Why Are the Parthenon Marbles So Controversial?

greek prime minister calls for return of sculptures to athens

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The British Museum says it wants to celebrate ancient civilizations. Its permanent collection boasts pieces from ancient Egypt and Greece, among others. Greece’s prime minister would like some items returned to Athens.

Elgin marble
Photo by mark higgins / Shutterstock

The British Museum first opened in 1759 and has, since that time, accumulated more than 8 million pieces of artwork and artifacts from around the world. For example, it houses the Rosetta Stone, which was first taken from Egypt by the French in 1799 and then taken from the French by the British in 1801. However, many historians and elected officials around the world have increasingly called for the return of these pieces to their home countries.

One such official is Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis from Greece. Mitsotakis recently said he wants to find a “win-win” situation in which the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, can be on display in both London and Athens. However, he also said Greece will never recognize the sculptures as being “legally owned” by the British Museum.

What makes the Parthenon Marbles such a delicate topic? In his video series The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales, Dr. Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, expounds on the uncomfortable history of the sculptures.

How Did England Get the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are the most controversial set of items in the British Museum. Centuries ago, Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Napoleonic Wars, took them from the Parthenon in Athens. How did he get them?

“The Royal Navy defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, which soon forced Napoleon to abandon Egypt, a province of the Ottoman Empire,” Dr. Allitt said. “The grateful sultan asked Elgin what gift he would like, as an expression of his gratitude to England. The ambassador, an enthusiast for the classics, replied that he would like the carvings from the Parthenon in Athens.”

At the time, the Acropolis was an Ottoman fortress. So, with the Sultan’s blessing, Elgin removed the statues. In some cases, he used explosives, which are partly responsible for the half-ruined state of the Parthenon today.

Why Does the British Museum Not Return the Elgin Marbles?

England’s argument for keeping the Elgin Marbles in London resembles one they’ve used for other pieces, as well. The British say that they’ve been well-preserved and displayed for the world, especially since at the time of their removal they were being not only neglected but vandalized.

“The argument against them being in London is that they’re still imperial plunder, of the kind we find it impossible to approve of these days,” Dr. Allitt said. “Certainly, no Greeks consented to their removal; their country too was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, against which the Greek War of Independence was about to start.”

Indeed, one of the arguments the British used for keeping the marbles in London was focused on Athens’s corrosive and polluted atmosphere. However, as Dr. Allitt pointed out, Greece opened the New Acropolis Museum in 2009 for the purpose of housing the marbles in a climate-controlled environment, thus, negating Britain’s point about preservation.

The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily