To the Greeks, the name Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, is an abomination, the likes perhaps, of only Lucifer himself. Lord Elgin, as he is more famously known, is notorious in my country for his enormous blundering appetite that was coupled by an equally enormous lack of regard for the Parthenon treasures.
Having acquired a paper of questionable validity (i.e. a mere letter signed by a pasha as opposed to a firman signed by a sultan – the only document that could have authorized him properly within the Othoman Empire), he didn’t hesitate to remove from the Parthenon far more than anyone could have ever imagined possible. Furthermore, he caused irreversible damage to the sculptures that were taken off the friezes. By instructing the workers to remove the posterior side from these treasures (obviously, he thought only the frontal side was of any value!), he thus managed to rid his cargo of unnecessary (!) weight and to cut down on logistic costs.
Elgin shipped the Parthenon Marbles to Britain divided among many different ships, whatever he could arrange with the odd passing ship of the British Navy and each time, he was allowed a very small amount of treasures on board. However, he managed once to commission his own boat, the legendary ‘Mentor’, in 1802. Thrilled to have no weight restrictions this time, Elgin greedily loaded that ship so much that it sank just off the shore on the island of Kythira. When that happened, he contacted the local British consulate, and in order to seek assistance for the retrieval of the treasures, he stated in his letter the infamous lie “…she had on board a quantity of boxes with stones of no value of themselves; but of great consequence for me to secure…”
(Note: The blantant lie, is what inspired British movie maker Chistopher Miles to title his movie “Lord Elgin and Some Stones of No Value” in 1985).
The operation of the treasures’ retrieval from the bottom of the sea lasted for two years. Elgin was able to employ experienced divers from Kalymnos, who helped retrieve 16 boxes in total. During those two years, while the operation was underway, the Marbles remained on the beach, covered carelessly with stones, seeweed and bushes to shield them from the sunlight and to hide them from onlookers. Marble is highly affected by both humidity and saltiness, so you can imagine the damage caused to the treasures during these two years until they were finally loaded on another ship on its way to England.
But the adventure for the Marbles doesn’t end there. After a careless exhibition and storage of the treasures by Elgin himself for a few years, he finally sold them to the British government, who put them in the care of the British Museum. There, they remained stored for even more years before finally being put on display. By then, they had turned black from mold and lack of care. In order to make them presentable, the British Museum then had them scrubbed clean with iron bristles to give them a pleasant, white color, thus causing further harm.
Archeologists in Greece despise the name Elgin even more than the average Greek does, simply because they know in every detail his activities as he went around Greece. Indeed, his looting thirst has been unquenchable. As he traveled around the country, Lord Elgin looted everything he could get his hands on. The famous Lion Gate in the ancient site of Mykenae was saved from the one way journey to Britain only thanks to its huge weight. He considered it seriously of course, but thankfully, simply because it’s as massive as it is, the majestic Lion Gate still stands in its rightful place today, at the entrance of the Mykenae archeological site.
At the time of the looting, back at the Parthenon (1801-1804), the heartache of the enslaved Greeks was so great, that rumors in the form of folk myths started to spread across the country from mouth to mouth. Apparently, voices could be heard from the crates that contained the treasures, causing confusion and even panic to the workers who carried them to the port to be shipped to Britain. Many a time, locals in Athens also claimed that at night they could hear wails and cries from the top of the Acropolis where the five Caryatids in the Erechtheion Temple grieved for the loss of their sixth ‘sister’ that had been taken away.
And so, all this devastation, all this irreversible damage was caused to The Parthenon, a jewel of the world’s historical heritage, because of the greed of a single man. It’s no surprise the Greeks also invented the myth that goddess Athena cursed him, enough for his wife to cheat on him while Napoleon held him prisoner of war in France. Furthermore, he died penniless away from home, divorced, ill with syphilis and disfigured too, the tip of his nose having been removed by the doctors because of a terrible affliction. It didn’t take much for the Greeks, the masters of myth-making, to see this as divine justice for the tremendous loss they have suffered because of him.
But even the man’s son, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, seemed to have inherited his father’s lack of regard for historical treasures and foreign property. In 1860, he had the summer palace of the Emperor of China destroyed, burnt and looted. You can imagine the length of devastation this family caused in China too, thinking of so many treasures, equally mythical and precious, stolen or forever lost.
Whether you choose to believe that Elgin actually meant well or to see him the way the Greeks do, I hope you will enjoy this excellent video by the Greek Ministry of Culture. It illustrates graphically the Parthenon in all its glory, as well as its demise through the millennia. Delightfully enough, it also depicts a classic poem by the legendary philhellene, Lord Byron. The great romantic poet’s imagination has captured the wrath of Athena (Minerva, in Roman) further to the merciless destruction of her sacred temple.
For the benefit of poetry lovers, I’m including below a link to the whole poem, written in Athens in 1811 by the great British poet. In the links below, you can also watch an interesting BBC documentary about Lord Elgin and the Marbles.
The Curse of Minerva by Lord Byron: http://readytogoebooks.com/CM13.htm
Movie Trailer of “Promakhos” (First Line) – a Greek, French and British production on the subject of the Parthenon Marble debate
Read my interview with the leading actor of Promakhos, Pantelis Kodogiannis
Lord Elgin (2004) – a BBC documentary
You may also be interested in my other posts on the Parthenon Marbles: