I popped into the British Museum the other day and I swung by the Parthenon Sculptures to wonder at them.
Here’s one of my most favoured sculptures, came out behind from the East Pediment. These are the Lapith Women. And boyo, do they get me all tingly and excited. Absolutely beautiful and exquisite. I have also seen the Parthenon and whilst I was unable to see the marbles there (the museum in Athens wasn't constructed when I was there late last century), I can see them here.
The argument whether or not the Marbles should be sent back is a difficult one and has been argued for many many moons. Here’s one recent argument which I read. I quote
Lord Elgin’s theft was the most ignoble act of the neo-classical era. Today, his actions seem as redundant and repulsive as slavery and colonialism, and I am being quite serious when I say we should see the Marbles continued presence in London as vestiges of both, for had the Greeks not been enslaved to the Ottomans, they would surely never have allowed this vandalism and theft to take place. I won’t go on - it will be bad for all our blood pressure. But I will just say that there is a moral imperative to try to right the wrongs past, just as Her Majesty’s Government has done by apologising for illegal acts committed in Northern Ireland and Kenya.
As it so happens, I did a small course on Ancient Greece around this time. And I learnt how Athens demanded protection monies from other Greek Cities and then Pericles used the money to beautify Athens with temples and statues including the Parthenon. I quote from Plutarch
But that which brought most delightful adornment to Athens, and the greatest amazement to the rest of mankind; that which alone now testifies for Hellas that her ancient power and splendour, of which so much is told, was no idle fiction, — I mean his construction of sacred edifices, — this, more than all public measures of Pericles, his enemies maligned and slandered. They cried out in the assemblies: "The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping,2 and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds p37from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions."
3 For his part, Pericles would instruct the people that it owed no account of their moneys to the allies provided it carried on the war for them and kept off the Barbarians; "not a horse do they furnish," said he, "not a ship, not a hoplite, but money simply; 159and this belongs, not to those who give it, but to those who take it, if only they furnish that for which they take it in pay. 4 And it is but meet that the city, when once she is sufficiently equipped with all that is necessary for prosecuting the war, should apply her abundance to such works as, by their completion, will bring her everlasting glory, and while in process of completion will bring that abundance into actual service, in that all sorts of activity and diversified demands arise, which rouse every art and stir every hand, and bring, as it were, the whole city under pay, so that she not only adorns, but supports herself as well from her own resources."
So before people get too excited, this is what the Athenians did.
But then comes the question of if its right for the Brits to gob on to the Marbles. Question is whether its right or wrong in terms of justice. And I was reminded of this when I read the Melian Dialogue. Written by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, it talks about the confrontation between Athens and Melos. Melos wanted to be independent but Athens said that questions of justice does not arise between unequal powers, and ended up besieging Melos, killed the men and sold the women and children into slavery. I know Melos wasn't strictly independent as they had relations with the Lacedaemonians or Spartans if you will. Let me quote the operative paragraphs of this discussion.
89. Athenians. For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences--either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us--and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
In your face! one of the most famous sentences in the history of human relations and international politics. The British took the marbles and keep it because they can. Greece has to suffer what they must. I am sure the Greeks can appreciate this, eh?
So its going to be interesting to see how this turns out. The Turks and Egyptians have successfully managed to get their antiquities back, no?