Ancient History & Civilisation



The explosion of 1687 put the Parthenon, once and for all, out of practical use after more than two millennia as temple, church and mosque. It created a much more dilapidated ruin than the one we know today. ‘Our’ Parthenon, with its instantly recognisable silhouette, is a recreation of the early twentieth century. What the explosion left behind was a scatter of debris and a cluster of columns at each end. As J. P. Mahaffy put it, with characteristic frankness, some decades before the major restoration programme: the damage was such that ‘from the city below, the front and rear of the temple look like the remains of two different buildings’.

In political terms, the consequences of the explosion and of the victory of the Holy League were minimal. Within a few months the Venetians decided not to hold on to Athens: they hardly had the military resources to defend it successfully, and in any case an outbreak of plague made the town a decidedly unattractive proposition. The Turks returned to the Acropolis, rebuilding their garrison village on a smaller scale. At some point soon after (we do not know exactly when), they put up a small mosque in the middle of the Parthenon’s ruins. This building was still standing in 1839, when it was captured on the first surviving photograph of the Acropolis (Illustration 10). By then it had come to serve as a museum for the first discoveries made on the site after the War of Independence. It was not demolished until 1844.


10. The earliest known photograph of the Parthenon, taken in 1839. In the centre of the ruin the small Turkish mosque still stands (serving as a makeshift museum). Note that now just two figures remain, just visible, in the west pediment, the so-called ‘Hadrian and Sabina’ (p. 140).

For the Parthenon itself, however, the consequences were devastating. As soon as it became a ruin, it lost the protection that its status as working church or mosque had provided; and, like most ruins, it became increasingly ruinous. In effect, for more than 100 years there was an open season on the Parthenon’s fabric and remaining sculpture. Locals found it a convenient supply of building stone, they ground its marble down for lime and they broke whole blocks apart to find the lead clamps within. Visitors from abroad had plenty of horror stories to tell. ‘It is to be regretted that so much admirable sculpture as is still extant about this fabric should be all likely to perish … from ignorant contempt and brutal violence’, lamented Richard Chandler of Magdalen College Oxford, who visited in the 1770s, courtesy of the Society of Dilettanti. ‘Numerous carved stones have disappeared; and many, lying in the ruinous heaps, moved our indignation at the barbarism daily exercised in defacing them.’ And, 30 years later, Edward Dodwell had yet more specific charges to level. ‘Large masses of Pentelic marble were broken into smaller pieces for the construction of the miserable cottages of the garrison;’ he wrote, ‘while others, and particularly the bas-reliefs, were burnt into lime; for the Turks are said to have preferred for that purpose a sculptured block to a plain one, though the material was the same. Such is the pleasure with which uncivilised ignorance or frantic superstition, destroyed in a moment the works of years, and the admiration of ages.’

Archaeology suggests that the substance of these allegations is broadly true. But, true or not, stories of local barbarism and neglect provided useful cover for the activities of many of the foreign visitors themselves. For very few travellers reached the Acropolis without casting a predatory eye on the sculpture lying about or built into the ‘miserable cottages’. Some of these were grand-scale collectors, such as the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, the French equivalent of Lord Elgin, ambassador to the sultan’s court and a singleminded connoisseur. In the 1780s, through the good Turkish connections of his agent and a combination of persistence and bribery, he got hold of his metope and frieze-slab, now in the Louvre. The agent even managed to acquire a second metope (which had reputedly fallen from the temple during a storm), but this was stowed on a ship captured by Lord Nelson and was later bought by Elgin. Others were relatively modest souvenir hunters, content with an elegant head or foot fallen from, or (more realistically) chiselled off, the frieze or metopes. Chandler himself is probably typical when, after his tirade against the ignorance of the residents, he writes, ‘We purchased two fine fragments of the freeze [sic], which we found inserted over door-ways in the town; and were presented with a beautiful trunk, which had fallen from the metopes, and lay neglected in the garden of a Turk.’ It was in the pockets of such gentlemen that many of the smaller pieces, now scattered through the museums of Europe, originally left the Acropolis. As Chandler hints, the locals must soon have turned their energies to just this kind of traffic. It was much more lucrative, after all, to flog a fragment of Pheidias to a visiting milord than to grind it into mortar.

Some of these souvenirs have, predictably enough, gone astray. No one knows what has happened to Chandler’s three prized acquisitions. Others have had notably perilous histories. One of the pieces of frieze now in the British Museum, for example, did not come via Lord Elgin at all, but was dug up in 1902, in a garden rockery at an Essex mansion, Colne Park; it was unearthed along with a Greek inscription last seen in 1771 when it had been the property of a ‘Mr Jones’. The best guess is that these were both part of a small consignment of antiquities assembled by James Stuart, who was in Athens in the 1750s with his partner Nicholas Revett, drawing and surveying the Parthenon for the Society of Dilettanti (work eventually published as Volume II of their hugely influentialAntiquities of Athens in 1789 – though tactfully dated 1787, the year before Stuart’s death). Stuart is known to have sent some cargo on to Smyrna, where he planned to meet it, but it ‘miscarried’. ‘Mr Jones’ was later given the inscription, and presumably the sculpture too, by a naval captain. At this point the trail goes cold. But the likelihood is that both pieces somehow found their way together into the collection of Thomas Astle, a renowned antiquarian, manuscript collector and trustee of the British Museum, whose son was to own Colne Park. What furious bout of spring-cleaning, distaste for family heirlooms or ‘uncivilised ignorance’ then consigned a notable fragment of the Parthenon frieze into the bedding of an English rock garden, we have simply no idea.


