When the Marbles Cried

Over the centuries, many a traveler is said to have cried at the magnificent beauty of the Parthenon.  Some travelers have also cried because of the tragic ruin and horrible dismemberment of the Parthenon.  A symbol of Ancient Greek democracy and Western civilization, it was the first temple built on the Acropolis. The experience is one of awe as you ascend the Acropolis, walk through the Propylaia (entrance), and witness Greece’s national symbol.  The Parthenon featured a large number of sublime sculptures. These sculptures were primarily part of the decorative friezes and metopes that adorned the exterior of the temple. The sculptures, like the entire Parthenon and the other Acropolis temples, were created using the white marble from the nearby Penteli mountain.

The Parthenon Marbles, which depicted various scenes from Greek mythology and religious ceremonies, were especially elaborate. They were painted in vibrant colors. The total number of sculptures, including those on the pediments, metopes, and friezes, is estimated to be in the range of several hundred. Many have been lost or damaged over the centuries. However, most have been looted, and they reside in the British Museum of London. The Parthenon Marbles are prominently displayed in the museum’s great Duveen Gallery. The gallery is named after Joseph Duveen, a rich donor and unscrupulous art dealer in the 1930s. The gallery houses 15 metopes, 17 pediment figures and 247ft (75m) of the original frieze. The museum is reported to hold close to 8,000 pieces of Greek art which it does not display.

The two and a half millennia old Parthenon Marbles are objects of immense symbolic meaning. They represent a celebration of Athena, the patron deity of Athens, and they depict the Greeks overcoming the forces of disorder and irrationality.  For the Greeks, sublime art was an expression of proportion and harmony, and thus related to truth. Their art existed as an integrated whole. The theme of the west pediment was the contest of Athena and Poseidon for the possession of Attica: the few figures that survive include some the most beautiful representations of the human body ever produced in Antiquity. The east pediment depicted the miraculous birth of Athena, fully armed, from the head of Zeus and the festivities this inspired. The east pediment is about an entire city state paying tribute to the patron goddess Athena.

The forced removal of the Parthenon Marbles (aka the Elgin Marbles) was initiated and directed by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, between 1801 and 1804, when Greece was still under Ottoman occupation. At the time, Elgin was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. Elgin was a predatory collector and removed the priceless marbles to his home in Britain. Eventually, he sold the marbles to the British government in 1811 because he was bankrupt. The British House of Commons approved the purchase of the collection for the nation after debate. During the debate its members expressed concern over the fact that Elgin had taken improper advantage of his position as ambassador to obtain his documents from Constantinople. Englishmen of the day, such as the philhellene poet Lord Byron, had no patience with the deeds of Elgin and even ridiculed him. Byron denounced Elgin’s activities as “the last poor plunder from a bleeding land.” While the presence of the marbles in Britain has never been uncontroversial, the absence of the marbles from Greece has been experienced as an amputation that has affected the “soul” of its people.

Kostas Gavrás: Parthenon

Since the Parthenon Marbles were put on view to the public at the British Museum in 1817, officials have made two major claims for why the sculptures should remain in London. First, the British state that they are the rightful owners, even though Elgin was never able to provide any documentation. This is still the case today. Britain claims legal title. The second claim is that, even if the Parthenon Marbles were returned to Greece, the Greeks would not know how to properly preserve them.  

Regarding the claim of ownership, David Rudenstein, former dean of the Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, published a lengthy, critically acclaimed legal argument titled “Trophies for the Empire: The Epic Dispute Between Greece and England over the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum.” He concludes that there is no credible evidence to Elgin’s claim that he received some kind of document from the Ottomans permitting the removal of the marbles.  His research demonstrates that it was likely that Elgin’s artisans received permission to draw, paint, measure, mold, and search for buried sculptures. But there was a “stunning” lack of evidence for any written authorization for the removal of the sculptures. Similarly, European legal scholar Catherine Titi, author of the 2023 study The Parthenon Marbles and International Law argues that the British government and the British Museum are engaged in slick and self-serving narratives about the ownership. She finds the British case for possession of the marbles and for their retention to rely on shaky international law. Rudenstein and Titi’s detailed investigations conclude that ownership was never with Elgin and the British.

The second historical claim has been that the Greeks are incapable of caring for their Marbles. While it was partially true, it was insulting. The air pollution and acid rain in Athens would have been corrosive for any marbles left on the monument itself. Moreover, the old Acropolis Museum, located near the temples, was quite small and inadequate. Ironically, in the 1990s it was uncovered that decades earlier, the British Museum had used wire brushes to clean the Marbles. One Greek official called these actions “torturing the Marbles.”  By 2009, the Greek government had built a thrilling new Acropolis Museum about 300 meters from the Parthenon. It’s third floor Parthenon Gallery was designed to feature the Marbles that the Greeks still possess. The missing Marbles are represented conspicuously and tastefully by casts.  

Recently and to their credit, the Trustees of the British Museum have dropped their second claim. What they now argue, however, is that theirs is a “universal” or “encyclopedic” museum and as such is a proper institution for the preservation and study of world treasures. In an unfortunate development in late 2023, the British Museum revealed that close to 2,000 objects dating from antiquity to the 19th century had disappeared from its vast storerooms and that the curator in charge of Greek antiquities was a prime suspect.  

The absence of the ancient Parthenon Marbles from Greece is a moral wrong that the British government and the British Museum have been engaged in for over 200 years.  To the Greeks it means a tremendous amount in that the dispute in itself is a recurring cultural trauma with intense emotional dimensions. The traumatizing realities were the Ottoman occupation of Greece for over 400 years and the imperial rule of the British Empire over many parts of Greece in the 19th and 20th centuries. If contemporary psychoanalysis teaches us anything, it is that culture and society saturate individual and collective psyches. Further, that recognition and acknowledgment can restore a sense of a lawful and just world, thereby reducing cultural and national feelings of harm and destruction.

What motivates the British? What motivates the Greeks to plead for their Marbles for 200 years? On the surface level, the British are engaged in the usual dynamics of a former colonial power trying to hold on to its past relevance and privilege. For the Greeks it’s a matter of justice, a rightful claim for cultural heritage and identity. Unconsciously, we witness repeated enactments of envy, greed and destruction of the marble objects which represent Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess. In our post-colonial century, the absence of the Parthenon Marbles is a continued symbolic cannibalization by the post-Brexit UK. For Greece, their restitution might be a way to regain its ancestry and sense of efficacy in today’s cultural and political arenas.

Lastly, the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens can be viewed as assertion of the importance of context to artworks. Absent from home, that is their context, location and adjoining fragments, the marbles are orphaned. Even in our post-Google and AI era, memory does not age in Modern Greece.  It’s time for the reunification and reintegration of the Parthenon Marbles with their siblings. The American poet and Athens resident Alicia Stallings believes that their return would be a “magnificent gesture” on the part of the British. It would go a long way to repair the damages and ruptures which the Marbles have undergone for so many centuries.

Spyros D. Orfanos, PhD, ABPP, is Director of the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. A Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), he is past president of the Society of Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology (SPPP) of the APA, and the International Association of Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is on the Advisory Board of the Sigmund Freud Museum of Vienna. In 2016, he was co-editor with Eliot Jurist of the special supplement of Psychoanalytic Psychology (APA) on “Psychoanalysis and the Humanities.” In 2017, he founded the NYU Human Rights Work Group. In 2023, year he received the SPPS Award for International Activism for Social Justice. He practices psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and runs creativity study groups.