we are coming up to May 29th, the 563rd anniversary of the Fall of that great city.

Greek whingeing and celebrity virtue-signalling

My heart is basically with the Greeks. But sympathy for their plight would be a lot easier if they could occasionally resist the temptation to play the victim and not blame someone else, especially when sporting such spectacular beams in their own eyes. Unfortunately for their own moral good, they can count on a large residue of sentimental sympathy in the western world’s many categories of haven’t-a-clue-nies; the celebrity ones, the politicians and economists like our own Goves and Masons with their own anti-EU or anti-austerity axes to grind and the general public, who knowing no history either ancient or modern naturally tell the pollsters yes when asked if they think the BM should return the “stolen” marbles.






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I have fired off letters to the Press and others about this matter over the years, with about as much effect as pissing in the wind! Now I have a blog I thought I would give my thoughts a more permanent home.

In 2003, a former Lib Dem MP, Richard Allan, who likes to have himself billed as an archaeologist – presumably because he thinks it lends credibility to his case, although we are never told what his credentials are (am I a jazz musician because I have tried to play the saxophone?) – launched yet another campaign to have the Marbles “repatriated” to Greece. I wrote him a letter, the text of which, with some additions, forms the basis of this piece.

Greek lack of generosity

But, before I begin, I would like to say that for me one of the most disappointing things about this whole dispute is the lack of generosity on the part of Greek officialdom in making such a song and dance about the presence of the Marbles in the British Museum. For one thing, it is quite clear that if the sculptures had not been removed to England they would have in effect perished by now. You have only to compare the state of blocks that were recorded in pre-Elgin casts but remained in situ with their condition as revealed in contemporary photographs to see that. I can even see from amateur photographs that I took at Easter 1958 that the arêtes on the fluting of the Parthenon were much sharper then than they are now.

Secondly, through their presence in London the Marbles have served as ambassadors for the culture of classical Greece and spurs to tourism in Greece itself on a scale far exceeding anything that could have been expected had they remained in Athens. (And there is no charge for seeing them in London, unlike Athens, where not long ago non-Greek visitors were required to pay higher admission charges for visiting the Acropolis than Greeks.)

Thirdly, Greece itself is absolutely stuffed with glorious monuments of the classical age. Can’t they find it in themselves to leave these wonderful sculptures, which have arguably been far more influential in the subsequent intellectual and artistic development of countries other than their own, where they are, in one of the world’s great international collections? For the BM’s collection is INTER-national; that is half the point of it – it is not a matter of narrow nationalist pride.


And now, with some additions, for what I said to Richard Allan:

Greek claims based on  narrow nationalism not reason

Greece has no better claim to the Elgin Marbles than any other modern state has to objects or artefacts once found on what is now its territory and housed, for whatever reasons, in a museum on the territory of some other state. Are we to unravel the great international museum collections for this sort of petty cultural chauvinism?

Greece’s campaign to gain possession of the Marbles is based on emotion and little else: an appeal to a narrow kind of patriotism that has made a national virility symbol of the Marbles. It is entirely in character that it should have been launched by Melina Mercouri, whose only real talent was the histrionic display of “passion.” Noble, heroic little Greece, cradle of democracy, mother of western civilisation, for ever martyred, humiliated and despoiled, by the Great Powers, Turks, British, Americans, all its ills attributable to the ksèno dhàktilo, the foreign finger. In this instance, robbed of its greatest treasure by a dastardly Englishman and an aristocrat to boot. That, basically, is how the story goes. That is the essence of the appeal. And of course it works with the “passionless” English, who can be made to feel guilty, both for their lack of passion and for their Great Power past.

Appeals of this kind may win votes, but they do not confer rights or amount to an argument.

You make a show of disinterested objectivity on your website. All we care about, you claim, is the best possible future for the Marbles themselves. But you are essentially dishonest, for you proceed to present your case in extremely tendentious terms. You claim that the Marbles somehow embody the achievement of a free democratic people: no mention of the slave economy of 5th century Athens, of the total disenfranchisement of women, of Athens’ brutal mainmise on the treasury of its allies in the Delian League, not to mention its bloody “disciplining” of its allies. “Imperial Spoils,” Christopher Hitchens calls his book with unconscious irony. Dead right!

You claim that Elgin removed the Marbles without the consent of “the Greek people” – an anachronism if ever I heard one. There was no Greek state and never had been one in 1800. So what do you mean by “the Greek people”? Would you have polled the Greeks resident for centuries in the Crimea, Bucharest, Odessa, Alexandria, for example? Would you have included the Vlachs, the Albanians, the Macedonians, the Pomaks and the other minorities systematically repressed by the modern Greek state?