This is the context in which we must see the events of 1801 to 1811, when Lord Elgin or his agents (most of the time Elgin was not himself present) were busy, on and off, collecting antiquities in Athens and elsewhere in Greece, and dispatching them, by the boatload to England. At the very top of their wish-list was the Parthenon. Roughly half its surviving sculpture was removed: some of it was picked up from where it had fallen, some excavated near by, some, notoriously, was taken down from its original position on the building itself. Our own modern image of a clean, sanitised Acropolis, with the Parthenon as its centrepiece, a substantial free standing monument, unencumbered by later structures and fiercely protected from interference, makes Elgin’s actions almost unimaginable. (For how could anyone but a villain have laid a chisel on such a monument …?) But it was not ‘our’ Parthenon that was at issue. Elgin’s building was a much more ruined affair: it was colonised by a mosque, encroached by a garrison shanty-town and for more than a century had been despoiled by locals and visitors alike; and it was under the control of a now time-expired Ottoman government whose corruption was mixed with, and no doubt mitigated by, inefficiency. The one clear fact about Elgin’s interventions is that he did not ransack an ‘archaeological site’ in any sense that we would recognise. He removed, more systematically – indeed more ruthlessly – than any of his predecessors, surviving sculptures of a precious remnant of classical antiquity that was standing (just about) in the middle of a rough-and-ready military base. He would certainly have been able to convince himself that the marbles were safer in his hands (Illustration 11).

Almost everything else about Elgin’s actions is a matter of speculation, dispute or prejudice. His motives are irrecoverable and were, no doubt, always mixed. He himself wrote nobly, and maybe sincerely, about using the Parthenon and its decoration to encourage the arts and architecture in his native land. All the same, it would be naïve not to suspect a range of more self-seeking ambitions – the kudos of bringing the glories of Greece to Britain among them, and outdoing even Napoleon in the fashionable pursuit of classical treasures. (‘Bonaparte has not got such a thing from all his thefts in Italy,’ as Elgin was once to boast.) By the end of the story, financial considerations too played a large part. When he finally arranged the sale of the sculpture to the British government in 1816, bankruptcy loomed; servicing his enormous debts must have been uppermost in his mind.


11. The Parthenon in the second half of the eighteenth century. This engraving from Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens gives a slightly romantic tinge to the, no doubt, rather squalid shanty-town which surrounded and encroached on the monument (note the well-tended garden and suspiciously neat peasants). In less than 50 years all the sculpture here visible in the east pediment would be removed by Lord Elgin’s agents.

The legal rights and wrongs of the case are just as murky. The actions of Elgin and his agents on the Acropolis were regulated by a firman, a permit detailing what was to be allowed, which was sent by the central government in Constantinople to the local officials in Athens. Did Elgin’s men obey or flout the terms of this document? Did they go beyond what they had been allowed to do? The simple answer is that we do not know; and we may well wonder quite how crucial a question it is in our judgement of Elgin anyway (after all, some of the greatest crimes in history have been committed in perfect compliance with the law of the time). None the less, it has prompted interminable modern discussion, spurred on by the tantalising fact that the original firman has never been found, only an Italian translation made for Elgin by the Ottoman court which has been in the British Museum since 2006. This Italian version explicitly gives Elgin’s men permission to draw, to measure, to put up ladders and scaffolding, to make plaster casts and to dig for what sculptures and inscriptions may lie buried. It is silent on what has always been the main topic of controversy: were they allowed to remove sculpture from the building itself? Is that covered by the instruction in the firman that ‘when they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made’? Or are we to assume that what ‘they wished to take away’ was to include only pieces already fallen to the ground or excavated from the rubble? No amount of poring over the text can provide the answer. As often with documents sent out from head office, the precise interpretation would rest with the men carrying out the orders on the spot. And that would depend on what they imagined the men in Constantinople had in mind, as well as on the usual combination of courtesy, bribery and double dealing that was the hallmark of negotiations between Ottoman officials at Athens and their foreign visitors. It can never have come down to clear, non-negotiable legal limits.

