Ancient History & Civilisation

The most beautiful things in the world are there [Athens] … The sumptuous temple of Athena stands out and is well worth a look. It is called the Parthenon and is on the hill above the theatre. It makes a tremendous impression on visitors.

Heracleides of Crete (third century BC)

Reporter: ‘Did you visit the Parthenon during your trip to Greece?’

Shaquille O’Neal (US basketball star): ‘I can’t really remember the names of the clubs we went to.’

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1. Not everyone goes misty-eyed when confronted with the Parthenon. Here the Hungarian dancer Nikolska poses among its columns in 1929. Isadora Duncan had tried the same trick a few years earlier.

WHY THE PARTHENON MIGHT MAKE YOU CRY

THE REAL THING

When Sigmund Freud first visited the Parthenon in 1904, he was surprised to discover that it really did exist, ‘just as we learnt at school’. It had taken Freud some time to summon the nerve to make a visit, and he wrote vividly of the uncomfortable hours of indecision that he spent in Trieste, trying to resolve whether to catch the steamer to Athens or sail to Corfu as he had originally planned. When he finally arrived and climbed up to the ruins on the Acropolis, delight was mixed with shock. It was as if – or so he later tailored the story – he had been walking beside Loch Ness, had spotted the legendary Monster stranded on the shore and so been driven to admit that it wasn’t just a myth after all. ‘It really does exist.’ Not all admirers of the Parthenon have had the courage to follow Freud. One of those not prepared to take the risk of seeing for himself was Werner Jaeger, a renowned classical scholar of the early twentieth century and passionate advocate of the humanising power of ancient Greek culture. Jaeger got as far as Athens at least once, but he drew the line at climbing up to the ruined temple itself – dreading that the ‘real thing’ might not live up to his expectations.

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2. A quiet day on the Acropolis. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the site each year. Currently the Parthenon itself is off-limits while many years of restoration work – signalled here by the crane inside the building – is carried out (pp. 114–15).

Jaeger need not have worried. There have been few tourists over the last 200 years or more who have not managed to be impressed by the Parthenon and its dramatic setting on the Athenian Acropolis: intrepid travellers in the late eighteenth century braved wars, bandits and some very nasty bugs to catch their first glimpse of ‘real’ Greek architecture and sculpture; a whole array of politicians and cultural superstars from Bernard Shaw to Bill Clinton have competed to be photographed, misty-eyed, between the Parthenon’s columns (Illustration 1); busloads of everyday visitors, in still increasing numbers, make this the centrepiece of their Athenian pilgrimage, eagerly hanging on to the archaeological minutiae regurgitated by their guides. It is true, of course, that tourists are cannily adept at convincing themselves that they are having a good time, and the cultural pressure on us to be impressed, in retrospect at least, by what-we-think-we-should-be-impressed-by may be almost irresistible. All the same, it is often the case that even the most celebrated wonders of world culture are tinged with disappointment when you meet them face to face: the Mona Lisa is irritatingly small; the Pyramids would be much more atmospheric if they were not on the fringes of the Cairo suburbs, and rather too mundanely serviced by an on-site branch of Pizza Hut. Not so the Parthenon. Against all the odds – the inescapable sun, the crowds of people, the surly guards blowing their whistles at any deviants who try to stray from the prescribed route around the site and, for many years now, the barrage of scaffolding – the Parthenon seems to work for almost everyone, almost every time (Illustration 2).

