Parthenon Marbles Debate: a Quest for Restitution and Preservation

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 3288 |

Pages: 7|

17 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 3288|Pages: 7|17 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. The Controversial Legality of Elgin's Takings
  2. Unraveling the Complexities Around Historical Context
  3. Challenging Retentionist Arguments: Toward Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

Of the debates over repatriation, the Elgin Marbles is perhaps the most well-known. Considered by many as the most impressive antiquity collection in the world, and said to ‘symbolise the entire body of unrepatriated cultural property in the world’s museums’, their return has been argued officially since 1983 by Melina Mercouri, Greek Minister of Culture, although it really began since the very removal of them from Athens starting in 1801. The convroversial theme arond Parthenon Marbles debate will be analysed in this essay as it is a contentious issue which still has  its influence. Before the arguments can be analysed, it is of course important to look at the history of the Parthenon Marbles and how they ended up in the British Museum. 

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Built in 432 BC by the great sculptor Phidias and architect Ictinus, under the orders of Pericles, the general of Athens, the Parthenon, or Temple of Minerva, was erected as a temple to the goddess Athena in the Acropolis. Its construction was a decision by the Athenian assembly, deciding what to spend extra tax revenue on after a treaty with the warring Persians, and even then was built to ‘be an everlasting monument to a unique and dazzling society’. This fact in itself is already debatable; some historians argue that it was built purely for religious and cultural reasons, and representing the ‘artistic awakening’ occurring at the time- the Antigone was being written then and Socrates was just starting his philosophical journey- whilst others label the Parthenon as an imperial, ostentatious monument designed to flaunt Athens’ wealth and power, far from the supposed liberal democracy Athens created. For the next two thousand years it was converted into several different types of churches and religious buildings under various rulers until Athens was owned by the Ottomans. For the next three centuries the Ottomans had legal holdings over the Parthenon, deciding who could enter or how it was to be used, until in 1801, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and Ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Constantinople from 1799 to 1803, began his decade long removal of the marble metopes, frieze, columns and sculptures that adorned the Parthenon. Being a member of the Society of Dilettanti, a group committed to making England a classical art capital of the world, Elgin initially wanted the Marbles to decorate his estate, however a mixture of bankruptcy and his imprisonment in France during the Napoleonic Wars forced him to sell them in 1816 to the British State, and subsequently the British Museum, for £35,000, a price he deemed as grossly undervalue, where they have stayed for the next two centuries.

The Controversial Legality of Elgin's Takings

Of the British Museum’s arguments against their return, the legality of Elgin’s takings is the most prominent, however there are several flaws in their reasoning that Elgin legally took the Marbles. The issue revolves around a firman, which was a legal decree issued only by the Sultan, issued on 1 July 1801 that Elgin argued, and the British still argue today, gave him permission to remove parts of the Parthenon. The discrepancy of his takings can be found in the exact language of this firman. It stated ‘that no one meddle with their (Elgin’s team) scaffolding or implements, nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures’. It is clear from the precise wording of the document that the firman allowed Elgin to have scaffolding around the Parthenon, initially for the purpose of making casts, however it only authorises the removal of ‘pieces of stone with inscriptions’. This has room for different interpretations, however most historians agree that this only meant debris of the Parthenon that was already scattered on the nearby ground. You need only to look at one of the several Elgin Marbles on display to understand that Elgin did not just remove debris from the floor, or even only marbles with inscriptions on them. On these grounds Elgin clearly extended far beyond the legal boundaries of the firman. The actual authenticity of the firman is also questioned, again by looking specifically at its language. There are several distinct features that a 17th century Ottoman firman would have had, including the emblem of the Sultan, the Arabic date at the end of the document, and specific legal language such as ‘I have ordered so that’ or ‘Upon the arrival of my high command’. The document that Elgin received included none of those features, and was in fact written by Abdullah Pasha, deputy of the Grand Vezir, or mayor of Athens. Therefore the document did not have any legal authority, and was simply just a letter written by a deputy in response to Elgin’s ‘persistent demands’ and influence at the time- only a few days before the document was sent, Lord Nelson, allied with the Ottomans, had won the Battle of the Nile against the French. It is also notable that during the Parliamentary Committee that decided to buy the Elgin Marbles, several MPs believed that Lord Elgin overstepped his authority as Ambassador, coercing in bribes with the Disdar of Athens and using his governmental influence for his own gain, which again questions whether the Marbles were legally acquired.