Most commentators at the time were much more ambivalent about Elgin’s actions than we usually (thanks to Byron’s spin) imagine, and their objections were focused on the prising away of sculpture from the standing remains of the building. They were not generally averse to the idea that Elgin should cart off to Britain the bits and pieces he found by digging or – never mind the villagers – those that were built into the Turkish houses on the Acropolis. Even some of his fiercest critics were playing exactly this game on a smaller scale. Edward Daniel Clarke, for example, a Cambridge polymath who claimed to have observed even the disdar shedding a tear at one of the more brutal bits of intervention in the Parthenon, was not above dealing with the exact same official (‘a poor man’, as Clarke archly noted) for some choice fragments of Pheidias. In fact, the disdar managed to wheedle out of Elgin’s storerooms a precious piece of metope for Clarke to take back to Cambridge. It had been discovered near the entrance to the Acropolis and, as Clarke was later to boast self-righteously, ‘it is now in the Vestibule of the University Library at Cambridge, a solitary example of sculpture removed from the ruins of the Parthenon without injuring what time and the Goths have spared’. The joke is that it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Cambridge did not have its own fragment of Pheidias, but a small part of the second-century AD Roman decoration from the nearby Theatre of Dionysus – now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The critics’ real horror was reserved for the chisels, saws, ropes and pulleys that signalled the dismemberment of the surviving upper levels of the building to extract the sculpture. Dodwell, another eye-witness, rated the ‘insensate barbarism’ of Elgin’s agents even worse than that of the Turks. ‘I saw several metopae at the south-east extremity of the temple taken down,’ he explained. ‘In order to lift them up, it was necessary to throw to the ground the magnificent cornice by which they were covered. The south-east angle of the pediment shared the same fate; and instead of the picturesque beauty and high preservation in which I first saw it, it is now comparatively reduced to a state of shattered desolation.’ On the other hand, Dodwell did share enough of Elgin’s assumptions about that crucial nexus between art, collecting and patriotism, to concede grudgingly that ‘… while we indignantly reprove and deeply regret the irreparable damage that has been done to the Athenian monuments, we must not overlook that advantage which the fine arts in our country will derive from the introduction of such estimable specimens of Grecian art’. Even for one of the most strident critics, the issues were more complicated than simple vandalism.

They were also a good deal more political. Scratch the surface of the early nineteenth-century debates about Lord Elgin, and you soon find the competing ambitions of the rival superpowers, Britain and France. The damage done to the Parthenon by Elgin’s operations might have been regrettable, but it would have been even worse, in the eyes of many British observers at the time, to see the sculptures falling wholesale into the hands of the French. Byron’s long-suffering travelling companion, John Cam Hobhouse, gives us a glimpse of ‘the furious struggles … made by both French and English to gain their point’; these were still being fought out when Byron’s party arrived in Athens at Christmas 1809. Hobhouse reports a tremendous mixture of tub-thumping jingoism and misinformed rumour. The French deplored the damage and attempted to take the moral high ground, claiming (implausibly) that they were interested only in making plaster casts – not, like Elgin, in snatching the precious originals. For the English, this was just plain sour grapes: ‘they only complain because they envy our success, and would themselves have been masters of the same treasures’. Matching tales of French vandalism and megalomaniac schemes quickly followed, as counter-blasts. Choiseul-Gouffier’s agents were accused of hacking into the Parthenon to wrench out his metope; this nasty rumour (which was almost certainly false) was apparently being spread by the disdar himself, who may well have found it useful to stir up rivalry between his two main clients. To cap it all, it was said that the French ‘even had a plan for carrying off the whole of the Temple of Theseus!!!

For all his friendship with Byron, in the account of his visit to Greece published in 1813 Hobhouse keeps a judicious distance from the various warring sides in this dispute. He holds out little hope for what still survives on the Acropolis (‘… if the Turks remain for many more years in possession of Athens, every valuable antiquity will be entirely destroyed’), and he has no truck with scapegoating Elgin (‘the fashionable clamour of the day’ raised by those ‘incapable of appreciating the merit of the remains in question, wherever they may be fixed’). Yet, at the same time, he cannot help but regret that the integrity of the Parthenon has been lost, and he suggests – naughtily in the circumstances – that a Napoleonic conquest of Greece might have given the building as a whole its best chance of proper preservation, ‘in the hands of an enlightened enemy’. Among all the scurrilous poems, the pamphleteering, the huffing and puffing for and against Elgin over the last 200 years, this stands out as an unusually careful judgement.


Only 10 years or so after the last consignment of Elgin’s marbles had left Athens, the Acropolis was a war zone again. It was besieged twice during the War of Independence. First, in 1821–22 when the Turks were forced to surrender to the Greeks for lack of water. Decent terms were agreed, and instantly forgotten. The French consul, Jean-Louis-Sebastien Fauvel (who years earlier had been Choiseul-Gouffier’s canny agent in acquiring his Parthenon sculptures) was one of those who did their best to see fair play. But they did not manage to save hundreds of Turks from the Greek knife. In 1826–27, the tables were turned. The Greeks surrendered to the Turks, after a multinational force which had come to relieve the siege had been horribly defeated. There was little to choose between the military morals of either side in this conflict.