At first sight, then, the modern story of this monument is one told in glowing superlatives. An enterprising businessman-cum-papal diplomat from Ancona set the tone in the fifteenth century, when he visited Athens in 1436: among the huge collections of ‘incredible marble buildings … what pleased me most of all,’ he wrote, ‘was the great and marvellous temple of Pallas Athena on the topmost citadel of the city, a divine work by Phidias, which has 58 towering columns, each seven feet in diameter, and is splendidly adorned with the noblest images on all sides’. Later writers and critics have piled on the eulogies. Predictably perhaps, the antiquarian visitors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drooled over the Parthenon’s ‘exquisite symmetry’, its ‘glorious fabric’ and the ‘harmonious analogy of its proportions’. Why beat about the bush? ‘It is the most unrivalled triumph of sculpture and architecture that the world ever saw,’ was the confident conclusion of Edward Dodwell in 1819, recently returned from three trips to Greece. But a hundred years later Le Corbusier, the most famous prophet of twentieth-century modernism, was still working from very much the same script when he rooted his new vision of architecture in the sheer perfection of the Parthenon. ‘There has been nothing like it anywhere or at any period’, he wrote in his manifesto, Towards a New Architecture (which is illustrated with no fewer than 20 photographs or drawings of the building, some memorably juxtaposed with its modern analogue as a triumph of design, the motor car). And on another occasion he reflected, in more characteristically modernist tones, that ‘one clear image will stand in my mind for ever: the Parthenon, stark, stripped, economical, violent, a clamorous outcry against a landscape of grace and terror’.

FAKING IT

Almost inevitably, this enthusiasm has been followed by emulation. Right across the western world you can find clones of the Parthenon in all sizes and materials, adapted to a disconcerting range of different functions: from miniature silver cufflinks, through postmodern toasters (the ultimate in kitchenware 1996, courtesy of sculptor Darren Lago) and models made by Greek political prisoners as part of their reeducation, to full-scale, walk-in concrete replicas. The most ostentatious of all is the Walhalla near Regensburg in Germany, brainchild of Ludwig I of Bavaria and intended as a ‘Monument of German Unity’. The majority of the designs submitted to Ludwig were based on the Parthenon in one way or another. But the commission eventually went to a vast scheme by the architect Leo von Klenze, set on the top of a wooded ‘Acropolis’, Bavarian style: the outside an overblown Parthenon, the inside a Teutonic extravaganza, complete with Valkyries and busts of German worthies, from Alaric to Goethe (and now up to, and beyond, Konrad Adenauer). Not all projects came to such lavish fruition. In 1816 the city of Edinburgh, optimistically nicknamed the Athens of the North, was encouraged by none other than Lord Elgin to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo with a lookalike Parthenon on Calton Hill – but got no further than a dozen columns before the money ran out in 1829. These have stood as Edinburgh’s pride, or disgrace, ever since, and high-tech plans to finish the job in glass and laser as a gesture to the new millennium were resoundingly rejected by the local residents.

Meanwhile, as the craze for classical style swamped the USA in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Parthenon was resurrected in the shape of a whole series of government buildings, banks and museums. Pride of place here, for accuracy of reconstruction at least (reputedly correct to three millimetres), goes to the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee – the Athens of the South, as it sometimes likes to be known. This started life as a wood, plaster and brick pavilion, built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. But the people of Nashville were so taken with it that it remained in place long after the end of the fair and was rebuilt in more durable concrete in the 1920s; its massive 13-metre statue of the goddess Athena, a replica of what we think once stood in the original building in Athens, was eventually unveiled in 1990 (Illustration 3). This Parthenon reached a wider international audience through Robert Altman’s movie Nashville, his epic satire on the tawdriness of the American dream, showbiz and politics. The final scenes of the film are set among its columns draped with the American flag, where a country-and-western benefit concert is being staged for a no-hope fringe candidate in a presidential election; a characteristically American occasion culminating in a characteristically American murder, as the lead singer is gunned down on the Parthenon’s portico by an apparently motiveless assassin. Athenian classicism meets the Stars and Stripes.

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3. The full-size replica of the statue of Athena from the Nashville Parthenon, by Alan LeQuire (seen here by the goddess’s right leg). This version of Pheidias’ creation was unveiled in 1990 and has won many plaudits for its archaeological accuracy. But visitors must use their imaginations to recreate the appearance of gold and ivory. LeQuire had to settle for the more economical gypsum cement and fibreglass.