However, there is also lots of evidence that corroborates the retentionist view of Elgin’s removal being legal. Although it is widely accepted that Elgin overstepped the legal boundaries of the original firman, meaning he did not hold legal property rights over the Marbles, it is often overlooked that Elgin received ratification to what he had done twice. On the first occasion he received further firmans, this time real and official, from the Sultan addressed to the Disdar and Voivode of Athens, where he approved of their handling of Elgin. Legal permission was also granted before the Marbles departure from Piraeus, the port of Athens. The Voivode was denying Elgin’s ship permission from leaving, being pressed by France to do so, however his attempts were overridden by ‘written orders’ from the Ottoman government allowing the Marbles to leave. According to international law, if the Marbles’ removal was ratified, it was legal, and Elgin had ownership. To counter the argument that bribery and misuse of authority was involved, it is also important to look at the context of the time. Of course we can now recognise that Elgin was wrong by bribing the Disdar and using his position and circumstances in Egypt for personal gain, however this was customary at the time. Nearly all European governments at the time were riddled with corruption and coercion, running on a system of patronage and power given out by the monarch or leader. From a present-day position, it is distasteful to condemn corruption in the respective governments, as it was the norm of the time, and even still continues to this day. It is also noteworthy that even though the Ottoman’s received bribes for the Marbles, that did not change the fact that they were the legal owners of them, and could therefore decide what to do with them. Finally one must also consider the length of time Greece, as an independent nation since 1832, to take the argument up in court. As Elgin, and then the British Crown, was the owner of the Marbles, the most appropriate place for this would be in an English court. However, the statute of limitations, or the time between the crime and filing a case, in English courts is just six years. Therefore Greece has now even potentially lost the right to file for a case of theft in any British court, as they have already had nearly 200 years to do so.

Unraveling the Complexities Around Historical Context

In addition to the legal arguments debated between historians, it is also imperative to analyse the moral and historical discussion. In continuation with the previous retentionist arguments, some historians have argued that the Marbles were safer in the British Museum than in Athens. This implies that the Ottomans did not value and preserve the Parthenon, which was in fact true. From the very start of Ottoman rule Greece in 1458, the Turks disregarded its historical and cultural significance, evident in their use of the building. They used the main chambers of the Parthenon as a gun powder store, which may not sound deleterious, however that was the reason for most of its ruin. During the 1678 siege of Athens by the Venetians, a lucky cannon shot landed on the Parthenon, exploding all the gun powder stored inside. Once seizing Athens, Francesco Morosini, the commander of the Venetian army, then attempted to remove several statues, smashing most of them in the process due to inaccurate predictions of their weight. Other examples of Ottoman mistreatment include the complete dismantlement of the Temple of Athena Nike, next to the Parthenon, by the Ottomans in 17th century to build artillery fortifications. This was the fundamental argument by Elgin to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1816, even stating that the Disdar of Athens admitted to turning the statues into mortar. This disregard for Greek culture by the Ottomans might have left the Parthenon in a much worse state that currently in, and supports Elgin’s passionate argument that he was ‘saving them’. It is also questioned whether Ottoman disregard would have become contempt and led to intentional damage to the Parthenon, as during the years before the Greek War of Independence, where Greek sentiment was rising, the Ottomans became even more intolerant of Greek culture, whilst destruction by both sides, accidental or deliberate, actually during the Greek Revolution was also a possibility. Another argument presented by retentionists is that the Marbles are safer in London today than in Athens, specifically regarding the air quality of Athens and care of the Acropolis Museum. Since the 1970s, Athens has had a serious pollution problem, resulting in acid rain. This has eroded what is left of the Parthenon, damaging the marble buildings, whilst rusting the internal iron joints added in the 1800s. Even today, Athens’ pollution level is 22 index points above Bloomsbury’s. The other question one has to ask is regarding the location and ability of the British Museum compared to the Acropolis Museum. On financial terms, both museums receive millions of pounds of funding every year and can both afford to keep and preserve their respective marbles. Regarding the academic knowledge and care, both have world class museum curators and antiquity experts. But where the British Museum is superior is its location and content. Retentionists argue that because the Elgin Marbles are placed in the British Museum, the world’s largest encyclopaedic museum, visitors can learn much more about them, and can understand how they were shaped by and did shape other civilisations. We can compare and analyse them in the context of the rest of world history, something not possible if they were all situated in the Acropolis Museum. It is also estimated that the Elgin Marbles receive around 6 million visitors every year, whereas the Acropolis Museum only 1.5 million. It is clear that these visitors are impacted and inspired by seeing the Marbles, clearly proven by the explosion of literature and art created upon seeing them, most famously by Keats and Haydon, and the boom in Neo-classical architecture seen throughout London to this day, so surely it would be beneficial for all of society if the beauty of the Marbles could be experienced by more people in more than one location. Finally, it is also important to consider modern day Greek’s supposed heritage to those that built the Parthenon and their claim to it. Sociologists have found that today’s Greeks have zero connection with Pericles and the ancient Athenians, rather descending from Turkish and Slavic roots. Therefore this begs the question of does Greece have a claim to the Parthenon? Their ancestors certainly didn’t build it, much like Elgin’s ancestors did not. Greece has simply decided to claim ownership based on nationalist sentiment about reclaiming what is theirs, but has not considered that it was never theirs, and in fact belongs to the culture of the world.