Inevitably, the Parthenon took some of the punishment – though hardly severe enough to justify any claim by Elgin’s supporters that he really had saved the sculpture from complete devastation. Archaeologists have estimated that a further 520 blocks of marble were removed from the temple over this period, for makeshift defences or dismantled for the bullets that could be made out of their lead clamps. One powerful myth of the campaign (elaborated, if not invented, years after) tells of the Greek besiegers sending bullets, as a gift, up to the Turks to prevent them tearing apart any more columns. The sheer boredom of the siege left its mark too. Still visible on photographs of the late nineteenth century are the graffiti scratched on the Parthenon’s columns by those penned-up on the Acropolis. One, in particular, captures the romantic imagination, over and above the vicious reality of the fighting on the ground: it read simply ‘M Blondel, Philhellene, 1826’. This was the signature, presumably, of a French volunteer who had come to fight for the liberty of Greece – a cause which, as we shall see, would be increasingly symbolised by the very monument on which he scrawled his name.

In the end, the big western powers intervened to impose Greek victory and Greek independence from Ottoman rule. After a failed attempt at a presidency (President Capodistrias was assassinated on his way to church in Nauplion in October 1831; bullets are still carefully preserved in the church wall) and the usual trawl around the minor royalty of Europe, a king was found for the new state in the shape of 17-year-old Prince Otto, son of King Ludwig of Bavaria. It was an appropriate enough choice, given Ludwig’s own passion for classical antiquity, though the lawless, ravaged wasteland that was to be his kingdom can hardly have seemed a particularly attractive inheritance to the Bavarian teenager who disembarked at Nauplion on 6 February 1833 to take up the throne. Athens, it was decided, was to be the capital city, still trading on its historical glamour, despite being now little more than a ruin. A battalion of brightly uniformed Bavarian soldiers moved in to sweep the last surviving Turks off the Acropolis, and to take up residence for a short while in the little Parthenon mosque. Meanwhile, plans were set in motion for transforming the town into a self-respecting European capital, with all the necessary amenities. Two key questions were what to do with the Acropolis and its monuments and where to house the new king.

At this point the history of the Parthenon nearly took one of its most unexpected turns. For back in Bavaria Otto’s brother Maximilian got together with his royal friend and amateur architect, Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, and came up with the idea of putting the new royal palace on the Acropolis itself; two problems solved at a stroke. For a detailed design, Maximilian commissioned plans from Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the leading Prussian architect and veteran builder of some of the famous landmarks of Berlin (including the Altes Museum and Concert Hall). It was a tough brief: create a comfortable, workable and thoroughly modern palace for the new monarchy; make it defensible (it would have been rash, after all, to assume that young Otto’s rule would be unchallenged); and incorporate within it the Parthenon and other surviving ancient monuments on site. But Schinkel rose to the task – in a spectacular way, with a design to take over the whole hill (Illustration 12). Most of the living quarters were to be concentrated at the east end, an elaborate series of reception rooms, courtyards and shady colonnades, serviced by a network of underground water conduits, backed up by steam-powered pumps if necessary. The main entrance was to be at the west, through the ancient Propylaia and leading up to a huge sunken hippodrome that was to serve as a ceremonial forecourt. Just next to it would be the ruins of the Parthenon itself, standing tall over the rest of the palace, which was carefully planned to be just one storey in height.

12. Schinkel’s plan for King Otto’s palace on the Acropolis. The distinctive form of the Parthenon can be picked out (lower centre) enmeshed in the labyrinthine structures of the royal residence clustering at the bottom (east) end. The grand entrance to the whole complex, through the ancient Propylaia, is here shown at the top.


For Schinkel’s admirers the scheme must have seemed a triumph, a brilliant and tactful combination of the classical past of Greece and its royal present. His critics saw little more than an armchair fantasy by an elderly architect who had never set foot in Athens, and had no idea of the physical or political realities of the place; ‘a charming Midsummer Night’s dream’ as Leo von Klenze, Schinkel’s main rival and the architect of the Parthenon-inspired Walhalla, was to dismiss it. For us it is hard to resist the thought that, even if the rest of the palace quarters were planned on a discreet scale, the overall effect would still have been to reduce the Parthenon ruins to a giant folly, a decorative ornament in the royal gardens.

Needless to say, Schinkel’s scheme was never built, and Otto was eventually housed in the lumbering brick mansion that still lines the east side of Syntagma Square. One of the official reasons for rejecting the Acropolis plan was the problem with the water supply (despite Schinkel’s ingenious system of conduits and pumps). But other factors certainly weighed: King Ludwig’s worries about his son’s security and the enormous cost of the project among them. What put paid to the idea most decisively, however, was no practical consideration at all, but a completely different vision of the future of the Parthenon and of the Acropolis as a whole. For another strand of German Hellenism, backed by Schinkel’s rival and growing numbers of the new Greek elite, wanted the entire hill to become an archaeological zone and a memorial to the glory days of classical Athens.