‘THE BLOODY PARTHENON, I SUPPOSE …’

There have been, it is true, a few maverick voices raised over the centuries against the general chorus of admiration for the Parthenon. A number of visitors have felt able to confess that the first sight of the building was not quite what they had expected. Winston Churchill, for example, would have liked to see a few more of the collapsed columns re-erected, and was tempted (for he was First Sea Lord at the time) to volunteer a squadron of the British Navy for the task; while Oscar Wilde’s charismatic teacher from Trinity College Dublin, J. P. Mahaffy, theorised that any monument so famous was bound to be a bit disappointing when you first saw it (‘no building on earth can sustain the burden of such greatness’) – before going on to reassure his readers that, if they persevered to a second glance, the ‘glory’ of the Parthenon and the brilliance of the ‘master minds which produced this splendour’ would quickly become apparent. Just occasionally you can find some more consistently barbed attempts to take the monument down a peg or two. The Greek film maker Eva Stefani must have enjoyed the frisson of transgression when she presented the Parthenon as a prostitute in Akropoli (2001). So must American novelist Walker Percy when he picked on the Parthenon as a model of modern boredom (‘It is a bore. Few people even bother to look – it looked better in the brochure’) and fantasised about its total destruction under a massive Soviet attack. At least, he wrote, if you were a NATO colonel ‘in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags’, watching out for a direct hit on the portico, you wouldn’t find the Parthenon boring. William Golding was presumably thinking along similar lines when, one March afternoon in the 1960s, after a good Athenian lunch with a classicist friend, he opted to visit ‘the bloody Parthenon, I suppose’. It was half-raining, with terrific gusts of wind; the dust blew in their faces, making the usual style of wide-eyed tourism difficult and painful. Golding stopped at the building, looked at it briefly, blew his nose aggressively then – finding a comfortable block of marble – sat down, back to the monument, and stared away from it at the ‘industrial gloom of the Piraeus’ and the cement works of Eleusis that are just visible from the Athenian Acropolis. ‘Beaming euphorically … he said at last, “Now this is what I call the right way to look at the Parthenon.”’

By and large, however, even the most acerbic cultural critics, the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries’ sharpest tongues, have treated the Parthenon as somehow ‘off-limits’. Oscar Wilde, from whom we might reasonably have expected a well-honed quip at the monument’s expense, seems hardly even to have shared his professor’s doubts about those awkward first impressions. Mahaffy had taken Wilde to Greece in 1877, in the hope that the treasures of pagan antiquity would dissuade his pupil from converting to Catholicism. This campaign against ‘Popery’ was, if anything, rather too successful – to judge from Wilde’s reaction to the Parthenon (as reported, curiously, in a best-selling novel penned by one of his lady friends): ‘He spoke to her of the Parthenon, the one temple – not a building –a temple, as complete, as personal as a statue. And that first sight of the Acropolis, the delicate naked columns rising up in the morning sunshine; “It was like coming upon some white Greek goddess …”’ A few years later he turned his admiration for the building into such scandalously steamy verses that at least one late-Victorian reader excised them – literally, with her scissors – from the collection in which they appeared. Entitled ‘Charmides’, the offending poem features ‘a Grecian lad’ who manages to get himself locked into a temple at dusk, to undress the statue of the goddess Athena and kiss her till dawn: ‘Never I ween did lover hold such tryst,/ For all night long he murmured honeyed word,/ And saw her sweet unravished limbs, and kissed/ Her pale and argent body undisturbed’. The temple in which all this takes place, needless to say, bears a striking resemblance to the Parthenon.

Perhaps even more surprising is Virginia Woolf’s undiluted enthusiasm for the Parthenon, which she visited in 1906 and again in 1932. Woolf can almost always be relied upon for a caustic comment or two. True to form, in her Greek diaries she is characteristically sharp about the other tourists: the ‘hordes of Teutons’ and the French, who are notoriously reluctant to take a bath. And she has no more time than most visitors of her generation for the inhabitants of modern Greece. This was long before postcards of smiling, toothless peasants had become a major weapon in the armoury of the Greek tourist industry, selling in vast numbers to sentimental northern Europeans in search of the rustic simplicity of traditional Mediterranean life. For Woolf and her fellows, the peasants were generally dull and stupid, Greeks of all classes ‘dirty, ignorant & unstable as water’. But the Parthenon itself, to which she paid daily homage throughout her time in Athens, was an entirely different matter. For once, she claims to have been lost for words: ‘our minds had been struck inarticulate by something too great for them to grasp’. And she struggles desperately – and rather ostentatiously, it must be said – to capture on paper the impact of the great monument: its colour is, by turns, bright ‘red’, ‘creamy white’, ‘rosy’, ‘tawny’, ‘ashy pale’ (Evelyn Waugh faced the same problem, but likened it more imaginatively to a mild Stilton cheese); ‘its columns spring up like fair round limbs, flushed with health’; it ‘overcomes you; it is so large, & so strong, & so triumphant’; ‘no place seems more lusty & alive than this platform of ancient dead stone’. Or, put more crisply in the novel Jacob’s Room, where she reworked some of her Athenian experiences, it ‘appears likely to outlast the entire world’. Face to face with the Parthenon even Mrs Woolf seems to have gone weak at the knees.

THE CRYING GAME

At least she did not cry – unlike many of the world’s most famous critics and connoisseurs, who have found that the Parthenon can reduce them to tears, stiff upper-lip or not. ‘The Parthenon is so shattering that it made me weep, which I don’t usually do under these circumstances’, wrote Cyril Connolly, archly, after a visit in the 1920s. Thousands of others have made a similar confession (or boast), before and since. It is, in fact, a fair guess that more people have wept on the Athenian Acropolis than at any other monument anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of the Taj Mahal. But it is not only aesthetic overload, the shock of anticipation fulfilled or (as a cynic might suspect) showmanship that bring tears to the eyes. Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet, composer of the Indian national anthem and compulsive world traveller, is said to have cried at the sheer ‘barbarian ugliness’ of the ruins he saw on the Acropolis – a useful reminder, if such were needed, that the Parthenon might not look so rosy from a multi-cultural perspective. And there is, of course, a whole tradition, flamboyantly launched by Lord Byron, that makes tears obligatory on the Acropolis, not for the overwhelming beauty of the Parthenon, but for its tragic ruin and for what he saw as its horrible dismemberment.

For the Parthenon is no longer to be found only in Athens. Replicas aside, a good proportion of the sculpture that decorated the original fifth-century BC monument (not to mention a few column capitals and other stray architectural fragments) is now scattered through the museums of Europe. Roughly half the sculpture is housed in Athens, not – as in Byron’s day – on the Parthenon itself, but safely away from the notorious Athenian pollution in the nearby museum. Most of the rest is in the British Museum, London, courtesy of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, who sold it to the British government in 1816 – including over 75 metres of the famous sculpted ‘frieze’ that once ran round the whole building, as well as 15 of the 92 sculpted panels (or ‘metopes’) that were originally displayed high up above the columns and 17 life-size figures that once stood in the temple gables (or ‘pediments’) (Figures 1 and 2). But there is also a notable clutch of material in Paris, including a metope and a slab of frieze, acquired in Athens by a fanatical aristocratic collector in the 1780s, sequestered by the French revolutionaries and now on display in the Louvre, plus various odd, smaller pieces in Copenhagen, Wurzburg, Rome, Vienna and Munich, mostly pocketed (literally) by early visitors to the Acropolis.