Challenging Retentionist Arguments: Toward Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles

On the other hand, there are also lots of substantial non-legal arguments that support the case for restitution, with nearly all of them focussed on discrediting the retentionist’s arguments. The most passionate argument for their return is that the Marbles are in fact a part of Greek cultural heritage, and belong where they were built. As discussed previously, retentionists can easily refute this claim as purely emotional sentiment, however we must consider how Britain would react if two hundred years ago half of Stonehenge was removed and displayed in a distant museum. Even if today’s Greeks are not descendants of Pericles and Phidias, they are still connected, so be it vaguely, through language and certain traditions, and both societies have been influenced by the Parthenon. The Parthenon has since become a symbol of Greek identity, being a representation of Greek independence during the Greek Revolution. Greece has endured occupation by nearly all major world powers, dating even to Nazi occupation in 1941, yet the Parthenon has withstood it all, so why is it deemed so unreasonable for Britain to right 200 years of wrongdoing and return Greece’s cultural identity? It is also significant to note that the Elgin Marbles were not built as individual works of art, but as a collective unit. The frieze was created to portray one, continuous story, yet it now half of it lies thousands of miles away from the other half. It may not be apparent to retentionists but to appreciate art fully, one must see it as a whole, which is why the Mona Lisa has not been split in two. Separating the Parthenon Marbles may increase their audience, but it also degrades their value, and allows no one to see them as a whole in the context of where they came from. In addition, when analysing the points stating that Britain was, and still is, better suited for the Marbles, historians have found these claims are unsubstantiated and are based on neo-colonial ideas. The first statement that Elgin rescued them from future destruction cannot be corroborated. There are infinite possibilities that could have occurred if the Marbles had stayed in Greece, and it is impossible to say one would have happened instead of the other. The case that the Parthenon would have been damaged in the Greek War of Independence can even be directly challenged with historical facts. When the Greeks surrounded the Acropolis in 1821, they learnt that the Ottomans were melting down the lead clamps of the Parthenon to make bullets, and immediately sent them quantities of lead bullets to use instead. The Greeks held the Parthenon in such high regard that they supplied their enemies with ammunition used to kill them rather than see the Parthenon be harmed. It also almost seems ironic that retentionists’ main argument is that they were safer in the hands of Britain, as the Marbles have suffered great damage from the very start of their excavation to their handling in the British Museum. It is a well known fact that when removing the Marbles from the Parthenon, it was not a clean exercise, resulting in irreparable damage to the structure and foundations. Elgin’s workers hacked off the frieze, sawing it into pieces and, according to an eye witness account, causing several other parts to come ‘clattering down’; Lusieri even admitted that he acted ‘a little barbarously’. Further damage was caused when, due to Elgin’s greed, the British ship Mentor was so overloaded that it sunk near Cythera in 1802. It took two years for the pieces to be recovered, however some are still missing at the bottom of the Mediterranean. The most notorious example of British damage to the Marbles was however surprisingly not by Elgin, but by the British Museum. In the 1930s Lord Duveen, a wealthy art dealer, donated over £100,000 to the British Museum, granting him the Duveen Gallery that would house the Elgin Marbles, which would be organised by him. However in 1938, under Duveen’s instructions, the Marbles were cleaned using chisels and copper wire brushes, rather than the recommended soap and water. This was Duveen’s attempt to make them look ‘purer’ and ‘more classical’, even if they were not naturally white, which removed large amounts of the intricate detail on their surfaces. Still to this day the Museum has not fully acknowledged the damage caused by Duveen, simply stating ‘mistakes were made at the time.’ Retentionist argument is clearly flawed here, as most of the damage done to the Parthenon has been under British supervision, rather than hypothetical claims of destruction by others. Regarding the danger of Athens’ pollution and general unsuitability, retentionist argument has essentially ignored the past 40 years. Since 1983, the Greek government has been committed to reducing pollution in Athens, as well as preserving the Parthenon. Of the remaining marbles that adorned the Parthenon, they have been moved to the Acropolis Museum nearby, being repaired with the marble from the same ancient quarry. State-of-the-art technology has not only repaired the damage from past pollution, but has also allowed Greece to begin restoring surrounding temples and preserve the Acropolis more than ever before. So the statement that Britain is clearly false, as Greece now has full capacity to house all of the Marbles. As a society we have far advanced from the bigotry openly expressed in Elgin’s time, yet the rhetoric that the British Museum is somehow better sounds awfully similar to colonialist ideology of the time. Regarding the statement that the Marbles inspired and boosted creativity and art throughout Europe, some of the best art inspired by them was against their removal. Literature from Edward Daniel Clarke, and most famously by Lord Byron through ‘The Curse of Minerva’, have certainly shaped wider culture, yet they are in direct opposition to Elgin. One cannot say that the Marbles were a boon to culture when the very culture it creates is hostile to them.


In conclusion, the debate surrounding the Parthenon Marbles is a complex and contentious issue that encompasses historical, cultural, ethical, and legal dimensions. Over the years, this dispute has garnered significant attention from scholars, activists, and policymakers alike, reflecting the deep-seated emotions and conflicting perspectives of various stakeholders involved. 

Ultimately, the future of the Parthenon Marbles remains uncertain, and finding a mutually satisfactory resolution is likely to be a protracted process. However, it is essential for all parties to engage in open dialogue, respecting each other's perspectives, and working towards a solution that promotes cultural appreciation, international cooperation, and the preservation of humanity's shared heritage. Only through such efforts can we hope to bridge the divide and ensure that these magnificent artifacts continue to inspire and educate generations to come, regardless of their physical location.


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  4. Jenkyns, R. (2008). The Parthenon and its impact in modern times. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 128, 101-114.

  5. Pollitt, J. J. (1990). The Parthenon's centauries. American Journal of Archaeology, 94(2), 189-199.

  6. St Clair, W. (2016). Lord Elgin and the Marbles. Murray Books.

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  8. Sullivan, R. D. (1983). The Parthenon frieze and the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis: reconciling their themes and functions. American Journal of Archaeology, 87(3), 319-333.

  9. Higgins, R. A. (2008). The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. British Museum Press.

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  10. Zervos, C. (2012). The Elgin Marbles controversy: the case for reunification. University of Chicago Press.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Parthenon Marbles Debate: a Quest for Restitution and Preservation. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Parthenon Marbles Debate: a Quest for Restitution and Preservation.” GradesFixer, 14 Aug. 2023,
Parthenon Marbles Debate: a Quest for Restitution and Preservation. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
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