The Parthenon was officially inaugurated as an ancient monument in an extravagant piece of Bavarian pageantry on 28 August 1834. The ceremony was masterminded by Klenze, who was busy establishing himself as the chief adviser on architecture and archaeology to the royal court. It was to be one of the young king’s first official duties. Otto rode on horseback up to the Acropolis, where he was met by the garrison commander and a bevy of Athenian girls, dressed in white and carrying branches of myrtle; one waved a banner blazoned with an image of the goddess Athena, another held a wreath of laurel. As the band played, Otto walked up to the Parthenon itself, where he sat on a throne and, in front of a packed crowd of soldiers, courtiers and local bigwigs, listened politely to a speech delivered by Klenze in German (translations kindly provided for the Greeks). All around, the detritus of the years of wars, massacre and depredations must still have been horribly visible; just a year earlier, one of the Bavarian soldiers had written of the confused mixture of ‘broken pillars, marble blocks, large and small, cannonballs, shell fragments, human skulls and bones’ that littered the ground. But Klenze offered a messianic vision of the classical Acropolis ‘re-born’ as the symbol of the new nation-state. ‘Your Majesty stepped today’, he declared, ‘after so many centuries of barbarism, for the first time on this celebrated Acropolis, proceeding on the road of civilisation and glory, on the road passed by the likes of Themistocles, Aristeides, Cimon and Pericles, and this is and should be in the eyes of your people the symbol of your glorious reign … All the remains of barbarity will be removed, here as in all Greece, and the remains of the glorious past will be brought in new light, as the solid foundation of a glorious present and future.’ He then asked the king to tap three times on the first column drum of the Parthenon to be restored – and the era of archaeology in the new Greece had begun. Though not archaeology as we know it, perhaps; Klenze’s advice was that any material which could neither be reincorporated into the ruins nor made into a picturesque display on the Acropolis should be sold off as building material.

The pageant was a ludicrous piece of theatre but, at the same time, it was an absolutely crucial moment in the history of Greek cultural politics and the archaeology of the Acropolis. Klenze’s performance paraded the monuments of the classical Greek past as the most important symbols of the new nation-state. Of course, as we have noted already, earlier generations of Athenians had seen the symbolic potential in their classical heritage; and even before the War of Independence a few Greek intellectuals had called for the preservation of their ancient monuments. But it was the Bavarian monarchy, looking for legitimation and bringing its own traditions of investment in ancient Greek culture, that made the connection between classical antiquities and Greek nationhood absolutely inextricable. As one notable archaeologist put it, speaking to a meeting of the Archaeological Society in Athens in 1838, ‘it is to these stones [the sculpture and architecture of classical Greece] that we owe our political renaissance’. This was to become an almost sacred tenet at the heart of Greek national identity, aptly reflected in the popular name that has been given to the Acropolis since the mid-nineteenth century: the Sacred Rock. In due course, it also shifted the terms in which the actions of Lord Elgin were discussed. The early nineteenth-century focus on how much damage was done to the building by the removal of the sculpture still in place was superseded by much more direct appeals to nationalism. If the Parthenon was, as one prominent Greek archaeologist wrote in 1983, ‘the most sacred monument of this country … which expresses the essence of the Greek spirit’, then all its sculptures obviously belonged in Greece.

On the Acropolis itself, Klenze’s speech heralded a systematic campaign of clearance and excavation. The Bavarian garrison was given its marching orders in 1835 and the site passed into the control of the newly formed Greek Archaeological Service. Over the next 50 years or so, the hill was gradually stripped of virtually all the ‘remains of barbarity’. Every trace of the Turkish village was removed, including the minaret on the Parthenon; what was left of the Renaissance palace built into the Propylaia was dismantled; most of the Christian apse in the Parthenon was cleared away; so too was a lot of Roman work, as well as the picturesque Frankish Tower (in fact built by the Florentines) that stood over one corner of the Propylaia and had been a notable landmark on the Acropolis for centuries. At the same time a campaign of excavation went down deeper and deeper through the soil, until there was nothing left but the natural bedrock, exposed over the whole hill-top. By 1890 they could count Klenze’s dream fulfilled. As the then director of excavations proudly announced, Greece had ‘delivered the Acropolis back to the civilised world, cleansed of all barbaric additions, a noble monument to the Greek genius’.

The present appearance of the site is largely the result of this campaign of clearance and excavation. All that the visitor can now see is what the archaeologists of the nineteenth century chose to leave behind: a handful of monuments with a fifth-century BC classical pedigree, standing in splendid (or uncomfortable) isolation, stripped of as much of their later history as possible. Between them lies the natural rock of the hill. Many visitors take this treacherous, slippery surface to be the ancient ground level. In fact it is nothing of the sort. The ancient Greeks, sensibly, walked on a carefully prepared surface of packed and beaten earth. This bare rock is the product of a vigorous programme of archaeological cleansing and by the standards of today’s archaeology a lesson in how notto landscape a restored site.


These excavations were, in many respects, an enormous success. They may have been driven by a narrow passion for the Athens of Pericles; but they revolutionised the understanding of the earlier history of the classical buildings on the Acropolis. It became clear, for example, that the Parthenon had not been the first monument on its site. Excavation showed that it had been built on a huge platform which had already held the first few building courses of a partly finished temple, on almost the same scale as the later Parthenon. This ‘Pre-Parthenon’ was destroyed, just as it was being built, during the Persian invasion of 480 BC – though it has left numerous traces of its brief existence. Some of the marble column drums, cracked by the heat of the fires lit by the Persians, were soon re-used in the north wall of the Acropolis; they were prominently displayed in the defences as if to act as a visible reminder of what the Athenians had sacrificed in the cause of Greek victory. Part of another block, a half-finished column capital, apparently rejected by the original builders in 480 because it had developed a crack, has also been discovered on the site, having spent part of the last two millennia as a door threshold in one of the Acropolis village houses. Many other blocks, we now recognise, were later used in building the Parthenon itself: a signal of prudent economy in a costly project as well as a symbolic reclamation of what the Persians had destroyed.