Byron’s particular target was Lord Elgin, British ambassador to Constantinople between 1799 and 1803, who had his boatloads of Parthenon sculpture removed from the site through the first decade of the nineteenth century. Some of this had already fallen from its original position and was picked up from the ground near by. But a considerable quantity was removed from the building itself, which involved a whole series of awkward operations, prising the sculpture out or occasionally dismantling small sections of the building to release it. Much of it then turned out to be colossally heavy and almost impossible to transport safely, so to lighten the load (and without, so far as we can tell, attacking the sculpted surfaces themselves) Elgin’s agents proceeded to saw off the backs of the thickest slabs, removing as much excess weight as they could. All of this was immediately controversial. What Elgin’s motives were, and whether he had the legal authority to do what he did, remain, as we shall see in later chapters, matters of intense and irresolvable dispute. The conclusions you reach – whether now or 200 years ago – depend less on facts or logic than on the prejudices from which you start. Predictably, over the centuries, Elgin has been characterised with equal fervour as a parody ‘milord’ prepared to desecrate the acme of world architecture in search of some nice sculpture to prettify his ancestral seat, and as a selfless hero who practically bankrupted himself in preserving for posterity masterpieces that would otherwise have been ground up for cement by ignorant locals, caught in the crossfire of some internecine war or, in due course, destroyed by acid rain. Neither version has much to recommend it.

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Figure 1. Position of the sculpture on the Parthenon.

Byron never met Elgin and was not present while the sculptures were being removed from the Parthenon. In fact, he would have been hardly more than 13 years old when Elgin’s men started their work. He did not set foot in Athens until Christmas Day 1809, when he stayed for 10 weeks, lodging with the famous Widow Macri, whose renowned hospitality extended to taking in a few well-heeled paying guests. He apparently divided his time between deploring the state of modern Athens, touring the sights (you can still just see where he scratched his name on one of the columns of the little temple of Poseidon at Sounion, outside Athens) and scribbling poetry. This included vitriolic attacks on Elgin as well as the ghastly doggerel entitled ‘Maid of Athens’ in honour of Macri’s 12-year-old daughter – ‘Maid of Athens, ere we part,/ Give, oh, give me back my heart!/ Or, since that has left my breast,/ Keep it now, and take the rest!’

It is far from clear what exactly lay behind the sheer nastiness of his campaign against Elgin and the export of the sculpture (no insults were spared, not even sideswipes at Elgin’s retarded son or carefully placed hints about syphilis and Lady Elgin’s adultery). Byron had not yet decided to parade himself as the champion of Greece and Greek freedom – a cause for which he would eventually die, from fever rather than cannon fire, at Missolonghi. Besides, he had all manner of intimate connections with Elgin’s men in Athens. On his return visit to Greece, just a few weeks after the first, he had a whirlwind affair with the young brother-in-law of the man who had actually supervised the removal of Elgin’s marbles from the Parthenon. And when he finally left for home he was happy enough to travel as far as Malta on the very same boat as the last consignment of marbles, which were also on their way to England after years of delay. But whatever drove Byron’s hostility, there can be no doubt that his verses were hugely influential on the reactions to the Parthenon, especially the reactions of the British. ‘Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,/ Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they lov’d;/ Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands …’ Dull is the eye that will not weep. It was hardly less than an order to greet the Parthenon with tears.

‘ON SEEING THE ELGIN MARBLES’

The diaspora of the marbles, and in particular the Elgin collection now in the British Museum, gives another significant spin to the modern story of the Parthenon. From the very moment that the first shipment went on display to the favoured few in 1807 (in a shed behind Elgin’s house at the corner of Park Lane in London), the Elgin Marbles have attracted as much attention as the Parthenon itself, if not more. Some reactions to this sculpture chime in closely with the kind of enthusiasm for the building that we have already traced. Mrs Siddons, the celebrity actress of the moment, predictably (and histrionically) shed a tear when she first caught sight of the figures from the temple gables in the Park Lane shed. John Keats swooned on paper, in the shape of a sonnet titled ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’, when he visited the sculptures in 1817, just after they had been moved to the British Museum, and he is supposed to have incorporated various vignettes taken directly from the frieze in his even more famous ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. (Illustration 4). Goethe meanwhile celebrated the British government’s decision to buy the collection from Elgin as ‘the beginning of a new age for Great Art’. One of the most quoted reactions of all came from the sculptor, Antonio Canova who turned down Elgin’s offer of the plum job of restoring the marbles on the grounds that ‘it would be a sacrilege in him or any man to presume to touch them with a chisel’. It is not often pointed out, though, that he contrived this elegant and flattering refusal to his no doubt pressing client some years before he had actually seen the collection with his own eyes.

