Reactions to Elgin and the Question of Return

Elgin’s removal of the marble pieces from the Parthenon met strong disapproval from the start, especially by other classically-educated western Europeans, mostly fellow Britons. Lord Byron, who would later die fighting in the Greek War of Independence, repeatedly attacked Elgin in his poems as:


But who, of all the plunderers of yon fane

On high-where Pallas linger’d, loth to flee

The latest relic of her ancient reign;

The last, the worst, dull spoiler, who was he?

Blush Caledonia! such thy son could be!

To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:

Cold as the crags upon his native coast,

His mind as barren and his heart as hard,

Is he whose head conceiv’d, whose hand prepar’d,

Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:

Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,

Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,

And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.


An unknown English traveler inscribed shortly after Elgin, on the gaping holes of the missing metopes:

“Quod non fecerunt Goti, hoc fecerunt Scoti”

(lat. “What the Goths did not do, the Scots did”)


Another British traveler F.S.N. Douglas, in his writings commented  …” I wonder at the boldness of the hand that could venture to remove what Phidias had placed under the inspection of Pericles.”

When removing from the Erechteion porch the single Caryatid statue/column that is today at the British Museum, Elgin’s workmen replaced it with a crude brick pillar so that the roof would not collapse. Some unnamed western visitor wrote on one of the five surviving Caryatids “Opus Phidiae” (the work of Phidias), while on the brick pillar the same hand wrote “Opus Elgin”.

It has been suggested that the local Greek society at Athens at Elgin’s time did not significantly react to the removals. The little objections reported had more to do with the loss of long familiar architectural items than with any articulate expression of resistance.   It should be remembered however that this kind of objection is only likely to emerge among educated groups of the society, and these are to be found in major towns or cities. Athens at the time was a provincial town with a population of 10,000, little or no commerce and no wider significance.

Contemporary Greek expressions of objection to Elgin’s actions are rarely recorded, but an interesting instance is recorded by John Cam Hobhouse (later Lord Broughton- a companion of Byron) in the city of Ioannina, provincial capital of Epirus, in what is now North-Western Greece, which was at the time a flourishing commercial and administrative urban centre of 40-50,000 people and which played a prominent role in the organization of the Greek Revolution of 1821. “…Yet I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a learned Greek of Ioannina who said to me {You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks, our forefathers   -preserve them well-we Greeks will come and redemand them}”.

In 1983 a Socialist government in Greece formally launched a campaign for the return of Elgin’s collection to Athens, the reunification of the Parthenon sculpture and its display as a whole. The minister of Culture at the time Melina Merkouri made it clear that they were not claiming back all exported Greek art, but only the missing parts of an existing architectural monument.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: