Sunday, 21 June 2009

Loosing my Marbles

This week the Acropolis Museum was unveiled in Athens, just below the site of the world famous Parthenon; one of the most famous buildings to survive from the Classical World. The museum cost £110 million and was built to provide Athens with a place the display the city’s rich history. It is no accident then that it is placed next to the Acropolis, the centrepiece of Ancient Athens. The main motivation for building the museum was to provide a place to display the Elgin Marbles and other statues which formerly adorned the Parthenon. These statues are currently held in the British Museum, having been brought there from Athens in the early 19th century.

The Elgin Marbles, named after the person who removed them from Athens and brought them to the British Museum, make up about 75 metres of the 160 metre frieze that decorated the interior of the Parthenon. This frieze has been recreated as the centre piece of the Acropolis Museum partly with the pieces which remained in Athens and partly with copies made of the pieces currently in London. It is the hope of the Greek authorities that the Elgin Marbles will be returned to Athens to be reunited with the rest of the frieze. They argue that it is a vital part of the Athenian heritage and was wrongful removed from the Parthenon. They believe that they have a right to possess them.

On the face of it this claim is simple enough; the marbles were originally made in Athens so they belong there. However by making this claim the Athenians make a claim about their own culture and heritage which is far bold than first appears. While Athens in name and geography is the same city as it was in the 4th century BC, it is very different culturally and socially; modern Athens is in no way the same city as Classical Athens. For a start modern Athens is the capital of a Greek state then never existed in the 4th century BC. At this time Greece was made up of a series of city-states more likely to fight each other than to cooperate. Even when threatened from outside they only cooperated for reasons of mutual self-interest, rather than any sense of national identity. The idea of a culturally and politically united Greek state was not even considered by the people’s of the day; it was a world of small city-states and large empires or leagues, not nation-states and united coalitions. Secondly the religion of ancient Athens was a polytheistic, anthropomorphic religion of sacrifices and frequent festivals. The gods were ever-present and took a concerted interest in the life of the citizens. This is far removed from the Orthodox Christian religion of Modern Athens, which can trace its roots back to a combination of Judaism and the philosophy of Plato. These two religions are so different that it is impossible to say that one is in any way the successor of the other. Finally Ancient Athens was the intellectual and cultural centre of the Mediterranean world for centuries, whereas modern Athens is the culturally and political capital of a poor, unimportant state in the south of the Balkans, one of the poorest areas of Europe. Modern Athenians can claim to link to ancient Athens beyond the geography. They are two completely different cities situated in the same place.

There is no reason therefore for the authorities at the Parthenon Museum to demand that the Marbles be returned to them because they simply don’t belong to them. They belong to a city and a culture far removed from the modern city. Given that the Parthenon was build by an imperialist power from the money taken from subject states, mostly unwillingly, ostensibly for their defence, London may be the more appropriate place for the Marbles. Beyond this cynicism the Parthenon represents the wider ideals of democracy and freedom embraced in 4th century Athens in what was comparatively one of the most progressive societies in history. These are ideals embraced the world over and as such the Marbles do not belong to anyone, but everyone. They represent the expressive freedom which allowed the artistic excellence which designed and build them to flourish. As such there is no doubt that they should be on display in their most accessible and complete form.

Regardless the current state of affair is unsatisfactory; the frieze exists in several different parts across the world. They should be complete, no matter where they are on display. Given that it is the birthplace of democracy, despite the sad and insignificant pretence of a city with delusions of grandeur which now squats in its place, the frieze should be on display in Athens, next to the Parthenon; the building which is and will always be the enduring symbol of democracy.


  1. Let's just forget they were obtained illegally then with the Earl of Elgin getting permission to remove them from the Ottoman's who occupied Greece at the time.

  2. The problem with saying that they were obtained illegally is that you imply that they were the property of the City and People of Athens, which is what I was arguing against. 19th century Athens was as far from 5th century BC Athens as the city today is. Legally the city and therefore it's contents belonged to the Ottoman Empire, so what happened was a perfectly legitimate legal transaction.