The Parthenon Marbles: Ancient Meaning, Colonialism and the Importance of Mythologised History in the Modern Debate

Author: Indigo Coulson

Sub-editor: Maija Drezins

The removal of the Parthenon Marbles by the British Lord Elgin in the 19th century, when Athens was under Ottoman rule, is the source of modern debate surrounding where the marbles should be displayed in the 21st century. Though many of the Marbles currently reside in the British Museum, there is a strong and growing movement for their return to Athens. The relevance of the ancient meaning of the Parthenon in the contemporary debate surrounding the ownership of the Parthenon Marbles is a question of perspective. Should the historical integrity of an object be enhanced by returning it to its original setting so that it can serve an educational purpose, or does the modern significance of an object (what it means to those who identify with it) outweigh a possibly contradictory past? Each of these perspectives argue for the return of the marbles, yet while the ancient meaning of the Parthenon is crucial to one, it could possibly undermine the other, as the Parthenon in modern Greece has become largely divorced from the controversies of its original construction. This article will explore these perspectives by considering what the Parthenon represented at the time of its construction and how this ancient meaning interacts with the modern debate over the Parthenon Marbles.

For many in the modern Greek populace, the Parthenon is a symbol of a glorious homogenous past and Greek nationhood, and anti-imperialist arguments are often used to argue for the repatriation of the Marbles, however, the ancient meaning of the Parthenon contradicts these themes. When the Parthenon construction began in 447 BCE, Ancient Greece was not a unified nation, but rather a collection of poleis (city states) in competition with each other. This historical context is significant to the ancient meaning of the Parthenon, as the monument was not intended to be a symbol of a collective Greek culture, but an embodiment of the wealth and power of Athens. After the formation of the Delian League in 478 BCE – an  alliance of poleis that paid tribute to Athens in return for protection in case of another Persian invasion – Athens had become increasingly imperial in nature. Athens’ tacit empire through the Delian League is integral to the ancient context of the Parthenon, as under Pericles, the tributary money from allied states was used by Athens for large scale building projects to emphasise the polis’ grandeur. According to the historian Thucydides, this tribute was ‘extracted…strictly’ and the Athenians ‘appli[ed] coercive measures to any who were unaccustomed or unwilling’ to pay. The forced nature of this tribute relationship between Athens and the other poleis in the Delian League is corroborated by the Kleinias Decree (c.425 BCE) which makes clear the ‘demand[ing]’ nature of Athens, as those that could not or would not pay tribute were left to either ‘suffer or pay.’ Thus, the Parthenon was funded by an imperial power and was a symbol for the strength of Athens’ ‘empire,’ as both Andocides and Aristotle describe it. Therefore, the ancient meaning of the Parthenon as a monument to Athenian imperialism sits in opposition to what the return of the marbles would mean to the Greek people today; the repatriation of goods taken from an occupied state and held in an imperial state.

Similarly, when understood within the context of the Peloponnesian War as an antagonistic Periclean warning from Athens about their military potential, the Parthenon contradicts the pleas of a modern Greece whose monuments were desecrated and removed during times of war and occupation. Though the Parthenon was built during the Thirty Years’ Peace, between the First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, it was not, as Anton Powell argues, a symbol of ‘uncomplicated peace’, as it made clear the level of wealth Athens continued to receive from the Delian League that could be easily repurposed for military funding. This repurposed funding can be seen with the gold on the statue of Athena that was worth more than the Parthenon building itself that could be removed, if needed, during war. Therefore, as Powell outlines, ‘Athens’ attitude to war might be signalled to Sparta by policy towards buildings’ such as the Parthenon. However, the ancient militaristic symbolism of the Parthenon does not align with what the monument and its marbles represent for modern Greece. Considering the marbles were damaged and taken during times of military conflict and occupation, focusing on the ancient yet all too similar violence embedded in the historical context of the Parthenon’s construction may shatter the idealised perception of an important symbol of Greek nationhood. Thus, the question of whether this ancient meaning needs to be considered is a difficult one to answer, as it is here that we find historical issues clashing with what matters to a modern people who believe their history has been stolen.

For the modern Greek public, the debate surrounding the return of the Parthenon Marbles is one of repatriation; the return of culturally significant objects that represent an almost mythologised classical Greek legacy from the imperial power who took them. Fouseki emphasises the importance of topos (a sense of place) in the modern debate, suggesting that the Greek people care about the ‘return of the marbles to their original home and topos’ which ‘is conceived as an abstract, idealised place that extends beyond the geographical boundaries of the Acropolis hill or the city of Athens.’ Therefore, the ancient controversies surrounding the Parthenon are not at the forefront of consideration for the Greek populace, but rather, there is greater emphasis placed on what the Parthenon represents in the modern world as an object with deep emotional ties. The Parthenon is no longer a symbol of Athenian dominance over other Greek poleis, but instead represents what Fouseki describes as a ‘Greek need for social justice and identity reaffirmation in the global arena.’ This is expanded on by Kynourgiopoulou, who suggests that the modern symbolism of the Parthenon, though divorced from its ancient meaning, has created its own historical consciousness. The idealised conception of the monument has become ‘accepted and therefore [has] become a part of personal or collective identity’. Moreover, this attachment to a legendary past has only grown during the modern economic and military crises experienced by the Greek state. Though the ancient meaning of the Parthenon can be significant for historians and hold an educational purpose, it is important that historical accuracy is not used by an ‘intellectual elite’ to undermine the emotional argument for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles. Ancient meaning should not detract from the modern mythologised history of the Parthenon, because if we ‘neglect… what really matters for the Greeks,’ the process of colonialism that caused the removal of the objects is upheld by devaluing the voices and concerns of the colonised group.

