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The Elgin Marbles Debate

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The continued relevance of the question of the Parthenon of “Elgin” Marbles, two centuries after these sculptures were removed from the Parthenon in Athens and transferred to Britain by Thomas Bruce, the Lord of Elgin, is arguably the result of the issue’s complicated structure, which includes, on the one hand, political questions concerning international law and relations between nation-states, and, on the other hand, aesthetic questions addressing the very nature of a work of art. In the case of the latter, those opposed to the Marbles’ presence in England, often refer to what may be termed an argument from aesthetics, whereby the removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon is essentially a violation of what Robert Browning (1997) describes as “the architectural complexity and the artistic distinction of the Parthenon.” (12) In other words, from the perspective of aesthetics, the existence of the Marbles in Britain is a certain crime against art, a deliberate destruction of one of the great artistic achievements of humanity.

According to the “argument from aesthetics” it seems a difficult position to defend the Elgin Marbles’ presence in England. The Marbles belong to the Parthenon complex in Athens, which itself is located in the Acropolis. The Marbles that Lord Elgin acquired through negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, who at the time ruled Greece, are located in the Inner Temple of the Parthenon, and are made up of “a continuous carved frieze round the top of the building.” (Jane & Woods, 47, 1993) In terms of content, “these carvings were of fantastic creatures, deities and heroes from Greek myths and legends” (Jane & Woods, 47, 1993): they thus represent a clear aesthetic presentation of some of the clear religious and metaphysical beliefs of the Ancient Greeks. Elgin’s procurement of the Marbles from Greece were the result of his own personal initiative, resembling an art collector who had no concern for the Parthenon as artistic whole; the situation became more complex when, in 1816, the British government purchased the Marbles from Elgin. (Merryman, 2009, 36) The controversy thus shifts from a private collector owning the Marbles to a situation wherein a nation-state owns the Marbles: the question, in this regard, becomes one of international law and international relations.

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With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and Greece’s emergence as an independent nation-state, various calls have been made for the return of the Marbles. British arguments for keeping the Marbles in the British Museum have tended to be legal in nature, as the British position maintains that “Elgin had legal authority to remove the marbles, the Ottomans being the ruling power.” In other words, in so far as the Ottomans were the sovereign power at the time in Greece, Elgin’s deal with the Ottomans was a contract with a recognized legal body and therefore, holds up under examinations from the perspective of law. The Greek position, however, emanates from another conceptual horizon, as the former Greek minister of culture George Volugarakis (2009) observed: “The problem is not legal…it’s ethical and cultural….It’s like saying the Nazis were justified in plundering priceless works of art during the Second World War.” In this regard, the Greek position has not been defined in legal terms such as the British position, but rather an appeal to aesthetics, as well as ethics. What is at stake here is essentially the aesthetic degradation of a classical piece of art, an act that is then retroactively justified through legal arguments as opposed to arguments from positions of ethics and culture, as Volugarakis notes.

As the late British writer Christopher Hitchens (1997), a prominent defender of the return of the Marbles to Greece, wrote: “it is the aesthetic argument which is unanswerable.” (ix) If one makes reference to legal documents and possession, to negotiations between political entities from over two centuries ago in order to defend the Marbles’ presence in England, one still overlooks the aesthetic question: how can what amounts to a desecration of a classic piece of art be justified? As Hitchens noted, it is this question that is impossible to answer from the British side, and thus perhaps reveals why their defense has relied on the legal arguments. Namely, law is used when theories of aesthetics show the clear limitations of the British position.

  • Browning, Robert. “The Parthenon in History.” The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? London: Verso, 1997. pp. 11-49.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. “Forward to the 1997 Edition.” In The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? London: Verso, 1997. pp. v-x.
  • Jane, Kevin and Woods, Priscilla. Ancient Greece. London: Folens, 1993.
  • Kimmelman, Michael. “Elgin Marble Argument in a New Light.” The New York Times,
    June 23, 2009. Accessed March 8, 2014 at:
  • Merryman, John Henry. Thinking about the Elgin Marbles: Critical Essays on Cultural
    Property, Art and Law. London: Kluwer Art International, 2009.