Over the whole of the Acropolis, the nineteenth-century excavations turned up evidence of its earlier, pre-classical, periods. Many of the most significant finds were soon put on display in a purpose-built museum, carefully constructed to the east of the Parthenon in the 1860s, so as to be almost invisible from the city below – or, indeed, from most of the rest of the site. These included a famous collection of sixth-century BC sculptures, damaged in the Persian invasion and found by the excavators where they had been later buried by the Athenians who came to clear up the wreckage: dozens of stiffly standing maidens with the enigmatic smiling faces characteristic of this period of Greek art, confidently naked youths, a haunting figure of a man carrying a calf. Originally set up on the hill as pious religious dedications or proud displays of individual wealth, they give us some idea of the sheer profusion of images that must have littered the ancient Acropolis.

Also discovered was a series of sculptures from the pediments of temples and other buildings on the Acropolis in the sixth century BC: a magnificent lioness savaging a bull; a still brightly painted monster with a snaky tail and three heads (known affectionately as Bluebeard after the colour of his beards); the goddess Athena dispatching an unfortunate giant; and many others. Here was further crucial evidence for the appearance and layout of the Acropolis over the 100 years or so before the Parthenon was built. But it proved tricky to reconstruct. Even now, despite the confident versions often illustrated in guidebooks to the site or reconstructed in the museum, no one is completely sure which of the sculptures goes with which. ‘Bluebeard’, for example, has sometimes been put together in the same pediment with the lioness, sometimes not. And there is still less certainty about precisely which buildings any of these reconstructed pediments might have decorated. This is largely because most traces on the ground of the pre-classical structures were removed in later construction work, while the rough-and-ready approach of the archaeologists ensured that any scant hints that did survive until the nineteenth century were carted off in their wheelbarrows, without record. The foundations of one large temple of the 520s BC are still visible between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion; and another is widely thought to have preceded even the Pre-Parthenon (taking the history of temple building where the Parthenon now stands back to about 570). In general, enough material was recovered for us to be fairly confident that the Acropolis was a sacred site for the city of Athens from the very end of the eighth century BC – as far back, that is, as the city (as we know it) had existed. The prehistoric antecedents are another matter. The Acropolis had been settled as early as the second millennium BC, with a Bronze Age Mycenaean palace and a defensive wall that is in places still visible; but whether there was any direct connection between this prehistoric period of occupation and the later religious functions of the site is, frankly, anyone’s guess.

While the nineteenth-century excavators were digging down to bedrock, other scholars were busy minutely examining the standing remains of the Parthenon. Now that the garrison village had been cleared away it was much easier to move in and survey the building with all the exactitude that modern technology could offer. One of their particular obsessions was the so-called system of ‘optical refinements’ deployed in the building’s architecture. Parts of this had been observed long before. The English architect C. R. Cockerell, who was in Athens at the very beginning of the century (on his way to acquire the sculptures from the temple of Apollo at Bassae in the Peloponnese), had realised that the columns appeared at a casual glance to taper from bottom to top in a straight line – but in fact, as accurate measurement revealed, bulged slightly in the middle (a trick known in the architectural trade as entasis). Soon after, it was discovered that the columns did not stand exactly perpendicular, as they appeared to the naked eye, but inclined very slightly inwards (modern calculations show that, if they were continued upwards, the columns of the east and west façades would actually meet about 5,000 metres above the floor level). The close observations of the mid-nineteenth century added many other apparent inconsistencies and turned them into a whole system of learned optical illusion. The platform, for example, on which the temple sits (the stylobate) looks to be horizontal; in fact, it curves up in the middle. The columns at the corners are, despite appearances, thicker than those in the middle. And so on.

Generations of modern architectural historians saw these as part of an almost mystical sophistication mastered by the Parthenon’s architects. Iktinos and Kallicrates must not only have known, for example, that a truly straight column would appear to the eye to be thinner at the middle, they also knew exactly how to compensate for the visual misapprehension. And such ‘refinements’ have passed into our own popular mythology of the monument, which is commonly said to be a building ‘without any straight lines’. Quite how seriously we should take these arguments is a moot point. It is certainly the case that our major surviving ancient handbook on architecture, by the Roman writer Vitruvius, does recognise a range of optical ‘problems’ that an architect should be able to correct. But there are other, much more practical, building issues at stake. A stylobate, for example, needs to curve upwards in the middle if it is to allow rainwater to flow off freely. Besides, there is the sneaking suspicion that once a building such as the Parthenon has been acknowledged as a masterpiece, its inconsistencies are always liable to be glorified into a sophisticated optical system – rather than dismissed as the day-to-day improvisations of the builders on site.

One of the most ingenious pieces of detective work ever carried out on the building was the achievement of a young American student at the very end of the nineteenth century. Eugene Andrews had come from Cornell University to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. As part of his programme he attended a series of Saturday lectures given on site at the Acropolis. On Saturday 7 December 1895 the lecturer concentrated on the east front of the Parthenon. He showed the students a series of marks and cuttings just under the metopes, where at some point in the building’s history a row of shields had been fixed right across the façade (the speculation was – probably correctly – that these were gifts of Alexander the Great). Between the ghosts of the shields he picked out another set of cuttings, which marked the fixings of a series of bronze letters; at one time, he explained, an inscription must have been blazoned across the entrance of the temple, but no one had yet worked out what it had said. Andrews took up the challenge. He got permission to rig up a movable platform with a rope ladder (photographs make it look extremely precarious) and he took careful mouldings of each of the groups of letters, using soft wet paper which he left on the building to dry to the shape of the cuttings. He carefully peeled off the paper and took it back to his study to see if he could work out from these fixing holes what the original letters had been.

It turned out to be a nasty surprise. At the very least, even if it was not a remnant of the fifth century, Andrews had anticipated the text would commemorate Alexander and his shields. In fact, as he wrote to his sister, shortly after the decipherment, ‘The inscription proved to be a dedication to Nero, whereat I’m much disgusted’. This ‘sordid story’ was as far as you could imagine from the Periclean Athens that the building had come to symbolise. The ‘servile’ Athenians, subjects of the Roman empire in the first century AD, must have greeted the arrival in Greece of this notorious emperor in 61 by parading his name in bronze across the entrance of their most famous and sacred building. The most that could be said in mitigation is that they were ‘sorry afterwards’ for the defacement and quickly removed the offending text (that, at least, was the conclusion he drew from the lack of any obvious weathering around the letters). Andrews never properly published this brilliant discovery. ‘I felt no elation’, he wrote, looking back in the 1950s, ‘at having torn from the Parthenon its shameful secret.’

This overriding preoccupation with the fifth-century Acropolis at the expense of every other historical period had its critics. As almost all the traces of later building were systematically stripped away through the nineteenth century, the (ineffectual) chorus of protest in Greece and overseas grew louder. A particular cause célèbre was the destruction in 1875 of the so-called Frankish Tower that had stood, 27 metres tall, at the corner of the Propylaia. Supporters of its demolition continued to harp on the need to get rid of such ‘dark relics of the passing waves of barbarity’, while many archaeologists were eagerly expecting that in the debris they would find a treasure trove of inscribed texts, and perhaps sculpture, of the fifth century BC, re-used as building material by the fifteenth-century workmen. Heinrich Schliemann, who could boast of discovering the Homeric city of Troy just a few years before and was now a rich and influential resident of Athens, came up with the money for the demolition work. In fact, not a single inscribed text was found, and waves of dissent spread across Europe, deploring the obliteration of such a well-known landmark. In England E. A. Freeman, historian and father-in-law of that other maestro of prehistoric Greek archaeology, Arthur Evans, penned a tirade for theSaturday Review of 21 July 1877. ‘It is but a narrow view of the Akropolis of Athens to look on it simply as the place where the great works of the age of Perikles may be seen as models in a museum,’ he wrote. ‘Only yesterday the tower of the Dukes of Athens was standing … But the tower was late; it was barbarous … We can conceive nothing more paltry, nothing more narrow, nothing more opposed to the true spirit of scholarship, than these attempts to wipe out the history of any age … At all events, let not men calling themselves scholars lend themselves to such deeds of wanton destruction.’

This was all stirring stuff; but it had no effect on official archaeological policy. That did not change until the 1950s, when a longstanding proposal to remove the staircase, in its medieval tower, from the west end of the Parthenon was abandoned once and for all. But by then, more than 100 years after the project of clearance started, the damage had been done. As one historian of Byzantium has recently put it, a visit to the Acropolis today is rather like being taken on a tour around Westminster Abbey, blindfold to everything but the work of Edward the Confessor.


When Virginia Woolf encountered the Parthenon again in 1932, more than 25 years after her first visit, she reflected in her diary on what had changed. ‘Yes, but what can I say about the Parthenon – that my own ghost met me, the girl of 23, with all her life to come: that; and then, this is more compact & splendid & robust than I remembered. The yellow pillars – how shall I say? gathered, grouped, radiating there on the rock … The Temple like a ship, so vibrant … It is larger than I remembered, & better held together.’ Woolf was righter than she knew. Although her diary entry suggests that she put the changes down to the tricks of memory or the effects of maturity, in the years between her two visits the Parthenon had been substantially rebuilt. It really was ‘more splendid & robust … larger & better held together’ than it had been in 1906.

For side by side with the policy of clearance and excavation went a sporadic programme of reconstruction of the fifth-century monuments. The most extreme example was the little temple of Victory (Athena Nike), built between 427 and 423 BC, on a parapet high up on the right of the entrance to the Acropolis. This had been completely dismantled by the Turks in 1686 to build defences against the invading forces of the Holy League. It was put together again from scratch immediately after the War of Independence, as the very first major restoration project of the new state. It was taken apart and reassembled again in the 1930s, and is now undergoing its third total reconstruction. In what sense it is the same building as that erected 2,500 years ago is very hard to say.