The Parthenon Marbles have become repositories of empathy due to their personification in the Greek media and public discourse, which allows them to transcend their status as historical objects with an ancient meaning and become living embodiments of Greek public emotion and national identity. In this process, the ancient meaning becomes less significant in the modern debate around the housing of the Parthenon marbles. Eleana Yalouri outlines that ex-Greek Minister for Culture, Melina Mercouri, described idolising a perception of Greece’s past so much that one feels kinship with the Parthenon as a universal Greek experience. Though Mercouri’s words may have been a generalisation, many modern Greeks see themselves as ‘descendants of the Ancient Greeks and as custodians of their ancestral heritage’ and therefore the rightful owners of the Parthenon and its sculptures. The Marbles are symbols of the ‘Modern Greek hybrid identity,’ an identity that is founded on a modern perception of Ancient Greek culture. Though this hybrid identity is ‘invented,’ as it is based on an idealised version of Greek history, ancient meaning should not always be used to correct a mythologised past. Kynourgiopoulou suggests that ‘after wars or radical social changes,’ many in the populace need a glorious legacy ‘to gain some form of cultural identity.’ This is especially true of the Parthenon Marbles, as many Greeks empathise with the longing for home (nostos) that the media has attributed to the Marbles, especially the five million Greeks living outside the state. Therefore, for many Greeks, the ancient meaning becomes less important than the emotional connection attached to the sculptures, as when the Marbles are presented as ‘mutilated bodies… the national discourse cancels the distinction between human beings and artefacts.’ As many Greeks empathise with the Parthenon Marbles, historians must be wary to not devalue this somewhat familial connection simply because the ancient meaning of the objects contradicts what many modern Greeks understand to be their history.

However, it is important to make a distinction between upholding a mythologised understanding of history in social and political spheres, and omitting historical information about the Parthenon in educational settings. On a visit to the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Bronwen Wickkiser noted that ‘there is nary a word about the vast power… that Athens wielded over its allies’ and the forceful and imperial nature of the Delian League; he suggests that the omission by the curators of the Acropolis Museum is likely a political one. It is not uncommon for the Acropolis Museum to make political statements with its curatorship; the empty space left for the Parthenon Marbles held in Britain denounces ‘the imperialism that led to Elgin’s removal of the marbles’ that the British Government upholds by retaining the sculptures. Therefore, considering the anti-imperial stance that the Acropolis Museum has taken, it is possible that a lack of reference to Athens’ imperialism that funded the Parthenon could be seen as ‘ironic’ or contradictory. The ancient meaning of the Parthenon should not be removed from history in places like museums. In an educational space, the historical context of an object should be examined. Recognising the imperialism of Athens in the past does not negate Greece’s claim on the Parthenon Marbles, as the Marbles returning to Athens can help restore their historical integrity and promote discussions about imperialism that are currently shrouded by international political tactics. The Parthenon Marbles can be ‘re-interpreted in proximity to the Parthenon itself’ as returning the Marbles would ‘facilitate greater appreciation of the original context in which the Marbles were intended to be seen.’ Therefore, the ancient meaning of the Parthenon should be considered in the modern debate when it is used for an educational purpose and in spaces of learning such as museums.

The ancient meaning of the Parthenon contrasts with what the monument symbolises for many modern Greeks. However, ancient meaning should continue to be considered by modern historians and students as it can both reflect and teach us about current issues. Considering and reflecting upon Athens’ ancient imperialism provides a new perspective in the modern debate: one of acknowledgement and learning by Athens, that could help to trigger a similar reaction in Britain regarding their imperial acquisition of the Marbles. The somewhat contradictory arguments for the return of the Marbles (that the marbles should be returned as an act of repatriation to the victims of imperial rule and that they should be returned to enhance their historical integrity) reflect two different debates: one socio-political, and one historical-educational. However, the imperial undertones that are integral to the Parthenon’s ancient context need not stand in complete opposition to the modern Greek view that the Parthenon is a symbol of Greek nationhood. It is important that historians do not “correct” the socio-political argument, but rather recognise that these are two parallel debates. Those arguing for the historical integrity of the Marbles should recognise the important ties that many Greek people have with their classical legacy, even though they are based on an idealised past. It is similarly crucial that history is not erased; the ancient meaning of the Parthenon should not be hidden in spaces of learning (such as the Acropolis Museum) for socio-political reasons. Therefore, the extent to which the ancient meaning of the Parthenon should be considered depends on which part of the contemporary debate one is referring to, the socio-political or the historical-educational.

Image Credits: The British Museum. The Parthenon Sculptures [image]. Available at:


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