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Statues from the Elgin Marbles

7 facts about the Elgin Marbles

Image: The Elgin Marbles are currently housed in the British Museum | EWY Media /

During the Golden Age of Athens (480 – 404 BC), the ancient Greek city-state was at its peak of power and authority. Under the orders of the Athenian politician and general Pericles, the city undertook several building projects, all to showcase Athens' prowess as the greatest city.

One of those constructions was the Parthenon, a masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture that honoured the goddess of wisdom, Athena. Built atop the Acropolis in Athens, the Parthenon took 15 years to complete and was built of marble. Some 2,500 years later the Parthenon still stands, a true testament to the skill and mastery of the people who built it.

Now regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments, the Parthenon was once decorated with an elaborate frieze. Parts of that frieze were removed in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, a British nobleman, and shipped over to Britain. The collection became known as the Elgin Marbles.

Here are seven facts about the marbles:

1. They are a collection of architectural decorations

The Elgin Marbles, commonly referred to as the Parthenon Sculptures, consist of 17 sculptures, 15 metopes (sculpted relief panels) and 247 feet of the original frieze that once wrapped around the building. These exceptional pieces of ancient Greek art were created by the famous Athenian sculptor Phidias.

2. They depict a procession

The Elgin Marbles depict a variety of scenes. The frieze shows a procession during the birthday festival of Athena. Every year Athenians celebrated the goddess Athena with a large multi-day festival known as the Panathenaia. It included a long procession that ended at the Acropolis.

The metopes show a great battle from Greek mythology between the Centaurs and Lapiths. The fight occurs during the marriage feast of the Lapith King Pirithous, who was marrying a horsewoman called Hippodameia.

Many other Greek gods and goddesses, as well as legendary heroes from Greek mythology, are depicted on the remaining pediments of the Elgin Marbles.

3. The Parthenon has been heavily damaged throughout the years

Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, the Parthenon temple has been used as a Christian church, a mosque, a fortress and even a gunpowder store. Time has taken its toll on the building. Whilst several earthquakes have caused damage to the construction, humans have been the most destructive force.

During the Siege of the Acropolis in September 1687, the Venetian army laid siege to the Acropolis, which at the time was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had been using the Parthenon as a gunpowder store. Venetian canon fire resulted in a massive explosion, which blew the roof off the Parthenon. Further extensive damage was caused to the building, leading to the loss of many sculptures.

About 50% of the Parthenon’s original architectural decoration has been lost over the years. The Elgin Marbles represent around half of what’s left, with the remaining half currently residing at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

4. Lord Elgin originally intended to just draw the sculptures

Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for around 400 years from the mid-15th century until the start of the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, often known as Lord Elgin, was appointed as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in late 1798. In 1801, he employed artists to begin taking casts and drawings of the remaining sculptures at the Parthenon. This was supervised by Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian painter from Naples.

However, Elgin’s intentions soon changed from documenting to actual removal.

5. The journey from Greece to Britain was not smooth sailing

Between 1801 and 1805, Elgin oversaw the removal of the Parthenon Sculptures and their subsequent shipping to Britain.

However, the process of bringing them over had its fair share of complications. Firstly, on his way back to Britain via France, Elgin himself was detained after war broke out between the two nations in 1803. It wasn’t until 1806 that he was finally allowed to leave the country.

Secondly, one of the ships carrying some of the marbles wrecked off the coast of a Greek island in 1802. It took over two years for divers to successfully recover the marbles.

6. The removal of the marbles caused controversy

From the moment the marbles began to arrive on British soil, debate raged about the legality of Elgin’s actions. The great English poet Lord Byron even penned a poem venting his dislike of their removal and likening Elgin to nothing more than a vandal.

The controversy eventually led to a parliamentary inquiry in 1816 that looked to decide whether or not the presence of the marbles in Britain was legal.

Before undertaking the removal of the Parthenon Sculptures, Elgin claimed to have received written permission from Ottoman officials in the form of a firman (royal permit). However, the original firman was lost and only an Italian translation of it exists.

Some historians have thrown doubt on the legality of the original firman, arguing the document is somewhat open to interpretation. Regardless, the British government ruled in favour of Elgin and cleared him of any allegations.

7. Lord Elgin didn’t hold onto the marbles for long

Initially, Elgin had hoped the marbles would be the focal point of a new private museum. He had himself funded the entire operation at a significant cost of £74,240, which is equivalent to £6.85 million in 2023.

However, a costly divorce upon his return to Britain meant he had to recoup some of those funds. He eventually sold the marbles to the British government for £35,000, less than half of his expenses. A short while later the government then gifted them to the trusteeship of the British Museum, where they controversially remain today.