Law, Morals and the Parthenon Marbles

6 months ago 121

Conveniently for Elgin, the post of disdar, or head of the Acropolis garrison, changed hands in mid-1801, as an elderly incumbent, who’d made a steady income in bribes, passed away and the job was taken over by his son. The new disdar felt trapped in the middle of a high-stakes transaction, and he feared dire punishment if he miscalculated. Elgin and his associates made sure that he remained frightened. In May 1802, the disdar became anxious that he might get into trouble with his Ottoman masters because he had been slightly too zealous in accommodating Elgin’s project. But as Lady Elgin smugly reported, one of her husband’s agents “whistled in his lug (ear)” that he had nothing to fear. Or to put it another way, “You have nothing to fear but us…”

Even then, the Ottoman attitude to the legality of the project was never a settled matter. In autumn of 1802, both the disdar and the voivode (governor) of Athens became worried that they might get in trouble with the Porte, because the existing text did not justify the mass stripping which was in progress. Elgin duly procured a fresh document which retroactively legalized the actions of the two officials.

But then fast-forward to 1808, by which time the kaleidoscope had shifted: the Ottomans were at peace with France and spasmodically at war with the British. Many of the sculptures collected by Elgin were still in Greece.

A new British envoy to the Porte tried to get the sculptures released, and was bluntly told that Elgin’s entire operation had been illegal. Only after January of 1809, with the signature of a new Anglo-Ottoman treaty, did the atmosphere change, leading to a fresh document that enabled the export of the sculptures to resume.

During the parliamentary investigation which the British Museum mentions, Elgin was questioned hard as to whether he had abused his position as ambassador to pursue a personal transaction; he replied, absurdly, that, in his antiquarian activities, he was no different from any private archaeologist. But many legislators were unconvinced.

It seemed obvious that the objects for which Elgin was about to be paid £35,000 had been obtained by careful exploitation of diplomatic privilege and of the sweet state of Anglo-Ottoman relations. Elgin got his money, but that does not mean he was believed.

Is this really the kind of behavior on which British officials should be basing their case? By stressing the very dubious argument for the legality of Elgin’s actions, they risk drawing further attention to the fundamental moral issues.

* Bruce Clark is the International Security Editor of The Economist and author of “Athens: City of Wisdom.”

This article was previously published in Greek at

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