Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

How Greece Can Get Its Marbles Back

A reproduction of the Parthenon East Pediment

Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible!

“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”
“Can I have both?”

So the Hellenic Republic has a new government , Alexis Tsipras has managed to keep his coalition of Communists, Anarchists, Greens and other assorted lefties together long enough to become Prime Minister, a task that must herding cats seem easy.

I celebrated with a glass or two of finest malt whisky - because Greece decided to hold the election on Burns Night.

Paul Mason interviews Alexis Tsipras (Channel 4)
Tsipras says what he wants now is debt relief and the return of the Elgin Marbles. Given that the
Germans make most of the rules and the French own most of the debt, this doesn't seem terribly likely. But what about his second wish?

At first glance this seems about as likely as Tsipras becoming Der Spiegel's Man of the Year. However I believe a change of tactics might just succeed, what's more if you look carefully at what the new PM says, I think he realises this.

A Set of Lies Agreed Upon

Lord Elgin
First a bit of history, or rather two versions of it.

In Scenario One evil British aristo Lord Elgin, Her Majesty's ambassador to the Turks sends his nefarious agents to Greece. Seeing an opportunity, a bit of money changes. Regretting that they can't get the whole Parthenon in their ship, they instead start chiselling away at some of the prettier bits. The loot returns to England where the dastardly Lord spends the rest of his life trying to flog it to the highest bidder.

In Scenario Two kindly Lord Elgin, friend to the Greek people and lover of Greek culture, sends a mission to Athens to study the treasures of the ancients. However once there his team are shocked by the indifference of the half of Athens who are Greek Orthodox and for whom the Marbles were just so many embarrassing pagan relics and the Acropolis just a free quarry. The Turkish authorities seem no more interested and due to the dilapidated state of the monument the man on the spot makes a decision to save what he can.

Lord Byron
Returning to Britain the Marbles spark a renewed interest in Ancient Greece. Lord Byron objects to their removal, but then he also called them "misshapen monuments". He is drowned out by other Romantics such as Goethe and Keats who enthuse about these marvels from the Levant. Elgin's love of ancient Greece eventually empties his noble coffers, but rather than see the treasures be split up he sells them to the British Museum.

The public adores them and the ensuing spirit of Philhellenism comes in very useful twenty years later when the Greeks finally revolt against Turkish rule. The British Museum keeps the Marbles safe through two sieges of the Acropolis whilst England sends to the aid of the Greeks a vast sum of money, a selection of our best Sea Captains and eventually a battle fleet which obliterates the Turks and wins the war.

Amal Clooney
The Hellenic Republic, for obvious reasons, as always preferred the first version of the story. What patriot wouldn't like a story involving corrupt Turkish officials, foreign yobs hacking away at one of the wonders of the Ancient World and a villain straight out of a Mel Gibson movie?

Battle was renewed last year when Amal Clooney took time off from making women jealous over her choice of husband and gave the Greek government the benefit of her legal advice. She's not the first beautiful woman to try to get the Marbles back. Melina Mercouri and Nana Mouskouri both tried and failed, as did Demis Roussos - although he didn't look half as good in a dress.

Those Who Cannot Change Their Minds Cannot Change Anything

The word rhetoric today is now used to mean empty words, but when Aristotle was writing about ῥητορικός (ri̱torikós) it meant "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion".

Athens 1821
It seems to me the Hellenic republic needs to be a bit cleverer about the ῥητορικός it is using on the British museum. Three tiny flaws in the current strategy seem immediately obvious.

Firstly, tough though it is for Greeks to admit, the Turks really were in charge in 1805 and the
Marbles really were theirs to sell. Once the Emperor of Byzantium had refused to buy a certain dodgy Hungarian's canons and the Ottoman Empire had used them to knock down the walls of Constantinople the Turks were in charge. End of.

The Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum
Secondly it's quite hard to prove a legal transaction was unlawful when you haven't got the original paperwork. Maybe they did mess up the paperwork, but the Turks were legitimate sellers and Elgin was a legitimate buyer, and after two hundred years I think the museum can be forgiven for not having the original receipt.

But mostly a venerable institution like the British Museum, one of, if not the, greatest museum in the world, doesn't like being written into the story as the baddie.

That's a very important point when you want to change someone's mind. You can offer them a carrot - a pretty juicy carrot in this case, just think what Greece could swap for the Marbles - you can threaten them with a stick - although in this case it's a very short and blunt stick. But if agreeing with you means admitting to being great big hypocrites they are quite likely to reject the carrot and face the stick.

Even the sort of psychopaths who think the way to get people to change their minds is to pour buckets of water over their head realise that.

“These stones don’t feel at ease with less sky”

I expect most Greek readers will have written me off as another Αγγλίκα μαλάκα by now given up, but just in case there are any left let me say this; I think the Marbles should return to your country.
The Parthenon

Why? Two reasons stand out for me.

Firstly they are an integral part of the Parthenon, and for aesthetic reasons alone I like my ancient treasures whole. Indeed Poseidon is actually split in two, half in London and half in Athens.

By the way, I'm equally annoyed that the lid of the Frank's Casket is in France whilst the rest of it is in Britain and that the Sutton Hoo treasure is split between London and Suffolk. It's as if Nelson had been removed from his column and taken abroad, which incidentally was what Hitler planned to do if he's invaded us instead of Greece in 1941. 
Nike in the Acropolis Museum

Secondly, whilst it's perfectly possible to a Brit to go through life without ever seeing the Elgin Marbles, or even the British Museum, to be Greek and not see the Parthenon would be rather difficult. Half the population of the country can pretty much sees the Acropolis every day of the week. The Marbles are simply far more important to the Greeks than they are to us.

And the finally there's the Acropolis Museum. This world class building, within sight of the Parthenon but not part of it, is where the remaining Parthenon Marbles now reside. How did they get there? The Greek authorities chiselled them off the Acropolis and carried them there for safe keeping, doing exactly what Lord Elgin's agents did two hundred years ago.

And the thing is these reasons stand regardless of how the Marbles got to London or who legally owns them.

Property is Theft

So who does actually own them?

According to the new Prime Minister "everyone" and I can't really argue with that. My namesake Martin Luther King once said "property is intended to serve life" and so he would probably agree.

My plan is to get the Marbles back to Greece, and if when they arrive they have a little plaque underneath them saying "on loan from the British Museum" who cares?

The Plan

So how should the Hellenic Republic go about persuading the trustees of the British Museum to change their minds about the Marbles? :

Replica of the Parthenon, Nashville, USA
Step one: acknowledge that everything that's been said and done so far was wrong. Tsipras's government has more-or-less been elected on this motto, so this shouldn't be too hard.

Step two: forget about ownership. Most of the current government of Greece claim to be inspired by a man who said his political theory could be summed up by the slogan "abolish all private property" so that should be easy enough.

Step three: forgive Elgin. Perhaps putting a statue of him up next to Byron would be going a bit far, but at least acknowledge that this was a man who loved Greece and, whatever his motives were, accept that his actions kept the Marbles safe from sieges, smog and Nazi occupation. Some people may take a bit of convincing, but Greece is about to really annoy most of Germany and a significant part of France, so she could do with some new friends, even dead ones.

Vigil for the return of the Parthenon Marbles January 2015
So there you have it. Greece, go and get them back. I for one will support you. So, according to the polling company Yougov, will most of my fellow Brits.

The Hellenic Republic in recent years has seen poverty that would have disgraced Lord Elgin's England. The best and brightest of her young people have been, like the Marbles, ripped from the land of their birth and scattered across Europe.

Returning the Marbles won't help with the debt relief, won't ward off a Grexit and won't make Greece any more popular with the Troika, but it will help mend the wounded pride of a great European nation and it will be the right thing to do.

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