How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles
The March/April 2017 issue of National Geographic History features an extensive chronicle of the Parthenon Marbles’ removal, raising questions about their possession by Great Britain.
In 1801, British nobleman Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, stripped the Parthenon of many of its sculptures and took them to England. Controversy over their acquisition by the British Museum continues to this day.
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, was an aristocrat with a promising political career. During the first years of the war with revolutionary France, he held various diplomatic posts in Vienna, Brussels, and Berlin. In 1799 Lord Elgin’s diplomatic services were required as ambassador to the Ottoman sultan Selim III. Before leaving for Constantinople, urged by architect Thomas Harrison to use his privileged position to get hold of drawings and copies of Greece’s great monuments, Elgin enlisted a team of artists directed by the painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri. In order to allow access to the monument, the Ottomans demanded large daily payments, and they refused to let the painter set up a single piece of scaffolding. Lusieri then asked Lord Elgin to request a firman, a special permission from the sultan himself.
On July 6, 1801, Lord Elgin received authorization, not only to survey and take casts of the sculptures but also to remove whatever pieces were of interest to him. Having won the favor of the governor of Athens, Lusieri and his men dismantled a large part of the frieze from the Parthenon as well as numerous capitals and metopes. Finally in 1803, the huge collection of marbles was packed up into about two hundred boxes, which were then loaded onto wagons and transported to the port of Piraeus to await their passage to England.
Elgin and his associates would recognize before the parliamentary committee that this act was probably illegal, but they justified it as a way to save the pieces from the damage and looting to which they had been subjected under Ottoman rule.
Since regaining independence in 1832, successive Greek governments have petitioned for the return of the Parthenon marbles. The new Acropolis Museum of Athens, which opened in 2009, includes a specially designed space to house the marbles for the day—fervently awaited by many Greeks—they are reunited with other treasures from the Parthenon and the Acropolis.