These sculptures were replicated all over Europe and beyond. You can find a copy of the Parthenon frieze adding classical lustre to the monumental screen at London’s Hyde Park Corner, designed by Decimus Burton in the 1820s – who went on, appropriately enough, to emblazon the façade of his building for the brand new Athenaeum Club with another version of this masterpiece from ancient Athens. Exact replicas in the form of plaster casts also flooded out from the British Museum to other museums, schools, art colleges and foreign governments. The Treasury obviously decided that the marbles were a useful tool in diplomatic relations and promptly sent a free gift of a full replica set to the royal courts of Tuscany, Rome, Naples and Prussia (with a smaller selection being packed off, also as a present, to Venice). The Prince Regent gave copies of the whole collection to both Plymouth and Liverpool. Others had to pay for the privilege: in St Petersburg, Bavaria and Wurtemburg royalty dug deep into their pockets for ‘parts of the Elgin Marbles’; the Dresden Museum, more economically, swapped a surplus-to-requirements original classical statue for a set of Parthenon casts. It is reckoned that by the mid-nineteenth century there was hardly a sizeable town in Europe or North America that did not somewhere possess the cast of at least one of Elgin’s marbles. Private customers, of course, might prefer something on a smaller scale. Almost as soon as the collection arrived in England, the sculptor John Henning cornered, and flooded, the market with miniature boxed sets of plaster replicas of the frieze – still on sale through the British Museum shop even today (‘superb as a paperweight or as a miniature focal point for a wall’, as the catalogue helpfully suggests).

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4. This particular scene from the Parthenon frieze is often thought to lie behind John Keats’s famous lines in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’: ‘Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest,/ Leadest thou that heifer lowing at the skies … ?’

But, for all this admiration, there is – and always has been – a much stronger dissident tradition on the Elgin Marbles than on the ruins of the Parthenon itself. To start with, it was to do with ‘the shock of the new’. Fashionable art theorists in the early 1800s held that art had reached a state of absolute perfection in classical Greece of the fifth century BC. Or so, at least, they judged from what Greek and Roman writers had to say and from later, Roman copies of earlier masterpieces. For, so long as travel to Greece itself remained an exotic and dangerous activity, almost none of those in northern Europe who pontificated about the history of art had actually seen an original work of fifth-century Greek sculpture. The Elgin Marbles were the first examples of sculpture from what was believed to be the Golden Age of Art that most people in Britain had ever clapped eyes on. If some critics enthused, others did not much like what they saw. Many of the pieces, they thought, were disappointingly battered; a few (especially among the metope panels) seemed frankly second rate and hardly any reached that level of ‘sublimity’ they had expected. One notoriously damning judgement, trumpeted by a rival collector, Richard Payne Knight, was that Elgin’s marbles were not fifth-century BC Greek at all, but Roman additions to the Parthenon from the second century AD. Like Canova, though, Payne Knight spoke before he had seen; he first uttered this put-down, at dinner with Lord Elgin, before the sculptures had even been removed from their crates.