You talk of Greece being under Ottoman occupation. Of course, the Ottomans ruled what we now recognise as the territory of the Greek state. But then? There was not a Greece in the fifteenth century for the Ottomans to occupy, not in the sense which you are trying to exploit.

And you put this tendentious stuff out on your website and publish what you claim are the results of opinion polls. I would bet that 95% of the people whose opinions you claim to have sounded do not know what you are talking about and could not tell an Ottoman from a penguin. Besides, it is hardly surprising in our politically  correct times that if you present the BM’s possession of the Marbles as theft and ask people who no longer have much idea of history, classical or modern, whether they approve or not, they are likely to say no, just as demands for reparation for the evils of slavery are always aimed at England, as if the slave markets – with Christian Europeans the slaves in many cases – of Turkey, north Africa, central Asia and Arabia – had never existed, never mind continued to operate long after the trade was banned wherever England’s writ ran.

Neglect of all periods of history outside the classical and lack of interest in other people’s cultures

Greece suffers from a peculiarly narrow chauvinism, in the cultural as in other domains. It prizes exclusively that part of  Greek history which precedes the death of Alexander the Great. The Byzantine and, especially, post-Byzantine periods are largely ignored and their monuments neglected. Numberless early medieval chapels in Crete and the Mani languish in varying states of decay and neglect; even the main Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki have been “devalued” (to use your tendentious expression) by the overshadowing of modern apartment blocks. Mt Athos itself has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair. The rich heritage of eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture has been almost completely destroyed in the last fifty years. Of the grand old mansions of Kastoria, Siatista and many other northern towns hardly one survives in a reasonable state. In the 1970s the National Tourism Organisation of Greece bought four of the survivors (at that time) in Kastoria and over the next ten years allowed them to fall ever further into disrepair. Practically every provincial town in the country has been architecturally desecrated and Lord knows how many interesting remains lost through the unscrupulous activities of property speculators.

There are churches and monasteries throughout the Pindos mountains which have scarcely even been catalogued. Their frescoed walls and painted ceilings have been ruined by damp and repaired any old how with raw cement and their flagged floors concreted over because it is “easier to clean”. (The politicians in Athens have never even set foot in these places.)

I suggest that the proper appreciation of this more recent history is far more important to an understanding of contemporary Greece and its place in the world of today than the exclusive focus on the grandeur of the classical period and consequent playing down of all subsequent periods. The Greek government would be performing a far greater service to the people of Greece if it were to promote the proper teaching of these periods of history rather than the thoroughly cleaned-up version of events that passes for history teaching at the moment.

As to the contents of Greece’s museums, you will not find a single item of African or Oriental art anywhere in the country, nor an Italian Renaissance painting, nor an example of English or French eighteenth-century furniture, as if Greece’s cultural horizons started and ended with its own classical period.


It is rather noticeable that since the coming into being of the new Acropolis Museum the terms of the argument have changed: from being about the repatriation or restitution of the Marbles to being about their re-unification.

Re-unification of the Marbles a red herring

Well, a) it is pretty clear that for most people the interest of the Marbles is the beauty of the sculpting, NOT understanding the historical context, the significance of the Panathenaic processions et cetera; and b) re-unification is a term that anyway begs rather a lot of questions in this context, as fewer than half of the original Parthenon sculptures survive in any form. Christian Greek iconoclasts destroyed a goodly chunk of what they considered pagan work in the sixth century AD and a Venetian artillery shell landing in a Turkish munitions dump blew a further large hole in the south side of the building in 1687. It is difficult to see how any “artistic unity” could be restored in these circumstances.

A lot more heat than light is generated in most discussion about the Elgin Marbles. Nadine Gordimer and the Australians (a very large Greek migrant community there of course, whose feelings about back home may well be as irresponsibly nationalistic as American Irish support for the IRA used to be) seem to think that, were it not for the bloody-minded British, the Parthenon could quite easily be restored to former glory. Hitchens seems to think that the crucial factor is the villainy of a ferocious, predatory, horse-whipping  aristocrat, who “ripped off huge chunks,” “carried them off” to his “private home”  – a bit like Grendel, perhaps? “Only his bankruptcy saved them,” to the relief, I suppose, “of all us Philhellenes.” And is not that a give-away? For what is a Philhellene if not a sentimentalist, an uncritical worshipper of an ideal vision of all things classical Greek, and an essentially Anglo-Saxon vision at that? I assume he is not thinking of the baser practices of ladhòmata, rousfètia, fakelàkia and so forth.

My late lamented friend, the painter John Craxton (see my earlier post), who like me spent half a lifetime in Greece, used that to say that the Greeks had a chip on their shoulder and it was made of Pentelic marble!

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