Lord Byron and the Elgin marbles

“The Curse of Minerva”, one of the satirical poems of Lord Byron, was written in Athens in March 1807 during his first visit to Greece. The poem was printed in England for private circulation only, but it was pirated and read extensively in the United States and crossed the Atlantic back to England. Byron refused to authorise any publication because he probably wanted to go back and live in England. The poem consists of 312 lines and it is a severe attack against Lord Elgin and his taking away from Greece the so called «Elgin Marbles», the marbles of the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens Ever since these marble sculptures arrived in London early in the 19thcentury, they have caused controversy. Opinions have been divided into two major groups: to those who consider Elgin’s initiative as a rescue of the marbles from the Turks, who were the rulers of Athens at that time, and to those who think that what Lord Elgin did was a sacrilege. Lord Elgin was a distinguished diplomat and patron of the arts before he went to Constantinople as an ambassador in 1799. After the battle of the Nile, England came into great favour with Turkey. Lord Elgin asked the Sultan’s permission to ship to England any piece of statue from the occupied territory of Greece. Elgin was a member of a group of English aristocrats, the Society of Dilettanti, which was founded for the encouragement of classical archaeology. Their ardent ambition was to make England an art centre of the world.  These people possessed great political power and often held important diplomatic posts in various embassies. One of their main concerns was to take advantage of the opportunities of their residence abroad and enrich their mansions back home with the artistic spoils of the continent.  Elgin, therefore, used his political mission to the Porte as an opportunity for despoiling Greece of her sculptures. The official defence of Lord Elgin in the Memorandum published in 1810 was very simple: Had the marbles not been taken away from Greece, they would have been destroyed by the Turks. Elgin’s agents in Athens had not only taken vases and statuettes but also erected scaffolds around the building of the Parthenon. They stripped the Erechtheium and the temple of Victory and took away one of the Caryatids. It is estimated that Elgin shipped to England at least 253 pieces of marbles, vases and coins at two different times. Of the catastrophe caused on the Acropolis we get a glimpse from an account written by the Italian architect Lusieri, who was employed by Elgin. “I was obliged,” writes Lusieri to Elgin, “to be a little barbarous”. According to an eyewitness, “the fine masses of pentelican marble came clattering down, scattering the white masses with from his mouth and dropped a tear crying: «That is enough!» Lord Elgin’s passion to obtain more and more marbles was not satisfied. A Doric capital was taken from the Propylaea and another from the Parthenon. Lord Elgin wrote: “The slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel”. On September 1802 Elgin overloaded his undermanned ship with his spoils in the harbour of Piraeus and while he was homeward bound, the goddess retribution for evil deeds of the ancient Greek mythology, Nemesis, intervened and took revenge by punishing the modern robber. Elgin’s ship was sunk near Cythera. It took the skilled divers from Rhodes and Κalymnos two years to recover what could be recovered from the wreck… Some of the marbles are still lying on the bottom of the sea… But this was only the first blow of Nemesis. In 1803 Elgin had to go back to England to report on his mission and relying on the Peace of Amiens, he decided to cross France, without realising that he had placed his head in the lion’s mouth. In May 1803 Napoleon resumed his war against England and, breaking the treaty, he arrested all Englishmen between 18 and 60 who happened to be in France. Elgin was arrested and kept in Paris till July. Fortune smiled at him for a while and was allowed to go to the Pyrenees where he was arrested again and imprisoned for 3 years. He remained under a humiliating restraint until the peace of 1814! When Byron came to Greece, one afternoon, he went as a pilgrim to visit the Acropolis of Athens but was shocked at the plight of the Parthenon, the temple of goddess of wisdom Minerva. The sacrilege Lord ELGIN had committed was still fresh. Byron, an admirer of the beauty of the ancient Greek sculpture, felt ashamed for what his compatriot Elgin did only 10 years earlier. Such was Byron’s indignation that he composed his most severe satire attacking Elgin’s odious crime, “The Curse of Minerva”. In composing his poem Byron was really inventive. He has a vision. The goddess Minerva appears in front of him and a dramatic dialogue between her and the poet starts. But before that, Byron gives a description of that beautiful experience he had had watching the sunset from the Acropolis:

Slow sinks, more lovely ere his race be run, Along Morea’s hills the setting sun; Not, as in northern climes, obscurely bright, But one unclouded blaze of living light; O’er the hushed deep the yellow beam he throws, Gilds the green wave that trembles as it glows; On old Aegina’s rock and Hydra’s isle the god of gladness sheds his parting smile; O’er his own regions lingering loves to shine, Though there his altars are no more divine. Descending fast, the mountain-shadows kiss Thy glorious Gulf, unconquered Salamis! Their azure arches through the long expanse, More deeply purpled, meet his mellowing glance, And tenderest tints, along their summits driven, Mark his gay course, and own the hues of Heaven; Till, darkly shaded from the land and deep Behind his Delphian rock he sinks to sleep.

The poet sits alone within the walls of the ruined Parthenon when, suddenly, as a vision, Minerva herself appears in front of him. He can hardly recognise her. Her armour is dented and her lance is broken. She addresses the visitor:

«Mortal! -’twas thus she spake – that blush of shame Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name; First of the mighty, foremost of the free, Now honour’d less by all, and least by me: Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still found. Seek’st thou the cause of loathing? -look around.