The restoration campaigns on the Parthenon were less radical, but they significantly changed the overall appearance of the building, creating a much less ruined ruin. In 1834, when young King Otto sat on his throne in the temple to listen to Klenze’s speech, the building was in its most dilapidated state ever – the clusters of columns at its two ends separated by a vast gaping hole. Through the nineteenth century there were occasional efforts to put some missing sections back in place. In the 1840s, for example, four lost columns in the north colonnade, and one in the south, were partially rebuilt from pieces lying around the site; and 158 blocks were put back on to the walls of the interior rooms, infilling where necessary with modern red brick. But the major interventions came early in the twentieth century, prompted by an earthquake which damaged the building in 1894, as well as by a series of political crises that made an ostentatious investment in the greatest legacy of classical Greece seem a useful piece of public relations. The first round of repairs was finished in 1902; it was relatively modest and was carried out under the aegis of an international committee of advisers who recommended no full-scale reconstruction. But by the 1920s the chief engineer, Nikolaos Balanos, was working effectively without any external supervision and he embarked on a 10-year programme of rebuilding.

This campaign involved all kinds of restoration to the interior walls, strengthening the pediments and reinserting casts of some of the sculpture removed by Lord Elgin. But the most significant change was the re-erection of most of the missing sections of the long colonnades, which had the effect of joining up the east and west ends for the first time since the explosion of 1687. A comparison of the before and after shots in Illustration 13 gives some idea of the enormous impact of this restoration. At the time there were a few objections to the scale and techniques of this reconstruction. Most people, if they recognised it as reconstruction at all, heartily approved of what Balanos had done. For the building did, as Woolf put it, look considerably more ‘splendid’, more like a single building, in fact, and a much more fitting approximation to the masterpiece of Periclean Athens that it was supposed to be. It was only much more recently, after Balanos’s death and under a new regime of restoration and conservation, that the tide turned against him. It was not just a question of the faint hint of deception that the whole project involved. To be sure, many people do feel uncomfortable that the famous outline of the building, blazoned on postage stamps and tourist posters, was an invention of the 1920s. But there were yet more serious objections to Balanos’s methods. First, he made very little attempt to replace blocks in their original position: any column drum would do if it fitted well enough where he wanted it. In this sense his work was nothing like an accurate reconstruction, but a plausible fiction made out of the material he had to hand. Even more crucial, though, was his use of iron rods and clamps throughout the building, inside the ancient marble blocks. In due course this iron oxidised and expanded, splitting open the very masonry it was supposed to be holding in place. Balanos’s Parthenon was literally a time-bomb waiting to burst apart.



13. The transformation of the Parthenon under Balanos. His finished product (above) certainly looks more impressive than the ruin (below) from which he started. But the iron clamps used in the reconstruction soon threatened to destroy the very marble they were intended to hold together.

By the late 1960s the problem of Balanos’s iron was compounded by the effects of environmental pollution in Athens, which was steadily eating into the temple’s fabric. UNESCO intervened in 1970, with a report which trailed various fantastic solutions for the Acropolis and its monuments (including the idea of encasing the whole hilltop in a perspex bubble). The upshot was the establishment in 1975 of a new committee to supervise the conservation and restoration of all the building on the site. This is now the flagship programme of Greek archaeology, and it proceeds extremely slowly, with exemplary and almost unbelievable care. Every single ancient building block on the Acropolis has been inventoried and measured; rather like hospital patients, each one has its own record card and medical history, its use and re-use over the last three millennia minutely traced. Meanwhile, the overall principles and the detailed proposals for the restoration of each building have been widely discussed in a series of international conferences, which should (if nothing else) deflect some of the criticisms which will inevitably follow. Every intervention is to be reversible. Where a stray block can be replaced in its original position, it will be (that is the best and safest form of conservation). All the sculpture is to be moved from the dangerous open air to the climate-controlled museum – virtually all of it already has been – and will be replaced with exact replicas.

Work started on dismantling and reconstructing the Parthenon itself in 1986. Almost every stone is being lifted out and carefully repositioned. Balanos’s iron rods are being removed and replaced with safe (or so we are promised) titanium. Every conceivable expert in the world has been consulted about exactly how many columns to re-erect, and to what height. For the first time ever this is a project with its eyes not only on the building of Pericles, but on the history of the temple, church, mosque and ruin up to the present day. Although relatively little can be salvaged, the marks of the Venetian cannon-balls and the medieval graffiti are being given no less devoted attention than the fragments of the fifth-century sculpture. When the restoration is finished and visitors can once again (or so it is hoped) walk inside the building that has been closed for so many years, they will be able to see at least a few traces of the twelfth-century church apse, as well as the setting for Pheidias’ gold and ivory statue. That is not likely to be much before 2020. When the Parthenon, rebuilt for the twenty-first century, is finally unveiled (and ‘rebuilding’ is what, in layman’s terms, this project is), it will have taken twice as long to complete as the original structure of the fifth century BC.

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