In a recent opinion piece, Elizabeth Marlowe proposed that what she terms the “Elgin marbles” should not be returned to Greece — at least not yet. Note that I refer to them as the Parthenon sculptures, not the “Elgin marbles.” Not even the British Museum calls them that anymore, since to use the term implicitly grants legitimacy to their removal by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin. The thrust of Marlowe’s argument is that there are more pressing items of colonial plunder that should be returned first — namely, the Maqdala treasures and the Benin bronzes — and that focusing on the Parthenon sculptures affirms the wrong principle. To prioritize the Greek claim, she contends, shifts the discussion away from colonial violence and towards what she labels “interfamilial bullying” between European nations.
While I am sympathetic to Marlowe’s overall view that museums should be working towards restorative justice and decolonization, her argument is flawed, both conceptually and technically. The principle that one misdeed deserves to be redressed before another, because it stems from a situation of greater violence, is wrong. Looting of cultural property is always a crime, no matter who did it and under what circumstances. If it can be demonstrated that artifacts were acquired illegally, they should be returned to their rightful owners. That applies to all of them, regardless of whether they were robbed at gunpoint, smuggled out in stealth, or sold under duress.
Meting out justice for all is a fundamental tenet of any modern legal system, and no one has the right to conclude that some victims are more deserving than others. The fallacy of such reasoning becomes apparent, in Marlowe’s article, when she lists among “the wrongs that get righted most quickly” the looting done, respectively, by Napoleon and by the Nazis. Given that Holocaust-era restitutions are ongoing and works plundered over two centuries ago still hang in French museums, it is misleading to posit that justice was swift and sure, in these cases.
The argument fails when it creates a false equivalence between Greece and Britain. According to Marlowe, both are “self-proclaimed inheritor[s] of the classical tradition” and heirs to “the powerful myth of ‘Western civilization,’” in essence, members of the same club of European nations. The removal of the Parthenon sculptures, she says, is “to put it bluntly, a wrong done by White people to White people.” That is a shockingly callous claim. Wrongs are wrongs and should be righted. To diminish them on the basis of the perceived ethnicity of the wronged is odious. To blame the Greeks for the appropriation of their ancient culture by northern Europeans is the least decolonial gesture imaginable.
While Greece was just an occupied province, Britain was embarking upon the most expansive imperial project the world has ever known. There is no justifiable comparison between them. The presumption of equivalence between European nations reveals a woeful disregard of history. “Western civilization” and “the classical tradition” are indeed powerful myths or, at least, complex historical constructs. The modern idea of Europe is founded upon them. It would be historicist, however, to map them back onto a period when they were not yet fully formed. When Lord Elgin, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, began to remove artifacts from the Parthenon site, the Greeks were subject to domination by a foreign power they considered oppressive. Many people in Britain agreed with them — notably, the poet Lord Byron, who denounced Elgin as a vandal and gave his life to liberate Greece.
The cause of Greek independence galvanized popular feeling and fed the idea that northern Europeans were the rightful heirs to Greek antiquity (a debatable claim, at best). In contradiction to the Hellenizing assertions of poets and art historians, however, race science held quite a different view of the Greeks. As schemes of racial classification developed over the 19th century, southern European peoples were almost invariably relegated to a lower rung in the racial hierarchy. British commentators considered modern Greeks inferior to their ancient forebears, supposedly degenerated by centuries of mixture with non-European peoples — all the more reason to take from them objects they were not deemed worthy of possessing. To postpone the return of those treasures today based on decrying Greek whiteness is to misconstrue how that category has been constructed historically.
Archibald Archer, “The Trustees in the Temporary Elgin Room” (1819) oil on canvas, 37 x 52.2 inches, the British Museum (photo by the British Museum courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Discussing the Parthenon sculptures in terms of decolonization requires not losing sight of the bigger geopolitical picture. The Greek War of Independence, fought over eight years and costing over 150,000 lives, foreshadowed a reconfigured balance of power in Europe. Britain, France, and Russia banded together to deliver a blow to the Ottoman Empire, frustrating imperial ambitions in Vienna and Berlin, in the process. After the years of Napoleonic upheaval, the war for Greece reflects an international order that would prevail for a century — the so-called Concert of Europe, under which much of the world was partitioned among a handful of European powers. Demonstrating that European nations, acting in concert, could effectively extend the borders of Europe, it was a harbinger of the “high imperialism” to come.
The debate over restitution of the Parthenon sculptures has long hinged on whether their acquisition was exercised under due authority, a question riddled with legal intricacies and archival gaps. Less discussed is the broader strategic context, before and after the items were taken. Elgin’s defenders allege the removal took place under the sovereign authority of Greece’s Ottoman rulers. Two decades later, Britain backed a war to oust those very rulers, a fact inconsistent with their previous regard for the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. On both occasions, self-interest seems to have prevailed over abstract principles of legality. Such arcane details may carry little weight today, but they are relevant to understanding the historical nature of colonialism. The overarching doctrine of imperial power is that the rules of the game only apply when your side is winning. To counter that attitude effectively, decolonization must stick to principles and fight for what is right, not pick and choose what matters.