Minerva then observes that goddess Venus has avenged her: Elgin’s cuckolding and divorce are a punishment for his sacrilege:

Yet still the gods are just, and crimes are cross’d See here what Elgin won, and what he lost! Another name with his pollutes my shrine: Behold where Diana’s beams disdain to shine! Some retribution still might Pallas claim, When Venus half avenged Minerva’s shame.

Further in the poem, Minerva attacks Elgin’s country, Scotland, which the goddess calls A land of meanness, sophistry and mist, Just as Boeotia was the arid and the most uncivilised part of Greece, so Scotland is the uncivilised part of Britain. Elgin’s Scottishness is therefore stressed, but Byron, being conscious of his own Scottish origin from his mother, of course he did not want to be included in his own condemnation. He invented a solution: Just as Beotia had an exception and produced the great poet Pindar, so there was some hope for a few Scotsmen, “the letter’d and the brave”, provided they were prepared to do away with the mist and the fog of their native land. After the poets reply, which was an apology in itself, Minerva bids him to carry her curse home to his native shore. The pronouncement of Minerva’s curse is severe: Lord Elgin, like Eratostratus, who set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus, will be forever hated.

Loathed in life nor pardoned in the dust.

Vengeance will pursue him far beyond the grave. But Minerva’s curse does not cease here. Elgin’s deed is so terrible that it is not enough that he alone should be punished. Britain must also suffer the penalty. The wars which she declared on various nations will soon destroy her. In the Baltic and the Peninsula she would be defeated. In the East the Indians will «shake her tyrant empire to its base» and finally Minerva will strike at home too. Trade will languish, famine will break out, the Government will become powerless. The very country of Britain will be invade and ravaged. In a note to his book A Journey through Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople, (1813) Hobhouse, Byron’s companion to Greece, adds the following observations which reflect the opinion and feeling of the time: “It is certain that if the Turks remain many years longer in possession of Athens, every valuable antiquity will be destroyed”. And he adds: “Yet I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a  learned Greek of Ioannina who said to me: “You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks – our forefathers preserved them well -we Greeks will come and  re-demand them.» Byron attacked his enemy Elgin not only with “The Curse of Minerva” but also in his more well known and longer poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.In Stanza XII of the second Canto of the poem Byron writes:

But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.

Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!

When Elgin returned to England from captivity in 1806, he started unpacking his precious marbles and exhibited them in Glouster House at the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly. It was an amazing revelation The Greek art at its very best. Ten years later, in 1816, Elgin decided to sell his marbles to the state.  The Prime Minister Spencer Percival suggested 30,000 pounds sterling but Elgin refused. He wanted 50,000. A bargain was struck at 35,000 and after a hot debate in Parliament, they were bought. Byron’s satire of course did not stop plunderers and antiquarians from taking objects of art from Greece, but it made readers more sensitive – another aspect of Byron’s philhellenism. The effect of the Elgin Marbles on British art was not considerable. Direct copies of the marbles were common.  A reconstructed Parthenon frieze appeared on the Athenaeum. The marbles contributed to the popularity of the style. Two replicas of the Caryatid still stand outside the Euston Station in Inwood’s St. Pancras Church. All over Britain there are buildings of that time reminiscent of the monument on the Acropolis. At Elgin’s suggestion was decided the National Monument of Scotland too the heroes of the wars on the Canton Hill in Edinburgh. It has never completed owing to shortage of money. In English literature one cannot but think of the fine sonnet written by John Keats which was inspired by the Elgin Marbles. In March 1817 Keats visited the British Museum where the marbles were exposed .The poem bears the title ‘On seeing the Elgin Marbles’ and reads as follows:

My spirit is too weak  – mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep And each imagin’d pinacle and steep Of godlike hardship tells me I must die like a sick eagle looking at the sky. Yet ‘tis a gentle luxury to weep That I have not the cloudy winds to keep Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye. Such dim-conceived glories of the brain Bring round the heart an indescribable feud So do these wonders a most dizzy pain, That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude Wasting of all time– with a billowy main, A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.

Ever since Greece became independent from the Turkish yoke, and King Otto came to Athens from Bavaria in 1833,  the question of the possible return of the marbles to Greece has been a much discussed issue. As late as 1987 Melina Merkouri, the well-known Greek actress, as a Minister of Culture, addressing the UNESCO conference in Mexico, asked her counterparts to join their voices with hers and persuade the British Government to send back the marbles to Athens where they belong. In another speech, early in 1984, just before her death, she mentioned the new Museum being planed near the Acropolis of Athens. “We will leave one hall empty to wait for the marbles”, she said. In an earlier interview she declared: “The British must have the graciousness to send the marbles back to where they were born, to the great Greek sculptor Phedias, who created them. It is an act of civilisation”. But the best argument in favour of the return of the Marbles to Greece comes not from a Greek but from an Englishman, a contemporary of Lord Elgin. His name is Hugh Hammersley, and he had taken part in the debate in the British Parliament that had to decide whether the Elgin Marbles should be purchased and displayed in the British Museum. He proposed an amendment to the House of Commons resolution that stated: «…Great Britain holds these Marbles only in trust till they are demanded by the present, or any future possessors of the city of Athens; and upon such demand, engages without question or negotiation, to restore them, as far as can be effected, to the places from where they were taken, and that they shall be in the mean time carefully preserved in the British Museum.” —————

William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles, Oxford University Press (1983), p. 261.