Even after the Roman theory had been decisively scotched, there continued to be voices raised against the star billing of the Elgin Marbles. The sculpture came to stand for all that was worst, as well as best, about classical art: just a little too perfect, slightly sterile, spoiled by the very homogeneity of the figures and the lack of real-life expression on the faces. Thomas Carlyle, for example, was thinking of the characters depicted on the great frieze when he teased the painter G. F. Watts (who kept some casts of the marbles in his studio): ‘There’s not a clever man amongst them all, and I would away with them – into space.’ And just this kind of dissatisfaction is captured, decades later, in the opening to one of the most influential books on the ancient world to be published in the twentieth century, E. R. Dodds’s The Greeks and the Irrational (a brilliant exploration of the murkier, ‘primitive’ aspects of Greek culture). Dodds begins his first chapter with the story of a chance encounter in front of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum: ‘… a young man came up to me and said with a worried air, “I know it’s an awful thing to confess, but this Greek stuff doesn’t move me one bit … it’s all so terribly rational.”’ It was in response to this complaint, so his story goes, that The Greeks and the Irrational was conceived.

DID BYRON GET IT RIGHT?

Other visitors have felt that the sculptures were simply ‘wrong’ in the British Museum. This was partly a sense that works of art created for the bright Athenian sunshine were inevitably deadened by their display in the sombre atmosphere of Bloomsbury – the English weather outside, the hushed tones adopted by troops of dutiful visitors inside. Virginia Woolf, for one, preferred the ‘hairy, tawny bodies’ of Greek tragedy to those delicately ‘posed on granite plinths in the pale corridors of the British Museum’, while ‘being brought to the gloom/ Of this dark room’ was the main gripe of the marbles themselves, as ventriloquised by Thomas Hardy in his poem ‘Christmas in the Elgin Room’. But these questions of display have, more often than not, been subsumed into what has become the longest-running cultural controversy in the world: should Elgin ever have removed the marbles from their original location? Should they ever have been shipped to Britain? Does justice demand that they be sent back ‘home’? In short, did Byron get it right?

These debates have now been running for 200 years. Insults have been traded and a lot more tears have been shed – notably by the formidable Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri, who wept memorably to camera when she visited the marbles in the British Museum in 1983. There have been bad arguments on both sides. Britain has been parodied as an unreconstructed colonial power, desperate to hang on to its cultural booty in place of its lost empire; Greece as a jumped-up Balkan republic, a peasant state hardly to be trusted with the stewardship of an international treasure. Politicians have leapt on and off the bandwagon. Successive Greek governments have found the loss of the Parthenon sculptures a convenient symbol of national unity, and demands for their restitution a low-cost and relatively risk-free campaign. After long delays, a new museum has been built in Athens with space ready for when they return. With equal expediency, successive Labour governments in Britain have forgotten the rash promises they made in opposition to return the marbles to Athens just as soon as they reached power. Meanwhile, in the cross-fire, all kinds of crucial questions of cultural heritage have been raised: to whom does the Parthenon, and other such world-class monuments, belong? Should cultural treasures be repatriated, or should museums be proud of their international holdings? Is the Parthenon a special case – and why?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute (and they are much trickier to judge than campaigners would have us believe), the unquenchable controversy has had one very clear effect. It has helped to keep the Parthenon at the very top of our cultural agenda. Not single-handedly, of course. The Parthenon belongs, as we have already seen, to that elite band of monuments whose historical significance is overlaid by the fame of being famous. When we visit it in Athens or in the British Museum, we are not only searching out a masterpiece of classical Greece; there are, after all, a good number of classical temples bigger or better preserved than this that never attract such attention. We are also following in the footsteps of all those who have visited before (that’s why we want ourphotographs taken there too …); and we are paying tribute to a symbol that has been written into our own cultural history, from Keats, through Freud to Nashville. But, in the case of the Parthenon, there is yet another dimension. We are visiting a monument that has been fought over for generations, that enflames passions and prompts government intervention. It has the added distinction, in other words, of being worth arguing about. The uncomfortable conclusion is hard to resist: that, if it had not been dismembered, the Parthenon would never have been half so famous.

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