This week he appeared on the Today programme to debate the latest demand that the Elgin Marbles be returned to Greece. Asked to comment on the belief that the treasures are stolen property, Lord Elgin replied, "Totally unfair and completely untrue," before proceeding to explain that everyone in Britain "should be proud of what was done," by his ancestor. The 7th Earl had the express consent of the Ottoman Empire to remove the marbles, he said. It was an act of conservation, without parallel at the time.
The real story is a little more complex, but it does not entirely justify the allegations of theft. The 7th Earl did not set out to take antiquities from the Parthenon. In 1799 when he became British Ambassador to Constantinople, his architect persuaded him that it was an opportunity to send a team to Athens to study Greek art and architecture. This would allow his Lordship to build fashionable copies when he returned to Scotland.
Elgin delegated the task to his secretary, an energetic young man called William Hamilton. At first nobody said anything about taking antiquities, but Hamilton found it hard to ignore the reality that Turkish forces then occupying Athens were harming some of the finest works of art in the world. The chaplain to the British embassy in Constantinople, Dr Philip Hunt, was appalled and persuaded his boss to ask the Turks for permission to transport the marbles to Britain.
Lord Elgin's request was made at an opportune moment. Horatio Nelson had just fought and won the Battle of the Nile, and British influence in the eastern Mediterranean was at its apogee. To the Turks it seemed wise to grant his Lordship's request to take away relics from the Acropolis. Elgin received a Turkish imperial decree authorising him to remove material.
The only surviving version of the document is in Italian. It uses the word qualche, which is usually translated as "some" but can also mean "any." It is a fine distinction, but Elgin interpreted it as carte blanche. He employed 300 men to strip hundreds of pieces of sculptured marble, including columns, pediments and 17 figures, from the Parthenon. By 1803 all of these were boxed awaiting shipment to Britain where, Elgin intended, they would be used to decorate Broomhall in Grecian splendour.
Most of the marbles got back to Britain safely courtesy of the Royal Navy. Lord Elgin was less fortunate. He was captured by the French and held prisoner until 1806. When he got home his world had fallen apart. His wife had left him. His diplomatic career was dead and his precious antiquities were the subject of vicious controversy. There was a general feeling that Elgin had gone too far. Wealthy Britons had been helping themselves to bits of ancient Greece for at least a century, but pillaging the most beautiful building in the world looked a bit off. The poet Byron summed up popular fury by carving into the rock of the Acropolis 'Quod non fecerunt Gothi, fecerunt Scoti' (What the Goths spared, the Scots destroyed).
Elgin was mortified. He offered the marbles to the British government for £72,240. It was what he calculated it had cost him to bring them home. The government offered £35,000. Elgin accepted with poor grace.The controversy has echoed throughout the last 200 years. It may explain why the 7th Earl's present-day descendant has opted for a quieter existence. [more]